Australian Politics 2019-05-25 15:55:00

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James Cook University head in trouble over firing of Prof. Ridd

Ridd is an honest scientist who had the daring to call out fake Greenie science at the university.  So they hate him with a passion.  In an old, old strategy, they thought to protect the Greenie crooks by attacking the whistleblower

If the vice-chancellor of James Cook University thinks she can keep a low profile, she is mistaken. Sandra Harding’s management of the sacking of physics professor Peter Ridd is under the microscope for good reason. The buck stops at the top. And much is at stake, with JCU facing international reputational damage over the scandal, huge legal costs, cost-cutting pressures from falling student numbers and staff discontent.

“The bottom line is Sandra Harding should go,” says a former member of the university’s 15-member governing council. “It’s in the interest of everybody that she retires.” Speaking to The Weekend Australian this week, the former council member says if Harding doesn’t retire, she should be sacked.

Ridd, an esteemed physics professor respected by students and staff, was sacked by JCU using a bogus claim of uncollegial behaviour that was rejected by the Federal Circuit Court last month. He questioned the quality of science about coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef. JCU spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending its right to sack Ridd, rather than encouraging a healthy debate about the claims he made.

So much for JCU being a bastion of academic freedom in the search of the truth. “Ridd is a decent man,” says the former council member who has had a long association with JCU, adding that Ridd did not want this fight. “He never set out to hurt anybody. But he did believe in what he was saying, he had evidence, and it’s proper to call out your colleagues if that is needed, to get to the truth. JCU took the nuclear option against Ridd, and that was crazy.”

Sacking Ridd was squarely a management issue for the VC, but the former council member says that JCU’s governing council should now be far more involved given the fallout from this debacle.

Still in close contact with JCU staff, including academics, the former council member says staff are upset and “whether or not they agree with Ridd is a separate matter. This court case probably cost the university a million bucks, which is money JCU cannot afford.”

The Weekend Australian has been told JCU is cutting about $20 million each year over its forward estimates due to financial pressures because the university is not meeting its own student enrolment targets. The former JCU council member confirms that is “one of the reasons why the staff across campus are very unhappy”.

“They know that there will be further redundancies coming. Those redundancies have already been chosen, but the staff haven’t been told who they are.”

According to the ex-member, the other reason the governing council should be more involved is that “the sacking of Ridd is being watched around the world. It is damaging JCU’s reputation in an area where JCU leads the world. In marine science, JCU is the top dog. To have that reputation damaged is extraordinarily worrying.”

The Weekend Australian also has been told JCU’s governing council has received briefings but otherwise has had little hands-on involvement in the Ridd matter. Given that council members have fiduciary duties similar to board members, some are asking why the governing council is not more involved with issues of reputational damage to JCU and the big bucks spent on court battles with Ridd.

The Weekend Australian sought an interview with Harding. She declined. A spokesman provided some answers by email to a list of questions, and a link to a statement by JCU provost Chris Cocklin after the Federal Circuit Court found against the university last month. The Weekend Australian also rang and left a message with JCU chancellor Bill Tweddell, who chairs the council. He did not return the call.

Though Harding has tried to keep her head down, the focus will remain on her. And it is not just her handling of the Ridd case that is causing consternation. “One of JCU’s current council members has been precluded from taking part in any council discussion involving Ridd because they reckon he has a conflict of interest because he knows one of the lawyers acting for Ridd,” says an insider.

“That’s not a conflict of interest,” he says, clearly frustrated by the erosion of council oversight, adding that “the council member didn’t want to rock the boat, so he has agreed not to attend meetings when the matter is discussed. She (Harding) might fight the battle, but she won’t win the war and there was never a need for the war in the first place. (JCU’s) campus is a very unhappy place right now.”

All this when Harding, in her 60s, might be planning one more career move. Her term as JCU boss expires at the end of 2021. She has been mentioned as a future Queensland governor. Some say she has her sights on one of Australia’s grander Group of Eight universities. But the controversy over her handling of Ridd won’t make either promotion easy.

