Morgan Begg: Ruling against Ridd shines light on cancel cultureThe Australian, 13 October 2021
The High Court of Australia’s verdict in favour of James Cook University’s right to sack one of its employees, a professor of physics, for questioning the science of climate change is an endorsement of the culture of censorship suffocating Australian life and further confirms that the nation’s universities are in crisis.
The unanimous judgment handed down by the High Court on Wednesday was the culmination of a nearly six-year fight by Peter Ridd against JCU, which terminated his employment in May 2018.
Before his dismissal Ridd was subject to a series of disciplinary proceedings in relation to his public criticism of the scientific evidence on which rested claims that climate change was killing the Great Barrier Reef.
In a publication of the Institute of Public Affairs, Climate Change: The Facts 2017, Ridd wrote, for instance, that “the serious problems with quality assurance in many areas of science” mean “we can be sceptical of claims the Great Barrier Reef is in peril”.
Ridd was first investigated and charged with serious misconduct in 2016 for emailing a journalist to express his criticisms of prominent reef science.
The High Court found that in this instance Ridd’s comments were protected by the provisions in his enterprise agreement in force at the time that protected intellectual freedom. To prove that nothing a person says before the word “but” really counts, the court’s lip service to academic freedom ultimately was undone by its finding that breaches of confidentiality directions were not protected and hence the termination of his employment in May 2018 was lawful.
The implication seems to be that the university could launch an unlawful investigation against an employee, but it would be entirely lawful to force the employee to keep secret the investigation.
This would mean that an investigated party who wanted to challenge an unlawful investigation would not be able to raise funds to do so or seek outside help. It also would mean that the direction to Ridd to maintain secrecy even from his own wife was also lawful.
The endorsement of the university’s star chamber disciplinary system is a staggering rejection of natural justice.
The court agreed that the university could make secrecy orders. This reveals, as Justice Darryl Rangiah noted in his dissenting judgment when this case was heard in the Federal Court, “a Kafkaesque scenario of a person secretly accused and secretly found guilty of a disciplinary offence but unable to reveal, under threat of further secret charges being brought, that he or she had ever been charged and found guilty”.
That the High Court bench as a group could fail to identify the clear problems of this manifestly absurd interpretation obviously reveals a problem in our judicial and legal culture.
The High Court’s failure to act also reveals that the cancellation of Ridd is not just a problem of a few rogue administrators, or even a crisis in our universities, but the symptom of a much wider problem in Australian society.
It is increasingly evident the ideology that has captured government, universities and corporate Australia is one that is designed to control what Australians are allowed to say and what information they are allowed to hear and read.
No matter what you believe about climate change or what is happening to the Great Barrier Reef, these cannot be settled subjects. The scientific method means more than just declaring a hypothesis as an incontrovertible fact. It means challenging a hypothesis to observe whether it stands up to scrutiny. The scientific method is a process of rigorous scepticism across time to find reliable results.
It does not mean, as JCU believes, that you can just ignore criticism. To this day, JCU has not responded to Ridd’s criticism of quality assurance in science.
In deciding to vindicate JCU’s authoritarian tactics to shut down what it considered heretical beliefs, the High Court shines a spotlight on the insidious cancel culture permeating Australia’s institutions. It is an important reminder that real science still exists but it is something that needs to be fought for if we are to have an honest debate about the future of the country.
Morgan Begg is director of the legal rights program at the Institute of Public Affairs.