Sunday, June 06, 2021

Uni chief wants free speech laws to help scared Aussies

A university chief is demanding new laws to safeguard free speech, warning that Australians are “self-censoring’’ because they are scared of saying the wrong thing.

Professor George Williams, a constitutional lawyer who is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of NSW, said Australians have no legal right to free speech.

He called on the federal government to introduce a “free speech statute’’ for the entire community.

“Free speech needs to include the right to say things that people disagree with and may find offensive,’’ he said.

“My concern is that the free speech problem goes a lot deeper than universities.

“As a society that wants to genuinely search for the truth, we’ve got to be open to debate and discussion and difficult conversations.

“Democracy entails dissent, disagreement and robust discussion and you’ve got to be able to speak freely.

“We do find an increasing danger of self-censorship … it has a chilling effect on what people say and do.’’

Professor Williams said the High Court only gave an implied right to free speech.

His call came as Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge threatened universities with legislation to force them to safeguard freedom of speech and academic inquiry.

“You cannot pursue truth without freedom of expression,’’ he told the Universities Australia conference in Canberra on Thursday. “You cannot create knowledge without freedom of academic inquiry.’’

Mr Tudge told vice-chancellors there are “no more excuses’’ to fully adopt a code for free speech, drawn up by by former High Court Chief Justice Robert French more than two years ago.

“I want to see the model code implemented fully this year, with no more excuses,’’ he said.

“If it becomes apparent that universities remain unable or unwilling to adopt the model code, I will examine all options available to the government to enforce it – which may include legislation.’’

A federal government review in December found that 33 of Australia’s 42 universities had signed up to the code - yet only nine were “fully aligned’’.

Six universities had policies that did not comply with the code – the University of NSW, the University of Technology Sydney, Monash University, James Cook University, the University of South Australia and Federation University Australia.

UNSW adopted the code in April, but went even further to protect free speech by leaving out a clause that lets universities ban guest speakers deemed to “fall below scholarly standards’’.

Universities have been rocked by a series of scandals over “woke’’ teaching of issues such as climate change and gender studies, and intolerance of academics or students expressing diverse opinions.

The University of Queensland spent $280,000 on legal advice to discipline student Drew Pavlou, who led protests against China’s influence at the university last year.

A top marine scientist, Professor Peter Ridd, was sacked from James Cook University after criticising science linking climate change to coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.

A court ordered the university to pay him more than $1.2 million in damages and penalties, but it was overturned on appeal.

The High Court will hear Professor Ridd’s challenge to the appeal on June 23, in a landmark case that will test academic freedom.

The federal government has been pressuring universities for years to safeguard freedom of speech – even changing the Higher Education Support Act in March to replace the term “free intellectual inquiry’’ with “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom’’.

Mr Tehan’s latest threat would legally compel universities to guarantee freedom of speech by students, academics and visitors to campus.

British universities face fines for failing to protect free speech on campus, under British Government legislation being debated in its parliament.

Mr Tudge also called for more face-to-face lectures for domestic students still locked off campus a year after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He is concerned that some fee-paying students are still not allowed on campus at all, or have had lectures cut to an hour each week.

Mr Tudge told vice-chancellors they should “not forget’’ that universities were initially established to educate Australians.

“I am still hearing from too many students or their parents who tell me that their usual student experience has still not returned – that they may only have one contact hour or none,’’ he told the conference.

“For this year, we must see a focus in our universities on how to enhance the classroom and learning experience of Australian students.

“And this must start with a return to the previous face-to-face learning, where Covid rules allow.’’

With international students locked offshore indefinitely, Australian universities have enrolled 5 per cent more domestic students this year.


‘Right-wing backlash’: Church group to make religious freedom an election issue

The Morrison government has placed religious freedom back on the political agenda, as Attorney-General Michaelia Cash restarts meetings with key stakeholders and church groups embark on a lobbying blitz to shape and enact the laws before the election.

Freedom for Faith, a lobby group run by law professor Patrick Parkinson, is organising a “religious freedom weekend” for June 11-13. Priests will use sermons to preach the need to protect religious freedom and parishioners are being urged to lobby their MPs about the urgency of the issue.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has restarted talks about the government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.
Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has restarted talks about the government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

The group has also secured a meeting this week with Senator Cash, who has re-engaged with the issue after the pandemic put it on the backburner last year under predecessor Christian Porter.

As it stands the Religious Discrimination Bill would prohibit discrimination based on faith and provide greater freedom to individuals such as Israel Folau, as well as religious organisations and charities, to act on their beliefs.

For example, the proposed law makes it unlawful for a company with revenue above $50 million to limit an employee’s ability to express their religious views outside work, unless the employer can show this is necessary to prevent “unjustifiable financial hardship” to their business.

