The federal government, led by the Liberal Party, is bludgeoning universities. Since the onset of the pandemic, they have excluded thousands of university workers from JobKeeper, ramped up fees for select undergraduate courses while slashing funding for tertiary education, and, in the latest federal budget, abandoned universities. They have left staff and students out to […]
The federal government, led by the Liberal Party, is bludgeoning universities. Since the onset of the pandemic, they have excluded thousands of university workers from JobKeeper, ramped up fees for select undergraduate courses while slashing funding for tertiary education, and, in the latest federal budget, abandoned universities. They have left staff and students out to dry, because when profits fall, university management does not foot the bill. We do.
To add insult to injury, the far right of this very government and their business cronies are working to implant a conservative bastion on our campus: the Robert Menzies Institute (RMI). Set to officially open in the East Wing of Old Quad this September, the RMI postures as a research centre, library, and museum honouring Robert Menzies , the architect of the Liberal Party.
The institute is attempting to hide its reactionary agenda behind the lustre of Australia’s longest running prime minister, but Menzies was no hero. He was a fervent imperialist and Anglophile––the gentlest description of his racism––championing the White Australia policy, South African apartheid, and indeed Nazi Germany. When workers boycotted the sale of military supplies to Japan, he threatened them with mass sackings, ensuring his corporate cronies profited from the Japanese invasion of China. He then sent thousands of ordinary people into bloodbaths in Korea and Vietnam and, all the while, played the ultimate McCarthyite Cold War warrior determined to outlaw the Communist Party and use this as a basis to persecute his political opponents. This is reason enough to rail against the RMI, but the sanitising of Menzies’ legacy is only half the story.
Though universities often hold archival material related to prime ministers (as the University of Melbourne does for Menzies and Malcolm Fraser), or host prime ministerial institutes, the creation of the RMI is unique. No other prime ministerial library within an Australian university is sponsored by an external and explicitly partisan think tank in the same way as the RMI.
This think tank is the Menzies Research Centre (MRC), a hardcore conservative centre backed by the far right of the Liberal Party. Despite packaging itself in the vague language of liberalism (purporting to stand for a “free, just and prosperous Australia”), the MRC is a den of reactionary politics. The ‘research’ it produces, events it organises, and content it promotes, reveal an unabashedly anti-union and socially conservative political agenda.
In 2018 they produced the report, Casual lies: busting the myths about flexible employment, which claims the trade union movement’s fight against casualisation is actually anti-worker. They actively promote the book, Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March, an extended diatribe against the indoctrination of school children by a hegemonic, “cultural Marxist” agenda of feminism, gender fluidity, unionism, multiculturalism, and Indigenous history. They even hosted the Gender Agenda event to convince people that meritocracy works (for a few worthy women, that is) and that shielding Liberal Party women from criticism is one of the most important issues in combatting sexism––not systemic inequality.
The RMI’s board clearly demonstrates the political influence of the MRC and why there is no doubt this institute will operate as a hub of conservatism on campus. At the helm is Georgina Downer, an avid Trump supporter and part of one of Australia’s most prominent conservative families. She has asserted on the record that Australia’s woefully inadequate social welfare system is in fact “overly generous”. She has also argued for the abolition of not only penalty rates, but even the minimum wage itself.
Beside her is Peta Credlin, Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff and superstar of the right-wing propaganda machine, Sky News. In a thinly veiled racist tirade, she blamed the outbreak of a COVID-19 cluster in Coburg on poorly “assimilated” Muslim and South Sudanese communities celebrating Eid and flouting health measures (which Credlin herself stringently opposes).
The interference of such a conservative think tank would not be possible without the consent of the unelected, unaccountable corporate executives running universities. The board at the University of Melbourne readily embraced the $7.5 million in funding that the MRC dangled their way, even though staff and students were excluded from the decision-making process. As such, the RMI encapsulates the corporatisation endemic to universities––only this time, our education and working conditions are not subordinate to fossil fuel and weapons industries, but to the right wing of the Liberal Party.
This is not the first time that conservative forces have tried to broker a deal behind closed doors to carve out a space of influence in Australian universities. Consider the recent controversy over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which intended to design and fund an undergraduate arts degree, “not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it,” as Tony Abbott put it. This affront to students and staff was met with trenchant resistance from below, something we must learn from as we challenge the Menzies Institute.
It was not by deferring to bureaucratic processes of university governance, depoliticising inherently political issues, or readily embracing compromise, that students and staff managed to fight off the Ramsay Centre at the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland. It was instead by building radical democracy within the student body, and a mass campaign galvanising workers and students, that these bastions of conservatism were thwarted.
This is what we need to build at the University of Melbourne, and we need your help.
Monica Sestito and Brendan Laws
Sign the open letter against the Robert Menzies Institute here: https://stopmenziesinstitute.wordpress.com/open-letter-to-stop-the-robert-menzies-institute/
To join the campaign against the Menzies Institute, see: https://www.facebook.com/NoMenziesInstitute or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Image source: National Archives of Australia)