Technology transfer goals face ‘AUKUS visa’ hurdles

Brandon How

Australian industry has queried the workability of a proposed trilateral ‘AUKUS-visa’ for highly skilled professionals to smooth the technology transfer process in AUKUS-related research and manufacturing projects.

Proposed in a report published by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, an AUKUS visa would allow Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States  to “pool, rather than compete for, workers in highly specialised fields”. The visas would aim to enable multi-country research and training programs, engagement, and capability programs.

The report’s author Jennifer Jackett told at the time that AUKUS advanced capabilities cooperation represents an opportunity to bolster Australia’s high-tech ecosystem.

Australian Industry and Defence Network chief executive Brent Clark said that the three AUKUS partners would need to negotiate a “seamless transition” of skilled workers to capitalise on the agreement’s tech transfers.

However, he said that it “does strike me as potentially being a bureaucratic nightmare, to get three different governments or three different bureaucracies to agree to [an AUKUS visa]”. Mr Clark suggested that an ‘open-border’ agreement between the three AUKUS partners would be his preferred method of ensuring Australia can access additional skilled workers needed to capitalise on AUKUS.

“I’m certainly not a visa exert, but it just seems difficult to see an Australian visa that works in conjunction with a British visa that works in conjunction with an American visa. But if all three like-minded countries can actually have a government-to-government arrangement in place that easily removes any barriers for people going [between the partner countries], that would probably be a more logical outcome,” Mr Clark said.

“If we can solve the problem of transferring highly sensitive, classified information between two countries, I think we should be able to solve the ability to get people on a plane between the two countries.”

A freedom of movement agreement between the three countries – which could include a recognition of each country’s security clearances – was described as “perhaps a more elegant solution” by Mr Clark. However, he acknowledged that if a migration agreement couldn’t be reached between the three partners, then an AUKUS visa may be a next best alternative.

The Australian Information Security Association chair Damien Manuel noted that such a visa would “definitely accelerate research output and opportunities” but is concerned it does not address the need to improve Australia’s lack of sovereign capability.

Instead, he called on the federal and state governments to ensure tertiary cybersecurity programs are ‘fit for purpose’, which might include the introduction of cybersecurity work placements.

Mr Manuel also feared that a visa allowing skilled workers to move freely between the three partner countries would worsen the outflow of talent from Australia.

“Once you have a system from visa perspective across all three countries, if it’s your ability to move anywhere, people will move based on demand. We’ve also got to understand that the US has very large market which has a huge shortage of talent as well. And same with the UK,” Mr Manuel said.

“[It] might actually work against us, with people leaving the country to look for opportunities abroad.

Last month, AISA released the results of a members’ survey on the professionalisation of the cybersecurity sector. When asked about their preferred alternatives to addressing the cybersecurity sector skills shortage, “streamline the international visa system to bring in more qualified overseas workers”, was least preferred. Of the 9,500 respondents, 39.3 per cent of respondents were voiced support, 33.2 percent were rejected the proposal, while 27.5 per cent were unsure.

A joint South Australian and Commonwealth government defence industry taskforce was launched last month to explore the workforce challenges facing the state’s shipbuilding industry. In particular it will consider whether the state has sufficient capability to undertake the construction of nuclear submarines under the AUKUS arrangement.

This followed concerns from South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas that there was “no national plan, no comprehensive effort to deal with the workforce requirements that will be necessary to undertake” the build of eight nuclear-powered submarines through AUKUS.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

Leave a Comment