Features Australia

West goes south

9 June 2018

9:00 AM

9 June 2018

9:00 AM

Last November I was lucky enough to have been invited to the Sydney launch of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. John Howard was there. Kim Beazley was there. Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was there. Much of the talk was about which Australian universities could be potential partners to run this program on Western Civilisation, and with a lot of money on offer plenty seemed very interested.

Now let me tell you that a good many people on the right side of politics were sceptical that this idea of running a degree program through an established Australian university could work for the Ramsay Centre. And they were sceptical for this simple reason.  Australian academics, especially in the Arts and Social Sciences, lean massively to the left side of politics.

In the US they have hard data on this incredible bias because donations to political parties are public information and because there have been numerous polls of academics. In law upwards of 90 per cent of academics vote left. In sociology and women’s studies it is up near 99 per cent. Others mostly fall in between. And after thirteen years of working in a G8 Australian university, my guess is that the left-leaning bias of Australian academics is at least as pronounced as in the United States.

So imagine what it is like in this country for a young right-of-centre academic outside the hard natural sciences trying to get a job, trying to get promoted and trying to get a grant. In law, the numbers of constitutional law professors who dislike bills of rights (and remember, the majority of Australians are in this camp) could be counted on two hands, maybe one. The same goes for those who want strong borders and value the nation state over supranational bodies. Ditto those who are sceptical of international law’s overall good consequences when in conflict with democratic decision-making.

Think of universities as rough analogues to the ABC. They say they’re balanced politically and philosophically but the facts are otherwise. Indeed, for years I’ve been asking for a single example of a presenter or producer or top person on any ABC current affairs TV show with a clear right-of-centre genealogy.  There’s been no response because there isn’t one. The universities tilt left almost as much as ‘our’ national broadcaster.

Hence a good few people at that Ramsay Centre launch last year doubted that the wholly noble and worthwhile idea of running a degree program in Western Civilisation would be easily achieved, because if you handed it over to a university it would be captured by the left side of politics. If you pooh-pooh that fear just consider the Howard government funded US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. In the lead-up to the last US election there was not a single one of the more than two dozen academics there who supported Trump. Not one. And the only right-leaning looking academic there ended up quitting. Your guess is as good as mine on why that might be. On the other hand, take a second to ponder all the many centres set up to pursue left-leaning values and outcomes in this country, because there are loads of them.

Which takes me back to the evening of the Ramsay Centre launch last year. At one point I found myself (with one other person) chatting to the Vice-Chancellor of the ANU, the astrophysicist Brian Schmidt. I was telling him that it would be very difficult to put this program in place because the academics would hate it. He flat out told me it would not be a problem at the ANU. I replied that he was either naïve or disingenuous or didn’t have a clue what things were like outside the hard natural sciences. At any rate, I wonder if he’s now changed his mind, not that he could ever admit as much.

Recall the complaint that led to VC Schmidt’s backdown. The complaining academics to which he succumbed were afraid they would not have autonomy when it came to appointments. But if the Ramsay Centre gave them full autonomy they would pick near on wall-to-wall lefties, and that would result in teaching students quite a different account of Western civilisation than the donor intended. Mr Ramsay, like me, saw Western civilisation (warts and all) as having created the best place for humans to live ever. That goes doubly for women and minorities. You don’t have to sacrifice academic scholarship in the slightest to prefer a degree program that overall was supportive of Western civilisation’s many virtues and on balance scored comparatively best in the field grades. In fact, I’d bet big money that a good few academics quietly suffering under current left-wing orthodoxies would jump at the chance to teach in this milieu.

Well, it is not to be at the ANU.  But what bugs me is that this nominally right-leaning Coalition government of ours has been in office now since 2013 and done nothing about this (or the ABC or anything else in the same vein). The same goes for the former Howard government. There is plenty that could be done as regards our universities without the need even to pass a Bill through our recalcitrant Senate. For one, there is still this huge emphasis on getting grants (which, let us be clear, are inputs that are supposed to lead to outputs but instead are treated as goods in themselves  — as well as pretending they are equally likely to be won if you have a right-leaning worldview). And still there is a huge, administratively costly and monetarily expensive exercise that pretends to measure research excellence but which (I say this as an assessor in the first round) does no such thing.

Put bluntly, this Coalition government has given up on the so-called culture wars. It has no fight in it at all. So we now hear a few laments from the Minister but nothing will be done.

Want to know why people on the right side of politics are pushed into voting for a Trump? Because at least the Donald has some fight in him. At least he deals in actions and not empty, meaningless talk. Compare that to this Turnbull government and lament the ANU’s capitulation and the lack of any real response from the government. It’s like the Bjørn Lomborg Centre all over again.

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