House debates

Tuesday, 23 February 2021


Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020; Second Reading

6:34 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I speak this evening on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020 and I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the Government has damaged the quality of Australia's world-class post-secondary education system by:

(1) cutting billions from universities and slashing research funding;

(2) making it harder and more expensive for Australian students to get a university education; and

(3) failing to develop a long-term policy for the Australian post-secondary education system."

This bill before the chamber amends the Higher Education Support Act to insert a definition of academic freedom and freedom of speech, as recommended by the French review. In November 2018, the Minister for Education announced an independent review into freedom of speech in higher education. The well-respected Hon. Robert French, AC, former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, was tasked with undertaking that review. He did a very thorough job on the review. The review actually found that 'claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated'. That was from the former Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French. He went on to say that there is no evidence of a free speech crisis on campus.

The review did note that the rules, codes and policies in universities would benefit from some clarification. The principal recommendation from the review was that protection of freedoms be strengthened within the university sector on a voluntary basis. It noted that amending the act was not essential. So, despite the Henny Pennies—all of those people running around; especially a few on the coalition backbench, or someone who recently departed the coalition backbench—all of the universities have agreed to voluntarily adopt the French model code. Yet here we are with legislation to amend the act—why? Not because it is necessary. The French report made that very, very clear. The government's report—the French report—made it clear. It is not because freedom of speech in universities is under threat and not because universities are calling for this legislation or crying out for this legislation. Legislation to amend the act is before the House today because of a deal done with those champions of academic rigour, the One Nation political party.

In order to ram through the coalition's job-ready university reforms in the Senate with the essential support of One Nation, the government agreed to introduce this unnecessary legislation to protect freedom of speech—that is not actually under threat—in universities. Remember the job-ready university reforms? They're the ones that right now are making it harder and more expensive for the class of 2020 to go university. As if they haven't had it tough enough already! Overall, the class of 2020 will pay seven per cent more out of their own pockets to go to university, and they're the class that graduated during a pandemic.

Reportedly late last year, the then education minister said he was going to tie university funding to each university's progress in defending academic freedom. Apparently, the coalition government is very concerned about freedom of speech, but, let's be honest—it's not everyone's speech. I remind you of Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a young Australian Muslim woman. She was born in Sudan and her parents came to Brisbane way back in 1992 as skilled migrants making a great contribution to the country. They still live in my electorate of Moreton. Yassmin, even though she was born in Sudan, is a product of Brisbane's Southside. Yassmin was 18 months old when she came to Australia with her parents, so she is Australian to the bootstraps. She attended the Islamic College of Brisbane—in the electorate of Rankin, just on the border—and John Paul College for high school. She went on to study mechanical engineering at the University of Queensland and graduated with first-class honours in 2011.

Yassmin, if you meet her or read her books, is one bright cookie and a great asset to Australia. Yassmin was extremely active in the Southside community. As a high school student, with two of her friends, she founded a group called Youth Without Borders. She was named Young Queenslander of the Year in 2010 and Queensland's Young Australian of the Year in 2015. In late 2016, then foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop appointed her to the Council for Australian-Arab Relations.

Everyone saw the quality of Yassmin. I am very proud of Yassmin. I know how proud her family are of her as well. Sadly, Yassmin left Australia in 2017, driven out of this country after posting a simple comment on social media. As with all posts on social media, not everyone will agree with Yassmin's post. Her post was not a threat to anyone. It did not attack anyone's race, religion or beliefs. It certainly was not dangerous misinformation like that recently posted by a former coalition backbencher, who at the time the Prime Minister said was doing a great job. Yet the then minister for immigration, now the Minister for Home Affairs, criticised Yassmin's post on social media. Yassmin actually apologised for the post, saying on social media:

It was brought to my attention that my last post was disrespectful, and for that I apologise unreservedly.

A fair-minded person might say that would be the end of it. But for the member for Hughes and others, who don't seem to know how to do an apology for a post that misleads or potentially could harm someone, that apology by Yassmin made no difference.

