Senate debates

Thursday, 25 February 2021


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

1:01 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution on this important bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020. I'd like to start my comments by referring to an opinion piece in The Australian by Professor Greg Craven on 27 July last year. He had been talking about academic freedom, most particularly in relation to Peter Ridd—and I'll come to that later. He states:

The problem is that those outside the academy increasingly suspect universities are more interested in their public image, and not upsetting their Departments of Woke, than protecting fundamental academic freedom.

He says:

Universities typically have two types of problem with freedom of academic expression. The first is corporate. This is where an academic writes something that could rile a major stakeholder: a sponsoring corporation, a government partner or—frankly —China—

and we've seen plenty of examples where that has happened. He goes on to say:

Vice- chancellors understandably, but not heroically, feel for their institutional wallet.

He says:

The second assault on academic freedom is more insidious because it is internal. An academic strikes trouble because he or she writes something counter to the accepted wisdom of their faculty or university as a whole.

This was the challenge, of course, that we saw with the Ramsay Centre and there was a lot of kerfuffle about that. As Professor Craven correctly points out, they didn't:

fit the dominant paradigm, which was once the subversive position.

An editorial in The Australian on 4 January this year said:

The blinkered, narrow approach of some universities has been clear in recent years in controversies over Chinese-backed Confucius Institutes, Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg's futile efforts to set up a centre in Australia, James Cook University's sacking outspoken physicist Peter Ridd and problems encountered by the Ramsay Centre on various campuses.

I commend those comments to the chamber.

The recent threats that we've seen from the Chinese ambassador and China itself most clearly in recent times are symptomatic—and I have said this repeatedly—of the predicament we find ourselves in, noting that there have been years of questionable, defective foreign and trade policy which has made us vulnerable to economic coercion. Those who have been responsible for our fellow-traveller foreign policy were prepared to ignore communist China's skulduggery so long as the rivers of gold continued to flow, a very bad business model. Nowhere was this more obvious than at our universities, in their failure to diversify and their reliance on overseas students, especially on the China market. In fact, it was so clear that they weren't even following the basic, 101 business practices of their own business schools in terms of diversification. They were happy to take a lot of money from China and, in exchange, were prepared to stifle free speech so long as those rivers of gold were flowing.

This was very clear in the evidence that was presented to the Senate inquiry into the foreign relations bills in which I participated. I'd like to reiterate concerns that I have previously raised and that I raised in my contribution to the second reading debate in relation to those bills. At that time, I specifically referred to the evidence that had been given by the university sector and how concerned I was to note the universities' negative attitude to the bills and to the fact that the government would even presume to affect that sector's activities through the enactment of foreign relations bills. They were very happy to take the taxpayers' coin, but not happy to conform with Australia's foreign policy and find themselves having to comply with a set of norms and parameters. More importantly, they were happy to take the taxpayers' money but not conform to principles of allowing free speech on their campuses. As I said, the university sector, together with a wide chorus of business men and women, have urged us to effectively ignore the communist regime's many excesses in favour of the continuation of the rivers of gold.

What has been happening on our university campuses? We know that many of the universities in Australia have relied on funds from the Chinese Ministry of Education, through what is called the Hanban, through the Confucius institutes. Let's not forget that the Confucius institutes at our universities provide teachers, textbooks and operating funds. The first institute was established in Australia in 2005, and there are now 14 Confucius institutes located on 13 university campuses. One only has to look at the disgraceful conduct of universities and university academics, led by the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland, and what happened to young Drew Pavlou, to see the insidious way in which the Chinese communist regime has infiltrated our universities.

Let's look at the tentacles that the communist regime has inserted into our university sector through the Thousand Talents program. We know that universities often do incredibly important research and they receive large sums of public money. Of course, we need to protect that intellectual property. We need to protect it from cyberattacks and incursions, especially on free speech. As I said, it's been very, very clear that quite a number of our universities here in Australia have been happy to turn a blind eye to the activities of the communist regime so long as those rivers of gold were flowing into their coffers. That necessitates this government now enacting a freedom of speech bill. The fact that we actually have to do this reflects poorly, I think, on the university sector.

