On August 20, Foundations of Western Civilisation Program, Dr Bella d’Abrera, addresses CPAC 2023 in Sydney on the attack on free speech at Australian university campuses.
All media appearances posted onto the IPA website are directly related to the promotion and dissemination of IPA research.
Below is a transcript of the interview.
Dr. Bella d’Abrera:
I really got the short straw there, having to follow Professor Ian Plimer. I can’t be as funny and I probably have a topic that’s not as funny anyway. So well done everyone on making it to Sunday afternoon. I think that’s commendable.
I’m going to talk to you today about a couple of things. First of all, I want to talk about universities. Once upon a time in the not too distant past, universities used to be great. Don’t know if anyone remembers that, but it did happen once upon a time. They used to be places where knowledge was preserved and generated and disseminated, and where academic excellence was encouraged and where people devoted themselves to the pursuit of truth. Those were halcyon days. This isn’t happening anymore. University campuses have become humorless, woke, and highly politicized centers of unlearning, where telling a joke or using someone’s nickname is now forbidden. The atmosphere is now one in which everyone, students and teachers alike, are stifled by a culture of woke political and ideological correctness.
And of course, it’s just at a time when universities are carrying on about diversity and saying it’s one of our fundamental values. But the reality is that the diversity of opinion has been all but banished from classrooms and lecture theaters. Any individual who attempts to pose a counterargument or express an alternative view is either uninvited or shouted down, as the new generation of campus activists invariably get their way.
The Institute of Public Affairs has been tracking the descent of universities into this state of catatonic censoriousness since 2016 when we published our first Free Speech Audit. It was a systematic review of the intellectual freedom on Australian campuses. And there’s not very much, I’m going to give it away. Using a methodology adapted from American and British assessments of free speech, each Australian university was given a red, amber, or green traffic light speech ranking, based on their policies and their past actions. We found in 2016 that 79% of Australian universities were given a red traffic light. That is, they were hostile to free speech.
We did two more audits. And only then did the Federal Government commission Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Robert French AC, to review freedom of speech on university campuses. When he released his report in 2019, the government asked all universities to adopt the French Model Code, or at least ensure that the free speech principles were reflected in their policies.
While this was an excellent step in the right direction, it did nothing to improve the situation. After the government commissioned another review to see how the implementation was going, it found that only nine, nine universities out of 42 Australian universities, had fully aligned their policies with the French Model Code.
So while the French review was obviously a good step, it was perhaps too general. The well-intentioned, but ultimately toothless government intervention, did not improve the state of speech on campuses. We know this because we’ve just completed a fourth audit. This was written by my wonderful colleague, Bri McKee. She actually features on the front page of The Spectator that’s in your show bags, and I really encourage everyone here to subscribe to The Spectator magazine Australia. Bri went through every single policy and every single action of the universities, and found that 90% of our universities now have policies that are hostile to free speech. Things have got worse, not better. There’s been a 117% rise in the overall hostility across all institutions since 2016. That’s an awful lot of hostility.
Let me give you some examples. The University of Wollongong instructs students to avoid words like man, mothering, fathering, ladies and wife. At La Trobe University, if you tell a joke or you tease someone or use a nickname, that’s defined as bullying. Can you imagine how much fun it would be going to university at La Trobe at the moment, if you can’t even use someone’s nickname? Murdoch University defines harassment as a once-off event involved name-calling. And Southern Cross University students are forbidden from typing out a post in uppercase because that’s construed as shouting. And so on. And we have many examples. I encourage you to read the audit that you can download on the IPA website.
The pertinent question here though is, why is it important for us to keep track of what’s happening on campus? Why should we care about if you can tell a joke at La Trobe University, or why should we care what’s going over on campus in the University of Western Australia? Why should we care what’s happening at any of our universities? We should care because freedom of speech is a necessary prerequisite for universities to function efficiently. And when universities stop functioning effectively, so too does society.
The crisis inside our universities is just a microcosm of what’s happening outside our universities. These once great institutions are now negatively enculturating broader society. Instead of using their privileged positions to provide guidance, academics are doing the opposite, they’re using their positions to critique and deconstruct Australian society. They are, in short, committed postmodernists. They are active disciples of the likes of Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, who in the 1960s rejected the cornerstones of Western civilization. They rejected truth, reason, and knowledge, on the grounds that those things are no more than tools of power to mask political agendas.
Postmodernism has given us dangerous, and quite frankly, deranged ideas. It’s given us identity politics, critical social justice, queer theory, radical gender theory, critical race theory, disability studies, fat studies, intersectionality, and last but not least, post-colonial theory. These crazy theories are being carried by woke storm troopers who have seized control of our culture, our education, and our corporate world. And they now constitute an elite, which is doing its level best to impose this form of extremism on society.
These theories chip away at society. They’ve been designed to disrupt and upend the established order of things, on the grounds that Western civilization can just be reduced to the white male patriarchy, which wields power and oppresses everyone else; women, racial minorities, and the poor.
Postmodernism is the reason why we’ve got a free speech crisis. This is because the left does not believe in free speech. For speech to be free, and therefore valuable, the people conducting the conversation have to be sovereign individuals, capable of thinking independent thoughts, which are completely separate from their canonical identities. But in this postmodernist woke world, there is no such thing as a sovereign individual. There is only your group identity. This collective thinking completely annihilates the integrity of the individual, and puts paid to the ability of society to reach a consensus through dialogue. It’s dead end and it’s killing democracy.