Senator Cash told a Senate estimates inquiry on May 26 that she had conducted one formal meeting about the Religious Discrimination Bill, as well as several conversations. She would not disclose who the meeting was with.

“The Attorney-General and her office are engaging with numerous stakeholders about this bill to ensure that all views are carefully considered,” a spokesman said. “It is important that we get this legislation right.”

The bill arose from recommendations of former Howard government minister Philip Ruddock’s religious freedom review in 2018, but has been repeatedly delayed. A separate Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into exemptions that allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBTQI students has also stalled, pending the passage of the bill.

On May 20, in a written answer to a question on notice from Labor senator Deborah O’Neil, the Attorney-General’s department revealed it had not conducted any consultations on the bill, nor related legislation, since January 2020.

In a missive to MPs, Professor Parkinson and fellow Freedom for Faith board member Pastor Mark Edwards urged Prime Minister Scott Morrison to heed his election commitment to people of faith.

“We are disappointed that after the Ruddock committee heard from so many of us, pouring considerable time and resources into submissions and attending hearings, that so little of consequence resulted from the committee’s work,” they wrote.

“We are disappointed that two years after an election promise by the Morrison government to provide at least some protection for religious freedom, no bill has yet been introduced into Parliament. We understand the impact of the pandemic, but we now ask that the Parliament make it a priority.”

One of the key issues is the extent to which religious organisations will retain their ability to hire and fire staff who align with their values and beliefs - for example, religious schools or aged care homes being able to sack gay teachers or gender diverse nurses.

In a bid to make it an election issue, Freedom for Faith challenged any MP who disagreed about the need for strong religious freedom laws “to make their position clear to all voters so that they can decide at the ballot box whether we should vote for them”.

After Labor’s shock election loss in 2019, frontbencher Chris Bowen said the party needed to tackle its problem with religious voters who felt alienated from the progressive side of politics.

A rally hosted by Community Action for Rainbow Rights was held at Sydney Town Hall yesterday, primarily protesting against an anti-trans bill by NSW One Nation leader Mark Latham. But it was also directed at the federal bill.

Organisers said the bills were part of a “right-wing backlash against the gains won by LGBTQI people” when marriage equality was legalised.


Schools told to declare climate emergency, ‘boys and girls’ phrase banned

Teachers are being told not to use phrases like “girls and boys”, “normal’’ and “other’’ in class – but they should make students aware of “superdiversity’’ and “declare a climate change emergency’’ as a way of “telling the truth’’ about our “climate breakdown’’.

The instructions form part of a new suite of education policies laid out in a guidebook designed by academic boffins.

The book called Building Better Schools with Evidence Based Policy, edited by Mon­ash University staff, was ­released in April.

It contains a series of pro-forma policies for schools to implement across a range of educational issues from learning to read to alcohol abuse.

The book’s 40 chapters ­include one called Declaring a Climate Emergency and states doing so “is a concrete indication of a school’s willingness to commit to telling the truth about the reality of climate breakdown”.

“An associated policy should be used to bring the school community together, drawing on the energy, ideas, and capacities of the school community, even though the policy is likely to be demanding and far-reaching,” it reads.

In response to questions from The Daily Telegraph about whether or not it was the role of schools to instil a political stance in children, the chapter’s author, academic Alan Reid, said parents were free to disagree with the policy.

“But a school can also listen and challenge particular viewpoints, and make clear what stays at the school gate, so to speak, given what the social contract on education is,” Mr Reid said.

A separate chapter on raising awareness on “superdiversity” told teachers to stop using phrases such as “English as a second language” and instead use the term “emergent ­bilingual”.

Superdiversity is the way different aspects of one person’s diversity interacts with one another, the book states.

That chapter also instructs teachers to “actively embrace diversity’’ and will specifically focus on discouraging unhelpful social concepts such as “normal” and “other”.

Critics of the book include author and radio personality Kel Richards, whose recent book Flash Jim detailed the development of convict language in Sydney. He said trying to remove concepts like “normal’’ from the classroom was futile.

“The word ‘normal’ is still going to be in the language,’’ he said. “Whatever they do in the classroom, whatever they say, whatever report comes out, the word ‘normal’ will still be there and we’ll still have a use for it.”

It was a similar story for ­replacing terms like “English as a second language’’.

“If you have one language and you’re learning English as a second language, I’m sorry, that’s a fact,’’ he said.

But the chapter’s co-author Dr Ruth Fielding told The Daily Telegraph: “When we only focus on English, it undermines the potential of people who are skilled in multiple ­languages to develop their ­English skills.”




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