“This is a significant bump in that road to a bigger and better position,” says one insider, who has been involved in the governance of JCU.

According to the former member of JCU’s governing council, Ridd has more support on campus than he realises, including from fellow academics. Something for Harding to keep in mind.

This month, Ridd told The Weekend Australian that none of his colleagues had defended him publicly. He suggested the need for “kamikaze academics”, academics who are older and established enough to resign in the noble cause of defending academic freedom. A few days later, JCU adjunct associate professor Sheilagh Cronin resigned from her unpaid position at the university. “After reading that, I thought ‘that’s me’,” she told The Weekend Australian this week.

Cronin wrote to Harding, resigning from her role at JCU and outlining her concerns over Ridd’s treatment: “I believe his treatment by yourself and your board is completely contrary to the philosophy of open discussion and debate that should be at the heart of every university. It saddens me that the reputation of JCU is being damaged by the injustice of Professor Ridd’s case.”

Cronin told The Weekend Australian she is also concerned about the scale of money spent on litigation against Ridd, and more still if JCU appeals.

“When the federal government gives us money, we are very closely scrutinised and so we should be. These are precious dollars that could be used elsewhere,” says Cronin, a doctor who has overseen a $23m budget to provide health services through the Western Queensland Primary Health Network. It is the same at JCU, she says, where the governing council has oversight duties.

“I’m not looking for a row with JCU, but I think there is an important principle of openness and transparency when you’re handling taxpayer dollars.”

Cronin is troubled by the lack of introspection at the highest levels of JCU: “They’re putting all the blame on him and they aren’t looking at themselves.”

Cronin has not received a response from Harding.

A few weeks ago, former JCU dean of science John Nicol wrote to each of JCU’s council members expressing his concern that “the university’s reputation as an honest broker in the field of marine science has been trashed”.

“I am writing to express my concern and disappointment at the worldwide unmitigated adverse publicity, which the university management has brought to bear on James Cook University’s fine reputation, through its inaction in ensuring the integrity of all of its research output and its un-conscienable (sic) treatment of Professor Peter Ridd who sought to encourage the university to restore such integrity.”

Nicol concluded his letter to council members as follows: “James Cook University now needs your direct intervention and support.” He has not received a response to his concerns from any council members.

The Weekend Australian asked Harding whether, given the dismal fallout from the Ridd saga, JCU intends to commit to the set of principles about academic freedom recommended by former High Court chief justice Robert French in his recent report to the Morrison government.

Harding had nothing to say. A spokesman referred back to the provost’s April statement, adding this: “JCU strongly supports the principle of academic freedom and notes that the French review found there was … no evidence, on the basis of recent events, which would answer the pejorative description of a ‘free speech crisis’ on campus.”

Pulling a single line from the lengthy French review has further disappointed Harding’s critics. “Harding is making a huge mistake in the way she’s managing this whole issue,” the former council member says of the university’s attempt to justify the Ridd debacle and fob off the French review.

French appealed to university vice-chancellors to embed a culture of academic freedom on their campuses: “A culture powerfully predisposed to the exercise of freedom of speech and academic freedom is ultimately more effective than the most tightly drawn rule. A culture not so disposed will undermine the most emphatic state of principles.”

French’s recommendation for a model code of academic freedom was released by the Morrison government barely two weeks before JCU’s attempt to sack Ridd was rejected by a court at first instance.

Harding might re-read the whole 300-page French review before deciding to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the respected physics professor in another round of expensive and damaging litigation.

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Australia: Worker wins unfair dismissal case after refusing to hand over biometric data

Privacy rights cited

Most of us don’t think twice about using our fingerprints — but Jeremy Lee isn’t most people.

The Queensland sawmill worker was so passionate about protecting his biometric data he refused to accept a new security process which used employee’s fingerprints to sign on and off at his company, Superior Wood.

He was sacked for his stance last February, after being given a series of verbal and written warnings.

Mr Lee suggested a compromise which would allow him to keep his job, but also hold onto the ownership of his biometric data, which was refused.

