There’s trouble at Sydney University’s Centre for Information on America (otherwise known as the Sydney University US Studies Centre). The main problem is that the centre is a travesty of academic process, and Sydney University should never have agreed to host. Set up by the Howard government to create, haha, unbiased research on the US, it received a $25 million direct bung on establishment, and a bunch more since. Now it wants another $17 million to keep going.

The establishment of the centre was part of Howard’s culture/knowledge war, and displayed his characteristic style at it: basic competence. When the Abbott government tried the same trick, by trying to set up a “dissident” climate change studies centre headed by Bjorn Lomborg (whose work is mostly non-peer reviewed), academics and universities arced up about it, and no home could be found (we were still charged $600,000 for the production of a single book, a rort still not adequately explained).

Now, things have gone to pot at the Sydney University Centre for Identifying Americanism, with former director and professional grey organisation man Tom “Heidi” Switzer resigning following a dispute with fellow fellow James Brown. Sadly, not that James Brown; that would be a great US Centre for Ideas about America. This one is Malcolm Turnbull’s son-in-law; presumably he researches the US virtues of equality of opportunity and self-reliance, from a safe distance.

Ostensibly, the Bette-Joan political hair-pulling concerns Brown’s claim that Tony Abbott wanted to invade Ukraine to fight Russia, and Switzer’s suggestion that this is nonsense (to be fair, it sounds mad, even for the mad monk). But really, it’s about where the centre’s politics will lie. “Heidi” Switzer is no Switzerland in these matters; he advocates a conservative realpolitik, critical of neocon notions of extended US power and liberalism, and aligns himself with US-style “paleoconservatives” such as Pat Buchanan (google “Pat Buchanan”; then google “Pat Buchanan” and “anti-semitism”).

In the decade since the Iraq War and its quagmire aftermath, Switzer’s politics have gone from being sceptical of the US adventure and the demonisation of Russia, to something that sometimes looks like Russophilia. This has caused him to be more or less taken out of the lists of reliable rightists by the score-keepers — thus Gollum Henderson has concluded that there is no right-wing presence at the ABC, despite the fact that Heidi is building a little Muscovy duchy there, moving into the coveted Sunday morning RN slot (where he will dissipate the audience, built up by Jonathan Green over several years; Switzer is an excellent commentator, but he’s about as fun as a gastroscopy).

Switzer appears particularly angered by accusations that Tony Abbott is even madder than everyone thinks he is, because Switzer has tried for years to construct Abbott as an anti-neocon conservative: prudent, considered, sceptical of grand theories. Stop laughing, he totally thought that. Truth is, there is no real cultural ground in Australia for the sort of paleoconservatism, tending to a mild Putinophilia, that Switzer wants to create in Oz. He’s only got this far with it because a confected pseudo-academic disinformation mill was attached to a university willing to sell (and diminish) its brand by endorsing it. More traditional pro-US right-wing forces may be moving their pincer-like forces into his soft underbelly.

Because the Sydney University Centre for Interest in Americanism has no collegiate tradition or depth, it has simply become a plaything of the Sydney establishment, coming apart in their hands at the first sign of trouble. It’s like a lot of Howard’s culture war stuff: good for five years, i.e. as long as he needed it, but leaving little of any depth and worth. Sydney University damaged academic freedom and autonomy by accepting the centre in the first place. In doing so, they undermined the autonomy of all universities.

The VCs, staff association and individual universities should use this debacle as an opportunity to recommit to regularised funding of research, peer-reviewed. Explicit shaping of academic research by the state is soft totalitarianism, and the ultimate loser will be the autonomy of the universities. Such centres, funds and bungs need to be rejected by the universities, quite aside from any issues of principle, out of that most eminently studiable American virtue: self-interest.

Peter Fray

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