UPDATE: It now appears as though La Trobe University is backing away from its decision to suspend Roz Ward, though in his statement Vice Chancellor John Dewar admits no wrongdoing and ignores or denies the questions that have been raised around academic freedom. The concerns raised by the NTEU below remain unanswered, and Australian academics have little reason to feel more confident in the wake of this whole affair.
Wednesday was a bleak day for Australian universities, for freedom of speech and for democracy. On that day, the management of La Trobe University suspended from work Roz Ward, NTEU member and Safe Schools advocate, on serious misconduct charges. Her alleged offence? That she wrote, in a private Facebook post, that it would be good if the “racist” Australian flag flying over Parliament were one day to be replaced by the red flag.
The attack by the Murdoch media on Ms Ward, which led to the La Trobe Vice Chancellor’s actions, is in reality part of a concerted political and ideological campaign by Australia’s right wing ideologues – driven by the Murdoch press – on views that do not accord with their own. That La Trobe University would allow itself to be cowed into participating in this anti-intellectual, anti-democratic attack reflects the dismal state of intellectual capacity at the senior management level in some Australian universities.
The latest attack on Ms Ward, which has been joined by Jeff Kennett and the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, demonstrates the deeply authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies of the contemporary Australian right.
The Australian’s articles attacking Ms Ward contain all sorts of horrified references to Ms Ward’s “Marxism”, as if that were sufficient to render her unsuitable for any sort of employment or unable to comment on issues of homophobia, transphobia or bullying of people of diverse sexualities. We are very concerned that the Vice Chancellor of a major Australian university seems to think that political views should be a criterion for employment, as was the case in the Soviet Union.
The hysterical response to Ms Ward’s private Facebook posting about the Australian flag is typical of the right’s absolute refusal to consider the ways in which racism is expressed, often unconsciously, in symbols, institutions and attitudes. Whether one agrees or not with Ms Ward’s contention that the flag betrays a racist origin, it is entirely reasonable to make such an argument, and many have done so without fear of having their livelihoods stolen from them.
Unfortunately, the Australian right is so incapable of sustaining reasoned argument (as shown by the continuous use of slogans by the Coalition Government), and so used to being able to bully others with its views (usually courtesy of the Murdoch press), that rather than engage with difficult subjects, it simply calls for the destruction of individuals expressing different views. It is an approach that is anathema to what our universities should stand for, and what we as a union do stand for.
Roz Ward is a victim of this political bullying. The right wingers have been unable to destroy Safe Schools, so they’ll attack Roz Ward instead. It is this kind of moral and intellectual cowardice and bullying that underlies the bullying and victimisation of young people of diverse genders and sexualities, against which Roz Ward has been dedicating her professional life.
From the treatment of gay kids to the incarceration of refugees, to the character assassination of political opponents, and the screeching sloganeering and fearmongering around action on climate change and national security, the modus operandi of the Australian right is to bully, intimidate and instil fear. It is deeply undemocratic and undermines a civil political sphere. It has contributed enormously to the decline in public confidence in our political system, and to growing apathy towards public political engagement.
It is time for decent people, who believe in reasoned argument, freedom of speech, intellectual freedom and democracy to stand up against the deeply anti-democratic bullying of the Australian right, especially its media mouthpieces. The Murdoch press’ ability to intimidate politicians is well known, and was on display when the State Government reacted in overblown panic to the “revelation” of Ms Ward’s Facebook post. “Appalling, stupid and offensive”, were some of the words used by Education Minister James Merlino. No, controversial perhaps, but appalling and offensive? Those are words better used for the kind of viciousness that the Herald Sun encourages by its relentless attacks on individuals it doesn’t like.
Now, it seems, the Murdoch press are able to determine the employment practices of our universities. If La Trobe’s Vice Chancellor, John Dewar, doesn’t understand the concept of academic freedom or freedom of speech, or isn’t able to stand up to the bullying of those who would shut down such freedoms, then he should resign his post.
– Colin Long, NTEU Victorian Division Secretary