Scott Morrison’s 21st century book burning

Jul 23, 2020

Prime Minister Morrison’s Coalition Government has committed $270 billion to militarisation, while universities, public broadcasters and the arts face devastation. The implications for Australian society are grim.

In the digital age, it doesn’t take the physical burning of books for anti-intellectualism to flourish. It just takes the systematic undermining of the public institutions that foster critical thinking, truthful reporting and creativity.

All these are targeted by Prime Minister Morrison, who has stepped up the attack under cover of his populist COVID-19 response.


A shock ran through the sector at the news last week that the University of New South Wales was sacking 500 staff. Damien Cahill, assistant secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union, called it “an act of social vandalism”. It’s the tip of the iceberg. At least 30,000 teaching jobs will be lost nationally.

The pandemic has uncovered two deep flaws in the university system, created by 40 years of pressure to reduce public spending: over-reliance on overseas student income; and the massive casualisation of the teaching workforce, with the complicity of vastly overpaid Vice-Chancellors. At Australia’s richest university, Melbourne, almost 73% of staff are casuals; the average across the country is above 60%.

With more sackings looming and public universities denied JobKeeper (while private colleges get it), casual lecturers have no more security than the poorest student scraping by on a zero-hours pizza delivery job.

The jobs crisis is also a disaster for the intellectual life of the country. If Australia has produced a distinguished array of Nobel laureates and other leaders in their fields, it’s in no small part because of their training in public universities.

The Morrison Government’s overhaul of university funding, announced on 19 June, takes aim particularly at fields that involve critical thinking. Fees for arts, humanities and social science students will increase by 113%; law and business go up by 28%. Those faculties will also have their funding cut; more than 20 courses have already been abolished at Sydney University.

A group of distinguished academics has launched a petition to withdraw the cuts and fee increases; you can sign here.

Public broadcasting

The ABC has been a target of the Coalition Government ever since it came to office in 2014. Since then the national broadcaster has lost $793m in funding; since the mid-1980s its real funding is down by 30%.

The MEAA union, in its campaign Hands Off Our ABC says: “The ABC has never been under greater attack in its long and storied history than it is now… Programs have been axed, locally produced drama is way down, foreign bureaux have been closed and hundreds of years of journalistic experience has been lost. ABC journalists simply doing their job are attacked on an almost daily basis by Coalition politicians.”

Government policy favours the Murdoch/Nine duopoly. The Liberal Party federal council has voted 4:1 in favour of selling off the ABC. But as the union says: “The ABC isn’t theirs to sell. It belongs to us, the Australian public, and it’s time to start fighting back.”

The 250 job cuts announced in June include 70 in the news section. This is particularly dangerous at a time of international tension and threats to civil liberties. It leaves newsrooms deprived of trained staff, dependent instead on the relentless flow of ministerial press releases. Meanwhile PM Morrison shifts Australian foreign policy in line with US warmongering, under minimum scrutiny.

The late Australian journalist Phillip Knightley, in his book on war reporting The First Casualty (André Deutsch 1975), discussed how governments seek to control thinking, and his conclusions are as relevant to cold wars as to armed conflict. “The only question,” he wrote, “is the degree to which the news should be managed openly and the degree to which it should be managed subtly.”

A democratic government “nullifies rather than conceals undesirable news; it controls emphasis rather than facts; it balances bad news with good; it lies directly only when it is certain that the lie will not be found out.”

Recognise the modus operandi? Only the guaranteed independence and funding of the national broadcaster can protect against this kind of media manipulation.

The arts

Artists and writers are often the keepers of society’s conscience, and that makes them fair game for the Morrison Government.

JobKeeper exclusions have been lethal for the arts, where most people work on a short-term, casual basis.

For months the sector was left without any bailout, despite being worth an estimated $111.7bn annually to the economy. On 25 June, after leading figures in arts and entertainment backed calls for $850m for live performance, the Government announced a $250m package, $90m of it in loans. Morrison promoted it as being good news for “tradies”.

On 17 July he travelled to the Gold Coast to promise $400m to attract overseas film companies. Screen Producers Australia estimate this will help at most 20% of the local production workforce. It will do even less for Australian creativity; Arts Minister Paul Fletcher had already suspended local content quotas for screen for the duration of the pandemic.

Both packages are window dressing, and amount to a fraction of per capita funding by governments in Britain, Europe and New Zealand. They come after April’s cuts to Australia Council funding for small and medium organisations, and the impact on cultural institutions of years of “efficiency dividends”.

Smarter solutions

The financial shortfall from the pandemic in the university sector is estimated at $4.5 billion. A mere billion would solve many problems at the ABC. A better arts bailout might cost a further billion. If the Government was serious about “jobs, jobs, jobs” this would all be money well spent – in total less than 3% of the militarisation package.

We stand at a crossroads for the future of civil society. PM Morrison can’t be allowed to take us in the direction of a dumber, more xenophobic Australia, and that means we have to stand up for our public institutions.


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