There has been a dispute within the University of WA about a centre to study policy issues to be directed by a Danish economist called Dr Bjorn Lomborg. The idea came from the Commonwealth who put up four million dollars. Dr Lomborg had been an adviser to the PM and the project was supported by the PM and Mr Pyne, the Education Minister. The name of the centre was a mistake. It was to be called the Australian Consensus Centre. There was no consensus at all. The opposition to it was intense. Dr Lomborg’s standing and the objects of the Centre were said by opponents to be inappropriate. The University was persuaded by these arguments and the certain controversy and possible damage to the University if they went on with it. They dropped the idea. Dr Lomborg knows something of our politics. He blamed the university’s decision on ‘toxic politics, ad hominem attacks and premature judgment’ and said the centre had been used as a ‘political football’.
Mr Wilson, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, is saddened by this result. He says that the decision is ‘disturbing for its validation of a culture of soft censorship.’ What on earth is that? No one is forbidding Dr Lomborg to propagate his views – all that has happened is that this university has said that they would rather that he did not do it over their name.
You might think that what has occurred is a triumph for freedom of speech. Messrs Abbott and Pyne used their freedom to float the idea. Members of the university and the public used their freedom to oppose it. The university used its freedom to say no. Is this not the result sought for by those who like to see the competition of ideas? Well, not if you are a supporter of the government like Mr Wilson, or Mr Henry Ergas in the column next to him.
But Mr Wilson gives grounds for rejecting the Centre at any university.
Lomborg’s views are not about science, they’re about public policy.
Public policy is a debate about competing priorities for government. Everyone is entitled to their views on public policy. There is no one correct answer in public policy.
Nor is policy about evidence. Evidence informs policy development. The direction of policy is primarily decided by the questions you ask. The questions asked are heavily informed by values and political priorities.
This sounds like Voodoo, but if you take at face value the statement that policy is not about evidence, then no university would want to have anything to do with it.
It is hard to follow Mr Wilson. He says that this case is different to that of Mr McIntyre and SBS because McIntyre ‘slurred a large section of the public and broke the terms of a voluntarily agreed employment contract that led to his dismissal.’ Are we to take it that our freedom to offend cuts out if we slur a large section of the public’ and that the Gestapo had every right to turn off Dietrich Bonhoeffer for slurring a large section of the German public by warning of false leaders? And does not the second point just beg the question – should our law enforce a contractual term that permits an employer to sack someone for saying something offensive?
Is it curious to hear a negative answer to that question from our Human Rights Commissioner? Perhaps not – Mr Wilson was content in that capacity to describe as stupid and offensive and despicable the opinions of a blackfella who exercised his freedom of speech to express a view on a matter of social policy that did not harmonise with those of Mr Wilson. Perhaps the crime of the blackfella was to slur a large section of the public.
And if someone tries a political stunt like this at my university, I will march.