Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Free speech charters must be more than words

Jeremy Sammut

21 September 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

Federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan, has proposed that Australian universities be required to adopt new codes to protect freedom of thought and expression. This is in response to the growing campus activism against free expression; typified by last week’s disgraceful scenes at Sydney University, when left-wing students violently tried to stop social commentator Bettina Arndt from making a speech questioning the idea of a ‘rape culture’ at universities.

Tehan’s proposal would be a timely initiative to help our universities avoid the kind of full-blown free speech crisis occurring in universities in North America. But to prove effective and uphold the principles of rational inquiry and civil debate that all universities should stand for, university freedom codes or charters cannot be toothless tigers – all platitudes and no action.

Universities that don’t defend freedom of thought and expression should have some of their $17 billion in public funding cut by the federal government, as is starting to happen in other countries. We simply cannot rely on universities to defend free speech when the anti-free speech culture in contemporary universities is so deeply mired in political correctness and identity politics.

So-called controversial thinkers and writers are denied the right to speak on campus because they are accused of allegedly promoting racist, patriarchial or homo- or trans-phobic ideas claimed as ‘offensive’ or ‘hurtful’ to some students.

It might be pitiful to think that universities need to sign up to a freedom charter – let alone be threatened with financial penalties – to defend freedom of thought and expression. And this is not to advocate that government uses public funds to censor universities.  Instead it is about universities fulfilling their traditional obligations as institutions of intellectual freedom.

But if we are going to address the anti-free speech culture on campuses, the government – on behalf of all citizens and all taxpayers – needs to hold universities to account to protect the free speech of all.

This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published across the News Corp network.

It’s official: Australia spends more than enough on schools

Blaise Joseph

21 September 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

The education debate at the next federal election is shaping up to be about the magnitude of future school funding increases: the Coalition want a big increase, Labor want an even bigger increase, and neither provide any evidence that it’s necessary.

But the latest data highlights the futility of more school spending. The annual OECD Education at a Glance report was released last week, and in breaking news that should shock no one, Australia spends much more on schooling than the OECD average and several top-performing countries.

So… our falling education results on international tests can’t be attributed to not spending enough taxpayer money.

Australia spends a higher dollar amount per student in both primary and secondary than the OECD average, and some top-performing countries like Japan and Finland. Furthermore, Australia spends 3.8% of GDP on school education, higher than the OECD average of 3.5%. And 13.5% of total Australian government expenditure is on education, compared to the OECD average of 11.1%, despite absurd claims to the contrary.

The OECD figures are from 2015, which means they do not take into account the larger recent ‘Gonski funding’ increases in Australia. So they likely understate how much Australia spends compared to the rest of the world. Of course, we can still argue about how school funding can be better distributed or if some schools are underfunded. But our total spending amount is enough.

Another interesting finding of the OECD report is regarding equity of education outcomes by student socioeconomic status, with Australia being at or slightly above the OECD average for equity. This is consistent with previous research findings and undermines the ubiquitous claim that the non-government school sector causes ‘social segregation’. Australia has a relatively high proportion of students attending non-government schools, about 34%, more than double the OECD average of around 16%. And yet this hasn’t led to more student inequality (even if we accept that equity of student academic performance should be the key metric, which is arguable).

Australia can do better. But more spending and blaming non-government schools isn’t the solution.

Grab bullying debate by horns of common sense

Peter Kurti

21 September 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

Most panellists on last Monday’s Q&A were in vigorous agreement about the need to address the behaviour of a group of “toxic men in Parliament” who stand accused of bullying female colleagues.

In the short time Scott Morrison has been Prime Minister, barely a day has passed without loud denunciations and accusations concerning the number of bullies among male Liberal MPs. ‘Bullying’ has become the mot du jour in this heated discourse, which – together with needles in strawberries – has made it extremely difficult for Morrison to stabilise his creaking government. But little effort has been given to defining the kind of behaviour that actually counts as bullying. In Shakespeare’s day, ‘bully’ was, in fact, a term of endearment; but that use is now obsolete.

Much closer to contemporary use of ‘bully’ is the definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary: “a tyrannical coward who makes himself a terror to the weak.” There is a lot packed into that short phrase: terror, tyranny, cowardice, and, of course, maleness. At its heart lies the notion of habitual behaviour intended to intimidate the weak. It was left to Monday night’s Q&A panellist Andrew Neill to point out that such behaviour can also be exhibited by some women – although his observation was quickly eclipsed by others.

Bad behaviour, in whatever circumstances, always needs to be called out if we are to live and work peacefully as neighbours and colleagues with one another. And this demands objective judgement.

The problem with cloaking this issue as being about bullying is that it reduces standards of civil behaviour to the emotional and the subjective. It’s not about what you do; it’s about how I feel. Just when we need our politicians to focus on the costs of housing and energy, and on the clogged infrastructure in our cities, we seem content to leave them to debate their own hurt feelings.

By any measure, Australia ranks very high as a free, peaceful, and open society where neither class nor background nor gender need ever hold back those with determination and discipline. Of course, we must keep an eye on the way we treat one another, calling out bad behaviour and holding ourselves to high standards of civility.

But an unhealthy preoccupation with our feelings can lead to what British author David Goodhart calls “progressive individualism”  – and that, in turn, leads us to ignore the wellbeing of others.