Yassmin was mercilessly trolled. She was subjected to daily death threats. She was sent videos of beheadings. She was sent videos of rapes, with some suggestions that the same could happen to her. Yassmin Abdel-Magied was the topic of commentators on national media platforms. A new phrase has even been coined: 'getting Yassmin-ed'. I have some questions for the coalition government, who are intent on protecting freedom of speech in this legislation: Was Yassmin accorded freedom of speech? Was Yassmin allowed the freedom to express her speech on social media? I have seen some supposed freedom-of-speech champions opposite, but, sadly, they were silent when it came to Yassmin. No-one would say that she was afforded freedom to express her speech; she definitely wasn't. Yassmin is a strong young woman who was doing great things in her community, in Australia and around the world. She was shut down and thrown out. I wish Yassmin well and hope to see her back on the south side of Brisbane soon, making a great contribution to Australia.

We know that hate speech is rampant on social media, and I commend the members of parliament that have today taken some steps towards clamping down on that. Hate speech has a sinister motive and, sometimes, catastrophic outcomes. We know that right-wing extremism in Australia is real. The threat is growing. It is a risk to public safety and to our multicultural society.

Mr Howarth interjecting

To the minister at the table: if you would like to make a contribution, I'm happy to take your interjections. I am not condemning the Liberal Party; I said 'right-wing extremism in Australia is real'. If you're supporting that, I'm happy to get that on the Hansard record.

We know that right-wing extremism needs attention from the Morrison government. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has just had referred to it an inquiry into extremism, including far-Right extremism. This referral was not an initiative of the Morrison government, despite warnings from security heads; it was Labor who wrote to the Morrison government late last year proposing an inquiry into extremism. I am pleased that the Minister for Home Affairs joined the shadow minister for home affairs to finalise the terms of reference for that referral. The committee will consider: changes that could be made to Australia's Counter Terrorism Strategy in relation to preventing radicalisation to extremist views; further steps that the Commonwealth could take to disrupt and deter hate speech; and the role of social media, encrypted communications platforms and the dark web in allowing extremists to communicate and organise. I know that is a difficult patch, and I know the government is stepping up in some of those areas. So that is freedom-of-speech reform that is needed.

The amendments this bill makes to the Higher Education Support Act are not needed. The French review made it clear that claims of a freedom-of-speech crisis on Australian campuses are fake news; they are not substantiated. This bill is the government's payoff for a vote from the One Nation political party to support their cruel policy that has made it harder and more expensive for kids to go to university this year. The policy has increased the student fee load and cut funding from the Commonwealth. Treasurer Frydenberg gets the savings while young Australians pay more. How is that fair in these COVID times on university campuses?

Basically, overall our universities will receive less funding to teach students. Universities are facing a $16 billion projected revenue drop from international students being locked out. Our universities are important, but this Morrison government has neglected them during this pandemic and with the consequence of overseas students being locked out. The Prime Minister changed the rules three times to stop universities having access to JobKeeper, and, very predictably, university workers have lost their jobs. Some 17,000 university workers have gone, and counting—not just our brilliant researchers and academics but cafeteria workers, librarians, administrative staff, groundkeepers and cleaners—in city universities, sandstone universities, regional universities and bush universities, where they're a significant part of the culture and the economy. I know that it's particularly bad for the bush. The Morrison government have turned their back on 17,000 Australian workers.

The effect of the government's Job-ready Graduates policy—and remember that I'm talking on this bill today because this bill is a pay-off for the One Nation vote on the Job-ready Graduates bill—along with the refusal of the government to assist universities by giving them access to JobKeeper, has hit universities very hard and it's making struggling students pay more for their courses. Late last year I, with the shadow minister for education, met with some of the class of 2020 from my electorate. Sadly, these young people were well aware of the costs of their courses going up and up. It was worrying some of them. Some had their dreams readjusted and some had their dreams crushed. Sadly, one student who had considered pursuing a particular course of study actually changed her allocation to a different course because she was worried about how she would pay the higher course fees. These cruel Morrison government policies have real-life consequences.

I have put a second reading amendment forward. As I said, the bill before the House today is unnecessary. There is no freedom-of-speech crisis in Australian universities, but there is a crisis. I urge the minister for education to turn his attention to positive reforms that will encourage students into university and assist universities through this pandemic so that job losses can be stemmed.

