Whatever Happened To Academic Activism? Worrying Sign In Australia
By Dr Richard Hil
12 December, 2013
‘Frontline services are being lifted up by this government and waste and inefficiency is being dealt with...I am proud of the government's track record and I thank all the ministers and their teams that have worked so hard to achieve these results – Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman
If, in the current Australian political environment, I were to recommend a single book to inspire progressive academics toward public intellectualism it would undoubtedly be Howard Zinn’s splendid autobiography, You can't be neutral on a moving train: A personal history of our times. Over the course of a forty year academic career Zinn risked life and limb (and his job) to protest very publicly against institutionalized racism, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and even the autocratic practices of the University of Boston where he was employed. Zinn also delivered thousands of public lectures to audiences across America and met many ‘ordinary’ people who had the courage to speak out about human rights abuses and the denial of social justice in their midst. Zinn wrote numerous books and articles that sought to expose the dark side of American history. A Peoples History of the United States – 1492 to the present (1980) is one of the great progressive revisionist works of the twentieth century. Like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Angela Davis and many other American academics, Zinn urged intellectuals to take their arguments out of the classroom and into the public sphere.
For him, it was not enough simply to recount the nature and consequences of violence and oppression, or to write scholarly articles that would be read largely by other academics. Rather, Zinn insisted that the progressive intellectual was obliged to contribute publicly, and in concert with others, to the elimination of such conditions. For him, this meant regular media appearances, columns in newspapers and inspiring public speeches, as well as the usual stuff of academic work. In so doing, Zinn gave energetic expression to Marx’s dictum in Theses on Feuerbach that ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.’
Living the cuts
All of which brings me to the draconian cuts made by the Campbell Newman LNP government to Queensland’s community sector, and, more importantly here, the general response of academics in that state to such events.
The extent of these cuts has been savage. The ALP opposition leader, Annastacia Palaszczuk, described the cuts as ‘not only heartless and cruel but reckless’, a view echoed in public opinion polls which showed significant opposition to these measures. A report by the now de-funded Youth Affairs Network Queensland (YANQ), Cumulative List of Funding and staffing cuts to services, staff, funding and programs by Campbell Newman’s LNP Government 2012, records extensive funding, program, service, staffing and other cuts to various health, welfare, criminal justice and other sectors in Queensland. Although precise figures are unknown, the numbers of those retrenched in the community sector alone runs into the hundreds – or, according to one source, up to thirty percent of all those employed. The impact of these cuts on communities and workers alike has been unprecedented.
In relation to community sector workers, the YANQ – which incidentally, was recently awarded Special Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council for its services to the community - conducted a survey of workers employed in the youth sector. The 43 responses received indicated that the overwhelming majority had experienced mental health problems resulting from increased workloads, job insecurity, as well as ‘low morale, anxiety, stress, sadness and ‘problems with focusing on work’ and ‘dealing with own and clients' desperation’. Managers reported ‘trauma associated with having to cut staff hours and services ...yet workloads increasing’; difficulties in planning for the future ‘when cuts come in the middle of a funding cycle’; ‘confusion and lack of information on job cuts’, ‘an environment of fear and paranoia’, ‘increased workload with corresponding lack of support, professional development, strategic management and policy advocacy’, and ‘reduction of referral pathways, fewer service options, greater demand for services’.
These effects, says the report, have been compounded by a pervasive sense of being ‘unappreciated’ and generally devalued, with particular criticism directed at the government’s conspicuous failure to conduct the most rudimentary consultation with youth workers and their clients, despite claims by the government that they have been holding ‘recommisioning forums’ around the state, albeit only after jobs and services had been shed. Such practices have further contributed to significant ‘paranoia’ among workers, generated by the not unreasonable belief that the government was conducting a ‘witch-hunt’ against the community sector, especially youth workers (who many on the political right regard as proto-revolutionaries). Survey respondents also noted that the cuts had impacted significantly on workers’ personal lives given that most were increasingly anxious about their employment prospects and financial affairs.
But for most respondents, the growing inability to provide an effective service to clients was perhaps most troubling consequence of the cuts. As one interviewee noted: ‘My workload has almost tripled. I feel constantly fatigued and have insomnia. I have had to go to counselling as a past client of mine suicided because he was unable to access the service that he was dependent on and had a panic attack and had no outlet’.
The likelihood of such tragedies reoccurring seems significant given, as the survey respondents pointed out, the decreasing levels of service and referral pathways for clients, as well as the increasing inaccessibility to services owing to the introduction of fees-for-service.
