Andrew Norton, higher education program director of independent think tank the Grattan Institue, has argued the latest draft of the Electoral Legislation Amendment bill has made international students “collateral damage” in a broader political debate on foreign interference, and has curtailed their political rights.
“If you said the same things in any other context, there would be a Twitter storm”
“No one has seriously argued that there is a problem in international students expressing themselves politically,” he said, adding all temporary migrants should be given full political privileges.
“If we invite people to come to Australia, let them stay for prolonged periods of time… it’s very, very difficult then to say, ‘Well you’ve only got a limited bundle of political rights if you have concerns about what is happening to yourself and to your interests while you’re in Australia’.”
Stemming from ongoing legislative changes to limit foreign interference, the bill includes measures to prevent foreign entities from making donations to organisations that could influence political discourse. In its definition, individuals must be an Australian citizen or permanent resident, or a New Zealand citizen.
In its original draft, NGOs were required to collect statutory declarations from donors, raising concerns from charities that the additional red tape would cripple them as they would be required to report on all donations, regardless of amount.
According to Norton, international students and other temporary migrants could now face fines of up to $42,000, after the latest draft removed NGOs’ requirements for donations under $100 and put them on donors instead.
“I can’t imagine the government going after a student for putting $2 in a bucket”
He added that the move limited international students’ ability to influence areas that directly affected them, such as violence, fraudulent education agents, and workplace exploitation, and brought into question some of the political rhetoric circulating foreign interference.
“If you read the parliament Hansard it sounds quite xenophobic,” he told The PIE News.
“If you said the same things in any other context, there would be a Twitter storm bringing you down.”
In his criticism, Norton labelled the bill an arbitrary measure that would likely have limited impact as it ignored that Australian citizens or permanent residents had perpetrated most cases of foreign collaboration as well as the rise of political material over the internet.
In its current state, the bill could also potentially see international students penalised for making a small donation into a charity box or purchases at a bake sale, if the organisation to which they donate has any political agenda.
Chief executive of the Group of Eight, Vicki Thomson, questioned the likelihood of this happening.
“We don’t have any data on how many international students make donations, but I imagine it’s not high on the priority list of the average international student,” she said.
“No one has seriously argued there’s a problem in international students expressing themselves politically”
“I also can’t imagine the government going after a student for putting $2 in a bucket being held by a koala on a street corner or buying a lamington at a school fundraising drive.”
Thomson told The PIE that she anticipated the bill would continue to change over time and that the Go8 would continue its work to “ensure it doesn’t capture areas of activity or individuals not intended to be captured”.
Australia’s higher education sector has repeatedly been pulled into the political space over the past year, as sector advocates fight against a December 2017 funding freeze, debate rages over academic freedoms, and universities attempt to mitigate unintended consequences of broader legislative changes.
In July, Universities Australia welcomed the inclusion of most of its recommendations into the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme bill, which would have inadvertently affected foreign academic staff.