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

6:47 pm

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to speak in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020. The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 by implementing recommendations arising from the Report of the independent review of freedom of speech in Australian higher education providers undertaken by the Hon. Robert French AC, former chief justice of the High Court of Australia, and published in March 2019. The proposed amendments insert a new definition of 'academic freedom' into the HESA and replace the existing term 'free intellectual inquiry' in relevant provisions with the allied concepts of 'freedom of speech' and 'academic freedom'. These conceptual and definitional changes align the language of relevant provisions in the HESA with those reflected in the model code recommended by the French review, which universities have agreed to adopt.

The French review was initiated in November 2018 by then education minister, Dan Tehan, to review freedom of speech and freedom of intellectual inquiry in higher education. The term 'academic freedom' was not referred to in the terms of reference by virtue of the fact that this phrase is not used in any of the legislative instruments in Australia at the moment, including the higher education standards act and the Higher Education Standards Framework. The language which is currently used is 'free intellectual inquiry'. This term, undefined in legislation, was found by the French review to be a term of uncertain meaning and, because of this uncertainty, its interpretation and effectiveness was made difficult, particularly with respect to its relationship to freedom of expression generally, freedom of expression as an aspect of academic freedom and academic freedom generally.

The French review noted that the uncertainty in language has led to a diversity of policies and practices at higher education providers. While the French review held that there was no free speech crisis on university campuses, it found that the diversity in language of a range of policies and rules gives rise to unnecessary risks to freedom of speech and to academic freedom, and that even a small number of high-profile incidents can have adverse reputation effects on the sector as a whole.

It is because of this uncertainty and diversity that the French review made two interrelated recommendations. The first was that freedom of speech and academic freedom in the sector could be protected more effectively by the adoption of a statement of principles, preferably operationalised by an overarching code. Such a code would be pitched at a level sufficient to allow for reasonable flexibility in its application but providing greater guidance to decision-makers and others than presently exists. It also recommended that minor amendments be made to the HES Act and the Higher Education Standards Framework to remove the reference to free intellectual inquiry, to distinguish freedom of speech and academic freedom, and to define academic freedom by reference to generally accepted elements.

Universities are in the process of implementing the model code and this bill enacts the second of the recommendations coming from the French review. In designing the model code and putting forward a definition of academic freedom, the French review noted that the ideal of academic freedom can be traced back to Socrates defence in Plato's The Apology of Socrates. While it doesn't contain a detailed analysis of the history, the French review does make the observation that debate and discussion about how it should be defined, its meaning and application have been present for some time, including within our very own history of higher education in Australia.

Drawing all of these strands together and identifying the generally accepted elements, the French review made a recommendation that the definition of academic freedom contained the following elements:

                The French review did include an additional clause about the freedom of academic staff:

                  But following a recommendation by the University Chancellors Council, in consultation with the Hon. Robert French, this element of the definition was considered to fit more appropriately within the ambit of a broader societal freedom, referred to in the model code as freedom of speech rather than within the narrower concept of academic freedom. As such, this element has been retained, but as part of the applied concept of freedom of expression within the definition.

                  I would like to conclude with a number of observations. The first is that I agree with Justice French's conclusions that there is not currently a free speech crisis on campus. Secondly, the fact that issues and challenges have arisen over the last couple of years is nothing new. They have waxed and waned for decades—if not centuries. As beautifully stated by French:

                  There was no golden age when the scope of freedom of speech and academic freedom in the higher education sector was settled under a common consensus.

                  There are a lot of different pressures on the modern Australian university: pressures on academics, pressures on professional staff, pressures on students and pressures on management governance. From the perspective of a university as an institution, reputation and standing are paramount to what they do. But, given that they are not simple organisations servicing a singular community, they need to balance the complexity of different interests and different viewpoints, and differing needs and demands.

                  For example, universities are increasingly required to provide a level of pastoral support and care for students, which I fully support. This sits alongside one of their overriding goals, which is to provide an education where students are supposed to be—or, at the very least, become over the course of their studies—independent learners who are self-directed and fully responsible for themselves, their lives and their studies. The practical consequence of the increasing demands to provide pastoral support for students is that universities face the challenge of balancing the allowances, flexibility and exceptions that some students may need with the university's duty and responsibility to ensure that the person who ultimately graduates is a fully independent learner who has mastered the required level of knowledge and skills attached to the particular qualification they are awarded.

