Letters to the Editor

Academia, the West Bank and More

Academic Freedom

Sir: In the January-February issue Salvatore Babones makes the extraordinary claim that “Contrary to some public perceptions … academic freedom is alive and well in Australia”.

Seldom has a more falsifiable, even ridiculous, statement been printed in Quadrant.

How can academic freedom exist when over the past thirty or so years all of our forty or so universities have been swamped by wave after wave of ill-prepared, poorly-motivated and simply unsuitable students whose lecturers and their casual and insecure markers are under enormous pressure to pass?

How can academics be free when the universities that employ them insist that their jobs depend on the income generated from full-fee-paying foreign students, large numbers of whose English is just not up to doing any prose-based subject at the tertiary level?

How can academic freedom prevail when middle managers systematically demand that lecturers only pursue research that “brings in” money and very often refuse to support—and might even sabotage—research that doesn’t?

How can such freedom exist in a Unified National System in which something like 60 per cent of employees are administrative and ancillary staff, many of whose job it is to oversee and even micro-manage lecturers’ teaching and research?

How can academic freedom survive in any Australian university when entire disciplines—even schools within faculties—have been made into conservative-free zones by selective appointments and more or less constant peer-group pressure to conform to the dictates of the politically correct?

Anyone prepared to accept what’s happened to our universities in recent decades would do well to view Salvatore Babones’s reassurances with scepticism and to read—and take to heart—Barry Spurr’s keen insights and inevitable lamentations published in the same issue.

Malcolm Saunders


The West Bank and Jordan

Sir: I greatly enjoyed Michael Easson’s article in the December edition and agree with many of its salient points, although I find that having lived in South Africa under apartheid the situation there was, perhaps, not as clear as many now believe.

However, I do wish to take exception to one point, where he claims that the West Bank was thrice used as a base for Jordan to launch a “full-scale military attack” in 1948, 1967 and 1973. The anticipated/feared attack from Jordan in 1973 never came. In fact, as Abraham Rabinovich makes clear in his excellent work on the subject, The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East, King Hussein of Jordan actually warned the Israelis of the looming attack by Egypt and Syria. Although some Jordanian units were sent reluctantly to the Syrian front as a show of “Arab unity”, the very limited participation by Jordan, and King Hussein’s prolonged effective neutrality, could be said to have significantly aided Israel’s survival in 1973.

Although Jordan was used by Palestinian terrorists as a base for attacks for many years after 1967, the PLO were thrown bloodily out of Jordan by Hussein in 1970, an event commemorated by the PLO and others as “Black September”.  

To be pedantic, the West Bank could not have been used as a base after 1967 anyway as it was under Israeli control.

Andrew Porter


Legal Misunderstandings

Sir: John Wheelahan’s article “Nero’s Torches: A Metaphor for Justice in Victoria” (January-February 2022) misunderstands the operation of our criminal justice system. Some of his more basic errors require addressing.

  1. A Crown Prosecutor in Victoria is an independent statutory officer not subject to direction. A Crown Prosecutor is briefed directly by the Solicitor for Public Prosecutions and does not delegate.
  2. The sole power of charging in Victoria resides in Victoria Police. The Director of Public Prosecutions has no power to prefer a criminal charge, although once a charge has been laid, they have power to take over the carriage of the prosecution and to discontinue it.
  3. Victoria Police have no entitlement to an opinion on a brief of evidence from either the Director of Public Prosecutions or a Crown Prosecutor and are not bound by any such advice. Victoria Police have on occasion, usually in matters of high public interest, sought advice from prosecuting authorities, however, this has been in the nature of self-protection rather than from any legal requirement. This situation contrasts with the position in the Commonwealth and the other states and territories.
  4. The test for bringing a charge and committing an accused for trial differs from the test for preferring an indictment; the former is predicated on whether a jury, accepting a complainant’s evidence at its highest, could proceed to conviction; the latter depends on whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction, i.e., whether a jury would proceed to conviction. That said, the invariable practice in sexual offence cases is to charge where a complainant’s evidence is capable of supporting a conviction. This test was clearly satisfied in the case of Pell.
  5. My reply to Messrs Dalton QC, Waugh and Smith acknowledges the “unfortunate public controversy amongst the Cardinal’s proponents and opponents”. I deprecated the uninformed public debate which, it seems, continues. To suggest that I criticised one side only is not correct.
  6. To suggest that I ever insinuated that Pell was a liar is similarly untrue. I have never called Pell a liar nor would I ever do so. The fact that Pell gave evidence in neither trial makes this allegation palpably absurd.
  7. My conclusion that Pell was innocent comes from the additional material produced in Keith Windschuttle’s book and not produced at trial. We do not have a verdict of “innocent”, unlike the Scots, and the High Court decision can decide no more than that Pell was not guilty; it is incapable of showing that he was innocent.
  8. Finally, the reference to a “Paulian” (sic) conversion betrays a misunderstanding of the function of a barrister in a criminal trial, whether appearing for prosecution or defence. A Crown Prosecutor should have no view on the guilt or otherwise of an accused person; their sole duty is to determine whether the evidence meets the required standard. Any view of a prosecutor is irrelevant in the same way that any view we have on a client’s guilt or innocence is irrelevant when we defend.

