ACT contributor

Open Minds: Academic freedom and freedom of speech in Australia by Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone with Jade Roberts

by
April 2021, no. 430

Across the Anglosphere, academic freedom is in crisis. That, at least, is the conclusion one draws from reading conservative newspapers and listening to right-wing politicians. Boris Johnson’s government, concerned about ‘unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses’, recently announced plans to appoint a ‘free speech champion’ for British universities. In 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order to protect free speech on campus, describing it as a ‘historic action to defend American students and American values that have been under siege’. In February 2021, the Australian government amended higher education legislation to redefine academic freedom, amid shrill calls from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) about the ‘free speech crisis at Australia’s universities’.

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David Kemp, formerly professor of politics at Monash University and minister in the Howard government, has a fairly simple thesis about Australian politics in the years between the mid-1920s and the mid-1960s. Put crudely, Australians were offered a choice between socialism and liberalism.

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Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF), an android companion for spoiled tweens. She’s not the newest model, but what Klara lacks in top-of-the-line joint mobility and showy acrobatics, she makes up for in observational nous; she’s an uncommonly gifted reader of faces and bodies, a finely calibrated empathy machine. Every feeling Klara decodes becomes part of her neural circuitry. The more she sees, the more she’s able to feel.

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In the mid-1990s, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade paid me to research the year 1948. Although a little narrowly conceived for my liking, it wasn’t a bad job for a recently graduated PhD in history. I lasted a year. Most days I would head to the National Archives of Australia, then nestled among the panel beaters and porn shops of a Canberra industrial estate. My task was to work through departmental files, identifying and photocopying the most promising candidates for inclusion in a series of published foreign policy documents. The idea was that the general editor, a formidable old historian with a large corner office back in the city, would then select the documents to be included. The job itself, or at least the way it was organised, was itself redolent of an industrial world that was flourishing in 1948 and on its last legs by 1995. Indeed, I recall a demonstration in the department that very year of a newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. I took away from the demonstration that it was the internet with fancy pictures.

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‘Orange balloons. Orange streamers. Orange shirts.’ Cathy McGowan’s memoir is saturated and literally wrapped in the colour. Cathy Goes to Canberra begins with an account of the election of her independent successor as Member for Indi, Dr Helen Haines, in May 2019 – ‘with orange everywhere’.

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At the time of writing, Julian Assange – an Australian citizen – is detained at Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh in Thamesmead on the outskirts of London. Belmarsh is a high-security facility; Assange’s fellow inmates are terrorists, murderers, and rapists. The WikiLeaks founder is being held in solitary confinement, permitted out of his cell for just one hour each day. His crime? Assange is awaiting the outcome of extradition proceedings, in relation to charges brought against him by the US government. In 2019, he was indicted on one count of computer hacking and seventeen counts of violating the Espionage Act (1917) for his role in obtaining and publishing military and diplomatic documents in 2010.

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The timing was apt. In September, Fake Law: The truth about justice in an age of lies – written by pseudonymous British writer ‘The Secret Barrister’ – was published in Australia. The same month, President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the United States following the untimely death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. From two legal systems that have historically influenced ours came salutary warnings about the ill effects of law’s politicisation.

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In the frantic days after the recent US presidential election, Donald Trump’s team – led by his attorney Rudy Giuliani – held a media conference in a suburban Philadelphia carpark. The establishment that formed the backdrop to this unusual performance is called Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Neighbouring businesses included a crematorium and an adult entertainment store (soon translated on social media into a ‘dildo shop’). At the time of writing, the explanation for how this had happened is still not forthcoming, but most commentators assumed a mix-up with one of the city’s major hotels, also called Four Seasons.

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Scott Morrison does not like to explain the decisions he makes on our behalf. Sometimes he just refuses to discuss them, as he did when, as immigration minister, he simply rejected any questions about how his boat-turnback policy was being implemented at sea. At other times he is a little subtler, as he has been this year while presiding over what will probably prove to be the most consequential shift in Australia’s foreign relations in decades. The collapse in relations with our most powerful Asian neighbour and most important trading partner is not just Canberra’s doing, of course; it has resulted from decisions made in Beijing too. But Australia’s recent and current choices have certainly contributed to the chill, and our future choices will do much to determine where things go from here.

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The realisation that our parents are not exactly who we understood them to be can be a profound rite of passage. For some it comes with no forewarning: a random event leads to an accidental disclosure, or substantiates an old rumour. For others this realisation takes shape in a less acute though no less transformative manner. With The Other Side of Absence: Discovering my father’s secrets, Betty O’Neill pieces together her family history in an effort to learn more about her father, a stranger she briefly encountered when she was nineteen. What began as an innocuous exercise at a writers’ retreat would evolve into a three-year research project through which the author uncovers the riveting story of Antoni Jagielski – resistance fighter, Holocaust survivor, unsettled postwar migrant, and absent father.

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