On the evening of Monday 1 October, Age journalist Michael Bachelard rang the office of Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey. The call was about a report neither Hockey nor his staff had seen, Australia@Work. Bachelard explained some findings on pay under AWAs. With a deadline approaching, Hockey’s office hurriedly produced a response they didn’t proofread. As Bachelard tells the story:
Twenty minutes later, the minister emailed an official response.
“This report is not credible. It is the same old flawed research from the same old union accedemics (sic). It contradicts far more reliable findings from the ABS. It has (sic) hardly surprising that acdemics (sic) such as John Buchanan and Brigid van Wanrooy, who has previously authored ACTU research, would come up with such a flawed report.”
The next morning, presumably still not having seen the report, but with the task of defending the government’s industrial relations policies, Hockey accused the report’s authors of being ‘former trade union officials who are parading as academics’, who had suddenly released an anti-WorkChoices report just before the election. ‘So you have to look to their motives’, he said. ‘This research is heavily influenced by academics who have done a lot of work for the trade union movement over a number of years.’
To most of us, it looks like just another round of the quick and cheap point-scoring we see every day in Australian politics. 70% of Labor’s front bench are former trade union officials parading as potential Ministers, aren’t they? It’s hard to take seriously.
At universities, however, it seems to be a very serious matter indeed. In The Australian yesterday, University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Gavin Brown was reported as saying:
“I believe that universities have a sacred trust to do a critique of society.
“I certainly think there should be no undue pressure placed upon researchers. Academic freedom is under attack.”
And Buchanan complains:
Anyone in the IR field who has stuck their heads up lately has been brutally treated by the Government,” he said.
Fellow academics Rae Cooper, Marian Baird, Barbara Pocock and David Peats [sic, means Peetz] had also felt the lash of criticism. …
“This scares researchers,” he said. “If I can’t say things freely as an individual because it might affect my professional (standing), that limits free speech.”
This is not, in fact, a defence of free speech or academic freedom. Instead, it reflects the thinking behind laws prohibiting racial and religious vilification. These laws assume that some groups are so fragile they need freedom from, not of, speech.
Now there is evidence that Buchanan is a fragile character. ‘If the government persists in saying very hurtful and very untrue statements about us we will be left with no other option than to use the protection of the common law [emphasis added]’, he told ABC Radio when saying he might sue for defamation. In a speech of Buchanan’s that The Weekend Australian repulished he said: ‘I didn’t read a newspaper for 2 months after the  election, I could hardly talk to my friends, I was traumatised …’
But the trouble with basing laws or speech norms on the psychologically weakest members of society is that we’ll end up not being able to say very much at all. The possibilities for upsetting people are almost endless.
This is not to deny the obvious point that people say things that are untrue and unfair. But the answer is not a code of silence on certain topics or people. It is more speech – which is what happened in this case, in the many people who jumped to defend Buchanan and his co-authors.
People vary in their ability to cope with negative comment. Only those with high resilience should go into politics or any other profession where controversy is part of the job. Academics who are very sensitive to criticism should perhaps not write reports on areas of major political conflict – or at least not release them shortly before an election in circumstances that look like an ambush. Hockey’s reaction was hardly unpredictable.
The more worrying aspect of this incident is not what Hockey said, but the timidity on display from Vice-Chancellor-level down. Academics possess significant advantages compared to many other people who might want to make a political point. They have few if any employer-imposed restraints on what they can say, they have flexible time schedules that allow for playing politics, they have experience in communication, they have media credibility as experts. Despite their endless complaints about funding, universities have far more money than any interest group, issue movement, political party or think-tank.
Yet it is these less well financed groups that get on with the task of political debate, while academics feel intimidated not by any real threat of punishment or penalty, but by a few careless and rude remarks by a Minister. Academics may feel like martyrs, but they look like wimps.