Senate debates

Thursday, 25 February 2021


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

12:53 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

As I was saying earlier, academic freedom is essential to our universities. University staff must be free to conduct their teaching and research and must feel comfortable testing and extending the boundaries of academic debate and inquiry. Simply put, our universities should be places where the envelope can be pushed and mainstream thinking can be really challenged. Indeed, some of the great civil rights struggles in this country, from feminist and LGBTQI movements to First Nations justice movements in the 1960s, had staff and students at our universities as part and parcel of those movements because they were unafraid to challenge dominant orthodoxies. They expressed their free speech in support of oppressed people and in opposition to significant government positions such as Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. Sometimes free speech on campus can stray into territory that can be uncomfortable for governments and other authorities.

But academic freedom is under challenge. In recent years we have seen examples of education ministers intervening to deny funding to Australian Research Council grants. After one such incident in 2018, when the then education minister, Senator Birmingham, denied ARC funding to numerous researchers, the President of the Australian Academy of Humanities characterised the intervention as political interference which was, 'entirely at odds with a nation that prides itself on free and open critical inquiry'. We know that this government hates arts and social sciences. They actually hate universities as well; hence the Job-Ready Graduates Package of fee hikes and funding cuts.

Late last year this parliament passed new foreign interference laws that universities were deeply concerned about, given the power they provided ministers to overreach and rip up agreements between Australian universities and international organisations or governments that underpin vital research and arrangements for joint degrees, cultural and student exchanges. The Greens moved to have universities excluded from the bill, but this was shamefully not supported by either the government or the opposition.

While defending academic freedom and freedom of speech, we must be clear that these freedoms are not absolute. Hate speech is unacceptable on our campuses and everywhere else in society. Over time this parliament has passed landmark legislation, such as the Racial Discrimination Act, which acknowledges that there are limits to acceptable speech in our community. But too often in this country, and in this chamber, zealots who wish for nothing more than the freedom of expression to be hateful have bigoted views and have justified their advocacy through appeals to an overriding principle of freedom of speech at all costs. People in this community pay the cost of that. Thankfully, though, that is not what this bill will do.

Another aspect of this bill concerns criticism of universities by their own workers. University staff must be free to critique their institutions without fear of reprisals. This is particularly important at a time when higher education staff are facing substantial disruption to their workplaces. The latest estimates from Universities Australia suggest that upwards of 17,000 jobs were lost in 2020. There may be many more casual staff that aren't even being counted in these numbers as they've been collected.

Universities are embarking upon substantial and not uncontroversial job-slashing and cost-cutting plans caused at least in part by the government's failure to support the sector during the pandemic. It's important that staff feel they can criticise their institutions without any adverse consequences. The Greens support efforts to protect academic freedom. On this principle, we do not oppose this bill because it will provide some clarity on what is meant by academic freedom on our campuses. However, the bill shies away from tackling the real matter at hand: enforceable and meaningful protections for academic freedom. The government should be ensuring that academic freedom is legally protected and an enforceable part of bargaining agreements.

The Greens also have concerns about the scope of the bill. We are concerned that the current drafting is too narrow with respect to which staff the academic freedom provisions apply. I will be moving an amendment to ensure that, instead of exclusively academic staff benefiting from the provisions, the provisions relate to all staff engaged in academic activities.

As a former university professor, I know all too well that academic work is not the exclusive domain of those in the institutions who are formally classed or formally employed as teaching and research academics, and who obtain doctorates and follow a traditional academic career pathway. Much academic work is undertaken by others in the university system, perhaps most obviously professional staff who may, from time to time, deliver lectures, engage in research and otherwise contribute to academic activities of their institutions. Research assistants can also fall into this category and are employed as professional staff at certain institutions. It makes no sense for this bill to carve out academic freedom provisions to pertain only to academic staff. It does not recognise the nature of work in a modern university where many staff from across the institution may engage collaboratively in teaching, research and scholarship. I note that institutions adopting the model code have considered this limitation already. The University of Sydney, for example, has drafted its Charter of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to encompass all staff in the course of their academic activities.

