Human rights

Safe Schools, Roz Ward and the suppression of dissidents

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John Passant discusses the suppression of free speech behind the recent suspension of La Trobe University academic, Roz Ward.

IN HIS BOOK Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell invented the "Ministry of Truth".

Its role was to propagandise whatever the government wanted the masses to believe. 

Lies became truth.

As any number of Facebook memes warn us, Orwell meant Nineteen Eighty-Four as a warning, not an instruction manual. Yet neoliberal capitalism has no need of a Ministry of Truth. For a start, it has its media, a print media in Australia that is dominated by Rupert Murdoch and his alter ego, Fairfax.

It is not just the media. Each of the institutions of capitalism – the parliament, the police, the defence forces, the courts, for example – incessantly reinforce the system and its messages as is, or with slight changes painted as reforms.  

The family is an important institution of capitalism. It is the site of massive amounts of unpaid (for the bosses) and overwhelmingly female labour to raise and socialise the next generation of workers who will go on and make profits for the bosses.

The women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s challenged the oppression of women. Fuelled by and fuelling the radicalism around it, the movement opened a space for gay activists to challenge sexual and family stereotypes. Both movements were often radical and many activists in them understood the link between their oppression and capitalism.

Reactionaries and conservatives then and now railed against these challenges to "the established order", often in religious terms. Christianity was for British imperialism a key ideological weapon used to subjugate the peoples of the colonies it invaded.

Christianity in Australia (and other developed countries) has been an important tool in social control and has been a useful adjunct in binding workers to the system through the family. This, until the 1960s, meant oppressing women and gays so that the main unit of the reproduction of human labour under capitalism, the family, could dominate social relations.

However, the radical women’s and gay liberation movements undermined these chains. We saw women enter the workforce in greater and greater numbers and homosexuality decriminalised. This, of course, is not liberation. The gender pay gap and the inability of gays and lesbians in Australia to marry, are but two glaring examples of continuing societal oppression. So, too, is the fact that we need a "safe schools" program to counter the bullying of young LGBT people and to educate others that being same sex attracted is normal.   

The conservatives and reactionaries see such a program as a threat to their vision of society — often painted as a mum and dad with kids, in a house with a white picket fence. It is, of course, not a threat to society — just to their 1950s’ vision.

These conservatives and reactionaries have attacked the Safe Schools Coalition so ferociously that "liberal" Mr Turnbull has stopped funding it. In Victoria, the State Labor Government has stepped in to provide the money for it to continue.  

It is also in Victoria that the Marxist and La Trobe University academic, Roz Ward, was involved with many others in getting the Safe Schools program up and running successfully. The attacks used her Marxism to try to undermine the program, a classic example of McCarthyism.

The Australian, the paper of the fruitcake faction of capital in Australia, ran article after article attacking Safe Schools and Ward. They hit pay dirt during last week.

During the speech by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews apologising to gays convicted under the previous criminal laws, a rainbow flag flew over Parliament House. Ward put a photo of the flag on her Facebook page and the newspaper group that hacked the phone of a dead girl, trawled Ward’s Facebook and found this comment from her, prompted by the rainbow flag.

She wrote:  

'Now we just need to get rid of the racist Australian flag on top of state parliament and get a red one up there and my work is done.'

Ward resigned from the Victorian GBTI Taskforce Education Reference Committee as a consequence. On Wednesday, 1 June, John Dewar, the Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University, stood her down.

His reason was that Ward, 

" ... made the comments in a way that [she] could have foreseen to adversely affect the university, the Safe Schools Program and ARCSHS [the Australian Research Centre for Sex Health and Society] if they became known more widely." 

In an email to university staff, the Vice Chancellor expressed the view that the future of the Safe Schools Program at La Trobe and the ARCSHS' reputation, were "imperilled" by Ms Ward’s actions. 

Despite having a clear commitment in the enterprise agreement to free enquiry and free speech, La Trobe University capitulated to the backward looking agenda of The Australian and the hard right of the Liberal Party, like Cory Bernardi and George Christensen.

Universities are important institutions for capitalism. Since the end of the Second World War there has been an opening up of higher education to the working class to help satisfy the needs of many sections of capital for educated and well-trained workers. Funding for this in the period of neoliberalism has been restricted.

While the Whitlam Labor Government made higher education free to students in 1974, the Hawke Labor Government in the late 1980s, imposed fees in the form of a loan repayment scheme. The trend of both Labor and Liberal governments since then, has been to cut spending per student and move over time to more and more contributions from students, rather than from business which benefits from higher education too.

The general trend has been to more and more work in universities done by less and less staff, so much so that the average week for lecturers is about 51 hours, compared to the 38 hour working week for other workers.

This ongoing drive to commodify higher education has seen most vice-chancellors respond with calls to allow them to impose fees, to deregulate the market, to cut staff and "uneconomic" areas and to casualise the workforce. A concomitant of all this is a deepening relationship with business, where university research becomes a source of business advantage rather than critical enquiry.

Dewar reflects this approach. Ward has clearly adversely affected the university but only if your criteria for judgement is a reactionary newspaper like The Australian. The Vice-Chancellor’s actions are entirely consistent with a profit model for higher education and entirely inconsistent with respect for free speech and critical enquiry.

Something wonderful happened in response to Dewar’s decision to suspend Ward. A mass campaign in her defence erupted, led by her union, the National Tertiary Education Union, university staff and students across Australia, the gay and lesbian community and free speech advocates. Faced with this massive backlash, and perhaps realising that his own actions had in fact adversely affected La Trobe University, the Vice-Chancellor lifted Ward’s suspension, to avoid "a high profile and protracted legal dispute ... ".

The ongoing attacks on academic freedom are part of a wider shift in Australian society to criminalising dissent and difference. They come in the context of governments, both Labor and Coalition, that lock up refugees and asylum seekers for no crime whatsoever and against a background of the increasing criminalisation of Aboriginality.  

The campaign in Ward’s defence sends us all a clear message. To defend our freedoms against the encroachments unleashed by the institutions of capitalism we have to join together and fight back.

Author's note: Like Roz Ward, I am a socialist and was a member of the Socialist Alternative, the same organisation as her, until 2013. I too believe the Australian flag is racist. Since 2011, I have applied for over 30 tax law academic jobs and have had just one interview. Old socialists with over 35 years of tax experience, including running international tax reform in the ATO, are apparently not in much demand among the conservative tax academy. Not employing radicals is, of course, one way of ensuring there are not too many critical, questioning academics like the Roz Wards of the world in our universities.

John Passant is a former assistant commissioner of the Australian Tax Office. Read more by John on his website en PassantYou can also follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.

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