                  Likewise, all universities must, at law, provide an environment which is safe from harm—harm being both physical and psychological harm. Again, I support this in its entirety. I also note that this sits alongside a key plank of universities and university education, which is that they are places where people are supposed to be challenged and tested, where they may come across ideas or information that confronts them. Criminal law students will come across cases, the facts of which can be very disturbing—likewise, history students and literature students. The practical consequence is again that universities face the challenges of ensuring that staff and students are safe whilst simultaneously ensuring that the requisite information is conveyed so as to ensure that students develop the knowledge and understanding that is required of them.

                  If the universities do not get the balance right—that is, not providing a good education or not providing a safe and supportive environment—they can be subject to criticism, reputational damage and potential legal action on both fronts. The same goes for academic freedom. When an academic publishes or says something that attracts derision, criticism or attack, it is not simply the academic who comes under attack; it can often lead to an attack on the institution itself. Statements made by university management at these times—frequently, 'This is not the university position, but it is the view of the particular academic'—are often misunderstood or derided, either as not being supportive enough of the academic or being too weak and not strong enough to stand up for what is right.

                  The institution's management have an obligation to protect the reputation and standing of the institution, but this can be extremely difficult when there is a lack of understanding about what academic freedom means. Likewise, the institutional autonomy of a university, which is part of academic freedom, can come into conflict with the academic freedom of an individual academic. Both clauses are within the definition, but they can come into conflict. An institution can choose what it will teach, how it will teach it, what research it does and how that is done, notwithstanding that under the definition an academic has freedom to teach, discuss, research and disseminate. The fact is that universities are challenging places. They always have been and, quite frankly and hopefully, they always will be. Unless they are challenging, unless there are tensions, unless there are internal disputation about issues, universities face a stagnancy.

                  This amendment to the law will not solve all problems. There will inevitably still be disputes about whether something is or is not an exercise of academic freedom. There will be tensions with employment law and antidiscrimination law. As a right, which academic freedom is and which these amendments legislate for, academic freedom sits beside other rights and may at times come into apparent conflict with them. That is the nature of our rights. That is the nature of our universities. The greater clarity in providing this definition will not stop issues arising, but it will provide a greater context in which to address them, a better context for pre-emption and therefore resolution. I finish with a quote from Justice French which I think sums up the best way to approach these issues at universities:

                  Far more important than rules will be a culture which embraces the inevitability of dissent on the one hand and the importance of compromise to the effective functioning of the institution.

                  I am happy to support this bill.

                  6:59 pm

                  Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

                  Academic freedom is essential to our universities, for both academic and general staff, and university staff must be free to conduct their teaching and their research and to critique their own institutions without fear of reprisals. The Greens support efforts to protect academic freedom and so do not oppose the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020.

                  But it is incredibly rich for this government to come in here and say it is concerned about academic freedom when, in my time in this chamber, it has become almost a yearly occurrence for a government backbencher or even a minister to get up and read out a list of grant applications that they think, according to their own personal predilections, are objectionable, and in some cases they then get defunded. The government come in here with a bill that says they're going to implement and entrench freedom of speech, in the context that the French review said that there is not a freedom of speech crisis at universities. But this very same government gets up time after time and finds and picks on particular academics or particular proposals, to the point where sometimes their funding is cut.

                  Some of us would have heard various members of the backbench get up and do that routinely—with an anti-academic, anti-intellectual bent—reading one line, which is a title, and from that thinking they can deduce what someone's whole thesis or grant application is about and saying that it should be defunded. But it wasn't that long ago—in fact, only 2018—when that kind of attack on academic freedom coming from the government side in fact came from the ministerial level. In 2018 the then education minister, Simon Birmingham, tweeted:

                  I'm pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like "Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar."

                  He'd gone through these defenders of academic freedom on the government side and they had trawled through all the lists of the grant applications and picked out one title that they thought might get them a good headline and then stood up and said: 'Oh, isn't this outrageous? No-one should be funding this.' I don't know about 'post orientalist arts'. That is not my field of expertise. But, for all I know, we might have the world's leading expert in the field here in Australia. We might have someone who is called on from around the world and asked, 'Tell us about this important matter.' We might have someone who is publishing book after book after book and doing their institution and our country proud.

