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‘Fund Education not AUKUS’: Students protest Peter Dutton’s USSC appearance

Following an address by Federal Defence Minister Peter Dutton at a United States Studies Centre event in Canberra, students gathered at the University of Sydney to rally against the Minister’s rhetoric and advocate for free higher education.

Photo by Matthew Kim.

Yesterday, the United States Studies Centre (USSC) held an event to release their biannual report, State of the United States: The Biden agenda in the balance, in Canberra and on livestream over zoom. The event included multiple formal remarks and panel discussions and sparked a protest outside the Institute Building at USyd, where the Centre is based. 

Following an introduction from Professor Simon Jackman, CEO of the USSC, Shadow Minister for Defence Brendan O’Connor, and Federal Minister for Defence Peter Dutton took the stage. The Federal election was on the ministers’ minds, with O’Connor emphasising that the Coalition had not fulfilled all of their new positions in the expanded defence force and that an Albanese government would have succeeded. 

O’Connor immediately made it clear that he supported an increase in military spending: “Labor has offered bipartisan support for this partnership [AUKUS] between the three nations, as we have for several recent strategic decisions.” However, O’Connor’s line was questioned by student protesters, who argued that Labor must fund higher education rather than increasing military spending. 

Jackman introduced Dutton by stating, “I can attest, first hand, the enormous impact Minister Dutton had personally [as Minister of Home Affairs],” referencing the pair’s shared time in Washington.

Dutton began by quoting former US President Ronald Reagan, stating that Australia must protect “a world order which has served us well for decades.” Furthermore, “It needs to be led by the United States,” Dutton said. 

Concluding his remarks, Dutton highlighted the Indo-Pacific region as strategically important: “There are actors within our own region who may see the war in Ukraine as a useful distraction. This threat emanates chiefly from Beijing.”

In response to the event, the Sydney University Education Action Group (EAG) organised a protest in front of USyd’s Institute Building on City Road. Students gathered around a large ‘No Nuclear Subs’ banner, with others holding signs referencing the Books not Bombs campaign, climate justice and free higher education. 

Protesters stated their anger and disapproval towards the government’s militarised intervention in foreign affairs and criticised the Morrison Government as incompetent at handling the crisis at home.

SRC Education Officer Lia Perkins led the speakout and summarised the events of the morning to attendees.  In her speech, Perkins demanded that Labor prioritise higher education over an expansion of defence and described Jackman’s praise for Dutton as “absolutely shameful”. 

“Labor should not be promoting expansion of defence over funding higher education,” she said.

Perkins further went on to directly criticise the speech made by Dutton, describing it as  “awful”. 

SRC Global Solidarity Officer Jasmine Al-Rawi then commented upon the government’s lack of care for its own citizens, detailing how Australia is “always prepared to send troops, but never prepared to fix disasters from home.”

Addressing fellow student activists, SRC President Lauren Lancaster condemned the Coalition’s record on the current pandemic and advocated for diverting funds towards free higher education. 

“People continue to die from mismanagement of the pandemic,” Lancaster said, noting that over 30,000 cases were reported in NSW alone yesterday. 

“We are just serving as the lapdogs of the US.” She also described the expansion of the military as the “most stupid decision we made in a long time” whilst adding on a statistical fact that the cost of free education would cost “far below $30 billion” in comparison. 

Protesters concluded by chanting outside the Institute Building: “No subs, no war! Kick the Liberals out the door!”

The United States Studies Centre is holding a 70th anniversary dinner to commemorate the ANZUS alliance on 26 March. Last year in September, a similar event occurred to mark the ANZUS Treaty alongside a webinar featuring former Prime Ministers John Howard and Julia Gillard. The event is sponsored by a range of corporations including Rio Tinto and Thales. 

You can follow the USyd Education Action Group here: https://www.facebook.com/SydneyUniversityEducationActionGroup