The Queensland man ended up losing an unfair dismissal case when it was first heard by the Fair Work Commission last year, with a commissioner at the time ruling Superior Wood’s policy was “not unjust or unreasonable” because it improved workplace safety, the efficiency of the payroll system and that the company “had the right to manage its affairs”.

But during the entire battle, Mr Lee argued the policy was a breach of the Privacy Act, claiming he owned his own biometric data, which he considered to be “sensitive personal information”.

He said his workplace was not entitled to that personal information, and that refusing to follow the policy was not a valid reason for his dismissal.

Mr Lee decided to appeal the decision — and represent himself.

And on May 1, the commission eventually ruled in his favour, finding he had been unfairly dismissed.

Jeremy Lee represented himself — and won. Picture: iStock
Jeremy Lee represented himself — and won. Picture: iStockSource:istock

In documents seen by news.com.au, the commission ruled Superior Wood “did not have a valid reason for the dismissal which related to Mr Lee’s capacity or conduct”.

“ … on balance we find that Mr Lee’s dismissal was unjust. It was unjust because Mr Lee was not guilty of the conduct alleged,” the documents state.

“As the direction was unlawful he was entitled to refuse to follow it. Mr Lee was unfairly dismissed.”

As for what happens next, the case is being referred to Commissioner Simpson to decide “what remedy, if any, should be ordered”.

But Mr Lee told RN’s The Law Report he was already happy with the win, after claiming his company had “tried to coerce” him into something he wasn’t comfortable with.

He said he did not have a police record or any other reason to fear using his fingerprint, but that he was simply concerned about the misuse of his personal data.

“If someone else has control of my biometric data they can use it for their own purposes — purposes that benefit them, not me. That is a misuse,” he told the ABC.

“My objection was that I own it. You cannot take it. If someone wants to get it or take it they have to get my consent.”

The case is the first unfair dismissal decision of its kind in this country, and one that’s likely to pop up again in future.

“It shows that employment law is at a crossroads with technology, and these kinds of issues are going to continue to come up as technology rapidly advances,” Shine Lawyers’ employment law expert Will Barsby told news.com.au.

“We are in an era where we are paying for a coffee with a mobile phone and we open our phone using our fingerprint, so it stands to reason we will see the same kind of tech advances in workplaces soon.

“Mr Lee’s concerns are genuine as we have seen so many hacks where personal data was misused.”

But Mr Barsby said the case did not actually set a legal precedent, as it was based around whether it was unreasonable to dismiss the worker for not complying with the request for his fingerprint.

“The case doesn’t change the general rule that an employer can dismiss an employee for not complying with a reasonable and lawful direction,” he said.

“Dismissal cases generally fall on their own facts, in this case the employer was not able to demonstrate compliance with the Australian Privacy Principles. There had been no process under the requirements to obtain an employee’s consent.”

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Christians help hold the centre

Scott Morrison’s re-election illustrates how God moves in mysterious ways, and proves the fallibility of pollsters and the ABC and the former Fairfax, now Nine, commissariat, which is divorced from the practicalities and concerns experienced by the quiet Australians.

While the ALP’s failure to cost its climate change policy, its massive increase in taxation, and its threat to the living standards of older Australians were significant issues explaining last weekend’s result, freedom of religion and freedom of expression also played important parts.

Although not directly related to the election campaign, Israel Folau’s unjust and shameful treatment for having the courage to defend his faith and to put his commitment to God above personal gain signalled religious freedom as a vital issue.

It can hardly surprise that, when a survey carried out by The Australian asked: “Should Rugby Australia sack Israel Folau over his social media posts?”, out of 21,700 respondents 89 per cent stated the player should not have his contract terminated.

For the more than 12 million Christians across Australia, Folau being victimised demonstrated that religious freedom was threatened as things stood; under any Labor-Greens coalition those freedoms would cease to exist.

The ALP, while stating it was opposed to appointing a religious freedom commissioner to the Australian Human Rights Commission, signalled that once in government it would appoint an LGBTIQ commissioner.

