La Trobe University has been forced to drop all disciplinary proceedings against Safe Schools coordinator Roz Ward, just 48 hours after initiating them. This is an important victory for academic freedom, workers’ rights and free political expression.
Ward was facing discipline as a result of a private Facebook post in which she expressed unpatriotic sentiments toward the flag and a jocular disrespect for the state government. The post was seized on by the Murdoch press as part of its long-running and hysterical campaign against Ward and the Safe Schools program. It was further invoked to rally an array of right wing figures behind the call for Ward to be sacked.
The university duly complied, standing her down.
A concerted campaign led by the National Tertiary Education Union in defence of Ward tapped into widespread outrage about this abject capitulation and into concerns about the implications should such victimisation be allowed to stand. The precedent would be clear: that it is permissible for employers to sack staff because of their private political views, to discipline staff when their views are not pleasing to governments or media moguls, and to police political expression of staff to ensure continued funding or placate corporate supporters.
The success of the defence campaign demonstrates that democratic rights still matter, and that the powerful don’t always get their way. Much as the ideological zealots at the Australian would like to dictate the political leanings of every prominent person, this campaign highlights that they cannot do so without pushback. And it confirms that the best way to stand up to the belligerence of the right is not to cower or attempt to appease, but to fight back.
In contrast to the state government withdrawing support for Ward in favour of cheering on the Australian flag, the strong stand taken by the NTEU was decisive. It not only inspired confidence in wide layers of people to rally behind the cause, but also shifted the entire focus of the debate.
Instead of Roz or Safe Schools being under scrutiny, the actions of the university and its conservative backers became the issue. Their trampling on the industrial rights of workers, freedom of expression for academics and political rights for everybody became plain to see, and served to galvanise an array of organisations and individuals.
The speed at which the university was forced to relent now sets a positive precedent in the other direction. Universities and other employers should in future think twice before attempting to control the political expression of their employees. And workers will feel a little less concerned that the powers that be are looking over their shoulder, waiting to drive them from their job if they speak their mind about something.
It has been a real strength of the campaign that support for Ward has come from such a wide range of individuals and organisations, including many which have no particular sympathy with her Marxist political views but defend her right to have them.
In the context of Ward’s victimisation, this is the principled position to take.
At the same time, the ideological content of the right’s attack is nothing short of ludicrous. The idea that Marxism can be legitimately derided as extreme or a fringe ideology which should have no place in public life beyond the darkest corners of academia simply does not hold up to scrutiny.
Marxism is not, as some assert, mindless support for the Soviet Union. It is a critique of capitalism; a political and economic theory that provides a framework for understanding the perennial wars, economic instability and inequality that characterise the world.
In practice, Marxism involves support for the struggles of workers and all other oppressed groups for greater rights and control over their lives and society. These struggles are key for Marxists not only because they help mitigate against the disastrous effects capitalism has on people’s lives, but also because they point to the possibility of an alternative to the status quo, in which the majority would have a democratic say over how society’s resources are used and distributed.
Evidence that there is nothing particularly marginal about this idea has come most recently from a somewhat unlikely source: two world-weary older men on opposite sides of the Atlantic, who have managed to inspired huge numbers of young people Justin Bieber-style with not much more than their socialist convictions and left wing policies.
Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders’ concern about the power of the super rich, the grotesque inequality of the system, the wars and rampant environmental destruction, has set them apart from the rest of the political establishment, which is widely and rightly perceived to be nothing more than the super rich’s loyal servant. Far from being fringe dwellers, this has made them popular in a way that the supposedly more reasonable figures of the centre can only dream about.
The attacks on Ward likewise demonstrate the bankruptcy of those who support the status quo and disparage Marxism and other radical critiques. The Australian newspaper has at various times attacked Ward for criticising immigration minister Peter Dutton for the widely documented mistreatment of women in offshore detention centres, as well as the former Liberal state government for its plan to install prison cells at train stations, and of course for describing the Australian flag as racist.
Millions of people quite rightly regard these positions as entirely reasonable. Yet for the right wing media, defending and apologising for terrible atrocities committed against people seeking asylum, against Aboriginal people or those targeted by police as a part of law and order crackdowns is a condition of entry into the elite club, and the only protection against an unremitting campaign of character assassination and slander.
Standing up for the rights of others is the only decent response to a world where indecency has become the norm. The right might try to repress such convictions or drive people from their jobs for holding them, but they won’t ever stop them.