Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020 - Second Reading

February 23, 2021

I speak this evening on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020 and I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the Government has damaged the quality of Australia's world-class post-secondary education system by:

(1) cutting billions from universities and slashing research funding;

(2) making it harder and more expensive for Australian students to get a university education; and

(3) failing to develop a long-term policy for the Australian post-secondary education system."

This bill before the chamber amends the Higher Education Support Act to insert a definition of academic freedom and freedom of speech, as recommended by the French review. In November 2018, the Minister for Education announced an independent review into freedom of speech in higher education. The well-respected Hon. Robert French, AC, former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, was tasked with undertaking that review. He did a very thorough job on the review. The review actually found that 'claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated'. That was from the former Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French. He went on to say that there is no evidence of a free speech crisis on campus.

The review did note that the rules, codes and policies in universities would benefit from some clarification. The principal recommendation from the review was that protection of freedoms be strengthened within the university sector on a voluntary basis. It noted that amending the act was not essential. So, despite the Henny Pennies—all of those people running around; especially a few on the coalition backbench, or someone who recently departed the coalition backbench—all of the universities have agreed to voluntarily adopt the French model code. Yet here we are with legislation to amend the act—why? Not because it is necessary. The French report made that very, very clear. The government's report—the French report—made it clear. It is not because freedom of speech in universities is under threat and not because universities are calling for this legislation or crying out for this legislation. Legislation to amend the act is before the House today because of a deal done with those champions of academic rigour, the One Nation political party.

In order to ram through the coalition's job-ready university reforms in the Senate with the essential support of One Nation, the government agreed to introduce this unnecessary legislation to protect freedom of speech—that is not actually under threat—in universities. Remember the job-ready university reforms? They're the ones that right now are making it harder and more expensive for the class of 2020 to go university. As if they haven't had it tough enough already! Overall, the class of 2020 will pay seven per cent more out of their own pockets to go to university, and they're the class that graduated during a pandemic.

Reportedly late last year, the then education minister said he was going to tie university funding to each university's progress in defending academic freedom. Apparently, the coalition government is very concerned about freedom of speech, but, let's be honest—it's not everyone's speech. I remind you of Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a young Australian Muslim woman. She was born in Sudan and her parents came to Brisbane way back in 1992 as skilled migrants making a great contribution to the country. They still live in my electorate of Moreton. Yassmin, even though she was born in Sudan, is a product of Brisbane's Southside. Yassmin was 18 months old when she came to Australia with her parents, so she is Australian to the bootstraps. She attended the Islamic College of Brisbane—in the electorate of Rankin, just on the border—and John Paul College for high school. She went on to study mechanical engineering at the University of Queensland and graduated with first-class honours in 2011.

Yassmin, if you meet her or read her books, is one bright cookie and a great asset to Australia. Yassmin was extremely active in the Southside community. As a high school student, with two of her friends, she founded a group called Youth Without Borders. She was named Young Queenslander of the Year in 2010 and Queensland's Young Australian of the Year in 2015. In late 2016, then foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop appointed her to the Council for Australian-Arab Relations.

Everyone saw the quality of Yassmin. I am very proud of Yassmin. I know how proud her family are of her as well. Sadly, Yassmin left Australia in 2017, driven out of this country after posting a simple comment on social media. As with all posts on social media, not everyone will agree with Yassmin's post. Her post was not a threat to anyone. It did not attack anyone's race, religion or beliefs. It certainly was not dangerous misinformation like that recently posted by a former coalition backbencher, who at the time the Prime Minister said was doing a great job. Yet the then minister for immigration, now the Minister for Home Affairs, criticised Yassmin's post on social media. Yassmin actually apologised for the post, saying on social media:

It was brought to my attention that my last post was disrespectful, and for that I apologise unreservedly.

A fair-minded person might say that would be the end of it. But for the member for Hughes and others, who don't seem to know how to do an apology for a post that misleads or potentially could harm someone, that apology by Yassmin made no difference.

Yassmin was mercilessly trolled. She was subjected to daily death threats. She was sent videos of beheadings. She was sent videos of rapes, with some suggestions that the same could happen to her. Yassmin Abdel-Magied was the topic of commentators on national media platforms. A new phrase has even been coined: 'getting Yassmin-ed'. I have some questions for the coalition government, who are intent on protecting freedom of speech in this legislation: Was Yassmin accorded freedom of speech? Was Yassmin allowed the freedom to express her speech on social media? I have seen some supposed freedom-of-speech champions opposite, but, sadly, they were silent when it came to Yassmin. No-one would say that she was afforded freedom to express her speech; she definitely wasn't. Yassmin is a strong young woman who was doing great things in her community, in Australia and around the world. She was shut down and thrown out. I wish Yassmin well and hope to see her back on the south side of Brisbane soon, making a great contribution to Australia.

We know that hate speech is rampant on social media, and I commend the members of parliament that have today taken some steps towards clamping down on that. Hate speech has a sinister motive and, sometimes, catastrophic outcomes. We know that right-wing extremism in Australia is real. The threat is growing. It is a risk to public safety and to our multicultural society.

Mr Howarth interjecting

Mr PERRETT: To the minister at the table: if you would like to make a contribution, I'm happy to take your interjections. I am not condemning the Liberal Party; I said 'right-wing extremism in Australia is real'. If you're supporting that, I'm happy to get that on the Hansard record.

We know that right-wing extremism needs attention from the Morrison government. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has just had referred to it an inquiry into extremism, including far-Right extremism. This referral was not an initiative of the Morrison government, despite warnings from security heads; it was Labor who wrote to the Morrison government late last year proposing an inquiry into extremism. I am pleased that the Minister for Home Affairs joined the shadow minister for home affairs to finalise the terms of reference for that referral. The committee will consider: changes that could be made to Australia's Counter Terrorism Strategy in relation to preventing radicalisation to extremist views; further steps that the Commonwealth could take to disrupt and deter hate speech; and the role of social media, encrypted communications platforms and the dark web in allowing extremists to communicate and organise. I know that is a difficult patch, and I know the government is stepping up in some of those areas. So that is freedom-of-speech reform that is needed.

The amendments this bill makes to the Higher Education Support Act are not needed. The French review made it clear that claims of a freedom-of-speech crisis on Australian campuses are fake news; they are not substantiated. This bill is the government's payoff for a vote from the One Nation political party to support their cruel policy that has made it harder and more expensive for kids to go to university this year. The policy has increased the student fee load and cut funding from the Commonwealth. Treasurer Frydenberg gets the savings while young Australians pay more. How is that fair in these COVID times on university campuses?

Basically, overall our universities will receive less funding to teach students. Universities are facing a $16 billion projected revenue drop from international students being locked out. Our universities are important, but this Morrison government has neglected them during this pandemic and with the consequence of overseas students being locked out. The Prime Minister changed the rules three times to stop universities having access to JobKeeper, and, very predictably, university workers have lost their jobs. Some 17,000 university workers have gone, and counting—not just our brilliant researchers and academics but cafeteria workers, librarians, administrative staff, groundkeepers and cleaners—in city universities, sandstone universities, regional universities and bush universities, where they're a significant part of the culture and the economy. I know that it's particularly bad for the bush. The Morrison government have turned their back on 17,000 Australian workers.

The effect of the government's Job-ready Graduates policy—and remember that I'm talking on this bill today because this bill is a pay-off for the One Nation vote on the Job-ready Graduates bill—along with the refusal of the government to assist universities by giving them access to JobKeeper, has hit universities very hard and it's making struggling students pay more for their courses. Late last year I, with the shadow minister for education, met with some of the class of 2020 from my electorate. Sadly, these young people were well aware of the costs of their courses going up and up. It was worrying some of them. Some had their dreams readjusted and some had their dreams crushed. Sadly, one student who had considered pursuing a particular course of study actually changed her allocation to a different course because she was worried about how she would pay the higher course fees. These cruel Morrison government policies have real-life consequences.

I have put a second reading amendment forward. As I said, the bill before the House today is unnecessary. There is no freedom-of-speech crisis in Australian universities, but there is a crisis. I urge the minister for education to turn his attention to positive reforms that will encourage students into university and assist universities through this pandemic so that job losses can be stemmed.