International students – peace offerings or security threats?

No number of student restrictions will prevent undue foreign interference

Nathan Attrill

Politics, Society and culture, International relations | East Asia, Australia

28 September 2018

The decision to exclude international students from interning at Parliament House is unlikely to improve Australia’s security significantly, Nathan Attrill writes.

One of the great advantages of the Australian National University’s (ANU) location in Canberra is its proximity to the institutions of federal power in the nation’s capital. An important part of this has been the opportunity for students – both domestic and international – to participate in a Commonwealth parliamentary internship as part of their degree.

However, recent changes to the program by the Australian Parliament means those students interested in political science or public policy who are not Australian citizens, need no longer apply.

According to the Australian Financial Review, several senators have raised concerns with their presiding officer about the potential for undue and inappropriate influence from interns who are foreign nationals working in the offices of members of parliament while in Canberra.

Other government departments that participate in the ANU internship scheme already have similar restrictions on foreign nationals working there as interns, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as well as the Australian Defence Force.

Some have welcomed the ban as a matter of improving security around sensitive information and a pushback against attempts at political interference by foreign powers. But is this an effective strategy? Or are these students an easy target, when confronting foreign influence in politics, media, and business is much harder?

Foreign political interference in the corridors of power

A lot has been said within the last year about the extent of political influence and interference from foreign powers in elite Australian institutions. However, at times the debate has been more about the personalities involved rather than the substance of the allegations. This may be a function of Twitter and opinion pieces in newspapers being a less than ideal forum for a debate of such importance and needed nuance.

The Commonwealth parliamentary internship has found itself a part of this debate over whether a pluralistic society like Australia can uphold its values even while there are those who seek to undermine them.

The most common culprit for accusations of political influence and interference has been the security apparatus of the People’s Republic of China as the new rising power in the Asia-Pacific region. But it is certainly not the only one.

That foreign powers may seek to gain influence or even leverage in the institutions of Australian society should not be surprising. In fact, it should be alarming if Australia itself did not seek to influence other powers for the betterment of its own national interests. Australia’s friends and foes alike are all looking to be heard and to have their interests upheld.

Very few could deny the existence of any attempts by foreign powers to influence Australian politics, media or business. But attempts do not mean success. What should be the focus of greater scrutiny is to what extent these institutions – and the elites who populate them ­– understand their susceptibility to foreign influence.

Are Australian institutions, including the corridors of Parliament House, full of reluctant collaborators, the wilfully ignorant, and the naïve? Or is it still possible to be an open society without compromising core values and interests in the world today? Should senators be more focused on who is glad-handing and ear-bashing them at political fundraising events, rather than a politics student working in their office back in Canberra?

In many cases, the target of a foreign power’s security apparatus is their own citizens residing in Australia. These are potentially important allies to have in understanding and countering interference.

Closing loopholes or wrong target?

The extent to which the Commonwealth parliamentary internship program is at the frontlines of the foreign political influence saga is ultimately unknowable. But it seems unlikely. So far only one incident has been reported by the media: a New Zealand citizen who had previously interned at an Australian parliamentary committee having links to a Chinese military spy school.

The same report notes many students from China have participated in the program over the years before the recent debate.

It is difficult to know whether the new restrictions on foreign nationals working as interns is the result of several unreported incidents of concern, or whether it is just a precautionary measure. As mentioned, these restrictions exist in other government departments already.

One would hope that Australian members of parliament involved with sensitive information – whether it be for national security or simply the personal data of constituents – would already have systems in place to protect it from the prying eyes of anyone, including an office intern.

No number of restrictions on where foreign nationals can intern is going to prevent undue foreign interference – particularly when other avenues offer better results. Australia’s political parties, foreign language media, and businesses would seem to be much more lucrative targets and a far better use of national security resources than someone working in the office one day a week for one semester.

What we do know is that, for many ANU international students, an opportunity has been lost. The experience, the contacts, and the prestige gained from working for an Australian member of parliament is now solely the prerogative of their domestic peers. Time will tell whether this decision was worthwhile. It is a shame nonetheless to push back on legitimate concerns over potential foreign influence and target the low-hanging fruit.

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