Academic freedom

I’ve finally got around to resuming the debate with Andrew Norton over my claim that neoliberals (or, if you prefer, contemporary classical liberals) are not particularly supportive of freedom of speech. Norton argues that the absence of discussion of freedom of speech reflects the fact that, with minor exceptions, freedom of speech is not threatened.

But at least one form of freedom of speech, academic freedom, is coming under sustained attack. Academics are regularly being subject to attacks from university managers either for criticising the commercial operations of the university or for political speech. The most notable recent example was the Steele case, but it is by no means unique.

The Centre for Independent Studies has been active participant in this debate, and has presented the viewpoints of university managers concerned to manage or suppress academic freedom. The most striking instance is a piece by Steven & Gregory Schwartz (Steven Schwartz was formerly vice-chancellor of Murdoch university. The breakout quotes chosen by the CIS in republishing the piece give the basic line

the laissez-faire approach to academic freedom is neither logical nor practical

like freedom of speech, academic freedom has its limits

Lauchlan Chipman is more reasonable, but still seeks to invent precedents for the restrictions on academic speech managers are now trying to impose.

Australian universities have always insisted that academics have no right to comment publicly, except as ordinary citizens, on any matters outside their area of academic expertise. Whether written or unwritten, such policies have always denied academics the right to use their university rank, occupational position, or address in external communications on other than their area of academic expertise

I can say from personal experience that this is untrue. Precisely this issue was vigorously debated when I was at James Cook University, where the management was trying to suppress an environmental law lecturer who was criticising an influential local property magnate. You can read a bit about the case here (search for David Haigh). At the time, the Academic Board had sufficient power to resist this move, but as Chipman indicates, it’s a standard item in the managerialist log of claims. And of course it’s managers who decide what is relevant.

The concept of academic freedom raises a lot of complex issues, including the general ‘whistleblower’ problem, the relative weight placed on freedom of contract and freedom of speech and the nature of universities. But it’s easy to see who is in favour of free speech and who is against it.

Asian values

Absurd comparisons between Pauline Hanson and Nelson Mandela have not helped to advance the debate. But a more useful comparison might be made with legal harassment of opposition politicians in countries like Singapore. It is not illegal to oppose the government there, but somehow opposition leaders seem to run afoul of the law a lot, notably with defamation actions. In particular there are strict regulations on the constitutions and financial affairs of political parties, which cause big problems for opposition parties.

Australia is not the same as Singapore. Nevertheless, I imagine the Hanson case will be quoted prominently in reply next time anyone from Australia criticises restrictions on the political freedom of our Asian neighbours.

Reality bites

This reported statement from Paul Bremer, acknowledging that reconstruction in Iraq will cost tens of billions of dollars, and that oil revenue will come nowhere near paying for this is a welcome acknowledgement of reality. But there is still no sign that the US Administration as a whole has accepted the need to spend lots more money. And even Bremer is still sticking to the party line that other countries (read Old Europe) can be expected to give buckets of money to Uncle Sam while being treated as pariahs or interlopers.

Meanwhile Howard is steering clear of the whole thing, offering no more than the handful of troops still left in Iraq and no serious money. I’m in two minds about this. Certainly, we have plenty of problems closer to home, and the benefit-cost ratio is probably higher in the Solomons than in Iraq. On the other hand, we invaded Iraq, smashed its economy to bits, and are now leaving the unfortunate Iraqis to pick up the pieces.

Abbott v Hanson

Our legal system behaves in strange ways. Pauline Hanson was jailed for three years for a highly technical breach of the electoral registration rules. But apparently it’s OK for one political party to foment and fund legal disputes within another.

Update According to Ken Parish, Abbott may indeed be in legal difficulty over this.

A belated farewell

Blogging is hard work – it’s particularly hard if you try to keep up with what other bloggers have been doing on a regular basis. I’ve let that slide a bit recently, and have been busy enough just responding to comments and pings. As a result I only just read this signoff post from Carita Kazakoff’s Manas blog. Carita didn’t post all that often (probably why she’s managed to kick the habit), but she brought a refreshingly different perspective to a lot of the issues she covered, particularly East Timor/Timor Leste.
Her post gives a hint that she may return next year, which would be very welcome.