This bill will provide protections in relation to academic freedom and freedom of speech. It gives effect to the recommendations of the French review, the 2009 Independent Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers. The bill will provide a new definition of academic freedom that enshrines in law those principles of freedom of expression that are so important to the life of universities, both for academic staff and for students. The definition closely aligns with the recommendation of the French review but it also includes some modifications recommended by the University Chancellors Council, which were developed in consultation with former Chief Justice French. The definition excludes one element:

    That was part of the definition originally recommended by Mr French and included in the proposed model code. As part of the consultations on the proposed definition it has been suggested that this element is more about freedom of speech than academic freedom and ought not be conflated with the definition of academic freedom. I have some concerns about that. Whilst I appreciate the argument for a clear delineation between academic freedom and freedom of speech, that is what we're really talking about here. I will reserve my comments on that for another time.

    I'm very pleased to see that in the Illawarra, where my electorate office is based, the University of Wollongong was very quick to respond to the findings of the French review. It completed its own internal review of its existing policies and procedures to ensure that it fully complied with the model code proposed by the French review. I'm also very pleased that the University of Wollongong was at the forefront with the establishment of its own Ramsay-backed degree in Western civilisation. Whilst there was some controversy, I have to commend the university for the way that it handled that and the rather smooth transition to the establishment of the Ramsay degree at the University of Wollongong.

    Of course, one of the very nasty episodes that we have seen in relation to freedom of speech concerns Professor Peter Ridd. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on 28 October 2020, the former Minister for Education Dan Tehan was quoted as saying that the legal definition of academic freedom which had been resisted by some universities would have prevented the sacking of the marine physics academic Peter Ridd. He said on Sky News:

    The legal advice that I have is that they wouldn't have been able to prosecute Peter Ridd if these laws had of been in place.

    The Australian's editorial on 9 December last year, titled 'Time for action on uni free speech', noted:

    Nothing better epitomises the conformist climate on our campuses than the appalling treatment of Peter Ridd by James Cook University. Professor Ridd reluctantly became the focal point in the battle for intellectual freedom on our campuses following his termination by JCU.

    It goes on to say:

    That there is a crisis of intellectual freedom and freedom of speech in universities is beyond dispute and the Ridd case is but the most conspicuous symptom of the malaise. For years the anecdotal evidence has mounted of trigger warnings, safe spaces and the "no platforming" of figures such as Bettina Arndt who challenge the modern canon of identity politics.

    Indeed, I'm very pleased now to see that the High Court will be making a determination in relation to Peter Ridd, and I do sincerely hope that it does come down in his favour.

    I want to conclude my remarks today by saying that I hope that this model code will change practices on university campuses. However, I won't be holding my breath, when I see incidents like the two that I'd like to put on the record. One was referred to in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald of 4 August last year, and it relates to the University of New South Wales, which boldly urges its students to 'bring your difference'. However, recent experience, the article says:

    … that the university might be more interested in damage control than an open marketplace of ideas. But this is a test of academic freedom that UNSW can't afford to fail.

    Of course it relates to the actions taken in relation to Australia Director at Human Rights Watch and adjunct lecturer at the university Elaine Pearson and the disgraceful behaviour of the university in relation to what she had been saying as to the Chinese government's threats to academic freedom in Australia.

    But I conclude with something that really appalled me, and was on the front page of The Daily Telegraph which said: 'Woke kills mum & dad: uni's radical new gender neutral parenting guide'. I cannot believe that my former alma mater, the Australian National University, is prepared to go down the road with this sort of garbage. Can I say to its chancellor: after having served in this place for so long, how can you possibly allow this sort of thing to happen at one of our universities which is supposed to be one of our leading ones?


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