Conservative academics will be able to speak out without fear of being fired
Peter Ridd, an academic at James Cook university was fired for questioning what his fellow academics said about the decay of the Great Barrier Reef. He has been in litigation with the university ever since. The new legislation should protect other whistleblowers like him
He was actually right in what he said, as subsequent admissions from the Greenie scientists have admitted. Paul Hardisty, boss of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, said that only 3 per cent of the reef, the “inshore reefs”, is affected by farm pesticides and sediment. He also stated that pesticides, are a “low to negligible risk”, even for that 3 per cent.
A legal definition of academic freedom that some universities say will make it harder for them to discipline racist or sexist academics will be included in the Morrison government's proposed university funding laws in exchange for One Nation's support for the bill.
The measure is one of several commitments One Nation say they have extracted from the government, which will need three crossbench votes to get its reforms through the Senate as early as next week.
Senator Pauline Hanson said One Nation's two Senate votes were also contingent upon the government reinstating a 10 per cent discount for students who pay their fees upfront, and reinstating a seven-year limit for full-time students to receive HECS-HELP before they have to pay full fees.
One Nation has fostered a close relationship with academic Peter Ridd, who was sacked by James Cook University in 2018 following his public criticism of colleagues' research on the impact of global warming on the Great Barrier Reef.
"[Education] Minister [Dan] Tehan has shown a strong willingness to listen to the recommendations of [Senator] Malcolm Roberts and myself, and he's proving to have the courage to take a tough stand with the inclusion of our amendments," Senator Hanson said.
One Nation wants the definition of academic freedom inserted into the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to be in line with the wording recommended by former High Court Chief Justice Robert French in his government-commissioned review of free speech at Australian universities.
There has been an ongoing debate about free speech at universities, and the review was ordered following concerns among coalition MPs about the influence of left wing activists on campus after protesters targeted author Bettina Arndt at Sydney University.
In his 2019 report, Mr French proposed inserting a lengthy definition into the Act that included "the freedom of academic staff to teach, discuss, and research and to disseminate and publish the results of their research" and to "make lawful public comment on any issue in their personal capacities".
Mr Tehan declined to comment on the specifics of his negotiations with One Nation, but said he would continue to work with the crossbench to secure passage of the legislation.
"The Job-Ready Graduates legislation will provide more university places for Australian students, make it cheaper to study in areas of expected job growth and provide more funding and support to regional students and universities," Mr Tehan said.
The government was already examining whether it should proceed with legislating the French definition of academic freedom, and called for public submissions in January, but ultimately did not include the measure as part of its current reforms.
In its submission to the government, the Innovative Research Universities, a grouping of seven institutions including La Trobe University, Western Sydney University and James Cook University, opposed the move. It said legislating the freedom for academics to provide public commentary in a personal capacity had the "potential to create highly undesirable employment disputes."
"As the wording stands, for example, it would seem that a university academic would be within her or his rights to publicly declare they hold a racial, sexuality or gender prejudice against one or more of the students they are teaching," the submission said.
"If challenged about holding such a view, they would seem to be able to defend themselves by claiming to have spoken in a personal capacity, not an academic one."
Senator Hanson said her motivation was to address concerns among university lecturers who were worried about "pressures they faced over 'how' and 'what' they could teach.
"My interest is in putting a stop to this Marxist, left-leaning approach to teaching in our universities and instead, protect educators who teach using methods based on science and facts rather than ideology," Senator Hanson said.
In his review, Mr French, chancellor of the University of Western Australia, concluded that "claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated", but outlined a model code for protecting free speech and academic freedom, which all universities agreed to adopt by the end of 2020.
In September, Dr Ridd accompanied Senator Roberts on week-long tour along the Queensland coast, holding press conferences to question the scientific consensus on the poor health of Great Barrier Reef's and threat posed by farmers. Dr Ridd said he was meeting with National Senator Matt Canavan and local LNP candidate Ron Harding to discuss the same issues on Tuesday.
Dr Ridd is now seeking leave to appeal his wrongful dismissal claim in the High Court, after his initial victory was overturned by the Federal Court in July. The university has maintained that he was not dismissed for his views, but for "serious misconduct" and breaches of the university's code in how he expressed them.
The government's bill proposes a major restructuring of university funding by hiking fees for some courses, including by 113 per cent for humanities, in order to pay for cuts to STEM, nursing and teaching courses.
The government says the reforms will fund an extra 100,000 university places for domestic students by 2030, but universities have complained that total funding per student will decrease by six per cent on average.
In addition to securing One Nation's two votes, the government will need to secure the support of either Tasmania Senator Jacqui Lambie or Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff, who are yet to public reveal how they intend to vote.