It is my great pleasure to rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020. John F Kennedy said that conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth. In recent years we have seen an increasing number of instances of conformity worming its way into the halls of our universities and research institutions. In August 2020, Elaine Pearson, Director of Human Rights Watch and an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales faculty of law, tweeted that she was very concerned about the human rights implications of Hong Kong’s new national security law. Incredibly, the tweet was deleted by UNSW in response to criticism by pro-China students. The tweet was later reinstated by the university, but it should never have been deleted in the first place. This was an unacceptable betrayal of academic freedom. Earlier, in 2018, Dr Peter Ridd, a distinguished marine physicist at James Cook University, was sacked after publicly questioning his colleague’s research on the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef. As a result, he had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of donated money, as well as his own savings, to make his case in the High Court.

The purpose of a university is to be a place where academics can seek the truth and disseminate it to students, but this is not possible if academics cannot engage in free intellectual inquiry. The principle of academic freedom is the source of a university’s capacity to produce meaningful, rigorous and independent research which benefits all. In this sense, academic freedom is a paradigm feature of any vibrant university culture and is essential if universities are not to become mere mouthpieces for ideology, of course as they were in the Soviet Union and continue to be in many other countries around the world.

This bill ensures that academics have that freedom. It does so by introducing a definition of ‘academic freedom’ which allows academics to teach, discuss and conduct research at will. It enshrines the freedom of academics to engage in intellectual inquiry free from government or corporate influence. It ensures that academics can freely contribute to public debate on issues related to their research without fear of sanction. It also affirms the autonomy of universities in relation to their choice of academic courses and offerings and ways in which they are taught. This is a full and robust conception of academic freedom and shows that our government is committed to maintaining it.

All of this is in keeping with the fundamental Liberal principles on which the Liberal Party was founded: the priority of individual freedom over collective inertia; the value of practical and intellect actually enterprise; and the idea that the proper role of government is to protect natural rights and freedoms, not impose an ideology.

Some might argue the bill does not go far enough because it does not give academics the right to free speech that would allow them to express their personal opinions on any matter whatsoever in public under the shield of academic freedom. However, academics can already express their personal opinions in public, just like any other Australian. They, like other Australians, do not require a stronger definition of ‘academic freedom’ to do that. A nuclear chemist expressing a personal opinion on the price of milk is not an exercise of academic freedom. The definition of ‘academic freedom’ in this bill helpfully preserves this important distinction. None of this undermines the government’s commitment to maintaining a free and open society in Australia in which freedom of speech is respected and upheld. None of this undermines the government’s commitment to liberal principles. None of this undermines this government’s commitment to supporting free, intellectual inquiry at universities.

Our government understands that freedom of speech is the cornerstone of our democracy. It understands that the health of our society can be measured by the extent to which it upholds and defends freedom of speech. It understands, as John Stuart Mill said:

When one’s ideas are not challenged, one’s ability to defend them weakens.

Our government understands that legislation is sometimes necessary to ensure that when our ideas are challenged, we have the freedom to defend them. In this increasingly polarised age, it’s easy to be taken up in the swell of ideological fervour on any given topic, whether it be climate change, gender and identity politics, social justice or even free speech itself. This can only do us harm, because ideology is the sworn enemy of free inquiry. Ideology is a ruinous fire which burns everything in its path. As Edmund Burke said:

Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.

It would be folly to think that our universities are immune from ideological pressure. It would be folly to think that political neutrality is always defended by university management. This is why we must remain vigilant and protect the principle of academic freedom, a bequeathment of an intellectual tradition going back almost a thousand years to the world’s first university at Bologna in 1088. Today’s academics are inheritors of that tradition, and it is one we must guard jealously if we are to maintain our universities as places of genuine learning, places where we can learn to seek the truth for its own sake and not for the sake of ideological purity or political advantage.

This bill ensures that academics, whatever their political persuasion, will not have that held against them in the course of their intellectual work. The bill strengthens free speech in this country by ensuring that academics like Elaine Pearson and Peter Ridd can pursue their research freely without illegitimate and undue restriction, whether from universities, students or governments. It ensures that conformity—that insidious, implacable enemy of freedom—is kept at bay at our universities. I commend this bill to the Senate.

15 March 2021

Categories: Speeches