(Image: Getty)

One consequence of the “student politics to Parliament pipeline” is the unedifying spectacle of greying politicians using their taxpayer-funded pulpits to reignite campus debates from their university days.

It seems as though, if it were at all possible, some would surely reverse the inevitable march of time to eternally rehash their late teens, waxing lyrical about the philosophical profundity of raising the percentage of the Student Services and Amenities Fee going to the queer department.

Students’ story spiked

Case in point: on Tuesday last, federal politicians attacked the University of Sydney’s student newspaper Honi Soit for taking down a story on two academics’ links to Chinese government recruitment schemes. The researchers had also reportedly collaborated with sanctioned Chinese universities on research with potential military uses. Honi’s editorial team stood by the story’s substance, but worried that naming the academics could expose them to the threat of violence or Sinophobia.

Education Minister Alan Tudge bemoaned left activists forgetting “what freedom of speech means in an era of woke culture”, a line presumably recycled from his former tenure as president of the University of Melbourne’s student union.

Tim Wilson, who previously occupied the same position at Monash University, told the Sydney Morning Herald, “the progressive left would rather side with authoritarians by pandering to the CCP’s line than stand up for free discussion”.

Labor senator and China hawk Kimberley Kitching, whose husband once fled the country before legal proceedings over his leadership of the Melbourne University Student Union, also offered some criticism — albeit more restrained.

Dialling down the outrage a few decibels, it’s clear the student media group stumbled on a complex editorial decision which even mainstream media organisations struggle with. The Sydney Morning Herald, for instance, reported on the claims against the academics without naming them. There is no evidence to suggest Honi was swayed by pressure from or sensitivity to the Chinese government.

As Per Capita research fellow Osmond Chiu wrote, “it’s obvious there’s no conspiracy of external pressure but rather it’s people who are barely adults clashing while struggling to navigate complex geopolitical debates on China that even those with years of policy experience struggle on”.

Weaponisation of ‘wokeness’

So why didn’t these MPs cut the fledgling journalists some slack? Why the rush to whip up nationalistic outrage over the incident?

That’s probably because, over the last decade, Australian conservative media and political figures have increasingly tried to mimic Fox News and the Republican Party’s weaponisation of “woke” campus kerfuffles in the US.

I cut my teeth as a reporter and columnist for the University of Melbourne’s Farrago magazine, where I witnessed some of these blow-ups unfold. In 2019, The Australian unleashed a brief culture war against a local dance student, accusing her of “reverse racism” for a performance art piece in which white audience members were separated from their non-white peers as a statement on colonial history.

The free-speech deifying Institute of Public Affairs called for the performance to be banned. 2GB host Ben Fordham raged. Alan Tudge, who was multicultural affairs minister at the time, attacked the university administration for standing by the student’s freedom of expression.

The Oz has induced moral panics over Honi Soit editions before, including a cover featuring students‘ vulvas and another featuring a Palestinian suicide bomber. It has also amplified an ex-editor’s gripes about the “editorial board’s preoccupation with gender politics [and] ethnicity” at the Australian National University’s Woroni.

Our conservative media has repeatedly sensationalised routine excesses in student life as a means to aid a dubious narrative of “Marxist” groupthink in Australian universities.

The US should stand as a stark warning of where this editorial line leads. Their cable news bulletins are routinely dominated by cherrypicked, outrage-baiting stories of liberal students doing what young people do — pushing the boundaries too far or tripping over their inexperience.

Given they are a breeding ground for future leaders, student groups should not be immune from media criticism for genuinely poor behaviour. For instance, The Age has previously uncovered multiple allegations of assault by Young Liberal factional leaders, including a “rich kid of Instagram” who reportedly punched a female security guard. As this toxic culture is too often carried into Parliament (which recent allegations of sexual misconduct in Canberra show), addressing it at the source is welcome.

But outside serious questions of violence or misconduct, uni students should be afforded the freedom to experiment, learn and fail outside the electrified climate of national culture wars. Indeed, fear of negative coverage in the national media could stifle their free speech.

We need neither Beijing’s soft power nor America’s outrage machine on our campuses. Leave those kids alone.

Benjamin Clark is currently completing his final subject of a Masters degree at the University of Melbourne.

Peter Fray

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