Editorial-29 September 2003



There's No Substitute for an Advocate Who's a Class Act



  Australia's Universities Need a Jeremy Gompertz.

Despite his avuncular appearance Jeremy Gompertz, QC, counsel for the Kelly family at the inquiry into Dr. David Kelly's death is one tough guy as just about anyone coming under his cross examination has found out. And his studied summing up gave those in his sights some withering broadsides. His case for the culpability of the UK's Ministry of Defence was persuasive. There was just a touch of Boston lawyer Joseph Welch' destruction of Senator Joe McCarthy half a century ago.

    Were the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee to enlist Mr Gompertz to put the case to the Australian public that subjecting the nation's university sector to "capital punishment" is contrary to the national interest it just might evoke public proactive interest.


If something isn't done to reverse the decimation being visited upon Australia's universities by the Coalition Government, the nation will become increasingly non-competitive with knowledge economies and increasingly dependent on "old industries" for its gross domestic product but will be in no position to compete effectively with the developing nations for international market share. It's a sure recipe for a decline in per capita GDP toward the end of the decade and beyond.


    This past Thursday (September 25th) Kerry O'Brian on his 7:30 report went through the workplace relations reform objectives published by Brendan Nelson and Tony Abbott (see N&V item). The first segment was given to David Hardaker to construct and is summarised by:

Universities 'blind-sided' by IR demands

    The Federal Government is in the middle of a new fight over industrial reform, this time with the academic community. Vice-chancellors around Australia are in revolt over what they see as a hamfisted attempt by the Government to impose an ideological agenda on the way they run their institutions. In particular, vice-chancellors are angered by the Government's insistence that they must accept the IR changes if they want $400 million of promised new funding. For its part, the Government sees the changes as giving choice to academic staff and rewarding the best.

The aggressive incomprehension by the Coalition Government of the universities' place in the fabric of a nation has assumed monumental proportions. Mr. Abbott's comment: "I don't see any reason why a university wouldn't be prepared to negotiate on the basis of the proposal that the Government has put forward."


Just because the Cabinet is zealously hounding the universities to micromanage them, what's the complaint?


The Prime Minister, John Howard, needn't go looking overseas for a weapon of mass destruction he and his cabinet colleagues are manufacturing it and doing a damn fine job of it.


Sydney University's Vice-Chancellor, Gavin Brown, not to put to fine a point on it was ropable, "Government's announcement on Monday afternoon for a whole series of intensely prescriptive measures in connection with industrial relations, ...make it almost impossible for us to conduct enterprise bargaining without intense Government interference."

    While Mr Abbot pulling a po-face with the best of them said the night before on Tuesday's Lateline, "We're not trying to make Australian workplace agreements mandatory, we're just trying to make them optional. We're not trying to make anything compulsory. We're just trying to give university people a choice about the industrial agreement that they work under." Of course the Abbott/Nelson prescription comes bearing a $404 million carrot which gives every appearance of being a proscriptive stick.


Next it was Dr. Nelson's turn with Kerry O'Brian doing the interrogation. And Dr. Nelson, innocence personified opened with:

What the Government is saying is that in return for $404 million of core funding, of extra public resources, we're saying quite simply that we want an enterprise agreement to have a clause which advises academic and other staff of the university that they do have the right, if they choose to, to negotiate a common law agreement and a workplace agreement with university management.

Kerry O'Brian pointed out to the minister that V-Cs such as Professor Brown, "aren't exactly raging radicals. He says your industrial relations demands are 'ideological' and 'linking IR to Government funding is totally illogical'. He wouldn't say that lightly and he also says you've ambushed him this week." O'Brian went further, "[Professor Brown  also says] you've created the potential for 'gross intrusion upon university autonomy, academic freedom and student choice.'" Dr. Nelson defended himself  saying, "we did advise the sector, when the package was announced in May, that one of the conditions for the first $404 million of the $1.5 billion of extra money would be that we wanted enterprise agreements to not preclude the negotiation of a workplace agreement with staff."


That Professor Brown and his fellow vice-chancellors didn't see a king hit coming, considering the Coalition Government's track record since 1995, beggars belief. And interestingly with his imminent departure for overseas  to head the amalgamation of Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology the V-C of Melbourne University and Chair of the Group of Eight, Alan Gilbert, seems to have taken to heart the ancient proverb "if you sup with the devil, carry a long spoon."


Kerry O'Brian: "Melbourne University vice-chancellor Alan Gilbert's is saying your attempt at "a quite formidable and very detailed and very micro-management kind of intervention will be counterproductive and an overly prescriptive industrial framework".


In fact he seems to be taking his spoon and leaving home.


Meanwhile the all but mute opposition parties seem to be marching in place to the beat of muffled drums.


Australia's universities desperately need a Jeremy Gompertz to put their case.



Alex Reisner

The Funneled Web