Postmodernism is the reason why your children are being told that gender is a social construct, that if a man puts on a dress and lipstick, he’s a woman. We can thank radical gender theory for the fact that women are being eradicated before our very eyes. It’s because of postmodernism that society is so obsessed with race and racial identity, thanks to critical race theory, which has been imported from the United States, and now embedded into our own institutions. It’s even found our way into our national curriculum, where children are being taught that Australia is systematically racist and that Aboriginal Australians are oppressed by virtue of their race.
Finally, and most pertinently, we have postmodernism to thank for this Voice to Parliament. You can’t understand this particular project, or the motives of its architects, unless you understand post-colonial theory. Post-colonial theory came about to achieve one specific purpose, which is decolonization. Decolonization is the systematic undoing of all colonialism and all its manifestations and impacts, i.e. Australia. It began with French postmodernist, Michel Foucault, who developed the idea that knowledge is just an artificial consensus, just a social construct created by our invisible control over in schools, universities, publishers, and museums and other cultural institutions and our own interest. In the 1970s, Foucault’s idea was taken further by Edward Said, a Palestinian-American academic activist, who claimed that the notion of inherent superiority of Western science and culture was just a new form of colonialism. In other words, the West continues to impress everyone, long after it’s given up its colonies, through its ideas. So science, reason, truth, biological reality are all just products of Western power structures.
So here we are in 2023. We actually have a prime minister who’s leading a movement, a postmodernist movement, to decolonize Australia using a postmodernist theory called post-colonial theory. His ultimate aim, along with the architects of the Voice, is to fundamentally alter the structure of the modern state of Australia on the basis that our country is inherently evil because of Western civilization.
Our culture is at an inflection point. We’re trying to decide which direction we go into in the future. But society is confused and it’s agitated. We have never been so divided because of the constant cultural critique being pushed on us by the elites. And the community has had enough. We’ve had enough of this politics being inserted into every nook and cranny of life. Being harangued when we go to the supermarket to buy groceries, being harangued on the SkyBus and told that sovereignty was never ceded, or being lectured to about the Voice before any sporting game. We’ve had enough of being part of this divisive, unnecessary, resentful and bitter postmodernist project to destroy all that is good.
But there is hope, there is hope for the future. We can see it happening. It’s already happening in the US. Because the universities just are so deeply enmeshed in government, this battle has to be fought on a political level. Some of you will remember, in 2021 the Virginia gubernatorial election, won by Republican Glenn Youngkin, was to all intenses a critical race theory election. No parent, regardless of their political affiliation, their race, or anything else, want their children to be singled out on the basis of the color of their skin.
In Florida, Governor DeSantis is rolling back the pernicious diversity, equity and inclusion programs. In May, he signed a bill into law, which banned the state’s public colleges and universities from spending any money, any more money, any more taxpayer’s money, on the DEI programs. And last month, the Supreme Court… the Supreme Court has ruled against racism in America by banning affirmative action for college admissions. Meanwhile, we’re going the opposite direction in this country.
The other reason we have to hope is that while our universities may be rotten, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all young people are lost to the forces of woke or that they necessarily believe all this propaganda. Be assured that everyone under 25 is not an angry non-binary, pan-gender, fluid blue-haired social justice warrior. Just meet the volunteers here at CPAC this weekend.
So at the IPAs, as well as looking into free speech on campus, we’ve also been surveying the attitudes of young people for many years. And it turns out there is a huge amount of diversity of opinion amongst them, especially on campus. We found that 82% of university campus students think they should be exposed to different points of view. They want to be exposed to views even if they’re challenging or offensive. Significantly, this was the same across all political parties, it wasn’t just the conservative students. 86% of the Greens supporting students wanted diversity. 82% of Labor supporting students, and 82% of Coalition students all want viewpoint diversity. Only 2% did not. So it’s not the students, it’s the universities. While the universities are going full steam ahead with this agenda, this woke agenda, it’s not because the students are asking for it. The students are desperate for new ideas and they’re desperate for other ideas.
Do you want some more good news? It’s not just what’s happening on campus, turns out that Australians, young Australians, don’t actually hate Australia. They don’t hate Australia. In the last survey that we did on Australia Day, we’ve done them for six years now, less than a third of 18 to 24 year olds want to change the date. They’re quite happy. They want to celebrate Australia on Australia Day. And on top of that, they still have real world aspirations. 60% still want to start their own business. They want to flourish. They want to be part of society, and they have the entrepreneurial spirit, is alive and well amongst the young. Yes, there is a sizable minority of Australian students who are woke, but the majority are either anti-woke or they’re somewhere in the middle. And it’s our responsibility to prevent the next generation from believing the false and divisive narratives being pedaled by our universities. We have to be the voice for young Australians who are victims of a very, very broken education system. Instead of dismissing them, it’s our job to provide leadership and guidance for young Australians as they seek a better future for themselves and for this nation. Thank you.
This transcript with Bella d‘Arbrera talking at CPAC 2023 from 20 August 2023 has been edited for clarity.