Senator Lidia Thorpe – Estimates questions to the ANU regarding investments in weapons companies and Gaza solidarity student encampment

Photo of Senator Lidia Thorpe
June 6, 2024

I wish to continue from Senator Faruqi’s questions about ANU’s complicity in genocide due to its weapons holdings. Can you please confirm if ANU has any indirect investments in military technology and weapons companies, for example, through trusts?

CHAIR: Senator Thorpe, do you have some questions?

Senator THORPE: I wish to continue from Senator Faruqi’s questions about ANU’s complicity in genocide due to its weapons holdings. Can you please confirm if ANU has any indirect investments in military technology and weapons companies, for example, through trusts?

Prof. Blackhall: I would have to take on notice the breadth of the question you are asking, Senator Thorpe. I can say that we have discussed our holdings under the long-term investment plan already. We also have relationships with defence companies both contractually and through philanthropic donations.

Senator THORPE: Thank you. So with regard to ANU’s ties with weapons companies who sell and manufacture weapons being used in Israel’s genocide against Palestinians, has ANU allocated any resources towards obtaining legal advice on whether ANU or its personnel could be complicit in the case being considered by the International Criminal Court?

Prof. Blackhall: Again, I would probably have to take that question on notice, just due to the complexity of it. I would reject completely the notion that ANU is involved in genocide. Perhaps it is worth commenting briefly on the nature of our relationships. We talked, obviously, about investments in the long-term investment plan. I would like to talk briefly about the research relationships that we have with defence companies. We obviously work with a large number of external partners, including across industry and government through various sectors, and we do have, as I said, relationships with a small number of defence companies for a small number of projects. The work that we do under those research relationships is limited in time and scope by the nature of the contracts. And all research undertaken at the university is done under the banner of academic freedom, and academic freedom provides our researchers the right to undertake research and to work with partners that are relevant to their area of expertise. But, crucially—and I would like to make this point—academic freedom is subject that all research activities must comply with Australian law and comply with our broader suite of policies and procedures.

Senator THORPE: Thank you. So can you confirm whether ANU has sought legal advice regarding its investments?

Prof. Blackhall: Again, Senator, I would have to take that on notice to confirm. Could I also please clarify whether you are talking about legal advice in regard to the long-term investment plan or about advice in regard to the research partnerships?

Senator THORPE: Being complicit in genocide.

Prof. Blackhall: Again, Senator, respectfully, I completely reject the assertion that we are complicit in genocide.

Senator THORPE: In relation to the international court, have you sought any legal advice regarding that?

Prof. Blackhall: As I said, I would have to take that on notice to be able to do justice to the question.

Senator THORPE: Okay. Thank you. Can you confirm that any divestment and reinvestment process that results from the meeting of 14 June will mean that ANU will definitely not reinvest money indirectly—for example, via a trust—into the exact same companies that were divested from?

Prof. Blackhall: Again, I refer to Genevieve’s earlier comments that no decisions have been taken ahead of the council meeting next week. More broadly, all investments that are financial in nature occur through the long-term investment plan, and that is overseen by the socially responsible investment policy.

Senator THORPE: Socially responsible did you say?

Prof. Blackhall: Yes, that is the name of the policy, certainly

Senator THORPE: Okay. Thank you. Can you tell me how you can justify to your Palestinian students who have had family murdered in the genocide in Gaza that you are using their fees to fund the manufacture of the very same weapons that are being used to kill their loved ones?

Prof. Blackhall: Senator, I reject the premise of the question and refer back to my earlier comments. As I said, we do have research partnership with a small number of defence companies. With those relationships, all of the work that is funded as part of that is paid for by those external companies. There are no public funds—and no student funds to my knowledge—used to subsidise that work. I think it is important to understand that, overwhelmingly, our research partnerships, including with our defence partners, are actually focused on fundamental research at very low-technology readiness , and it supports, additionally, the training of academic and professional staff in areas of critical importance to the nation.

Senator THORPE: Thank you. Just on that, how many meetings have ANU chancellery staff had with lobbyists and representatives from weapons manufacturing companies since 7 October 2023?

Prof. Blackhall: Thank you—

Prof. Bell: Senator Thorpe, let me take that question for Lachlan. Lachlan and I are both new in role, and I think, in order for us to be able to give you a sense who might have flowed through chancellery since October of last year will require us to take that on notice.

Senator THORPE: Wonderful. Thank you. How many times have members of ANU chancellery met with federal ministers, including Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, on the encampment or the topic of divestment?

Prof. Bell: Senator, I have been Vice-Chancellor since January. In that time I’ve not met with Penny Wong in a capacity of a meeting. I have certainly seen Penny at functions and have had conversations. I have met with other members of both the opposition and the current government to talk about all kinds of things. On the nature of the encampment, I have certainly had meetings with Julian Leeser, Allegra Spender, Josh Burns. I have talked to Minister Clare, and I’ve had at least one quite irate call from former politician Josh Frydenberg on the matter.

Senator THORPE: And divestment?

Prof. Bell: We have not had any calls on divestment.

Senator THORPE: So has the government had any input into how ANU should handle the student encampment and its investments portfolio?

Prof. Bell: Thank you for the question, Senator. The ANU is an autonomous organisation. I know it turns up in these estimates, but it is constituted by its own act. And while we have certainly had correspondence and conversation with TEQSA as our regulator, seeking information for how we were handling the protests on campus and the acts we were making, and we have had conversations with members of the department to think about issues around student safety, that would be the extent of it.

Senator THORPE: Okay. So ANU staff and researchers and students have been protesting ANU’s complicity in genocide, and demanded ANU divest from companies who sell and manufacture weapons for the Israeli Defence Force. Why have you not met with any Palestinian students in an environment that they feel safe in to discuss the demand of the encampment?

Prof. Venville: We have met with some of the encampment participants, and we have invited them several times to come and meet with us in a neutral place and they have not been able to put forward any representatives.

Senator THORPE: So is it correct that students asked members of the ANU faculty to join the meeting to mediate and create a safe environment?

Prof. Venville: Some faculty offered mediation but they were not able to guarantee that they would be able to speak on behalf of the encampment, and so it was not something that was an appropriate arrangement. But we are still talking to members of the encampment, and we hope to have a meeting soon.

CHAIR: Senator Thorpe, please go ahead with the next question, and then I’ll rotate the call.

Senator THORPE: Okay. Thank you. There were emails sent by ANU faculty members asking if they could mediate the discussion between the university and students. Did you ever respond to the emails from faculty on this topic?

Prof. Bell: Senator Thorpe, as the Vice-Chancellor, we have responded to every email that we have received on this topic, usually within 24 to 72 hours, so we have indeed responded to those emails as well.

Senator THORPE: Okay. Thanks.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard