Armidale Class Act: A right to defend our rights

Chilling: A visit to Australia by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defence included the preliminary findings that "many activists spoke of an atmosphere of fear, censorship and retaliation”.
Chilling: A visit to Australia by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defence included the preliminary findings that "many activists spoke of an atmosphere of fear, censorship and retaliation”.

Last year, Australia was visited by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defence (see http://www.ohchr.org).

While the final report of this visit is not available yet, the preliminary report indicated shock over the disjunction between the government’s espoused support for human rights and their actions which include “unprecedented anti-protested laws and intensification of secrecy laws and practices”.

The report argues that every individual in Australia has the right to defend human rights for all. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that not only can we all be advocates, but that throughout our lives we all are able to enjoy our rights and freedoms.

Instead, what was reported is “a ‘chilling effect’ of the combined measures including the lack of meaningful consultations on government decisions; funding cuts; general government’s antipathy of advocacy; ‘gagging clauses’ in funding agreements; secrecy laws and the stifling Border Force Act; undermining the AHRC and vilifying human rights defenders. Many activists spoke of an atmosphere of fear, censorship and retaliation”.

This attack on civil society is also evident in the current round of enterprise bargaining at universities.

A perusal of Hansard unearthed this from Kim Carr speaking about what is happening at Murdoch University: "In (enterprise bargaining) negotiations, a definition of misconduct has been proposed that would include any breach of policy or regulation. Any action by an employee deemed to pose an imminent risk to the reputation, viability or profitability of the university - I emphasise 'profitability' of the university - would be classed as serious misconduct, punishable by dismissal. It takes no particular special insight to understand the existential threats that this would pose to all academic freedom in this country, should such a process be established" (Hansard, 15/2/17).

Clearly, this action is taking place in a civil societal context where increasingly as Australians we are losing our rights for human rights defences, for free speech and for social critique.

Instead, these are being replaced by increased monitoring for compliance, increased emphasis on exclusion rather than participation in decision-making, and increased requirements for access to information to be restricted so that only a privileged few get sufficient data to make informed decisions (the rest of us are supposed to trust decisions made for us by others).

Corporate image replaces corporate responsibility. Withdrawal of funding is positioned as the consequence of criticism of government.

As academics and educators, we have to question how far we wish to comply (as Jane Elliot once said, do we go along to get along?). Is it appropriate to build a career on unquestioning compliance?

Is it appropriate to accept the privileges associated with this compliance when others do not get the same rewards?

Is it acceptable to teach our children that the best way to succeed in life is to follow the rules no matter what? As an education city do we lead the enforcement of the neoliberal agenda or do we take a different stand?