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Unis to be free from foreign influence laws

The government has watered down its proposed anti-foreign spy legislation after universities claimed overreach.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill initially arguably hampered the ability of researchers to collaborate with overseas counterparts by requiring registration of these partnerships. If Australian researchers failed to do this, they could potentially be gaoled.

Following intense lobbying by universities and their affiliated organisations – including Universities Australia and the Go8 – the government is amending the Bill.

Now, “… there are encouraging signs the vast majority of university activity would not be included in the scheme, ” UA chief executive Catriona Jackson said.

“The Go8 welcomes the announcement from the Attorney-General of a range of sensible amendments in line with the numerous discussions we have had with him, his office and his department,” Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson said.

Jackson and Thomson are likely reflecting on two key amendments. The first limits “the foreign principals (where acting on behalf of the foreign principal would require registration) to foreign governments, foreign government related entities, foreign political organisations and foreign government-related individuals”.

The second changes “the definition of ‘undertaking activity on behalf of a foreign principal’ so that a person isn’t deemed to be undertaking an activity merely because they are supervised by, receive funding from or collaborate with a foreign principal”.

UA’s Jackson said the former iteration of the Bill had the potential to stifle innovation: “So much important research – from research into cancer testing to seat belt safety – aimed at improving the lives of everyday Australians through public policy change, relies on overseas collaboration.”

Tony Walker, an Adjunct Professor in the School of Communications at La Trobe University, was also highly critical of the first draft of the Bill. Writing in The Conversation, he thought it “represented an unreasonable threat to individual liberties and freedom of expression”. He was particularly concerned about its potential impact on journalists who wrote about national security matters, who, like universities, faced jail sentences for non-compliance with the Bill’s terms.

Human rights organisations like Amnesty International, too, censured the original Bill, for similar reasons.

Submissions to a review of the Bill can be made until 12.00pm on Friday, 15 June. Attorney-General Christian Porter has indicated he plans for it to be passed by the end of this month.

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