Senate debates

Thursday, 25 February 2021


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

1:49 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

It now seems almost superfluous for me to speak because it was so articulately put as to why people ought to be voting for this legislation. The fundamental point surely is this: each of us, hopefully, in this place believe that we are all possessed of a God-given or human right of freedom of speech. And that freedom of speech, if it is to be allowed anywhere, should surely be allowed to prosper at our universities and tertiary institutions in this country. The sad thing is that it hasn't happened. It is a matter of genuine regret that legislation of this nature has to be brought to the parliament and legislated to ensure and guarantee that which for centuries universities have prided themselves on—namely, freedom of speech, freedom to express opinions, to be able to lock horns with interlocutors and argue points, sharpen each other up with the activities that should be part and parcel of universities, rather than this groupthink which is now pervading through our universities.

Are there issues within the universities? Senator Carr would tell you everything is great in the garden. Let's look at what happened at the University of New South Wales just as one example. An academic posted on Twitter—and might I add a left-wing academic—supporting the pro-democracy people of Hong Kong, and what did the university do? They took it upon themselves to take down that tweet. Then they took it upon themselves to issue an apology, acknowledging that what they had done was wrong. They put out one apology in English and another in Mandarin. Guess what? You try to translate the two and they don't marry up—talk about a fundamental lack of integrity. When I had the opportunity of questioning Professor George Williams about this at a Senate hearing, all he could assert was that a mistake had been made. But when I pursued him further as to whether or not this was just an accidental mistranslation, no, no, this was about nuanced messages—in other words, narrowcasting to the English-speaking community one version of events and narrowcasting another version of events to the Chinese-speaking community. The person of whom I speak, the academic, is a Ms Pearson.

Human Rights Watch were also concerned as to what the University of New South Wales had done. The reason for this was because pressure had been brought to bear on this university through that rag known as the Global Times. Global Times said: UNSW is 'under attack from its Chinese student cohort after publishing an article denouncing the human rights issue in Hong Kong' Although the article was soon deleted, students are still furious and demand an apology. I know where that talk comes from because I've been subjected to it myself from similar rags that are simply the mouthpiece for the communist dictatorship in China. But when you have got a university dancing to the tune of an organisation such as that—taking down tweets, sending out different messages—you know you've got a problem.

Let's go to my old university, the University of Tasmania, where an article presented by a very, very accomplished academic, Professor Patrick Parkinson—from Queensland, Senator Scarr—was rejected. Professor James Allan, a Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, who may also be known to Senator Scarr, had a look through it all. Professor Allan was the sole editor of the G8 university UQ's law review for 13 years. For a decade he was the sole editor of New Zealand's oldest law review at the University of Otago. So, with almost a quarter of a century under his belt as an editor of leading law reviews, I think he might know his way around peer review and law publishing. He had a look at this banned article because the assertion was made that it was not up to scratch. For anybody who knows Professor Parkinson and his credentials—and Professor Allan with his credentials—the only conclusion you can come to is that politics trumped the open expression of views that were presented. It was very clear that the editors of that particular law review disagreed with Professor Parkinson's views on the topic of transgender law in Tasmania. It was de facto censorship. I've written to the University of Tasmania seeking an explanation. We've got all the verbiage in the world but no justification as to why Professor Parkinson's clearly acceptable article in terms of its intellectual integrity, acuity and robustness was rejected. What the University of Tasmania's law review has to accept and understand is that, if you don't like somebody's view, you don't shut them up; you don't censor them. You actually respond and say, 'We disagree with this article because—'. And then you have the engagement which is so vital for any genuine university. Sadly, my own university failed that fundamental test.

We can go to other academics who have felt constrained to speak out as they should because of the funding that might be coming their way. They're too scared to speak out. A researcher, Michael Shellenberger, who was an activist in the climate change area for 30 years, wrote a book, Apocalypse Never, in which he debunked a lot of the myths that have been perpetuated by far too many universities and academics. When asked the fundamental question as to why he hadn't spoken out earlier, he was willing to admit that one of his reasons was his fear of losing funding. In other words, if you don't whistle the right tune for the university or the research institution and you present a counterview, you will be denied funding. Is that really what we want in our research institutions or in our universities?

It is great to see Senator Wong has come in to listen to my contribution.

Senator Wong interjecting—

And you are still frozen in opposition, Senator Wong! I'm more than happy to be here. But I supposed I invited that exchange.

Our universities are struggling with the question of integrity in that fundamental area of freedom of speech. That is why the government, quite rightly, has taken it upon itself to deal with this issue, to seek to ensure that those fundamental freedoms are maintained. One of the freedoms that the legislation seems to guarantee is the freedom of students to participate in student societies and associations. I'm sure that also means the freedom not to participate in student societies and associations if that is what the student wants, because one of the great freedoms of freedom of association—


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