Students protest opening of Menzies Institute at Melbourne University
Students protest opening of Menzies Institute at Melbourne University

“Racist, sexist, anti-queer, Liberals are not welcome here!”—the sound of students chanting echoes through the Old Quadrangle at the University of Melbourne. Dotted across the building’s sandstone walls are bright yellow stickers that feature former Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies with devil horns. The stickers read “NO MENZIES INSTITUTE”. 

On 18 November, students at the University protested the opening of the Robert Menzies Institute (the Institute). The University administration, together with the Liberal Party and their big bucks—seven million dollars of federal funding to be exact—have established the Institute as an outpost of Australia’s hard right at the heart of the Parkville campus. 

The University’s Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell and members of the board of the Institute—including right-wing Sky News commentator Peta Credlin and chair of the neoliberal think tank the Institute of Public Affairs Geoffrey Hone—are no doubt very pleased to see it finally open. The partnership between the University’s management and the Institute is mutually beneficial. Maskell can further cement a (no doubt already close) relationship with some of the most powerful people in Australian business, media and politics, and Credlin, Hone, and other right-wing culture warriors get a platform to spread their ideas on campus.

Opposition to the Institute among Melbourne University students and staff is in part about the right-wing worldview it’s being set-up to promote. The right whinge about “free speech” any time anyone opposes them. Yet the backers of the Institute are, like Credlin, already among the most high profile figures in our society—they don’t need yet another avenue to publicise their views. The establishment of the Institute is, in reality, a blow to whatever remains of a culture of “free and disinterested” debate on campus. It’s an example of powerful interests buying access to academia and the prestige that goes with that.

The establishment of the Institute as a bastion of reaction at the heart of one of Australia’s major universities is particularly galling at a time when the far-right is enjoying a resurgence in connection with the so-called “freedom movement” against COVID-19 related public health measures.

Sam Rathnaweera, a socialist and activist in the “Stop the Liberals—Menzies Institute off our Campus” campaign, highlighted the connection between the two. “The right-wing of the Liberal Party and the figures backing the establishment of the Institute on our campus”, she said, “are among the most strident promoters of the kind of worldview held by the far-right individuals and organisations marching through the streets of Melbourne. The right-wing, anti-human messaging of the far-right street movement isn’t disconnected from the kind of rhetoric that people like Peta Credlin spew day-in, day-out on Sky News”.

In addition to pushing back against the right politically, our campaign is part of a broader fightback against attacks on higher education. National Tertiary Education Union member and socialist activist Elyssia Bugg, who spoke at the protest, highlighted the connection between university managers “who are directly responsible for the mass sackings of staff and slashing of student resources across universities”, and the backers of the Institute who have consistently supported cuts to public education funding.

Among those responsible for attacks on higher education is Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who gave the keynote address at the opening of the Institute. As Treasurer, Frydenberg was the architect of this year’s federal budget, which slashed tertiary education funding by almost 10 percent over the next three years.

The work of those establishing the Institute on our campus is part of a much bigger agenda—one that’s about entrenching the power of big business and the rich over every aspect of our society, including universities. “We can’t afford to let those who champion an anti-education, anti-student and anti-worker agenda go unopposed,” continued Elyssia, “because if we do, the situation on our campuses will continue to deteriorate, and our universities will become even more dominated and controlled by right-wing business interests than they are already”.

Monica Sestito, Education (Research) Officer in the Melbourne University Graduate Student Association and a leading activist in the campaign against the Institute, summarised the tasks ahead for student activists: “This isn’t the end of our campaign. This is just the beginning of rebuilding the student movement. The Menzies Institute isn’t going away without a fight. We want to tell the people running this centre that we will be back!”. 

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