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Parting shots

As I head overseas for a year, here’s my guilty secret

29 December 2012

9:00 AM

29 December 2012

9:00 AM

My wife and I are on the verge of heading overseas for all of 2013. You see I’m off on sabbatical from my job at the University of Queensland law school. These sabbaticals are the last great perquisite of working in an Australian university.

Sure, Aussie universities may have become bedevilled with overweening bureaucracy and managerialism. There may be more administrators per lecturer here in Australia, and by far, than in Canada, the US, the UK or New Zealand. Administrators may dictate how many assessments we lecturers must give and how many students we must take and a plethora of other things. And they and the government may lay down rules that treat receiving grants as a good-in-itself, so that a professor who writes eight top journal articles without a penny of taxpayer grant money is deemed far less worthy than one who writes the exact same eight top articles only after getting hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer grants (and who is much better value for money).

You see, in Australia getting a research grant from the government’s Australian Research Council means that those money inputs are magically and mysteriously treated as actual outputs, as signs of grandeur and accomplishment in themselves, as though the way to find a top car company were to look to see how much money it received in government subsidies.

But that culture is so ingrained in Australian academia, and so perverse, that in my view an incoming Coalition government simply has to shut down the ARC for all humanities and social science fields altogether. (And I haven’t even mentioned how politicised it is.)

Of course I could go on and on about our dysfunctional universities. But say what you will, these sabbaticals are an amazing perk. Perhaps indefensible. But those of us who get them know how astoundingly lucky we are.

So with a half-year at a US law school and then another at one in Canada on my immediate horizon, here are a few passing thoughts on things Australian.

First off, isn’t it bizarre that this Labor government’s last two judicial nominees to the High Court of Australia seem so solid, given how awful this government is on almost every other front. Sure, Stephen Gageler is far too much of a centralist for my liking. But given what we could have had from this Gillard government, these last two picks of theirs were as good as anyone could ever have expected.

I’ll go further. The previous Coalition government had a High Court nominee or two who looked worse than either of these two most recent Labor picks, at least if by ‘worse’ you mean inclined to adopt bizarre approaches to interpreting our Constitution that pay next to no attention to what the document says and to what its framers intended it to mean — preferring ‘living tree’ approaches that significantly enhance judicial power at the point of application.

In fact in the two worst High Court cases of the last decade, at least in my view, one Coalition nominee was in the misguided majority in both cases. You have to ask yourself what the heck the Howard government was doing. In the US at least the Republicans now take seriously whom they appoint to top courts. Here in Australia we have a Labor government picking the odd better candidate (and I mean ‘better’ from a Coalition viewpoint) than one or two of the Coalition picks. It’s hard to fathom how that can be.

Then there’s the ABC. Now I have a dirty little confession to make. In many ways I really like the ABC, including its rolling news radio station. But when it comes to all of the ABC’s flagship news and political shows it is a disgrace how one-sided and anti-Coalition they are. On all of those top shows I don’t know of a single, solitary right-of-centre presenter, host or producer. Not one!

The Howard government did nothing about this blatant bias. But it’s our taxes that pay for this broadcasting arm of the Labor party. Oops, that’s not quite fair because the ABC is prepared to attack Labor fairly regularly. It’s just that those ABC attacks come from even further to the left, over where the Greens reside.

Now I don’t care what people watch or listen to. But I do care when it’s my money funding something that is almost uniformly pumping out a one-sided political perspective I think is wrong.

So what to do about the ABC? Clearly Mark Scott has done next to nothing in bringing a bit of diversity of viewpoint to all of these flagship shows, however much I have heard him babble on about bias being in the eye of the beholder. (Here’s a test Mr Scott: make every single producer and presenter of these flagship shows someone with a right-of-centre background and see how many people at the ABC still talk of bias being in the eye of the beholder.)

Well, perhaps on each of these shows there would in future have to be two hosts, one clearly from each side of politics. That would be better than nothing. Or maybe something could be set up so that taxpayers could opt out of paying for the ABC (in exchange for not receiving its broadcasts). I’m pretty sure you’d see a lot more balance pretty quickly if that were the case.

Whatever it is, no future Abbott government can leave this disgracefully unbalanced and one-sided taxpayer-funded behemoth alone to be a partisan cheerleader for the left of politics.

And that brings us to the state of free speech in this country. Much as I love Australia, only a Pollyanna could think the future looks rosy here on that front. Over-zealous media regulation on the horizon? Check. Awful hate speech laws with all sorts of ‘chilling effects’? Check. Political opinion possible grounds for discrimination claims? Check. No real sense that lots of people realise how important this issue is? Check.

Of course those downsides to life in Australia are vastly outweighed by the many great and wonderful things about this country that are too many to mention. My wife and I will miss them all while we’re away.

See you in 2014, with a new Abbott government in place and no trace in Parliament of either of those two puffed-up, self-satisfied rural socialist independents who foisted on the rest of us the worst Australian government of all time.

James Allan, a professor of law at the University of Queensland, will be on sabbatical at the University of San Diego School of Law for the first half of next year.

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