                  That's why we have a system of independent review of what grant applications should get funded and what ones shouldn't. Key to academic freedom is that process of peer review, where someone puts in an application in their own field of expertise. It may well be very narrow and something that is very foreign to all of us here in this place. Nonetheless, the peers, the best people working in that area, look at it all in a highly competitive environment and say, 'Yes, that is worthy of funding, because it may well be world-class research'—and it's certainly best-in-Australia-class research, which is why it's being recommended for funding.

                  The then minister—not a backbencher anymore, but the minister—then went on to veto 11 Australian Research Council grants in the humanities, as part of the government's waging of a culture war on academic freedom. Someone wanted to do a research project on the history of men's dress, and they said, 'No, we're not going to fund that; we'll get up in parliament and we'll ridicule it'—again. And who knows? Maybe that particular area was part of a broader piece of research that was going to contribute to the stock of human knowledge in ways that we might not be aware of. I bet that, if I, as someone who's not trained as a scientist, sat down and read the title of a physicist's grant application, I wouldn't understand it. The chances are that I wouldn't understand it. But the fact that I, sitting here as a politician, don't understand what someone in the Australian Research Council and the peer reviewer have said—and they are saying, 'Actually, this field of research is important'—is not the point.

                  The point, if we are serious about defending academic freedom, is not to come in here and find research pieces that we think might somehow make for a good headline or might be a bit of red meat to throw at the conservative backbench, and then get up and ridicule that research in parliament. The point of us here in parliament and our job, if the experts in the field and the independent peer reviews say something's important and provided it's not something that offends some other thing—perhaps there's a national security implication or something like that that the minister might want to take into account—is to say, 'If the experts want to grant it and support it then we should support that.' Legal secularism in Australia—what's objectionable about that? But the minister decided, 'I'm going to make a big point about it and I'm going to reject that grant, even though it's been recommended by the experts.'

                  Then, more recently, we have seen the university sector deliberately decimated by this government. This government has used the COVID crisis to attack the ability of universities, academics and other staff at universities to do their work and engage in academic freedom. You can't talk about academic freedom in the abstract and say, 'We support academic freedom,' on the one hand, while on the other hand sacking people and removing their funding. And that is what this government has done. This government has taken the approach to universities of waging ideological war on them during a crisis. It is said, 'Never waste a crisis,' and the government has denied JobKeeper to universities. At a time when two million people are either unemployed or haven't got enough hours of work, governments in a pandemic should be maintaining or increasing the size of the public sector because that's one area that we know we can expand work in. But, instead, this government took a deliberate decision to slash universities and to oversee the slashing of university staff. That is an attack on the ability to exercise your academic freedom, if you're fighting every day just to keep your job, which is what has happened on this government's watch.

                  Not only that but the government then deliberately said, 'We don't like people studying the arts and so we are going to make young people pay twice as much as they had to before to go to university.' The very same people who include a bunch of backbenchers and ministers who enjoyed free education are now saying, 'Because of our own ideological bent, we're going to make people pay twice as much to go and study the arts.' It's at the point now in this country where, thanks to this government, you can graduate with a debt the size of a small mortgage just because you happen to have chosen to enrol in a course that the Prime Minister doesn't like. It's not that students should be able to exercise freedom of choice and go and choose what they want to study anymore under the government. No, they want to remove students' freedom to choose and engage in their own form of social engineering by saying, 'We're going to make you pay twice as much as we as politicians paid.' In fact, it's more than twice as much if they are one of those politicians who had a free education. They're saying, 'We're going to make you go into debt more than you otherwise would have had to because you're studying the kind of course that we don't like.' So for students at the moment, and for academic and general staff of universities, life has got a lot tougher under this government, and the ability to exercise their freedom, as the government bleats on about, has been attacked and savaged.

                  There's an answer to this. The answer is to recognise that education and universities are a public good. The answer is to say that Australia, as we deal with the long-term problems that we face and try and emerge from the COVID recession stronger, should be investing in education, including higher education. That is one of the advantages that we could have in the world. We could also bring down unemployment and underemployment by expanding our higher education sector and not allowing it to be cut in the way the government has. We could relieve the debt burden that is going to face students who are studying now and hang around their neck for years by making education free again, like it used to be. Like for so many of the politicians here who got a free education, we can make it free again.

