STATEMENTS BY SENATORS - James Cook University, Australian National University


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (13:42): Freedom is a basic principle of the political party I support, the Liberal National Party of Queensland. It is also an underlying principle of the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party. We believe in freedom, in individual freedom, in self-responsibility, in the family and in support for the disadvantaged. Freedom is one of our underlying basic tenets. I thought freedom was also a basic core value of universities around the world. I thought universities welcomed differences of opinion, debate and views that may not be popular and which may not be the majority views. I thought they welcomed different views.

So I have been distressed over the last year about a university which I always praise and which I call 'my' university, although I was never able to afford to go there or clever enough to get a scholarship there back in the early days. That's James Cook University in North Queensland, which has done a wonderful job in many fields. It has wonderful campuses in Townsville, Cairns and Singapore, and generally it is a university I support very strongly and enthusiastically. But I have to say that I have been concerned at the way James Cook University has treated a couple of academics who didn't agree with the normal view accepted by perhaps the majority of scientists on climate change and on the Great Barrier Reef. I am clearly not a scientist, and I can't go into the scientific differences, but I did appreciate that there were different views from two very distinguished scientists, the late Professor Bob Carter and Professor Peter Ridd. Professor Carter was an adjunct professor at the university and had a different view on climate change, and he, to my way of seeing the issue, was forced out of James Cook University because he had a view that didn't fit the norm of most scientists. I spoke to Professor Carter before his death. His basic principle, his basic argument, was about accepting that climate change is happening and we should be focusing our attention not on more research on why it happened but on rehabilitation—in dealing with the impacts of climate change. He is a very sensible man, a very learned scientist, in my view, but he effectively was forced out of James Cook University.

Then there is Professor Peter Ridd, who has a different view on the Great Barrier Reef, a view I might say that I, as a non-scientist, share, because I have lived adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef all of my life. I have to say that most of the constituents along the Great Barrier Reef that I represent also agree with Professor Peter Ridd, not from a scientific viewpoint but from their own observations over a lifetime. Yet, Professor Ridd was eventually sacked by James Cook University. I wrote to the learned vice-chancellor, Professor Sandra Harding—a good friend of mine—on 30 August last year expressing my concerns about what I understood to be the situation relating to Professor Ridd. As I indicated in that letter to Professor Harding, I didn't have all of the facts, but it seemed to me that this was a case of disciplining a scientist who didn't agree with other scientists at JCU and at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Professor Harding wrote back to me and explained that that wasn't the reason Professor Ridd was being disciplined. It was about personal behaviour and not questioning the veracity of another researcher's science. According to news reports he did make some comments about work done by Professor Terry Hughes from James Cook University, who is always out there following, or perhaps leading on, the Greens political party lines on all of the horrors that are happening on the Great Barrier Reef, when other researchers, like Professor Ridd, and people who are on the reef all the time, like the constituents I serve, would have thought that Professor Hughes's comments were slightly over the top, to put it politely.

Nevertheless, Peter Ridd has now separated from the university and I think it is a great shame that, whether or not it is true, the perception is that James Cook University, which I love and support all the time, has disciplined two distinguished scientists because they didn't agree with the mob-thought on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef. As Peter McCutcheon said in an interview on the ABC, 'The former professor's crime was to speak disparagingly of his colleagues, who found that the Great Barrier Reef was in peril because of farming run-off and climate change.'

I have to say that it is strange to be a bedfellow of the National Tertiary Education Union, but I agree with Mr Andrew Bonnell from the union, who said: 'The fundamental issue is that academic freedom is indivisible and you can't have academic freedom for people you agree with and not for people you disagree with.' Peter Ridd was asked whether his view was a minority view and he correctly said, 'Yes, absolutely it is, but science isn't a democracy. It is not the most votes; it is who has got the evidence.' Peter Ridd's complaint about some scientific work on the Great Barrier Reef is that it is not peer reviewed and not properly peer reviewed. He is concerned, as he said in a note to me, that his focus was on calling for better quality assurance for any science upon which the government based big spending decisions. 'Presently, so much of this science is never properly checked, despite what science organisations may claim to the contrary. The fact that they do not accept that we have a quality problem is worse than the bad science they often produce.' For those comments Professor Ridd is no longer there.

I must say that I don't agree with everything that Professor Ridd said. In fact, he criticises, in some media outlets, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which I think is a quality organisation of very, very good scientists, and my understanding, limited as it is, is that on many issues they don't altogether disagree with Professor Ridd. So I'm very disappointed that the university I love and support has been tagged as being anti freedom to express these views.

In the short time left available to me, I also want to mention the Australian National University and the way they've handled the bequest of money to set up a degree course in Western civilisation. The ridiculous comments we've had in relation to the rejection by ANU of that bequest are quite frightening. It was apparently rejected by ANU—and, of course, the chancellor there is Gary Evans, the former federal Labor minister, who, when he was here, called himself Gareth Evans—who, along with the Australian National University Students Association and the National Tertiary Education Union, said the program would push a racist or radically conservative agenda. Well, even if it did, you'd think that in a university they'd be able to handle that and have arguments against it. Of course, as the organisation looking after that bequest indicated, this wasn't about any sort of racist issue on Western civilisation but about our modern society and how we should look to the foundations of our society. I conclude by quoting the Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, who said:

It is essential that universities are not only open to but enthusiastic about the study of the values that helped to create both them and the modern society in which we now enjoy unparalleled opportunities.

I hope that other universities in discussions with the Ramsay Centre resist ill-informed or politically correct objections and find a way to ensure this generous bequest enables valuable study into the foundations of our society.

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