COMMENT: Life and Death of Democracy at the University of Sydney

NOTES ON THE NEWS: How ironic that Professor John Keane, the distinguished head of Sydney University’s newly created Institute for Democracy and Human Rights should, wittingly or unwittingly, be damaging democracy on his own campus.

Keane is, of course, author of the acclaimed Life and Death of Democracy, which was short-listed for the 2010 Non-Fiction Prime Minister’s Literary Award.

And he was a valuable addition to Sydney’s faculty, having come back from Britain where The Times billed him as one of Britain’s leading political thinkers, and a writer of worldwide importance.

Just a few weeks ago Keane and his institute were looking forward to playing host to the Dalai Lama next month on the occasion of the Tibetan spiritual leader’s visit to Australia. The spacious Seymour Centre had been penciled-in for the occasion, and the word spread.

But then the trouble started. Sydney University – and its China Studies Centre – receive a great deal of funding from corporate and other sources with business interests in China, as well as large numbers of high-paying Chinese students. China controls Tibet, and is no fan of the Dalai Lama, and prefers that its friends don’t entertain him.

Keane was told in no uncertain terms that under no circumstances could the meeting go ahead under the auspices of the university, nor could media be invited, and anything to do with the Dalai Lama would have to be off campus. It’s not clear whether or not Keane protested, but he certainly did not go public. He did as he was told, and the arrangements that had been made were cancelled.

I first heard of this extraordinary decision when I read about it in two Asian newspapers – the South China Morning Post, published from Hong Kong, and The Globe, in Jakarta, where a group of us from the AIIA in Sydney are having a series of meetings with Indonesian officials, think tanks, and others. The article was long and contained much detail, and I could not find anything as informative in the Sydney Morning Herald or The Australian.

The Globe gave the story considerable prominence under the headline “Oz University Cancels Dalai Lama Visit”. The article gave the reason for the cancellation as “to avoid damaging China ties, and funding for its cultural Confucius Institute”. A university spokesman was quoted as confirming the decision had been made to move the event off campus “as a better way of doing it”.

The reaction from ranking Indonesian officials was interesting. “We are always being told by Australians about what a vibrant democracy Australia is, but it seems you are ever ready to placate the Chinese”, one said.

“It’s not about democracy, it’s about money”, another said. “We are told our young people should study in Sydney, but its clear the Chinese call the shots.

There then followed a long discussion on how Australia, “in trying to play with the big boys (China and the United States) was easily influenced by these countries, when it would be more productive to work with ASEAN nations. High Jakarta officials still rankle at the way Indonesia – the world’s fourth largest country, our closest neighbor, and a growing power – was given scant attention in the Australia in the Asian Century white paper. (More on this another time)

But back to the Dalai Lama. While the Sydney press failed to get to the bottom of who was really behind the canning of the Dalai Lama’s event at the university, ABC’s 7.30 certainly did. First there was an interview with a student event organizer, who sounded more convincing than the high officials whose weasel words and spin were beyond contempt.

ABC’s 7.30, however, obtained copies of emails exchanged between Keane and his boss, the university’s vice-chancellor Michael Spence. There is a certain surreal quality about the text of these emails, which purport to show the cancellation was initiated by Keane.

“This is to confirm that the decision was taken to withdraw our support for hosting His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s planned speech at the University on June 18th,” Professor Keane’s email said. “It… will be moved to an off-campus location, and… no member of staff or associate of the IDHR will formally be involved in organising that event.

Spence replies, “”Thank you so much for your skill in dealing with this situation so effectively and in the best interests of researchers across the University. I think that the negotiated solution meets all the concerns”.

These emails show both Spence and Keane in an unfavourable light, but it is Spence who we must hold responsible for showing himself as a weak and ineffective vice-chancellor, not prepared to stand up for the core values of a university that likes to think of itself as being in the same league as Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, and the Sorbonne.

Ironically, on Friday the Dalai Lama was given a huge reception at an official two-day event at the University of Cambridge in England, one of the world’s great universities, and Keane’s alma mater.

The University of Cambridge expressed delight at being able to host such a major event at which the Dalai Lama spoke of his hope for peace a reconciliation. It was the third time he has been there.

Democrats will be appalled by the decision of Michael Spence in not allowing a global figure access to the University of Sydney. In the eyes of many – notably those we met in Indonesia – he has betrayed the principles of democracy and harmed Sydney’s reputation. There are some who feel his tenure as vice-chancellor has been less than distinguished, and this latest callow decision will not change their minds.

Colin Chapman is president of the AIIA in NSW

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One response to “COMMENT: Life and Death of Democracy at the University of Sydney

  1. Excellent commentary.

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