University free speech bill a sop to Pauline Hanson and other critics, but what difference will it make?

The federal government has been applying somewhat of a forensic lens to the question of free speech in Australian universities for several years. Most recently, as part of a package of deals cobbled together in September to get the Job-Ready Graduates Package through parliament, One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson convinced the government to incorporate a definition of academic freedom into the Higher Education Support Act 2003 that governs universities. The Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020 was introduced into the House of Representatives on October 28 and is due to be debated in the Senate this week.

The amendments have their origins in an inquiry into free speech on university campuses, chaired by former High Court Justice Robert French, which the government commissioned two years ago. In spite of government claims the review was warranted due to concerns about the shutting down of free speech, his report found no “free speech crisis” in Australian universities.

French proposed a model code on freedom of speech that universities could adopt, while noting the importance of protecting their institutional autonomy.

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Certain government members continued to express concern. These include a call in 2018 by Senator James Paterson to withhold funding from universities if they failed to uphold free speech.

A protest rally at Adelaide University
Those claiming a ‘free speech crisis’ pointed to attempts to disrupt speakers on campus, including commentator Bettina Arndt at the University of Sydney in 2018 and Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the University of Adelaide in 2014.
Brendon Edwards/AAP

The government has apparently heeded such calls. This year the government tendered for a “freedom of expression survey model” to be incorporated into the annual Student Experience Survey sent out to graduates.

In August 2020, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced a new review focused on evaluating how well universities have implemented the French model code on free speech. This review was due to report by the end of November.

Most universities are reported to have adopted, or to be adopting, free speech codes that uphold and implement the intent of the model code and comply with the statutory frameworks within which they operate. They differ in minor respects from one another and from the model code. The minister has recognised the need for this flexibility.

All this is happening in a context in which claims of a free speech crisis in Australian universities have been largely discredited and shown to be spurious.

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What is in the bill?

The bill proposes to do two things.

The first is to change the terminology in the existing legislation of “free intellectual inquiry” to “freedom of speech and academic freedom”. This is a sensible change. There are important distinctions between academic freedom and freedom of speech that ought to be recognised.

Academic freedom is centred in the very specific role of the university in creating

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