Gavin Silbert QC


An Atheist Word

Sir: As a devout atheist I sometimes feel let down with Quadrant’s (majority) religious viewpoint, however I was happy to read in the current issue a very small opposing argument was allowed in a story, quite separate of course to some full-on religious ones.

The religious one, “Evolution, Hyper-Novelty and Cultural Noise” by Michael Giffin (January-February 2022), claims there are vast gaps in knowledge between the Big Bang and the beginning of life and asks, “is alienating the Bible from science appropriate?” He concludes his piece with, “Neither science nor psychology explains the gaps between the Big Bang, the creation of the biosphere, and the beginning of life within it. Only the Bible does that.”
You’ll excuse me if I suggest the last sentence was the punch line, but I couldn’t help myself.

Now skip ahead in the same issue to Philip Drew’s interesting piece “The Trials of James Barnet”, where he notes:

The Oxford debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, on the conflict of religion and science posed by Darwin’s theory of evolution as it affected the origins and status of mankind, proved a watershed insofar as it demonstrated the superiority of knowledge founded on systematic observation and rigorous testing of evidence over theological assertions based on ancient texts of uncertain provenance.

I found it refreshing that another viewpoint was allowed. Thank you.

Henry Rainger


Anthropological Taboos

Sir: In his December article “Infanticide in Traditional Aboriginal Society”, William D. Rubinstein tells the truth with candour and precision.

Back in the early 1970s when I majored in Anthropology, certain subjects were taboo. I knew they were avoided. I was a boy from the bush with family on both sides, oral historians, but all in independent agreement about essential population control “by the blacks”. I searched and found books and other material verifying what they claimed. This did not fit the narrative of the lecturers, or the idealism of their young middle-class urban charges. Sadly this has affected the whole project of understanding Aborigines, past and present.

The NITV channel has such gems as: “Aboriginal culture is the longest, continuous surviving civilisation on earth.” The retired and lionised former journalist uttering this has not a clue about this difficult subject. But the virtue is there.

Wayne M. Fletcher


Neilson and Clare

Sir: I thank Diana Figgis for her informative, illuminating and moving article about the fine Australian poet John Shaw Neilson in the January-February issue. I had thought I knew quite a bit about Neilson, one of my favourite poets, but Figgis showed me more in her excellent piece, “John Shaw Neilson, a Rhymer Undefeated”, and I shall return to reading it often.

The man would probably dislike much of the “modernist” poetry published today, which often lacks all rhyme, rhythm (and, sometimes, all reason too!).

It was apt that Figgis headed her piece with, among others, a quotation from Geoffrey Grigson about the nineteenth-century English poet of nature John Clare: “a poet in defeat, entirely undefeated”. Undefeated indeed. Although Clare had the misfortune to end his days in a lunatic asylum, he continued to write poems while there. Assisted by friends and admirers, and after a life of hard labour, Neilson fortunately secured, in 1928, a quieter position as a public servant, which he held until his death in 1942. I’d not known that the job lasted so long.

Suzanne Edgar


Television Gladiators

Sir: Gerard Henderson, who writes of legendary encounters with David Marr on Insiders (December 2021) should relax a little. Those of us who tuned in on a Sunday morning would be disappointed and perhaps devastated if the polite and acrimonious twins weren’t on the show that day. The spectacle of two grown men engaged in a titanic struggle to maintain their composure while desperate to get in that last killer phrase was nothing short of glorious entertainment. The Romans had nothing on those two.

John Dorman


The Old Whaling Life

Sir: Joe Dolce’s entertaining review “The North Water: No Whale of a Time” (December 2021) may seem to some readers to be describing far too fanciful a story of whaling to be even remotely realistic, but truth is often stranger than fiction.

When writing the preface to the 1898 autobiographical book The Cruise of the Cachalot: The Story of a New Bedford Whaler by Frank T. Bullen, Rudyard Kipling reportedly wrote that it was a better and truer account of life on board a whaler than Melville’s Moby-Dick. It tells of a three-year mid-nineteenth-century voyage around the world, killing cachalots (sperm whales) and other cetaceans in every ocean. The many stories ring with authenticity. At one point one of the mates, unable to accept continuing criticism from the captain, grasped him in a bear-hug and leapt overboard, where they both drowned. Highly recommended.

Bernie Masters

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