Despite such formidable challenges, Queensland’s youth organisations are doing their best to provide on-going services, with many desperately seeking funds from other sources as well as providing support for traumatised staff and clients.
Unsurprisingly, most youth sector staff – like those in many other sectors - feel increasingly despondent and powerless when it comes to carrying out important frontline and other services. Reading through YANQ’s report, one is struck by the deeply-felt human impacts of financial and other cuts and the fact that when such measures are implemented - apparently to help ‘balance the budget’ - little regard is given to their human consequences. The ripple effects of such measures are, of course, on-going, with more mental health and social problems resulting from the lack of support for marginalised communities.
The Queensland government’s cuts to youth and other services have been subject to extensive criticism by the United Nations, the Australian National Children's Commissioner and various human rights organisations.
This however has not prevented the government from pursuing its go-it-alone disregard of any meaningful adherence to international conventions, with the Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie, asserting that, ‘we ought not sign up to any more United Nation conventions because we do it pretty good in Queensland’. (A similarly dismissive response greeted the former head of the so-called Fitzgerald Inquiry (1987-9), Ross Fitzgerald QC, when he publicly criticised the Newman government for its attacks on the judiciary, riding roughshod over the separation of powers, and denigrating those who criticised the government’s bikie and sex offender’s laws. Premier Campbell Newman responded by asserting that he had a mandate from the electorate which apparently overrides democratic principles).
Opposing the cuts
From the start of the cuts, unions, members of the public, professional associations, church groups and many others protested in towns and cities across the state against what they considered a direct assault on public services and some of Queensland’s poorest and disempowered communities. A number of academics made media comments and some even sent lengthy submissions to parliamentary committees. Others protested against the cuts through their membership of management committees and various other professional forums. But as time went on academic criticisms of the government’s cuts became increasingly mute, to the point where it is now rare to come across even the most innocuous criticism of the Newman government’s assault on community and other services.
To be sure, some academics have written blistering critiques of the introduction of boot camps and the eradication of youth and drug courts, and family conferencing, but as far as the cuts to human services are concerned, there is little evidence of sustained public opposition. Instead, most academics have retreated to what they know best, or to what is expected of them in today’s brand conscious, corporate university: the teaching of bloated classes, grant acquisition, supervision of research students, and, of course, the presentation of papers at conferences and writing of scholarly articles.
But academics are not alone: their silence in Queensland reverberates around the community sector, with the peek welfare body in Queensland, the Queensland Council of Social Services (QCOSS), effectively muzzling its staff (by insisting that they cannot criticize government), banning any mention of advocacy, and doing everything in its power to have a seat at the government’s table. To make matters worse, the same organization has allegedly not only failed to advocate to prevent the de-funding of many state organizations, including the peak body, YANQ, but has proceeded to negotiate responsibility for many of their functions with the state government. Other organizations, including those operating in Queensland communities (and providing direct, frontline services), while less complicit than QCOSS, nonetheless are also reluctant to speak out against government. Indeed, many are forced to sign what amount to ‘gagging clauses’ in their contracts, thereby preventing them from criticizing government. Additionally, members of major network organizations like the de-funded Community Centers and Family Network are also fearful of speaking out because of threats to their organizations’ funding should they do so. The Coalition of Boards of Management however, offers some hope in terms of public advocacy since its ‘corporate’ structure to some extent affords some protection to individual members.
That said, the general culture of silence and direct complicity with the Queensland government has meant that a new era of radical neo-liberal re-structuring of human services and other sectors has proceeded with only spasmodic academic opposition. Given the nature and scale of the cuts it would seem reasonable to assume that academics, along with many other professional groups, would want not only to make very public pronouncements on the cuts, but also suggest what can be done to develop effective, concerted and publicly persuasive resistance. As of September 2013 there had been no public seminar or conference hosted by academics to address the impact of the Queensland cuts.
Further, the very academic schools and departments most closely linked to the community sector in Queensland – human services and social work - had made very little contribution to public debate on the cuts, and even fewer had contacted organizations to offer words of support. Bear in mind that academics in these places not only teach students about social justice and human rights, supervise student placements and so forth, but many also live in communities impacted by the cuts. To be sure, beyond their professional duties many academics will participate in party politics and are members of pressure groups, management boards and activist organizations. That said, the real potential for academic activist power resides in both the classroom and in the sustained public articulation of informed opposition to government policies. This requires forethought and planning regarding the most effective ways in which academics can engage in public deliberations (outside the narrow remit of academia). It also necessitates critical self reflection in terms of how academics can function in the context of the corporate university while maximizing their public activism in pursuit of social justice.
