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‘Doctor of War Crimes’: Staff and students protest John Howard honorary award

Victoria Zerbst reports.

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How John Howard matches up with the University's values
Graphic: Max Hall & University of Sydney.

Around 150 academics, students and university staff members joined to protest the University Senate’s decision to award former prime minister John Howard with an honorary doctorate at a graduation ceremony that took place at 11am this morning.

The protesters were met with approximately 30 riot police officers who blocked every entrance the the Great Hall within the University Quadrangle.

SUPRA disability officer, Gareth Charles, was taken into police custody but has since been released without charge. His arrest sparked conflict with the protesters, as they attempted to obstruct the departure of the holding police van.

Riot police physically clashed with the protesters, pushing them to the ground as they moved in front of the van.

Charles yelled, “Police brutality!” as he was being arrested.

Both John Howard and former opposition leader, Brendan Nelson, attended the ceremony, which started late on account of Howard’s arrival. A student graduating at the ceremony told Honi that “the protesters were really loud from outside”  but that the protest did not affect the proceedings inside the hall.

The protest followed a petition endorsed by 112 academics that decried Howard as a racist and war criminal and condemned the university for awarding a recipient “not worthy of the university’s highest honour”.

In the petition Dr Nick Riemer, senior lecturer in English and linguistics, wrote, “To confer a doctorate on [Howard] is an insult to anyone opposed to war, racism and social exclusion, and committed to multiculturalism, peace and social progress in Australia and in the world.”

Riemer led the protest. He was supported by many academics, including Professor Linda Connor, who challenged the hypocrisy of the University for awarding a doctorate to a candidate that does not live up to the University’s values.

“If you think about inclusivity and what Howard did with the marriage law without consultation, and the Northern Territory intervention… where does that leave inclusivity?” she said.

Professor Frank Stilwell, who teaches political economy, denounced “the deceits that lead to our participation in the Iraq War”.

Dr Chris Hartney, a lecturer in religious and genocide studies, said “we do not stand for racists”.

Howard’s nomination for an honorary doctorate was approved by the University senate in December 2015. His nomination is listed as confidential in publicly accessible minutes.

According to Riemer, this nomination was passed despite the dissent of many senate fellows.

A handful of Liberal students staged a counter-protest, bearing Howard’s old election corflutes.

The timing of the award, in a non-teaching week, was also condemned by students.