Thursday, 25 February 2021
Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020; Second Reading
In my maiden speech to the Senate in 2019, I spoke about the importance of free speech in an open and democratic society and my deep concerns regarding the steady decline of academic freedom and diversity of thought on campus. I said in my first contribution to this chamber that true freedom of speech means the right to express your views and the right of others to respond and say that they find your views ridiculous but not to run off to some authority and take action against you on the basis of disagreement. I said at the time: surely universities should be places that encourage consideration and debate on a range of views, not places that dismiss certain perspectives out of hand while endorsing other views without scrutiny. Now more than ever we need universities to be committed to those principles of academic freedom and diversity of thought.
The Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020 is an incredibly important piece of legislation. Nothing can be more fundamental to the prosperous future of our universities and, indeed, our society as a whole than the protection and promotion of freedom of speech.
In recent years, we've seen the emergence of social justice theories that suggest that individuals and groups need to be protected from certain ideas; that words alone can constitute literal violence and cause distress and harm; that, if a particular group takes issue with someone's ideas or comments, then those ideas constitute hate speech and must be banned. Universities around the world have been enthusiastic adopters of these theories, have rushed to create ideological safe spaces and have assured their students and staff that they shouldn't be subjected to certain ideas they don't like or disagree with. Clearly, this creates an environment where free speech and rigorous intellectual debate is under serious threat. That's why, last year, a group of 150 of the world's most prominent academics, writers and activists signed an open letter expressing deep concern that a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments are weakening norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity. Many universities seem to have forgotten that the only kind of free society worth having is one in which the people you disagree with can speak freely. The old free-speech idiom, 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it', has fallen completely by the wayside on our university campuses. Nowadays you're more likely to hear staff and students saying, 'I disagree with what that person is saying. It's a breach of the code of conduct. How dare the universities provide a platform for these views?'
Reports into academic freedom and censorship in the UK have shown that radical activists within universities are generating and coordinating formal complaints and protests that agitate for academics to be fired or deplatformed. Too often the response by the university in question is not to support the academic freedom of its own academics but to give in to a Twitter pile-on. As a result, academics and experts are increasingly self-censoring and staying away from topics that may draw the ire of activists and may result in attempts to have them sacked. That is a hugely concerning and anti-intellectual trend that must be arrested.
Conspiring to have an academic fired or make it impossible for them to give a public speech or presentation are not the actions of people who support free speech. Criticise all you want; even better, engage with the point someone you disagree with is making and seek to rebut their stance with facts and logic. But seeking to have someone sacked for having a different opinion is fundamentally inconsistent with the principles of free speech. Alternative views to your own and facts that don't fit with your narrative on an issue are not hate speech. They are not literal violence. Clearly, if you are not exposed to ideas you don't agree with or ideas that you find challenging, you're not receiving the rigorous kind of tertiary education that university is supposed to provide. If academics aren't prepared to engage in good faith with different ideas and think and discuss matters beyond the current orthodoxies, how can they help to inform the challenges of today and the future?
In my maiden speech, I shared with honourable senators my own experience as a university student, and a well-known conservative university student at that. A decade ago, the views I espoused in my political science classes were regarded with shock at best and with complete disregard at worst by tutors and fellow students alike. My opinions were dismissed on the basis of my political affiliation, as if that meant my views were of less value because I'd seemingly been indoctrinated by members of my own party. Setting aside that we have reached a very sad state in our democracy if we're at the point of denigrating someone's views purely because they're a member of a political party, the fact that any alternative viewpoint was disregarded in an academic environment should be of concern to most Australians. Our students go to university to grow and develop their ideas about how the world works and the impact they want to have on society. This simply cannot happen if they aren't able to have those ideas challenged and, in turn, challenge the views of others.
As I said in my maiden speech, I found my experience as a conservative on university campus to be one that was intellectually galvanising. It only strengthened my political convictions. But in the intervening decades since I was at university, the state of free speech on campus has degraded even further. These days, it isn't just the ridicule of fellow students or the disregard of lecturers that students must withstand. Time after time we are seeing the progressive shutdown of debate on any issues that challenge that very same ideological conformity that those 150 prominent academics referenced in their open letter last year.
The Morrison coalition government has quite rightly been concerned about academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus for some time. That's why, in 2018, the former education minister, Dan Tehan, initiated a review into free speech at universities, which was undertaken by former Chief Justice of the High Court, the Hon. Robert French AC. Unfortunately, the take-up of the French model code has been less than adequate. A review of the implementation of the code by Professor Sally Walker AM found that only nine of the nation's 42 universities had adopted policies aligning with the code. That is, by any measure, an incredibly poor response by the Australian university sector collectively. It's abundantly clear that, when it comes to free speech, our universities either don't get it or don't want to get it. It's going to take firm leadership by this government to continue to push universities towards understanding the importance of free speech. That's why this bill that we are debating here today is an important step; it amends the Higher Education Support Act to better incorporate the principles outlined in the French model code.
I congratulate the former minister and the current minister for education, Alan Tudge, for their work in promoting freedom of speech on university campuses, and I commend the bill to the Senate.