Thursday, 25 February 2021
Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020; Second Reading
As I was saying earlier, academic freedom is essential to our universities. University staff must be free to conduct their teaching and research and must feel comfortable testing and extending the boundaries of academic debate and inquiry. Simply put, our universities should be places where the envelope can be pushed and mainstream thinking can be really challenged. Indeed, some of the great civil rights struggles in this country, from feminist and LGBTQI movements to First Nations justice movements in the 1960s, had staff and students at our universities as part and parcel of those movements because they were unafraid to challenge dominant orthodoxies. They expressed their free speech in support of oppressed people and in opposition to significant government positions such as Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. Sometimes free speech on campus can stray into territory that can be uncomfortable for governments and other authorities.
But academic freedom is under challenge. In recent years we have seen examples of education ministers intervening to deny funding to Australian Research Council grants. After one such incident in 2018, when the then education minister, Senator Birmingham, denied ARC funding to numerous researchers, the President of the Australian Academy of Humanities characterised the intervention as political interference which was, 'entirely at odds with a nation that prides itself on free and open critical inquiry'. We know that this government hates arts and social sciences. They actually hate universities as well; hence the Job-Ready Graduates Package of fee hikes and funding cuts.
Late last year this parliament passed new foreign interference laws that universities were deeply concerned about, given the power they provided ministers to overreach and rip up agreements between Australian universities and international organisations or governments that underpin vital research and arrangements for joint degrees, cultural and student exchanges. The Greens moved to have universities excluded from the bill, but this was shamefully not supported by either the government or the opposition.
While defending academic freedom and freedom of speech, we must be clear that these freedoms are not absolute. Hate speech is unacceptable on our campuses and everywhere else in society. Over time this parliament has passed landmark legislation, such as the Racial Discrimination Act, which acknowledges that there are limits to acceptable speech in our community. But too often in this country, and in this chamber, zealots who wish for nothing more than the freedom of expression to be hateful have bigoted views and have justified their advocacy through appeals to an overriding principle of freedom of speech at all costs. People in this community pay the cost of that. Thankfully, though, that is not what this bill will do.
Another aspect of this bill concerns criticism of universities by their own workers. University staff must be free to critique their institutions without fear of reprisals. This is particularly important at a time when higher education staff are facing substantial disruption to their workplaces. The latest estimates from Universities Australia suggest that upwards of 17,000 jobs were lost in 2020. There may be many more casual staff that aren't even being counted in these numbers as they've been collected.
Universities are embarking upon substantial and not uncontroversial job-slashing and cost-cutting plans caused at least in part by the government's failure to support the sector during the pandemic. It's important that staff feel they can criticise their institutions without any adverse consequences. The Greens support efforts to protect academic freedom. On this principle, we do not oppose this bill because it will provide some clarity on what is meant by academic freedom on our campuses. However, the bill shies away from tackling the real matter at hand: enforceable and meaningful protections for academic freedom. The government should be ensuring that academic freedom is legally protected and an enforceable part of bargaining agreements.
The Greens also have concerns about the scope of the bill. We are concerned that the current drafting is too narrow with respect to which staff the academic freedom provisions apply. I will be moving an amendment to ensure that, instead of exclusively academic staff benefiting from the provisions, the provisions relate to all staff engaged in academic activities.
As a former university professor, I know all too well that academic work is not the exclusive domain of those in the institutions who are formally classed or formally employed as teaching and research academics, and who obtain doctorates and follow a traditional academic career pathway. Much academic work is undertaken by others in the university system, perhaps most obviously professional staff who may, from time to time, deliver lectures, engage in research and otherwise contribute to academic activities of their institutions. Research assistants can also fall into this category and are employed as professional staff at certain institutions. It makes no sense for this bill to carve out academic freedom provisions to pertain only to academic staff. It does not recognise the nature of work in a modern university where many staff from across the institution may engage collaboratively in teaching, research and scholarship. I note that institutions adopting the model code have considered this limitation already. The University of Sydney, for example, has drafted its Charter of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to encompass all staff in the course of their academic activities.
While giving our support to this bill and proposing an amendment that would expand its scope to more university workers and affiliates, I should note the Greens are under no illusions about where this bill principally came from. It was a dirty deal firstly done between the coalition government and One Nation. There has been something of a confected free speech crisis on our campuses as well, which was a favourite fearmongering campaign of right-wing culture warriors several years ago and has been kicked along for the benefit of a select few Murdoch columnists. It has to be said though that it feels a little bit stale in 2021. The French review concluded, in no uncertain terms, that claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated. So we know where the bill has come from, at least in part. But despite this, the bill does, to an extent, clarify universities' rights and responsibilities regarding freedom of speech and academic freedom so the Greens can provide our support. We look forward to discussing our amendment at the committee stage.