Thursday, 25 February 2021
Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020; Second Reading
You would commend them with regard to Cardinal Pell. You would commend them when they bring forward their judgement with regard to Dr Peter Ridd. We have seen appeals with regard to Dr Ridd, which found that the position he'd taken was that he had breached his employment contract. It was not at all a question of freedom of speech. We should remember that the university insisted that Dr Ridd was sacked for denigrating colleagues and science organisations. The university argued that his attacks on colleagues went beyond academic disputation. We all know how academics like to squabble and argue the toss about the number of angels on pins, but we do also understand how important these codes of conduct are within universities. We understand how important it is not to damage the reputation of universities or violate the codes of conduct. Dr Ridd argues that he was taking the action that he did at university because of the guarantees that he believed he had with regard to intellectual freedom and his contract of employment. I think this case will be resolved through due process at the High Court.
It's interesting to note that the bill this government has presented to us removes a clause from the original model code, which was actually proposed by the French review itself. That clause, contained in the code's definition of 'academic freedom', stated:
This clause was removed by the government in consultation with the sector.
An honourable senator interjecting—
No, this is because the government withdrew that clause. It's claiming that it's now implementing the French review, when it clearly is not. It has done so with regard to its consultation with the sector. Universities were, in fact, concerned that if we remove their ability to sanction staff for misconduct or damage to the institution it would conflict with their terms of employment.
I find it extraordinary that this is a government that's going to pursue this line of argument in the name of freedom of speech when, of course, what we're dealing with here is a position that the freedom of speech and academic freedom uses existing language of the higher education standard act, which reads, 'free intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research'. The bill inserts into the higher education standard acts a definition now which is different. The definition states that 'academic freedom' means:
That's an interesting idea for a government that's been so opposed to voluntary student unionism—
None of these should be contentious—none of them—for anyone who genuinely holds freedom of speech. What the definition, the adoption of the model code by the universities, does is replace a variety of institutional rules and measures with a common set of terms, as the French review recommended. That should clarify academic freedom is understood. The good thing here is, we must remember the French review—I'll repeat this—found that there was no crisis of freedom of speech in Australian universities, despite the fact that the right-wing zealots and cultural warriors within this government had sought to confect one. It's time for the government to stop listening to the cultural warriors and to start talking to people who actually know something about education—(Time expired)