Bonfire of the academy
Howard and Abbott’s culture wars never end
The ANU’s extraordinary statement on the extent of academic interference sought by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation shows just how extreme John Howard and his protégé Tony Abbott really are. Howard, as chairman, and Abbott, as a director and the person who came up with the idea of the centre in the first place, hoped the Ramsay Centre would not merely “be about Western civilisation but in favour of it” (as Abbott wrote in this controversial Quadrant essay). Beyond this, they went to astonishing lengths to make sure of it. They went so far, according to the statement from ANU chancellor Gareth Evans and vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt, that representatives of the centre would be able to “sit in the classes that we teach and undertake ‘health checks’ on the courses and the teachers”. In a word, as one commentator put it today, this is “bonkers. Any university that agreed to this might as well shut up shop.”
Abbott conceived of the Ramsay Centre as an antipodean equivalent of the Rhodes Scholarship, producing generations of future leaders. ANU was keen to teach the kind of undergraduate degree proposed by the centre – although it wanted to call it Western Civilisation Studies – but found “the Centre’s continued demands for control over the program were inconsistent with the University’s academic autonomy”. The centre wanted an effective veto, and ANU withdrew from negotiations “because there were irreconcilable differences over the governance of the proposed program, not its substance”. As Evans and Schmidt wrote: “The Centre has gone so far as to insist on the removal of ‘academic freedom’ as a shared objective for the program: this remains in the draft MOU as an ANU objective, not a Ramsay one.”
Instead of dismissing such a nonsensical debate, when ANU announced that it would withdraw from negotiations with the Ramsay Centre, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stoked it further, by intervening to call Schmidt for a personal explanation. Turnbull understands academic freedom perfectly: his mother, Coral Lansbury, was a distinguished historian who almost worked herself at the ANU, approached by the eminent Manning Clark. (Her first research project was on the Australian Workers’ Union, which is one reason why Turnbull loves throwing union history back at Labor in parliament.) Turnbull all but wept to be back in the company of historians in this ANU speech.
Prepared to trash academic freedom so readily, Howard and Abbott betray the very Western Civilisation they claim to represent. As climate sceptics, they clearly lack respect for the scientific method – as academic Warwick Anderson writes in Fairfax Media, the Ramsay Centre board seem to have “how to put this delicately? – an uneasy relationship with the Enlightenment and science.” And how to reconcile public funding for school chaplains with, say, the separation of church and state?
One of the many tragedies of this past, lost decade of Australian politics is that it has somehow ennobled Howard, as leader of our last stable government. Howard is hardly a benign national grandfather-figure, passing down the wisdom of the ages. As former Canberra Times editor Crispin Hull wrote in this strong piece last year, Howard’s government dug Australia deeper into the mire of the worst policy dilemmas we face today – from the heightened threat of terrorism due to the Iraq war, to worsening inequality due to middle-class welfare and WorkChoices, to galloping climate change, which he resisted doing anything about. He is yesterday’s man.
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Fairfax Media reports the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has been accused of “suppressing” research findings it didn’t like in formulating its target for returning a minimum amount of water to the environment.
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Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.
The ANU’s extraordinary statement on the extent of academic interference sought by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation shows just how extreme John Howard and his protégé Tony Abbott really are. Howard, as chairman, and Abbott, as a director and the person who came up with the idea of the centre in the first place, hoped the Ramsay Centre would not merely “be about Western civilisation but in favour of it” (as Abbott wrote in this controversial Quadrant essay). Beyond this, they went to astonishing lengths to make sure of it. They went so far, according to the statement from ANU chancellor Gareth Evans and vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt, that representatives of the centre would be...