Peter Ridd
Professor Peter Ridd (Image: Supplied)

In a makeshift hearing room in a Brisbane hotel at the end of July, a taxpayer-funded farce played out in the name of a Senate inquiry.

It was summed up by the following exchange between One Nation Senator, Malcolm Roberts, and the self-styled Great Barrier Reef science expert and free-speech poster-boy, Dr Peter Ridd:

Roberts: What is a scientist?

Ridd: Somebody who uses data and logic to come to a conclusion.

Roberts: Many of the world’s most famous scientists had no formal educational qualifications, yet they followed the scientific process. My understanding from the dictionary is that makes them a scientist.

Ridd: If you follow the scientific process, yes.

Roberts and Ridd. Two peas in a pod. Both are founding members of the climate denialist organisation The Saltbush Club. Both lay claim to the mantle of the Great Misunderstood Thinker, swimming against the tide of convention. 

When Ridd gave evidence, Roberts insisted that he should be known as “Peter Ridd, the eminent scientist”, and jokingly referenced the Ridd backer and “maverick” Queensland MP, Bob Katter:

Roberts: I understand you studied under the internationally acclaimed scientist Professor Bob Katter.

Ridd: With him. Yes. That’s correct.

On and on it went. Out of Canberra and away from the public gaze, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee was officially examining the regulation of farm practices that impact water quality outcomes in the Great Barrier Reef. 

In fact, the entire parliamentary process was a chance to boost the flagging fortunes of Peter Ridd. And all on the taxpayer’s dime.

That same month, the Federal Court had found Ridd’s employer, James Cook University, had acted legally when it dismissed him. The decision was, in the words of the free-market lobbyists at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), “a devastating blow against mainstream Australians … and against freedom of speech on climate change”.

The theme was Ridd the martyr, a theme emphasised by Queensland LNP Senator Susan McDonald:

McDonald: Your stance on reef science has come at enormous personal cost to yourself, both your reputation and financially. Why do you keep going? Wouldn’t it be easier to go home?

Ridd: It is because I get very grumpy when I see stuff that’s wrong.

It was a circus attended, that day, by no less than six senators. One came from West Australia, others travelled from Queensland’s north and Senator Matt Canavan attended via video link.

A senator’s base annual salary is $211,250. As well as flights, cars, taxis, etc, senators are paid a $421-a-day traveling allowance for a hotel in Brisbane while staff members are entitled to $276 a day. On this occasion, the government hired a large room for the hearing at Brisbane’s five star Royal on the Park.  

We all pay for this sideshow — and here’s how:

Item #1: The taxpayer-subsidised IPA

The IPA has been in lockstep with Ridd since at least 2017, when Ridd publicly denigrated the work of respected marine scientists on Sky News. We could “no longer trust” the scientific research, he said, thereby breaching his employment code of conduct.

The IPA also paid for Ridd’s travel costs and helped fund his legal stoushes with the university, though Ridd subsequently failed to declare this.

The IPA trumpets the low tax and small government message of its (anonymous) big business backers, yet at the same time benefits from generous tax breaks via a registered charity arm called the Trustee for Institute of Public Affairs Research Trust which, it says, carries out “scientific research” for the benefit of the “general community in Australia”.

The trust declared $973,000 in donations last year and is exempted from paying GST, income tax or fringe benefits tax (FBT). The trust also enjoys Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status, granted to it by the Australian Tax Office. This means donations to the trust can be claimed as a tax deduction.

Item #2: The Australian Environment Foundation Ltd

Ridd is listed as a director of the climate denialist Australian Environment Foundation (AEF). The AEF is also a registered charity with exemptions on paying GST, income tax or FBT. Donations to its Australian Environment Fund are tax-deductible. The foundation sponsored a series of talks given by Ridd in far north Queensland on the “scientific reliability of claims that human activity is irreparably damaging the Great Barrier Reef”.

Item #3: The court system

Ridd’s case — that he was unlawfully sacked by James Cook University — was heard over three days in March last year by Queensland Federal Circuit Court judge Salvatore Vasta, who delivered his judgement in favour of Ridd on April 16.

There were two days of hearings on damages that July, with Vasta awarding Ridd over $1.2m in September.

The Federal Court, sitting as three judges, spent two days hearing James Cook university’s appeal in May this year and delivered its decision in favour of the University — overturning Vasta’s finding — in late July.

All up, the Ridd case has taken nine days of court sitting time, occupying four judges, as well as days or weeks in judicial decision-writing time.  Federal Court judges are paid $468,020 a year while a Federal Circuit Court judge is paid $394,980 a year.

Item #4: Freedom of speech reviews

Education Minister Dan Tehan ordered a review of freedom of speech and academic freedom at universities, sparked by protests against conservative favourite Bettina Arndt AM, who was targeted at a Sydney University Liberal Club event. The IPA had been assiduously building the case that “left-wing” activists have shut down dissent on university campuses, with Ridd leading the prosecution.

Former chief justice of the High Court Robert French last year completed a 300-page report. But Ridd remains at the centre of the crusade, with the IPA claiming that Ridd’s experience demonstrated there was a “free speech crisis” at Australian universities.

Late week, Tehan announced yet another “independent review”, appointing lawyer and former Deakin University vice-chancellor Sally Walker AM “to evaluate the progress that universities have made implementing the French Model Code on university free speech”. Walker is due to report in November, meaning a consultancy of some three months.

Item #5: …and now the British taxpayer

Last month Ridd was appointed to an academic committee advising the UK’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, which describes itself as “non-partisan” and “open-minded on the contested science of global warming”. The foundation, which as we’ve reported has hosted Tony Abbott and George Pell, is also a registered educational charity in the UK and lists Australia as one of the countries where it’s active.

But the publicly-funded feast in Australia may not be over.

Ridd is reportedly planning to appeal to the High Court, despite his flaws as a free speech martyr (as Crikey as pointed out here) and despite the Federal Court judges finding, “somewhat inexplicably”, that Ridd “did not dispute that he had engaged in any of the conduct” that formed the university’s findings.