The decision by the organisers of the Brisbane Writers Festival to disinvite Germaine Greer and Bob Carr from participating in the September event is yet another example of the closing down of debate.
Melbourne University Press chief Louise Adler made it clear on ABC Radio National’s RN Drive on Wednesday that both MUP authors had been invited, only for their invitations to be later withdrawn.
Ann McLean, the BWF’s acting head, said the organisation was worried Greer would overshadow other writers. There was also concern that Carr would not address his topic, “What the World Needs Now”, but would talk about his memoir, Run For Your Life.
Fancy that. The BWF worried that Greer would create too much interest and that Carr would talk about his book. Which suggests that literary festivals, in Brisbane at least, are making a case against controversy and publishing.
Meanwhile, Australian National University chancellor Gareth Evans threatened to boycott the event. It’s not all that clear that Evans’s absence would lead to a decline in audience. Greer’s response was less self-important. She told The Australian: “To be uninvited to what is possibly the dreariest festival in the world, with zero hospitality and no fun at all, is a great relief.”
It is doubtful if the demise of the literary festival would have a deleterious effect on intellectual life in Australia. Not all that many books are sold at these events and there is little real debate.
Take the Sydney Writers Festival. Each year this provides an occasion for left-wing organisers to use a pile of taxpayers’ money from the commonwealth, NSW and City of Sydney to put on a talkfest for ideological mates.
Again this year, the SWF was stacked with leftist authors with hardly a conservative on the program. Much like the ABC and Fairfax Media — both of which happen to be SWF partners. All up, six present or former politicians spoke at the festival. Not one was from the Liberal Party or the Nationals.
What’s interesting in the BWF’s decision is the discourtesy involved. If Greer and Carr were not wanted, they should not have been invited. Once asked to participate, the invitation should have been honoured. Greer has an international reputation and Carr is the longest continuously serving premier of NSW and a former foreign minister.
It was much the same when Evans and his vice-chancellor, Brian Schmidt, rejected the proposal by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to fund a bachelor of Western civilisation degree at the ANU. Evans and Schmidt implied that Ramsay Centre chairman John Howard’s proposal threatened academic freedom.
There is no evidence that this would have occurred. However, there is considerable evidence that the proposal was opposed by left-wing academics and students.
Schmidt did not respond to a letter from Howard dated June 1 in which he challenged the accuracy of ANU statements. This is an unprofessional way to treat a former prime minister who attempted to provide funding to the ANU for a degree.
The Ramsay Centre is hoping the University of Sydney will take up a similar offer. The signs are not positive. Sydney University vice-chancellor Michael Spence was unenthusiastic when the matter was discussed on the ABC’s Q&A on June 18. On July 5, Green Left Weekly reported that 100 protesters had rallied at Sydney University against the Ramsay Centre, including academic members of the National Tertiary Education Union.
Sydney University chancellor Belinda Hutchinson was in the audience when Howard spoke at the Centre for Independent Studies on July 10. Howard said he knew “as well as anybody else how many left-wing sentiments there are in universities”.
This view was challenged by Hutchinson, who said “the politicisation of what goes on in universities is much, much less than it was many years ago”. Her argument was that far fewer students took part in protests than used to be the case.
Hutchinson overlooks the fact the political climate at universities, especially in the social sciences, is set by academics, not students, and that quite a few of the leftist demonstrators of yesteryear hold administration and academic positions on today’s campuses.
In the late 1960s and 70s, some academics took on the Left in public debate. There are few, if any, today since these few academic conservatives in the social sciences are worried about their careers. In any event, it is surprising that the chancellor of a university considering the offer of a generous grant would argue in public with the chairman of the organisation concerned. This should have been a matter for private discussion.
It’s a sad fact that there is little debate within literary festivals or on universities. The likes of Greer and Carr do not need the BWF. And the Ramsay Centre can spend its money in better ways than ploughing it into universities, which are no longer centres for diversity in debate and discussion or proud advocates of Western civilisation.