Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s new Foreign Relations Bill will close a “gaping seam” between federal, state, and local governments that has been exploited by Beijing, according to an expert.
Michael Shoebridge, director of defence at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), told The Epoch Times on Aug. 27, that the value of a cohesive national strategy between different levels of government was on display during the COVID-19 pandemic, and was sorely needed to address gaps in foreign affairs.
“China’s policy is an area where this is clearly vital and where the new law will be powerfully useful,” he said.
On Aug. 27, the prime minister, along with Foreign Minister Marise Payne, announced the Foreign Relations Bill which will give the federal government power to scrutinise, and potentially veto, agreements between foreign governments and Australia’s state and territory governments.
The law would also cover agreements entered into by universities and local councils.
“What Australia is doing is ensuring that arrangements that are entered into by state and territory governments are in Australia’s national interests,” Payne told Channel Nine on the same day.
“Most importantly we do our due diligence on those agreements, and we ensure that they are consistent with our foreign policy approach,” she said
Within six months of the new laws coming into place, states and other bodies covered will have to complete a stocktake of existing agreements for review.
There are over 135 agreements across 30 different countries to be examined.
Shoebridge pointed to Victoria’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) agreement as to the most likely target for the new law once it is passed.
“It shouldn’t take a new law for the Victorian government to align on foreign policy with the federal government, which has constitutional responsibility and power in this area, but that’s what seems to be needed,” he said.
“Beijing courting Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews participation is the most iconic example of the seams between levels of government causing problems,” Shoebridge said.
Clive Hamilton, author of “Silent Invasion,” wrote in The Age on May 23 that the Victorian government’s championing of the BRI was an example of how Beijing shifted its political focus from federal to state as scepticism around relations with the CCP became more prominent in the political environment nationally.
Salvatore Babones, associate professor at the University of Sydney, told The Epoch Times on Aug. 27, that the Foreign Relations Bill rightly consolidates foreign policy in the hands of the federal government.
“If state governments and universities behaved responsibly, the bill wouldn’t be necessary,” he said.
“The universities tried to tackle their China dependence with last year’s foreign interference guidelines, but that effort at self-governance has largely failed,” he added.
On May 12, it was revealed 13 Australian universities with Confucius Institutes did not register on the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme which was established in 2018 as part of an effort to add visibility to the nature of foreign influence in Australia.
Organisations acting lawfully on behalf of a foreign government or entity to carry out activities for political influence were encouraged to register.
Confucius Institutes have come under scrutiny for potentially being a trojan horse for CCP’s soft power efforts in Western nations. Last year, the Minister for Education Dan Tehan announced new guidelines for the university sector to protect itself from foreign interference.
Babones hoped the federal government would not need to exercise the powers vested by the Foreign Relations law.
“I hope and suspect that the government would be much more circumspect about intervening directly in other agreements,” he said.
“While it may be irresponsible for states and universities to sign deals with the totalitarian government in China, the best answer to totalitarianism abroad is to educate people at home, not to force them into actions against their will,” he continued.
Shoebridge added that the law would compel universities to reveal academic collaborations with Chinese academic institutions that may be connected to the People’s Liberation Army or programs under the Thousand Talents Program.
“The protective value of the new law is strong, and the simple fact that arrangements with foreign governments must be on a public register will probably drive better behaviour than we have seen to date,” he said.