Senate debates

Thursday, 25 February 2021


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

1:34 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

The Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020 seeks to implement the recommendations of the Independent Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers, commonly known as the French review, which reported to the then Minister for Education in March 2019. In assessing the bill, it's important to begin with some facts. The former Chief Justice Robert French stated in his report:

… claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated.

He reiterated:

There is no evidence … of a 'free speech crisis' on campus.

Former Chief Justice French was quite clear. I will repeat it: there is no evidence of such a crisis. The government knows that, yet here we are once again pursuing the fantasies of the hard right of this government.

What we have is debate on a crisis that doesn't actually exist except in the imaginations of the right-wing culture warriors of this government. It's a confected crisis which the government is happy to pursue—and it has done so for seven years or so—because it helps develop what is in fact the unrelenting and systematic hostility of this government towards universities. That's an irony, given so many of the government's own members are products of the university system itself. It's extraordinary that so many members of this government who were employed in universities feel that those universities are such threatening places. It's ironic that they regard these institutions as places that harbour people with dangerous ideas who seek to undermine our way of life. It's a paranoid view of the world impossible to take seriously if you know anything about how universities actually function. Surely you would expect, given the breadth of experience of any government, that the government benches would know better?

Of course, the point of all of this is that this is a government that needs to secure the votes of One Nation senators to pass critical legislation, as the job-ready graduates bill was an indication of. It was a bill that in fact cut the funding for student places by a billion dollars, that severed the nexus between the funding of undergraduate places and the funding of research, and that clearly demonstrated that the question of the long-term funding of research in Australia has yet to be resolved. It is a question that neither the Minister for Education at the time, Mr Tehan, nor his successor, Mr Tudge, have been prepared to answer. Mr Tehan justified the legislation by saying that the revised student charges that were introduced would create incentives to enrol courses needed in the modern economy and to avoid other courses, such as the humanities, that supposedly don't produce job-ready graduates.

Labor proudly opposed that legislation. We did so because we knew the damage that was going to be done to our universities by the hostile, punitive approach to universities that has been persistently pursued by this government. We opposed the bill—and it should have been defeated; it was carried by only the one vote, which was provided by One Nation—simply because its underlying assumptions were wrong, as they had been in the previous iterations of that bill throughout the lives of the conservative governments of the past seven years.

Humanities graduates do have job-ready skills, and the Business Council, of all people—again, hardly a centre of Bolshevik agitation—acknowledges how important the humanities are to the future of the country. The fact remains that price signals are an ineffective means of influencing student choices. We've already seen the government's ill-considered plan is unravelling. A report on the front page of The Australian earlier this week by Richard Ferguson stated:

Demand for university humanities and law courses is growing despite the Morrison government more than doubling course fees in a bid to redirect students to critical employment areas for the post-pandemic recovery.

Enrolments in courses in society and culture and in the humanities and social sciences have been hit by increases in student fees by 113 per cent under the job-ready legislation, yet enrolments in these courses are up by six per cent for the 2021 academic year. With the government's spin machine in overdrive, the increased enrolments in some categories of courses, agriculture and health care, would seem to be some sort of vindication. But that's been the trend for years. It's not just something that happened this year; it has happened for some time. Mr Andrew Norton, former Liberal adviser and conservative academic at the Australian National University, made the very simple point in The Australian: 'The government has managed to plunge universities into a funding crisis without as much as a gain in the terms of its own objectives.' With the bill before us, we have the price the government's prepared to pay in its arrangements with One Nation.

We're not going to oppose this bill because it implements the French review's recommendations. It does very little in real terms, but it foresees a circumstance where you can maintain a rhetorical war, a cultural war, against the universities. That's its main purpose—isn't it?—a public propaganda war against intellectualism and against the university system. Just as there's no evidence of a crisis in free speech on Australian university campuses, what we saw was a proposal adopted for a model code setting out principles of academic freedom and free speech. Universities in principle have accepted the code, although Professor Sally Walker, in another report commissioned by the government, has criticised them for being too slow on the uptake. This is the irony here: the government talks about how important it is for universities to have autonomy, but when they don't take up the proposition of a voluntary code, there is something allegedly wrong with the universities themselves.

In The Australian, ANU professor and former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis, a very fine Australian and a leading public intellectual in this country, made the point that there is an arrogance and an ignorance in this government. He said:

There is irony in government deciding to investigate academic freedom [when the] government frequently emerges as the largest threat to such freedom.

Professor Davis criticised the attitude of Mr Tehan. He said:

Minister Tehan accepted the recommendations from Justice French and called on universities to act … He would become more insistent in later media statements, criticising universities for using their autonomy.

It should be remembered why Mr French recommended the model of the code. Mr French said:

… there is a range of diverse and broadly framed institutional rules, codes and policies … which leave room for the variable exercise of administrative discretions and evaluative judgments. These are capable of eroding the fundamental freedom of speech and that freedom of speech which is an essential element of academic freedom.

He said that if that were to happen it would make 'the sector an easy target for criticism'. That led to the backbench agitation and prompted the government to commission the French review. We know that the real deal is what pushed this through, the real deal being the deal with One Nation. We know the incidents were reported in the media. We know the situation—for instance, the unfair dismissal case involving Dr Peter Ridd at James Cook University. We know the case which is being heard by the High Court. I do presume, that you, Senator Abetz, still regard the High Court as part of the legal process in this country. I'm sure you would appreciate how important it is—


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