Foreign interference in Australia’s university system will become the focus of a new parliamentary inquiry, a “victory” claimed by student activitst Drew Pavlou.
The inquiry will examine all publicly funded research, grants, and universities, and probe whether knowledge and technology were being transferred to foreign powers against Australia’s national interest.
According to The Australian, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has, in a letter to the chair of the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, Andrew Hastie, outlined the terms of reference for a “broad-ranging inquiry” into foreign interference in the university sector.
Mr Dutton asked the PJCIS to investigate “the nature and extent to which foreign actors are interfering in Australian universities, including staff and student bodies, publicly funded research agencies, and competitive research grant agencies.”
The inquiry will hear testimony from senior security figures, as well as university activists such as Mr Pavlou, in an effort to uncover whether foreign actors are threatening free speech at campuses.
Mr Pavlou, 21, was initially banned from the University of Queensland in May 2020 for two years after a disciplinary hearing examined alleged misconduct, linked to his on-campus activism supporting Hong Kong and criticising the Chinese Communist Party.
Most notably, Mr Pavlou was part of a protest campaigning for Hong Kong freedom of speech in July 2019, which turned violent when pro-China activists gatecrashed.
In March this year, Mr Pavlou dressed up in a hazmat suit outside UQ’s Confucius Institute, an act he claims was an attempt to criticise the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and a further criticism of the university’s ties to China.
Mr Pavlou has since worked tirelessly to campaign for the federal government to investigate foreign interference into the university, including taking a Chinese diplomat to court.
The Brisbane Magistrates Court dismissed a complaint against the Chinese Consul General for allegedly inciting violence against Mr Pavlou earlier this month, finding the Chinese Government’s senior representative had diplomatic immunity.
Mr Pavlour on Monday lit a cigar as he labelled the announcement of an inquiry a “victory”.
“UQ thought they had won. Peter Høj (former Vice-Chancellor) and Peter Varghese (Chancellor) tried to remove me from the UQ Senate, so I’ve decided I’ll go to the big boy senate and testify in Canberra, where I’ll be explaining what I went through here,” Mr Pavlou said.
“I’ve got a lot to say about what goes on in the UQ Senate, under parliamentary privilege. I have a lot of interesting things to say about UQ.”
The inquiry will also investigate the controversial Thousand Talents Program, which allegedly secretly entices academics with cash to strengthen China’s knowledge.
The move for an inquiry comes less than a week after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced unprecedented national security laws giving the commonwealth the power to tear up agreements struck by state governments and councils with foreign powers, such as China, that may threaten Australia’s national sovereignty.
Mr Pavlou said he wished to thank “crocodile hunter maverick” Bob Katter for “sticking his neck out” to support him.
“No one else in the government was standing up for me … he’s a good man,” he said.
Mr Katter had intended to move a motion to launch an inquiry in parliament on Monday.
Mr Pavlou said he would like to see three outcomes from the inquiry, including close all controversial Confucius Institutes at Australian universities, take strong action against Chinese diplomats who “encouraged violent attacks on Australian students”, and see the country’s universities take a strong stand in favour of the human rights of Chinese, Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong students.
“These students are our brothers and sisters … they deserve the right to free speech at university,” Mr Pavlou said.