While giving our support to this bill and proposing an amendment that would expand its scope to more university workers and affiliates, I should note the Greens are under no illusions about where this bill principally came from. It was a dirty deal firstly done between the coalition government and One Nation. There has been something of a confected free speech crisis on our campuses as well, which was a favourite fearmongering campaign of right-wing culture warriors several years ago and has been kicked along for the benefit of a select few Murdoch columnists. It has to be said though that it feels a little bit stale in 2021. The French review concluded, in no uncertain terms, that claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated. So we know where the bill has come from, at least in part. But despite this, the bill does, to an extent, clarify universities' rights and responsibilities regarding freedom of speech and academic freedom so the Greens can provide our support. We look forward to discussing our amendment at the committee stage.

1:01 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution on this important bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020. I'd like to start my comments by referring to an opinion piece in The Australian by Professor Greg Craven on 27 July last year. He had been talking about academic freedom, most particularly in relation to Peter Ridd—and I'll come to that later. He states:

The problem is that those outside the academy increasingly suspect universities are more interested in their public image, and not upsetting their Departments of Woke, than protecting fundamental academic freedom.

He says:

Universities typically have two types of problem with freedom of academic expression. The first is corporate. This is where an academic writes something that could rile a major stakeholder: a sponsoring corporation, a government partner or—frankly —China—

and we've seen plenty of examples where that has happened. He goes on to say:

Vice- chancellors understandably, but not heroically, feel for their institutional wallet.

He says:

The second assault on academic freedom is more insidious because it is internal. An academic strikes trouble because he or she writes something counter to the accepted wisdom of their faculty or university as a whole.

This was the challenge, of course, that we saw with the Ramsay Centre and there was a lot of kerfuffle about that. As Professor Craven correctly points out, they didn't:

fit the dominant paradigm, which was once the subversive position.

An editorial in The Australian on 4 January this year said:

The blinkered, narrow approach of some universities has been clear in recent years in controversies over Chinese-backed Confucius Institutes, Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg's futile efforts to set up a centre in Australia, James Cook University's sacking outspoken physicist Peter Ridd and problems encountered by the Ramsay Centre on various campuses.

I commend those comments to the chamber.

The recent threats that we've seen from the Chinese ambassador and China itself most clearly in recent times are symptomatic—and I have said this repeatedly—of the predicament we find ourselves in, noting that there have been years of questionable, defective foreign and trade policy which has made us vulnerable to economic coercion. Those who have been responsible for our fellow-traveller foreign policy were prepared to ignore communist China's skulduggery so long as the rivers of gold continued to flow, a very bad business model. Nowhere was this more obvious than at our universities, in their failure to diversify and their reliance on overseas students, especially on the China market. In fact, it was so clear that they weren't even following the basic, 101 business practices of their own business schools in terms of diversification. They were happy to take a lot of money from China and, in exchange, were prepared to stifle free speech so long as those rivers of gold were flowing.

This was very clear in the evidence that was presented to the Senate inquiry into the foreign relations bills in which I participated. I'd like to reiterate concerns that I have previously raised and that I raised in my contribution to the second reading debate in relation to those bills. At that time, I specifically referred to the evidence that had been given by the university sector and how concerned I was to note the universities' negative attitude to the bills and to the fact that the government would even presume to affect that sector's activities through the enactment of foreign relations bills. They were very happy to take the taxpayers' coin, but not happy to conform with Australia's foreign policy and find themselves having to comply with a set of norms and parameters. More importantly, they were happy to take the taxpayers' money but not conform to principles of allowing free speech on their campuses. As I said, the university sector, together with a wide chorus of business men and women, have urged us to effectively ignore the communist regime's many excesses in favour of the continuation of the rivers of gold.

What has been happening on our university campuses? We know that many of the universities in Australia have relied on funds from the Chinese Ministry of Education, through what is called the Hanban, through the Confucius institutes. Let's not forget that the Confucius institutes at our universities provide teachers, textbooks and operating funds. The first institute was established in Australia in 2005, and there are now 14 Confucius institutes located on 13 university campuses. One only has to look at the disgraceful conduct of universities and university academics, led by the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland, and what happened to young Drew Pavlou, to see the insidious way in which the Chinese communist regime has infiltrated our universities.

Let's look at the tentacles that the communist regime has inserted into our university sector through the Thousand Talents program. We know that universities often do incredibly important research and they receive large sums of public money. Of course, we need to protect that intellectual property. We need to protect it from cyberattacks and incursions, especially on free speech. As I said, it's been very, very clear that quite a number of our universities here in Australia have been happy to turn a blind eye to the activities of the communist regime so long as those rivers of gold were flowing into their coffers. That necessitates this government now enacting a freedom of speech bill. The fact that we actually have to do this reflects poorly, I think, on the university sector.