                  That is how you get out of a crisis. You invest. You invest to recover. You invest in free education, you give people who work in universities secure employment and you expand the sector. Some will say, 'How can we afford this?' I say to them: you've just spent over $300 billion on a tax cut package for millionaires, which is going to see millionaires and billionaires, like Gina Rinehart, walk away with extra cash in their pockets and extra handouts—thanks to the government. You could stop giving big tax cuts to the very wealthy. But you could go even further. One in three big corporations in this country pay no tax. While everyone else gets tax taken out of their pay before it even hits their bank account, one in three of the biggest corporations in this country pay no tax. If we make the big corporations and the billionaires pay their fair share of tax, we can fund free education and expand our university sector to help us recover from the economic crisis and bring down unemployment.

                  The question is: if you've got a fixed amount of money, what's the best thing to do with it? Is it to give Gina Rinehart more handouts, which is what the government did, with Labor support, when they passed their tax-cuts-for-millionaires package, or is to ask those big corporations and billionaires to stop dodging tax and pay their fair share so that we can get dental into Medicare, put a roof over everybody's head and make education free again? That is how we give our young people real freedom. That is how we give them the opportunity to grow and come out of this pandemic with a secure job and a good education. At the moment the future for young people looks pretty bleak. They're facing a climate crisis, which this government is intent on making worse. They can't get into the housing market, because this government is giving billions of dollars in tax breaks to people who already own two or three houses, and that's pushing up prices. If you're a young person at the moment, you graduate into a world of insecure work and unaffordable housing, with a bigger debt around your neck because the government has made it more extensive to go to university. If you're a young person at the moment, you try to do what the government tells you is the right thing and you come out into a very harsh world of insecure work, unaffordable housing, a climate crisis and high debt from going to university. We could fix all of that if we just had the guts to stand up to the big corporations who pay no tax and make them pay their fair share, to stand up to the billionaires and say, 'It's time you paid your fair share of tax as well.'

                  While two million people now find themselves without a job or without enough hours of work, the billionaires in this country actually increased their wealth during the course of this pandemic. Not only did one in three big corporations continue to pay no tax, but the government actually gave many of them handouts. The big corporations got handouts in the form of JobKeeper, and they're going to get them with the JobMaker hiring credits as well. During this pandemic, inequality has increased. That has been the deliberate design of the government. Part of that design has been the attack on higher education. We've got to reverse it, and we can reverse it. Stand up. Make the big corporations and the billionaires pay their free share of tax. Let's have free education, put a roof over everybody's head and make sure that no-one in this country lives in poverty.

                  7:14 pm

                  Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

                  The Morrison government is firmly committed to ensuring all Australians who are seeking higher education receive the full benefits of such an undertaking. An essential aspect of that is the development of critical, evaluative and independent thinking. I know this through my experience as a university professor who has supervised dozens of PhD, masters and honours students and taught hundreds of advanced medical trainees. It's not just important but essential to the maturation of a student to be a curious and critical thinker. It is important to be able to inquire and discover new ideas, without limitations on that free exchange of ideas. We need to ensure that our universities are free and engaging places where freedom of speech is not limited but celebrated, as it is within the broader Australian community. Universities are important institutions where ideas are debated and challenged. We must ensure our universities are places that protect free speech, even when what is being said may be unpopular or challenging. The best university education is one where students are taught to think for themselves, and protecting freedom of speech is how to guarantee that.

                  This bill will provide stronger protections for academic freedom and freedom of speech in Australia. It builds on the recommendations from the Report of the Independent Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers, conducted by former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia the Hon. Robert French AC. Professor Sally Walker AM, former Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, was recently asked to report on adoption of the model code. Her report found that only nine of Australia's 45 universities are fully aligned with French's code. Eighteen are mostly or partly aligned, six have policies that fail entirely to meet the model code and another eight may or may not be working to meet the code. One simply didn't respond. Noting her disappointment, Professor Walker highlighted that we need to create a culture of freedom of expression in universities, not just tell them about the policy. She put it well when she said in her report to government in December:

                  Everyone knows that sometimes they're going to write something that is controversial, and sounds like a heresy, although we know that today's heresies are tomorrow's orthodoxy—at least sometimes.

