John Roskam, Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has told Sky News that “we are facing an attempt to shut down freedom of speech, narrow opinion and not introduce students to new ideas…What we are seeing is frankly the cancer that is affecting our schools and universities.”
It was inevitable that a campaign against the establishment of the Robert Menzies Institute (RMI) at Melbourne University would elicit a cynical response from the right, calling it a threat to free speech. The campaign, however, presents a clear example of the way the right opportunistically weaponises principles such as free speech when it is in their interests.
Conservative figures have no trouble exercising their free speech in major media outlets that pander to their views. In the case of the Murdoch empire, which has a massive influence on the course of public debate in Australia, right-wing ideas are regularly explicitly endorsed.
The board of directors of the RMI have privileged access to such outlets. Peta Credlin is on Sky News every weeknight. Geoffrey Hone is the chairman of the IPA, a prominent and influential conservative think tank. Georgina Downer comes from one of the wealthiest families in the country, and regularly makes appearances in the media. Most on the board are closely tied to the Liberal Party.
Conversely, when left-wing academics have been sacked for expressing their political views, these same commentators remain eerily silent. One such case was La Trobe’s suspension of Safe Schools co-founder Roz Ward, who made a post online criticising the Australian flag. The right’s silence in such cases shows that their appeals to free speech are entirely callous and self-serving.
It must also be recognised that the principle of free speech has already been flouted in the process of establishing the RMI. There was no consultation of staff or students about whether they would be amenable to a clearly right-wing institution being set up on campus. It has been an entirely undemocratic project from the start, when previous Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis accepted 7 million dollars from the Liberal government behind closed doors.
Zena Cumpston, Research Fellow and Guest Curator of the Old Quad, where the RMI is set to open, has said: “I have put together an exhibition of over 30 Aboriginal artists and community members at Old Quad – we are horrified we are sharing this space with a right wing entity. At no time was I advised, many artists will be so angry. I am furious and disgusted.” This right wing entity is the brain-child of the Menzies Research Centre (MRC), a Liberal Party think-tank that opposes teaching Australia’s history of violence against Indigenous people.
What our campaign is essentially against is the ability of private interests such as the MRC to purchase a platform on a university campus, thereby turning universities into a market where influence is available to the highest bidder.
Free speech is not, as the right would have you believe, an abstract principle that everyone in society has fair and equal access to. The ability of the MRC to buy influence in such a way shows us that free speech is in fact a material question of power and wealth. Those who have are able to exert disproportionate influence, and those who have not are effectively silenced. The campaign represents the real essence of free speech: democratically fighting back against entrenched power and privilege in society.
Our opponents are mistaken to call a popular campaign that challenges their project a threat to free speech. A campaign that gains the support of a large number of students and staff is an embodiment of the principles of democracy, where people have the ability to weigh up the different arguments, and throw their support behind the one they agree with.
Students and staff have already started to rally around the campaign, opposing the idea that right-wing forces should have privileged access to what is taught and learnt at universities. Conservative interventions into universities have been fought and defeated before, such as the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation at the University of Sydney itself. Fighting back against the Menzies Institute is not a restriction of free speech as the right claims, but is an expression of it.