Step forward Professor Stephen Parker, vice chancellor of Canberra University, and take a bow while the nation-at-large applauds.
This week Parker emerged from the suffocating conclave of vice chancellors where political conformity and conservatism rule, and robustly rubbished the Abbott Government’s plan to privatise higher education and turn it into a wealth-driven free-for-all.
The timing was exquisite because his oppositional remarks at the National Alliance for Public Universities Forum at Sydney University exposed the moral and intellectual cowardice of his colleagues.
Parker reminded his audience that before the September 2013 federal election the Coalition guaranteed that “there would be no change to university funding arrangements”.
At the Universities Australia conference in March 2013 Abbott said vice chancellors could expect “a period of benign neglect” if he won government.
And notoriously, on the eve of the election, he promised that there would no cuts to education. “It is the last of these canards that is so shocking,” remarked Parker. “He knew he was going to win, so he didn’t even need to promise it to gain votes.”
Once in office, Abbott cut loose his “yapping chihuahua” (credit: Mike Carlton) aka Education Minister Christopher Pyne, who has tried a mixture of threats, sweet talk and dark deals to try to pass his legislation sabotaging higher education.
The strategy worked on every vice chancellor in the nation except Parker. “I know the pressures,” he conceded in his Sydney speech, “but nothing justifies the position that the vice chancellors and Universities Australia have taken.”
He condemned Pyne’s repeatedly redrawn legislation, saying: “If they go through, Australia is sleepwalking towards the privatisation of its universities.”
Parked argued that Australian students already pay a higher proportion of their tuition than those in most OECD countries. “This will blight the lives of a generation, unless Australia comes to its senses.”
He blasted the economic foundations of the HECS process saying: “A fundamental feature of HECS is that the Government forwards all the money upfront to the university. So if fees go up by more than the cuts, the Commonwealth shells out more from day one – and so only through some arcane aspect of accounting standards can this even look as if it is a savings measure. This isn’t a savings measure: it is ideology in search of a problem.”
English-born Parker is a legal academic who is registered as a barrister and solicitor in the ACT. Obtaining his PhD at University College, Cardiff, he lectured in law studies at the ANU between 1988 and 1994 before becoming Dean of Monash University Law School.
His staunch defence of higher education is in sharp contrast to the crawling opportunism of VCs from Sydney, the University of NSW, the ANU and elsewhere.
In centuries gone by, vice chancellors went to the stake for advocating their belief in higher learning. Today’s crowd are on their knees before grubby Tory politicians promoting the “free market”.
Case of necrotising fasciitis
In conclusion, Parker predicted the Coalition’s so-called “reforms” would ring the death knell of Universities Australia whose support for the Government “is a strange form of suicide ritual”.
“Older universities, which have benefitted from decades of public money, built a brand at taxpayer expense and now want to run away with it,” he said.
“They will raise their fees even more, the stratification of institutions will intensify, competition and dog-eat-dog will be the order of the day: and when they have milked the peak group for what they can get out of it, the elites will dance away in a figure eight formation.
“We have just seen a week of bizarre national adverts from UA, presumably aimed at six crossbench senators at the most, full of Orwellian double speak.
“Whether it breaks up soon because the tensions are too great, or it survives until the interest group factions have no more use for it and spit it out, UA is doomed because it has lost its moral compass.
“I personally will not attend a further meeting of an organisation with necrotising fasciitis; the condition where the body eats its own flesh.”
Mad Monk besieged
Think I’m too hard on Tony Abbott? Here is a summary of opinions from his own club of crazies.
Andrew Bolt of Rupert Murdoch’s Herald-Sun: “Domestic issues, especially Budget cuts and broken promises, continue to kill the Government.
“Weak economic growth and Budget blow-outs undermine the Government’s entire argument for being.
“The Abbott Government is making the same blunders that killed Julia Gillard.
“The polls today have a reality. Something is not working and must be fixed.”
Janet Albrechtsen of Murdoch’s Australian: “Another week. Another wasted opportunity by the Abbott Government to score a political win.
“What should have been an effortless political win this week turned into yet another political disaster.”
“Pope” Paul Kelly in Murdoch’s Australian: “This week the accumulating defects of the Abbott Government were on display – excessive centralisation around the Prime Minister’s office, lack of proper consultation, flawed judgements and uncertainty about how to address its tactical dilemmas. Australia is heading into dangerous waters.”
Judith Sloan, economic guru at the Australian: “The blame for the poor policy performance of the Government cannot be fully attributed to an obstructive Senate. Several of the policies put up by the Government are simply daft, muddle-headed, overly complex or unworkable.”
Editorial in the Australian: “Without a clear narrative, the task will be beyond him; his communications strategy is in disarray.”
Another Australian editorial: “Mr Hockey has clearly little to say and the public has stopped listening to him.” (“Stop silly slogans, start fixing a damaged budget”, 29 November 2014)
Yet another Australian editorial headlined: “The Abbott Government is doomed without narrative.” (22 November 2014)
Radio ham Alan Jones: “To win an election – and you’re not worth two bob in Opposition – to win an election, you’ve got to pass the pub test.” And Jones clearly believed that Abbott hadn’t passed the pub test – which is a big call for Alan since he doesn’t go to pubs.
Morgan Poll hope
The latest Morgan Poll shows an election this weekend would see the end of the Abbott regime and the return of Labor: ALP 53.5%, Coalition 46.5%.
It’s no wonder the looney-tune commentariat is losing its nerve.
A reshuffle of the Cabinet pack will not rescue Abbott; it will replace one bunch of hopeless amateurs with another lot.
Watch for Coalition MPs to fall into back-stabbing, rumour-mongering, vicious rivalry and leadership speculation. We are in for a year of economic despair, share and commodity falls, rising unemployment and the possibility of recession.
If Abbott is still languishing in the polls this time next year – that’s the eve of the next Federal Election in 2016 – his days will be numbered.
The heat’s on Pell
Cardinal George Pell appears to have told porky pies to Justice Peter McLennan’s royal commission into child sex abuse.
Proof is in the hands of high-ranking Catholics who have read his testimony and found clear economies with the truth.
You will remember that Pell left the commission hearing – where he swore an oath to tell the truth – and was whipped off to the Vatican to take up a job running the Eternal City’s finances.
If the commission is presented with clear evidence that Pell gave false testimony he may be recalled – in person or by video link. Will Pell claim diplomatic immunity and refuse to re-testify? That would make him a refugee from Australian justice.