                  Professor Walker also said:

                  Some universities' leaders think that academic freedom and freedom of speech are so axiomatic in their institutions that there's no need to have a policy … they probably think that it's a problem for other universities, not theirs.

                  As a former university CEO, Professor Walker believes that a code or policy on freedom of expression is important and gives confidence to both staff and students. The code is a first step, but, of course, the institutions responsible for delivering the code themselves need to embrace its values. Places of higher education need to understand that, in order to educate our students about academic freedom and freedom of expression, they need to do more than just have a policy. They need to provide a culture of freedom of expression.

                  Professor Walker agrees with French's findings that freedom of expression on Australian campuses is a matter of public concern. I repeat that: it's a matter of public concern. That is why the Morrison government is endeavouring to create, as a first and necessary step, this bill. A robust education that provides resilient learners is the best way to create opportunity. Our education system needs to continue to respond to the increased challenges of the 21st century. Work is rapidly being automated and digitised; it's changing faster than ever. Graduating students will need to be able to continue lifelong, self-directed learning. That is why free and independent thinking is so critical to a higher education.

                  This bill is built on a long and engaged consultative process undertaken by the Hon. Robert French, who led the review on a cooperative and consultative basis, respecting the long-held and valued institutional autonomy of Australia's universities. The focus of the review was to assess the effectiveness of university policies and practices to address the requirements of the Higher Education Standards Framework to promote and protect freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry on Australian campuses. Between November 2018 and March 2019, Mr French undertook a two-stage stakeholder consultation process seeking stakeholder views on the review terms of reference and a draft model code. These stakeholders included all universities, student representative groups, higher education provider peak bodies and the national higher education regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, or TEQSA.

                  The French model code sets out a framework for universities that protects freedom of speech and academic freedom as paramount values of Australian universities. The amendments contained in this legislation are one of three key elements in the government's commitment to strengthening protections for academic freedom and freedom of speech in Australian higher education.

                  This bill will provide a new definition of 'academic freedom' that enshrines in law principles of freedom of expression that are an essential part of the life of our universities, both for academic staff and students. Firstly, the bill will substitute the existing term 'free intellectual inquiry' in relevant provisions with the terms 'freedom of speech' and 'academic freedom', to align the language with Mr French's proposed model code. The second element involves working with and supporting universities to align their policy frameworks with Mr French's model code. All universities have undertaken to adopt the model code—even though some have not yet—in a way that is consistent with their individual legislative frameworks. Professor Walker's findings demonstrate why this cannot be a voluntary adoption.

                  A third element is focused on supporting the work of institutions and TEQSA to monitor compliance with relevant quality standards. Work to implement this model needs to continue across our university sector. These amendments are necessary to ensure consistency between the legislation and university statutes, and to support regulators and universities alike in promoting academic freedom and freedom of speech in higher education campuses across Australia. In my first speech, I said the following:

                  But learning doesn't stop when you finish school, or TAFE or university, and we need to support a system of continuous learning. As our third-highest export, our higher education system needs support and investment to capitalise on its excellence. I will fight to defend academic freedoms.

                  Empowering individuals through education and ensuring our health ensures our society itself is healthy and prosperous. More than that, the health of our institutions is essential to the health of a good society.

                  The Morrison government considers that adoption of the French model code is the first and most effective means to ensure Australia's higher education providers are supported to uphold freedom of speech and academic freedom, protecting Australia's reputation for quality higher education. We need the higher education sector to lean into these concepts. We are respected internationally as honest brokers, whether academically or diplomatically. This authenticity is part of brand Australia. Academic freedom provides an essential yet almost indefinable quality of brand Australia.

