The view from Billinudgel

Doctor? No
John Howard should not have been given an honorary doctorate, and neither should anyone else

Let me join in the chorus deploring the honorary doctorate conferred on John Howard by the University of Sydney.

It’s not because I’m a Howard hater per se – although there was plenty to detest about the policies of our 25th Prime Minister. Iraq, Tampa, kids overboard, the Pacific Solution, the refusal to apologise to the stolen generations, the racist response to the Wik decision, WorkChoices, to name but a few; even the GST, that lazy and regressive boost to revenue while offering a sweetener of tax cuts for the wealthy.

And that was just the start of it. I once approvingly quoted the late, great journalist Ian Fitchett, who called Howard “an unflushable turd”, and I do not regret it.

Howard’s accolade was apparently for his action on instituting gun control after the Port Arthur massacre, among other things: this was a long needed and worthwhile policy, but it was hardly the courageous stand which is often lauded. While a rump of his own supporters disapproved, the overwhelming majority of the electorate was on his side.

However, let me make it clear that my current gripe is not with Howard the person, but the system – the pernicious process of handing out honorary degrees as if they are rewards for achievements which have absolutely nothing to do with academic excellence.

I had exactly the same reservation when one of my heroes, Gough Whitlam, grabbed similar glittering prizes. Such celebrations cheapen all the people involved, donors and recipients alike.

A doctorate is supposed to be a mark of scholarship, the result of years of research in a difficult and usually original problem, culminating in a lengthy and meticulous thesis which may well break new ground in its area. But these days the degree is all too often a rort, a scam.

It is frequently awarded to those who have done nothing to deserve it, but are suspected of being able to provide help and succour to the conferring institution, either through prestige and support or hard cash. A hefty contribution is often regarded as more than enough of a fee for the ceremony that allows the lucky doctors to bedeck themselves in borrowed robes and parade through the ranks of those who have actually worked to secure their places.

Howard is, on his own admission, no more than a suburban solicitor; he has no special qualifications in the law, or any other field of intellectual endeavour. He was an extremely successful politician, and has been handsomely recognized and recompensed for his real work.

To be given the latest bauble is as pointless and meaningless as was the gift to his idol, Robert Menzies, when the queen bestowed on him the dubious honour of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

Politicians, financiers, philanthropists and other has-beens should stick to their day jobs. And the universities, of all places, should not encourage them to indulge in pretending they are worthy of efforts they have never attained.

Disclosure: Some years ago a university (not Sydney) offered me an honorary doctorate, ostensibly for my work in journalism. I was not tempted: I am a writer, not a beauty queen.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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