MUNGO MacCALLUM. The end of Western Civilisation!

It was, declared The Australian’s resident theologian Greg Sheridan, a pivotal moment in modern Australian history.

Well, modern Australian history begins with white settlement. So was Pope Greg referring to the arrival of the first fleet, perhaps? The end of transportation? The celebration of federation? The landing at Gallipoli? The victory in the Coral Sea?

No, none of the above – something far more important: the ANU’s rejection of the proposed Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. According to Sheridan, the university’s decision means that Western Civilisation itself is now imperilled.  

This is hyperbole beyond the wildest imagination of even Gerard Henderson, but it shows just how seriously our national newspaper and its right wing commentariat (a description Sheridan did not deny) is fighting its culture wars. What was originally a minor controversy in academe is to be blown up into a crisis of apocalyptic proportions.

For those who have avoided the row (meaning those who do not consume the Murdoch media) it is worth pointing out that Paul Ramsay, the billionaire developer of private hospitals, was himself a cultural warrior, a hard-line conservative who saw his legacy at least partly as a weapon to turn back what he saw as the remorseless tide of progressive incursions into his jealously guarded domain.

When one of his carefully selected directors, Tony Abbott, said the Ramsay Centre would be not only about Western civilization but in favour of it and would have a say over curriculum design and staff appointments, he was merely following the script.

But of course the influence was supposed to be covert, not trumpeted in Quadrant – the idea was that the proposed Centre could be justified within the umbrella of academic independence and autonomy, when in fact it could not. And the arguments that other donations, especially from foreign governments, could be in the same situation is well worth having, but is hardly an excuse for Abbott and Ramsay.

The ANU’s vice-chancellor, Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt, was keen to get his hands on the Ramsay money, but there was already pressure (and yes, most of it from the dreaded progressive left, the enemy Ramsay had vowed to fight).

Abbott blowing the gaffe gave Schmidt the excuse to call off the negotiations, which were already stalled over the extent of control the Ramsay people (led by John Howard, no mean cultural warrior himself) demanded. So sorry, no deal, and so, according to Sheridan and his belligerent cohort, Australian history was changed – the pivotal moment swung towards the destruction of Australia as we, or at least Sheridan, know it.

Such is his derangement that even the more sensible members of the government, like the education minister Simon Birmingham, have been drawn into it. Absurdly, the prime minister himself has demanded a please explain from Schmidt. Well, good luck with that – Schmidt is smarter than Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and John Howard combined on any day of the week. And, dare we say it, considerably more sensible than Greg Sheridan, who, only encouraged by this setback, will press on indefatigably to preserve his fantasy world.

Note for cruciaverbalists: Greg Sheridan is an anagram of he rigs danger. Worth recording, but hardly pivotal.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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