                  The Morrison government wants to ensure that, while Australia's higher education providers are supported to uphold freedom of speech and academic freedom and to protect Australia's reputation for quality higher education, we are also backing them financially to deliver support to ensure we have job-ready Australians. Funding to universities is at a record high, with over $18 billion invested in 2020, increasing to around $20 billion in 2024 under our Job-ready Graduates Package. This is big business. The Job-ready Graduates Package will create up to 30,000 new Commonwealth supported places in 2021 and 100,000 by 2030. This is necessary, because, as we know, when there is an economic crisis there's a countercyclical response in the education sector. This is particularly important to our economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, so we're ensuring that Australians are ready for 21st century jobs of the future, where, essentially, critical thinking and independent thinking will be valued in the work sector. We know, for instance, that modern manufacturing will rely more and more on different ways of doing things, more innovative ways of doing things and smarter way of doing things, and we need our job-ready graduates to be ready to embrace the work of the future.

                  Every Australian has a right to a great education. It should be acknowledged it is a collective as well as an individual undertaking which is underpinned by open discussion and critical debate. This bill expressly recognises that academic staff need freedom to teach, test and challenge the body of knowledge and to promulgate ideas. That is what academic expression is about. Academic freedom is a necessary corollary of the exercise of the right to education by facilitating the free flow of information, ensuring academics can exchange ideas to challenge, provoke and interrogate accepted positions. That is what science has always been about. That is what academic endeavour has always been about. It's about challenging, pushing forward and questioning. As many of us know in this House, debate is vital. It is sometimes heated, but ultimately discussion generally leads to better outcomes and more insightful findings.

                  As a scientist, I've always championed scientific solutions to the challenges we face, and never has that been more clear than in the COVID-19 pandemic. Australians and, indeed, people around the world recognise the way challenging the orthodoxies, challenging to push into the future, has come up with solutions such as the COVID vaccine which just yesterday commenced its rollout here in Australia. These ideas and the willingness of scientists to challenge, question and seek to do the impossible have delivered the most amazing outcomes for humans and for humanity. Science is a contest of ideas, just like politics, and in both cases we are the servants of the taxpayer. Disagreement is part of being a scientist, as is it for politics. As our Prime Minister is apt to say, we don't need to disagree less as a parliament; we just need to disagree better. So too, in the universities, people need to be able to disagree respectfully. Limiting freedom of speech is essentially limiting debate, and if we limit debate we limit progress. I commend this bill to the House.

                  7:26 pm

                  Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

                  I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020. I understand I have limited time, so I'll try to get through as much as I can, although I doubt that I will. First of all, I say that Labor will not oppose this bill. What the bill does is insert a new definition of 'academic freedom' into the Higher Education Support Act, replacing the existing term, 'free intellectual inquiry', with allied concepts of 'freedom of speech' and 'academic freedom' in relevant provisions. To date, my understanding is that all universities have agreed to voluntarily adopt the French model code and that agreement is now included in their mission based compacts. So it really shouldn't be a controversial bill, which is why Labor won't oppose it.

                  But I do want to speak to the substantive issue here. In the first instance, I'm not quite sure why the government has called this a freedom of speech bill. To my mind, it is about the freedom and rigour of academic inquiry and the freedom of thought. I say this as somebody who has worked at universities in various capacities for a number of years. I've been a lecturer, a tutor, a researcher and a professor. I've worked on four ARC grants and I was the lead investigator on two. I led a research program and established a research centre looking at global issues. I've supervised PhDs, I've taught undergraduate and postgraduate courses, I've written courses in counterterrorism and I've taught postgraduate units, all in the humanities. As somebody with that background and that experience, I have to say that the biggest and greatest threat to academic freedom in this country is this government and its protracted and sustained attacks on the humanities and on universities. That is the biggest threat to academic freedom.

                  As I said, while we support this bill and it should be uncontroversial to insert a new definition of 'academic freedom', if you want to talk about freedom of speech at universities you cannot go past some of the actions that this government has taken that go against the very principles of freedom of speech, academic inquiry and academic freedom. I'm really quite aware of the limited time that I have in which to list all of those but I'm quite happy to take up this discussion again and list those, and I will take that opportunity. Suffice it to say that, in my extensive experience over a decade working at universities, as I said, in various capacities, my greatest fear about academic and intellectual freedom has come from the Liberal-National government and their attacks on universities and on the freedom of academics in the humanities—it's not right across the board; it's only in the humanities—to pursue academic knowledge.

                  Debate interrupted.