The thoroughly rejected Bill Shorten team also intended to increase funding to the AHRC and to further undermine freedom of speech by strengthening section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Add the ALP’s acknowledgment that legislating for same-sex marriage “wasn’t the end of the road” and that an ALP government would implement an even more radical gender and sexuality agenda, and it is clear why so many Christian churches and organisations successfully urged a return of the Morrison government.

The Greens’ plan to scrap the commonwealth’s National School Chaplaincy Program and replace it with the radical, neo-Marxist-inspired Safe Schools program telling children gender is fluid and limitless further damaged Shorten’s hopes.

Then there was the deep concern about Labor’s intention to remove the exemptions religious schools and educational bodies have in relation to who they enrol and who they employ.

The ALP policy A Fair Go for LGBTIQ Australians, taken to last weekend’s election, stated: “A Shorten government will amend the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the exemptions that permit religious schools to discriminate against students and staff on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.”

Faith-based groups such as Christian Schools Australia campaigned hard on the issue, explaining to school communities across the country that the policies of the ALP and Greens would deny the existing freedom schools enjoyed.

Look at those Queensland electorates north of Brisbane now in Coalition hands; voters there knew that a left-of-centre secular government would deny the right of Christians and faith-based schools and organisations to remain true to their beliefs. It helps explain the election outcome.

Of course, the ALP’s failure to support the Adani coalmine was a factor, but given the high number of evangelical Christians living in Queensland it is very clear that religious freedom and the fact Scott Morrison lives a strong and committed Christian faith influenced votes.

Only the Coalition guaranteed religious freedom. In a letter to the head of Christian Schools Australia, the Prime Minister wrote: “I believe there is no more fundamental right than the right to decide what you believe, or do not believe.”

While hardly as significant as John Hewson’s inability to quantify the impact of the GST on a cake, or Mark Latham’s handshake with John Howard, Shorten’s crude criticism of Morrison for not denying Folau’s belief that homosexuals would go to hell made clear the fact religion and Christianity were election issues.

Not all Australians are religious but there is still a strong sense that it is wrong to attack someone personally because of their beliefs — and Shorten’s actions reinforced doubts many already had about his character and judgment.

Similar to the Brexit result in Britain and Donald Trump’s success in the US, the re-election of the centre-right Morrison government signals an important shift in the culture wars.

While there’s no doubt that the cultural Left’s political correctness movement is still a force, so it is clear that middle Australia has reasserted itself.

That so many ALP voters in traditional Labor seats deserted the party suggests that if the Left is ever to be a political force again it needs to moderate extremists more concerned with identity politics, victimhood and the politics of envy.

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Social media doesn't equal votes

The impact of social media on politics is a contentious topic. Some argue social media harms political discourse, journalism, and the public. The ACCC even discusses this in their preliminary report into digital platforms.

But, social media popularity did not translate into electoral success in the Australian election.

The ABC’s Hidden Campaign team found, before the election, the candidates with the most social media interactions were Fraser Anning and Pauline Hanson.

But Anning has lost his Senate seat. And, although One Nation has increased its share of the vote, the best they can hope for is one Senate seat. Their popularity on social media has not translated into success at the ballot box. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, those who are interacting with politicians on social media may not even be voters. They could be overseas, non-citizens, or otherwise ineligible to vote.
But most importantly, politicians’ social media accounts provide the public with an insight into who they are and what they believe. And after seeing what Anning was about, the Australian public said … no thank you.

This is free speech and democracy in action. We do not need to censor unpalatable, or even downright disgusting views online. We put all these ideas out in the open so that we can make an informed decision.

Anning’s Facebook posts attracted derision and disgust from the majority of Australians.

There are certainly negative aspects of social media. Misinformation and propaganda can be spread easily — but traditional media has also suffered this problem.  And, outrageous and offensive commentary often receives the most shares and comments, thus boosting the popularity of these posts.

Yes, some appalling things are said on social media. But Australians are mostly savvy enough to leave those things festering in the virtual world cyberspace, and not bring them into real life.

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 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here