Australia is experiencing a worrying growth of hostility towards free speech. Nowhere is this worse than on university campuses, where the current generation of student politicians are importing divisive ideas about race and gender from the United States and United Kingdom.
To combat this censorious culture, conservative and classical liberal students should revive the battle for voluntary student unionism.
Australian university campuses have long been hotbeds of radical leftists. But whereas the left in Australia was once passionately in favour of free speech, the current generation of student politicians have wholeheartedly embraced the ideology of identity politics, which encourages people to judge speech based on the identity of the speaker, rather than the content of what is said.
When combined with the political homogeneity that exists on most university campuses, this provides a recipe for the aggressive censorship of any ideas the deviate from the prevailing dogma.
In the UK, this combination of factors has led some student unions to ban mainstream tabloid newspapers like The Sun,Daily Mail, and Daily Express. While in the US, conservative and libertarian speakers are now routinely prevented from speaking on college campuses by protests that often turn violent – even respected social scientists like Charles Murray are now hounded off campus by students who have clearly never read their work.
Things might not be quite as bad in Australia – yet. But there are growing attempts to enforce ideological conformity, often spearheaded by young student politicos, as students at the University of Sydney know all too well.
It’s been less than six months since the University of Sydney Union made international headlines by banning the The Red Pill from being screened on union managed campus space.
The union claimed the documentary “would be discriminatory against women, and has the capacity to intimidate and physically threaten women on campus.” Interestingly – as the union’s statement made clear – they would have been fine with the film if, rather than challenging the feminist narrative, the film had had blamed the issues it raised on “the patriarchy.”
This is not an endorsement of The Red Pill, or any other film screened at the University of Sydney. But universities are meant to be places where people’s ideas are challenged and difficult issues are debated.
Banning movies because of the issues they raise and way they raise them is complete betrayal of the university’s role in society.
What makes this even worse is that these student censors are funded, at least in part, by a tax on the very students they are attempting to censor – in the form of the $294 Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF).
The Gillard government introduced the SSAF in 2011, as a rebranded version of the compulsory student unionism that the Howard government had banned in 2005.
When the money raised by SSAF isn’t going to fund direct censorship of ideas that challenge the prevailing campus dogma, it is going to fund services that many students neither want nor need. These services include things like the indoctrination workshops that the University of Melbourne Student Union ran during orientation week this year.
These workshops discouraged the use of “Australian banter.” And while they rightly argued “Women should stop second-guessing their intelligence,” they also bizarrely encouraged male students to consider their privilege by thinking twice before contributing in class, and to speak with less confidence when expressing an opinion.
Student unions should have every right to run workshops pushing whatever ideas they choose. But students shouldn’t be forced to pay for it.
Many of the damaging ideas adopted by universities start in student unions. Too often, universities weakly submit to the vocal minority of politically active students who use student unions as their vehicle – and their cash cow.
Thanks to the SSAF, students who object, or just don’t care, are forced to fund this activism. They shouldn’t have to. The existing protections preventing student unions from donating to political parties are far too weak. It does nothing to stop student unions pushing equally divisive gender theory, anti-Israel bigotry or polarising racial politics on issues like the flag and Australia day.
Ending the compulsory Student Services and Amenities Fee won’t be a panacea for all the problems that permeate university campuses throughout the western world. But it will make it more difficult for anti-free speech activists to use student resources to enforce their own ideological dogma.
This is a fight worth fighting. And even if you’re not successful during your university career, fighting this battle will make you a better advocate for your beliefs – a skill that will be of tremendous benefit when you leave the ideologically cocooned university campus and enter the real world.
James Paterson is a Liberal Senator for Victoria. He is a former Vice President of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation and the Melbourne University Liberal Club.