Senate debates

Thursday, 25 February 2021


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

1:17 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

This bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020, inserts a definition of academic freedom and freedom of speech into the Higher Education Support Act. Including such a definition was a recommendation of the French review of freedom of speech in higher education. Most in the university sector are prepared to live with this bill, although I'm pretty sure that they are tired of the government devoting so much of its time in higher education to culture wars on student campuses. Including it was also a condition of One Nation's support for the job-ready graduates program—another example where this government has made concessions to One Nation. We should retain some vigilance about the government's tendency to reach agreements with the One Nation party.

The genesis of this bill tells us a great deal about the government's priorities. The bill, as I said, is the product of the French review. A great deal of time, attention and government resources have been spent responding to a single protest at the University of Sydney. In September 2018, Bettina Arndt was invited by the Sydney University Liberal Club for a talk entitled, 'Is there a rape crisis on campuses?' as part of her 'fake rape' tour across university campuses. The talk was picketed by members of the University of Sydney Women's Collective, an organisation that was founded before some of the senators in this place were born and has played a very good role at the University of Sydney, advocating for women's rights. That exclusively women's picket of an organisational event, mostly of men, became violent, and police were called.

Ms Arndt has a history of extreme views on sexual assault and domestic violence. She has repeatedly downplayed domestic violence; she claims it's a myth and a feminist narrative. She has claimed that the high incidence of sexual assault and rape on university campuses is a fiction cooked up by Australian feminists. She has repeatedly lied about being a clinical psychologist. In 2005, Arndt, in an article in The Courier Mail, described convicted paedophile Robert Potter, a scoutmaster who had molested four boys, as 'a good bloke' and argued that such 'minor' abuse rarely has lasting consequences. In 2017, Arndt interviewed a twice-convicted paedophile on YouTube, a 17 minute video with Mr Nicolaas Bester, a teacher convicted of raping his former student. The title was 'Feminists persecute disgraced teacher'. Ms Arndt accused the victim of 'sexually provocative behaviour'. She said: 'The question that remains for me is whether there's any room in this conversation for talking to young girls about behaving sensibly and not exploiting their seductive power to ruin the lives of men.' The victim of that assault was Grace Tame, who is now the Australian of the Year. Most recently, she suggested that Rowan Baxter, who murdered his wife and three children in a Brisbane street, 'might have been driven too far'.

It is quite reasonable that students who are concerned about the treatment of women in universities would object to those views being spread on their campus, particularly since, only a year earlier, a survey was released reporting that 25 per cent of women in University of Sydney residential colleges had reported sexual harassment—an endemic culture of violence and harassment. Rather than being ashamed that a university branch of their own political party would be associated with such views, the Morrison government decided that it reflected 'a crisis of left-wing protesters shutting down speech on campuses'. The then minister, Mr Tehan, said:

We must ensure our universities are places that protect all free speech, even where what is being said may be unpopular or challenging.

And so the retired High Court Justice Robert French was appointed to lead a review of freedom of speech. And as a lingering insult to those students, to the victims of sexual assault on campus and to women across the country, the Morrison government awarded Ms Arndt the Order of Australia medal for her services to gender equality.

'There is no crisis of freedom of speech on Australian university campuses.' Those aren't my words. Robert French is very clear in his final report. He said:

From the available evidence however, claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated.

He went on to say:

This Review has been instigated in part because of a perception by some in government, and by elements of the community, of a restrictive approach to freedom of speech at Australian universities in its free-standing sense and as an aspect of academic freedom. That perception has developed as a response to a relatively small number of high profile cases …

Those are the words of a government initiated report chaired by their hand-picked justice.

This confected, self-serving grievance narrative from people on the other side about freedom of speech on campuses—just because someone who was smarter than you at university told you you were wrong in a tutorial doesn't mean there's a crisis. They might have actually done the reading. They might have actually done the work. They might have got there on merit and they're entitled to their view. If you want to be self-appointed warriors for free speech, here are some real causes. You could defend journalists who risk prosecution to report on war crimes in Afghanistan. You could stand up for the right of public servants to express political opinions on their private social media. You could reform our outdated defamation laws, which are too often abused by the rich and powerful. But that would involve standing up for people who are not on your side. For those on the other side, it's not a matter of principle, it's a matter of retribution. And there are consequences that flow from this.

The reason this bill is before the Senate today is that a university Liberal club wanted to hold an event saying that women lie about rape. Disgracefully, they weren't the only such club. The La Trobe University Liberal Club, the Macquarie University Liberal Club and the University of New South Wales Conservatives all hosted events saying that women lie about rape. What an indictment of the youth wing of your political party! If they tolerate those views in their university societies and reward those views with their highest civilian honours, what message does that send to the young women who work here?

After Bettina Arndt's comments about the death of Hannah Clarke and her three children, senators on the other side finally did the right thing. Exactly one year ago today, every senator bar the One Nation Party voted to support this motion:

That the Senate—

  …   …   …

(b) agrees that:

(i) Ms Arndt's comments are reckless and abhorrent, and

(ii) the values that underpin Ms Arndt's views on this horrific family violence incident are not consistent with her retaining her Order of Australia.

The motion was sent to the Governor-General and the Governor-General did nothing. In Senate estimates we found out why. While the Governor-General does have the power to unilaterally rescind the Order of Australia, the Governor-General's secretary said:

… in practice the Governor-General does always act on the advice and recommendations of council.

And who selects the council of the Order of Australia? The Prime Minister does. Every coalition senator in this place vowed to strip Bettina Arndt of her Order of Australia, and so they should. Bettina Arndt still has our highest civilian honour because the Prime Minister wouldn't pick up the telephone. As we learnt from the last few weeks, the Prime Minister is all too happy to look away when it comes to matters of violence against women. He obfuscates, he hides and he apparently only acts on the advice of his wife. He will not do anything for Australian women that requires an iota of moral courage. Then, one month ago, he stood up and awarded Ms Tame Australian of the Year—Grace Tame, who fought for and won the legal right to tell her story of her sexual assault; Grace Tame, who would know what it actually means to fight for freedom of speech; Grace Tame, who Bettina Arndt blamed for her own sexual assault. It was Bettina Arndt's sympathetic public interview with a convicted paedophile, with the man convicted of Ms Tame's rape, that precipitated Ms Tame's legal battle in the first place. I don't know how the Prime Minister could look her in the eye.

The previous year, Ms Tame had this to say about Bettina Arndt's Order of Australia:

It might seem trivial to take away one individual's award, but it's about a principle. There is a principle at stake here and it's about demonstrating to people that we cannot reward people who validate abusers and people to capitalise on the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of others.

Those are words that should echo throughout the halls of this building. It's not a crisis of freedom of speech on university campuses that should concern this government; it's a crisis of the moral courage of this government to deal with violence against women, and it comes from the very top.


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