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.
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’.
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.
This is the media release for a research report that I co-authored for the IPA, along with Cian Hussey, Kurt Wallace, and Daniel Wild. The full report can be found here.
Key findings :
The quality of the Australian way of life is collapsing.
The Australian Way of Life Scoreboard, which measures the quality of the Australian way of life, has declined by 28.5% since 2000.
23 of 25 measures relevant to the Australian way of life have declined since 2000.
This decline can be found across every area of Australian life, spanning home, work, enterprise, governance, and lifestyle.
This report demonstrates that the quality of the Australian way of life is worse than it was 20 years ago. Across a wide range of measures, each tracking a good that is essential to the Australian way of life as traditionally understood, Australia is today performing worse than in 2000.
The Australian Way of Life Scoreboard is an index of 25 measures of different aspects of Australia’s culture and economy. These measures provide a reasonable representation of the quality of Australian life as it is really lived. The measures were selected on the basis of capturing an important feature of Australian life and on data availability. 23 of the 25 measures selected have declined across the period 2000- 2020, which shows that the decline of the quality of the Australian way of life has been felt across all aspects of Australian life.
The Scoreboard provides a comparison of the Australian way of life as lived today and as lived in the recent past. This suggests that Australia can correct its current unfortunate course by reflecting on the values, customs, and institutions that made our country great in the first place. To improve the Australian way of life, we need to rediscover what the Australian way of life really means.
Australian democracy faces a crisis of representation. People feel alienated from our politics and our institutions. Donkey votes are up, minor parties’ votes are up, and the major parties are riven by internal dissent. In a way, even the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament can be seen as an attempted end-run around the dysfunction of our electoral process. In short, no-one seems to think that our Federal Parliament can do its job of representing the Australian people’s diverse interests.
One intriguing, and perhaps counterintuitive, response to this problem was floated recently in the Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report into the 2019 election. The report recommends further consideration of an expansion of the number of seats in the House of Representatives, and the repeal of the nexus clause of the Constitution, which links the membership of the House to that of the Senate.
That is, the solution for dissatisfaction with the political class is to hire more politicians.