24 Jul MPs back A-G bid to fund Ridd case
JOE KELLY – THE AUSTRALIAN – WEDNESDAY 24 JULY
Attorney-General Christian Porter is examining ways for the commonwealth to support costs for sacked academic Peter Ridd in his legal fight against James Cook University, saying the case could change the landscape of academic freedom in Australia.
The Australian yesterday revealed Mr Porter had given a commitment in the joint partyroom meeting to examine whether the commonwealth could provide financial assistance to Dr Ridd.
Several Coalition MPs voiced concerns at the decision by JCU to flag its intention to appeal a Federal Court judgment from April, which found the sacking of the physics professor was unlawful.
Education Minister Dan Tehan told Coalition MPs he was concerned by the prospect of an appeal by the JCU and he would seek to raise the issue personally with the university’s vice-chancellor, Sandra Harding.
Mr Tehan met last night with university vice-chancellors and discussed the adoption of a “model code” for the sector as recommended by former High Court chief justice Robert French, aimed at upholding freedom of speech on campus as a “paramount” value. “The issue of academic freedom is something the government takes incredibly seriously,” Mr Tehan said. “That’s why it commissioned the French review, which wasn’t only into freedom of speech but also into academic freedom of inquiry.”
Coalition MPs who raised concerns included Sydney-based Craig Kelly and Queensland MP George Christensen, who holds the electorate of Dawson, home to the JCU campus.
North Queensland MP Warren Entsch also spoke out, as did new Queensland senator Paul Scarr.
Victorian senator James Paterson asked Mr Porter whether there was scope for the commonwealth to provide assistance to Dr Ridd. He told The Australian last night he was “very pleased the Attorney-General is investigating whether Professor Ridd could be eligible for commonwealth assistance to defend his case against JCU’s appeal”.
“Private citizens in hugely important cases like this against well-resourced taxpayer-funded entities deserve all the support they can get,” he said.
Mr Porter’s office said yesterday he had undertaken to receive a brief from his department about whether Dr Ridd’s case was relevant to the “Commonwealth Public Interest and Test Cases scheme”.
A spokesman said the scheme provided “financial assistance for cases of public importance that settle an uncertain area or question of commonwealth law, or resolve a question of commonwealth law that affects the rights of a disadvantaged section of the public. It is notable that there has been no application to this
scheme in relation to this matter,” he said.
In April, judge Salvatore Vasta ruled JCU had erred in its interpretation of a clause in its enterprise agreement and deprived Dr Ridd of his right to express his academic opinion. Within hours of the judgment being released, JCU published a statement on its website criticising the ruling. A JCU spokesman told The Australian yesterday the university had outlined its intention to appeal.
“No appeal has been filed as the matter is subject to ongoing court processes because the court has made no final orders,” he said. “As the matter remains before the court, the university will not be commenting on it further.”
Mr Kelly welcomed the decision to see whether the commonwealth could assist Dr Ridd, saying it was a “very significant matter”.
Mr Entsch said Dr Ridd was “dismissed for questioning the legitimacy of the science of a colleague
… This is not about whether one is right or wrong. This is about the right for one highly respected scientific mind to be able to question the legitimacy of a colleague’s work. Real questions here need to be asked … JCU has acted appallingly.”