This bill will provide protections in relation to academic freedom and freedom of speech. It gives effect to the recommendations of the French review, the 2009 Independent Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers. The bill will provide a new definition of academic freedom that enshrines in law those principles of freedom of expression that are so important to the life of universities, both for academic staff and for students. The definition closely aligns with the recommendation of the French review but it also includes some modifications recommended by the University Chancellors Council, which were developed in consultation with former Chief Justice French. The definition excludes one element:

    That was part of the definition originally recommended by Mr French and included in the proposed model code. As part of the consultations on the proposed definition it has been suggested that this element is more about freedom of speech than academic freedom and ought not be conflated with the definition of academic freedom. I have some concerns about that. Whilst I appreciate the argument for a clear delineation between academic freedom and freedom of speech, that is what we're really talking about here. I will reserve my comments on that for another time.

    I'm very pleased to see that in the Illawarra, where my electorate office is based, the University of Wollongong was very quick to respond to the findings of the French review. It completed its own internal review of its existing policies and procedures to ensure that it fully complied with the model code proposed by the French review. I'm also very pleased that the University of Wollongong was at the forefront with the establishment of its own Ramsay-backed degree in Western civilisation. Whilst there was some controversy, I have to commend the university for the way that it handled that and the rather smooth transition to the establishment of the Ramsay degree at the University of Wollongong.

    Of course, one of the very nasty episodes that we have seen in relation to freedom of speech concerns Professor Peter Ridd. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on 28 October 2020, the former Minister for Education Dan Tehan was quoted as saying that the legal definition of academic freedom which had been resisted by some universities would have prevented the sacking of the marine physics academic Peter Ridd. He said on Sky News:

    The legal advice that I have is that they wouldn't have been able to prosecute Peter Ridd if these laws had of been in place.

    The Australian's editorial on 9 December last year, titled 'Time for action on uni free speech', noted:

    Nothing better epitomises the conformist climate on our campuses than the appalling treatment of Peter Ridd by James Cook University. Professor Ridd reluctantly became the focal point in the battle for intellectual freedom on our campuses following his termination by JCU.

    It goes on to say:

    That there is a crisis of intellectual freedom and freedom of speech in universities is beyond dispute and the Ridd case is but the most conspicuous symptom of the malaise. For years the anecdotal evidence has mounted of trigger warnings, safe spaces and the "no platforming" of figures such as Bettina Arndt who challenge the modern canon of identity politics.

    Indeed, I'm very pleased now to see that the High Court will be making a determination in relation to Peter Ridd, and I do sincerely hope that it does come down in his favour.

    I want to conclude my remarks today by saying that I hope that this model code will change practices on university campuses. However, I won't be holding my breath, when I see incidents like the two that I'd like to put on the record. One was referred to in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald of 4 August last year, and it relates to the University of New South Wales, which boldly urges its students to 'bring your difference'. However, recent experience, the article says:

    … that the university might be more interested in damage control than an open marketplace of ideas. But this is a test of academic freedom that UNSW can't afford to fail.

    Of course it relates to the actions taken in relation to Australia Director at Human Rights Watch and adjunct lecturer at the university Elaine Pearson and the disgraceful behaviour of the university in relation to what she had been saying as to the Chinese government's threats to academic freedom in Australia.

    But I conclude with something that really appalled me, and was on the front page of The Daily Telegraph which said: 'Woke kills mum & dad: uni's radical new gender neutral parenting guide'. I cannot believe that my former alma mater, the Australian National University, is prepared to go down the road with this sort of garbage. Can I say to its chancellor: after having served in this place for so long, how can you possibly allow this sort of thing to happen at one of our universities which is supposed to be one of our leading ones?

    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.

    1:27 pm

    Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    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.

    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—

    Honourable Senator:

    An honourable senator interjecting

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

    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)

                  1:49 pm

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

                  Colleagues and those listening in might be forgiven for thinking that was actually a speech against the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020 but, as I understand it, the Australian Labor Party are committed to supporting it, if I'm correct? Is that correct, Senator Carr?

                  Senator Kim Carr interjecting

                  You will be voting for the bill. What a wonderful speech in favour of the bill!

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

                  Hear, hear!

                  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—

                  Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

                  Order! Senator Abetz, you will be in continuation upon resumption.