Truth Comes Second To Telling People How To Think


On Wednesday, the High Court has the opportunity to defend academic freedom in Australian universities, but to do so it must explicitly reject a lower-court ruling that this vital principle is more or less obsolete. What it decides will be a marker for the state of our civilisation.

On that day, the court will hear arguments in the dispute between James Cook University and Peter Ridd, the professor and marine geophysicist it sacked in 2018.

Ridd was dismissed after dis­agreeing with some of his colleagues regarding their claims about damage to the Great Barrier Reef allegedly caused by climate change and other factors such as farm run-off, including in a chapter contributed to the Institute of Public Affairs’ essay collection Climate Change: The Facts 2017.

Last year the Federal Court raised the stakes when, in upholding an appeal by JCU against an earlier decision, the majority judgment purported to dismiss the entire tradition of free inquiry on which the modern university is founded. As such, the case has become much more than a mere contractual dispute. It raises important questions about how the modern university understands its mission and, moreover, how our society understands the concept of knowledge itself.

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Where Ideas Go To Die

Originally published in the Autumn 2021 edition of the IPA Review.

In 2018, marine scientist Dr Peter Ridd was sacked from his professorship at James Cook University (JCU) for being critical of some of the university’s research. Few readers will be unfamiliar with the outlines of the dispute, and the support for his appeal(s) against the dismissal has been heartening. Only as the case has progressed, however, has it become clear exactly what is at stake: nothing less than the future of intellectual inquiry and free speech, particularly in the university.

The case arose from Ridd publicly questioning findings (including those by other professors at JCU) purporting to show a link between climate change and coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef. Ridd, who has made a career studying the reef, has long argued it is in good health, notwithstanding any changes to the climate and other purported environmental threats. His argument is encapsulated in ‘The Extraordinary Resilience of Great Barrier Reef Corals, and Problems with Policy Science’, his contribution to the IPA’s Climate Change: The Facts 2017.

After his dismissal, Ridd sued his former employers in the Federal Circuit Court on the grounds his comments were protected by his employment contract and was awarded $1.2 million in damages, but this was overturned on appeal to the full court of the Federal Court where two of the three judges found for the University.

In February 2021, the High Court granted Ridd special leave to appeal, and the arguments and outcomes in our highest court will have important implications not just for science, but for the issues of free speech, intellectual inquiry, and the decline of universities so often raised in the broader ‘culture wars’.

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Where populism ain’t so popular

This piece originally appeared in the Spectator Australia.

It has been five years since populism returned to prominence in the politics of Western democracies, yet it seems Australia’s political class still does not understand what it is or where it comes from. This is the overwhelming impression one is left with after reading the final report of the Senate’s Inquiry into Nationhood, nationality, and democracy, which was released last month. The report draws on more than 200 submissions from academics, think tanks, government departments and assorted quangos and provides a fascinating, and somewhat worrisome, survey of elite opinion on just what democracy entails – which, as it turns out, apparently has little to with giving the majority what it wants. And there, as they say, lies the rub.

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Warts And All Memorial


As its name makes clear, the Australian War Memorial exists to memorialise the service and sacrifice of Australians in war, as a reflection of our shared commitment to our country and each other. It does not exist to denigrate our national character nor to pander to the worst kinds of elite self-hatred so lamentably prominent across our national institutions. Yet there is a danger now that this place of honour might be turned to these subversive ends.

In the wake of the Brereton report on alleged war crimes committed by Australian SAS troops in Afghanistan, there have been calls for the War Memorial to immediately reflect the allegations in its exhibitions. Memorial director Matt Anderson has suggested that curators will indeed do just that. Similarly, former Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie has suggested that the SAS exhibit be removed altogether. The prime minister has responded meekly, saying only that all such changes will need to be approved by the War Memorial’s board.

But it should be clear that it would not fit the purpose of the War Memorial to foreground the bad acts of a few soldiers. Of course, wherever criminality is proved, it should be punished to the fullest extent, and if this comes to pass, no one would suggest that it be whitewashed from the history of Australia’s war in Afghanistan. Yet it would not be, and should not be presented as, the sum total, or even the most important part, of that history. Nor should the war in Afghanistan, despite its unprecedented length, be allowed to overshadow Australia’s larger military history.

The War Memorial’s curators are charged with telling the full story of Australians at war. That story is overwhelmingly a story of courage, discipline, loyalty and other virtues, demonstrated in defence of our home, our values and our traditional liberties. Australians have fought honourably from the Sommes to Kokoda to Long Tan and beyond, including in Afghanistan.

This is the truth to which the War Memorial is dedicated. Undue emphasis on the bad acts of a few at the expense of this larger story would not be truthful. It would, in fact, be deeply misleading.

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No Country For Bold Men

This article is from the Spring 2020 edition of the IPA Review.

One of the striking features of the coronavirus recession is that, as IPA research has demonstrated, a chart of the economy now displays a ‘K’ shape. The K’s ascending line displays how bureaucrats and the bureaucracy-adjacent are doing fine, while the K’s descending line shows everyone else is suffering mightily. In this context, Michel Houellebecq’s novel from late last year, Serotonin—which I spoke about on the IPA’s Looking Forward 2019 Christmas special—takes on a somewhat different complexion from how it was received upon release.

Houellebecq is France’s pre-eminent novelist. He has become famous for his acidic takes on modern life, dealing with classic French themes such as the loss of meaning that confronts the ostensibly free individual. He is probably most famous to English-speaking audiences for his 2015 novel, Submission, which was controversial for its depiction of a France in which the Muslim Brotherhood wins the presidency. The release of a Houellebecq novel is now a literary event, perhaps the last of its kind.

At the time of its release, Serotonin attracted headlines for capturing the concerns that animated the ‘yellow jackets’ movement (Mouvement des gilets jaunes) that roiled through France in 2019; especially the idea that France’s regions had been forgotten in the march of globalisation, which has overwhelmingly benefitted the cities. While this is indeed a theme in the book, by making his narrator a depressed and inert department hack Houellebecq aims the critique at a quite specific target: more than anyone else, it is the bureaucrats who have killed France.

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