Despite all the pressures that academics face - and these are considerable in terms of work intensification and corporate governance – the fact remains that they remain among the very few professional groups who still have the capacity to speak out about public issues, despite efforts by some universities to regulate public pronouncements.
In search of an appetite
Following discussion with a number of Brisbane-based community organizations I agreed to participate in the planning of a public seminar on the Queensland cuts that would be supported by all the social work and human services schools in that city. I wrote to the heads of each relevant school inviting them to offer nominal support to the event, noting that ‘the proposed forum is an opportunity for academics, sector workers and members of the public to air their views and opinions about the cuts and their consequences’. The forum, I added, ‘would send an important message that academics in relevant disciplines are concerned about the cuts and recognize the urgent need for public debate on such matters…Personally, I think it is important that academics actively support the many organizations, families and communities that have been so significantly impacted by the cuts and that we provide an opportunity for public debate on this issue to occur’.
I further remarked that the event titled Dissecting the cuts – assessing the costs of the Queensland government’s assault on human services – would help ‘foster public debate on the cuts and to address the current and future challenges that lie ahead for those concerned with the human services sector in Queensland’.
The School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University, where I hold an adjunct professorial position, supported the event without equivocation. However, the same could not be said of other universities. After several repeat emails I finally received a reply from the head of a school at one of the larger social work schools in Brisbane who said: ‘Richard, I have taken this up within the School but I am afraid there is no particular appetite for it at this point.’ Stunned, and struck by the phrase ‘no particular appetite’, I sent back an admittedly curt email which said: ‘Wow! This raises the question of what it would take to develop an “appetite”’. I might have added that the scale of the Queensland cuts, their implications for all those in social work and human services, and indeed for universities themselves (in terms of lack of placement opportunities, graduate jobs and collaborative research projects), would surely have some potential to develop the stirrings of an appetite.
This sort of reluctance is not uncommon among today’s academics; even among those you might assume have a passion for human rights and social justice. Fear and intimidation, overwork, diminished collegiality, commitment to meeting promotion criteria, and lack of time and energy are commonly cited as reasons for in-activism, at least in the form of public engagement on current political issues. Academics often argue that their activism occurs through teaching and research, which to some extent is true.
But given institutional reluctance to even recognise ‘community service’ in workload agreements, and the fact that the corporate university now demands allegiance to the brand, it is perhaps not surprising to learn, as did Frank Ferudi in Where have all the intellectuals gone and Steve Miller in The Intellectuals, that there seems to be less enthusiasm to speak out publicly about issues beyond the immediate remit of narrowly constituted academic responsibilities.
Ultimately of course, taking direct, public action involves a choice that is exercised in the context of a radically altered marketised system of higher education that has given rise to the client-service nexus and rendered academics as the subjects of corporate regulation and administrative oversight. But the fact that choices are often made that embody the imperatives of the current system – to gain promotion come what may, avoid managerial opprobrium, obtain ‘good’ teaching evaluations, and to place ‘professional’ above community service is, in the end, a political choice as much as it is about self preservation and career advancement. The institutionalised failure of academics to develop collective, outspoken opposition to what are ruthless cuts in Queensland, is to retreat into a corporate ethic that, in effect, allows oppressive governments to pursue their ideological ends.
If ever there was a time when progressive academics needed to speak out loudly and publicly, it is surely now. Faced with the challenges presented by the election of a radical conservative federal government in Australia with its equivocations on climate change, harsh treatment of refugees, restructuring of workplace relations, and cuts to overseas aid - progressive academics have to decide how to position themselves in this context – or , as sociologist Howard Becker once put it, ‘whose side are we on’?.
Despite what post-modernists might tell us, sides still exist and they are – especially in the case of governments and corporations – underpinned by powerful sectional interests. It is incumbent on progressive academics to expose these interests and to highlight their effects on marginalised populations. Had Howard Zinn been witness to the current goings-on in Queensland, and particularly the lack of a strong, collective response on the part of academics, he may well have urged a call to action not unlike that which occurred in Queensland during the corrupt reign of Premer Joh Bjeike Peterson.
Dr Richard Hil is Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Human Services and Social Work, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia
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