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Friday, January 07, 2011

Speaking Plainly about Washington By Tim Anderson

Ordinary discussion about the most dangerous government in the world has become difficult, due to the range of propaganda bodies ready to leap to Washington’s defence. Intimidation is an important part of that game.

In 2009 I wrote an article on the hosting of a ‘United States Studies Centre’ by my employer, the University of Sydney. It was published in September 2010 by Australian Universities Review. You can see the article online, here: http://www.aur.org.au/archive/52-02/aur_52-02.pdf

In ‘Hegemony, big money and academic independence’ I detailed the threat posed to academic independence by a private business lobby, the American Australian Association, which effectively manages the centre and vets all senior appointments. I said establishment of the USSC raised questions about the capacity of the corporate university to manage conflicts of interest.

The USSC was set up specifically in response to 2005 opinion polls which showed, in the midst of the US-led carnage in Iraq, as many Australians (57 per cent) feared ‘US foreign policies’ as feared ‘Islamic extremism’. The AAA and its patron, media baron Rupert Murdoch, convinced the Howard government to put up $25 million of public money for a ‘re-education’ campaign. The AAA was made custodian and the oldest university in the country got the contract.

Reaction to my article has been interesting. A number of academic colleagues contacted me privately, expressing support. One said he could not speak about the funding of his academic unit, under a specific management contract he had been required to sign.

Dr Michael Spence, the University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor, defended his institution. He told the Sydney Morning Herald that my article was ‘logically and factually ridiculous’, claiming the AAA had no control over academic appointments. Academics were appointed by a ‘normal process’, although the AAA and the university had ‘equal responsibility’ for appointments to the centre’s board. He claimed the centre had hosted some critics of US policy.

It is not possible to fully test Dr Spence’s claims, as his office refuses to release the management contract, under ‘commercial in confidence’ reasoning. However the tender document put out by the AAA makes it plain that it will control the annual release of funds to the USSC under a five year contract. The AAA will “oversee the endowment” and “will carry out an evaluation of the Centre’s
Activities” In addition, the appointment of the CEO and of senior staff “will only be made after close consultation between the host university and AAA Australia”. If this is “normal process” at universities, something has changed.

The Sydney Morning Herald article did not carry any comment by me, but gratuitously added “Nineteen years ago Dr Anderson overturned his conviction for murder stemming from the 1978 Sydney Hilton hotel bombing. He was convicted for the bombing that killed two garbage collectors and a policeman. He had spent 7½ years in jail before gaining his freedom and his doctorate.”

Apart from having nothing to do with the article, this final paragraph was misleading. I had indeed spent 7½ years in jail, but had been cleared twice after ten court cases stretching over 1978-1991. On the first occasion I was finally pardoned and paid compensation, in a conspiracy case related to an anti-fascist action. On the second occasion I was acquitted of the bombing charges by unanimous decision of the Court of Criminal Appeal. Back in 1992 I published a book on these court cases; it is available online here: http://lorikeet.and.com.au/t2/t2.htm

Perhaps the old charges were a useful way to divert attention from the issue raised? A right wing gossip column that models itself on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News seems to have thought so. In his VexNews column, businessman Andrew Landeryou published a story headed ‘Bomb Thrower: Sydney Uni lecturer Tim Anderson attacks United States Studies Centre’. It was a smear attempt.

Apparently with the backing of some corporate money, Andrew Landeryou wrote “Tim Anderson, previously convicted of the murderous terrorist attack on the Sydney Hilton Hotel in the 1970s prior to a successful appeal years later … presents a vast and suitably nutty conspiracy theory” about the USSC. The article goes on to attack funding for Middle Eastern and Arab studies, at Australian universities.

Later comments on the VexNews piece add to the headline, suggesting I am indeed a terrorist. This is a little disconcerting, coming from a character who clearly supports a global war on - including assassinations of - ‘terrorists’. I have asked lawyers to send a letter to Mr Landeryou, reminding him of my legal rights. However as he is apparently a bankrupt, he may feel he is immune from legal action.

After the AUR article, some information was passed to me which raises further questions about the USSC. In its September 2006 submission to the AAA the University of Sydney promised that:
“The University will invest $15 million in a US Studies endowment fund. This includes $6 million made possible by realising the capital value of our Law Building, and a further $4 million of existing University endowment funds committed directly to the Centre. In addition, we will allocate a further $5 million to the endowment fund to support the development of US Studies at the University, supporting the work of the Centre.”

It’s not clear why such large scale diversion of the university’s resources were required. Combined with the federal government’s $25 million and some other smaller contributions by private companies, the USSC must now rank as the most overfunded unit in any Australian university. Their student numbers are modest, to say the least; and they are hardly producing life saving medical or scientific advances.

To cap it off, late last year the NSW Labor Government decided to hand the centre more money. On 20 December NSW Treasurer Eric Roozendaal “announced a $2.5 million funding boost for the United States Studies Centre … The funding agreement runs from 2011 to 2015 … The US Studies Centre is a vital part of our state’s educational and corporate infrastructure,” Mr Roozendaal said.

He said the NSW funds would help the USSC make contributions to digital media (‘cross pacific linkages’), clean technology (here he means ‘workshops for senior business leaders’), business and financial services (again, by bringing ‘outstanding business leaders’ to Sydney), defence (workshops on how to ‘attract defence investment’ to NSW) and higher education (opportunities for international and Australian students). Now does this sound like anything like critical academic study of the world’s great superpower?

Perhaps it is the cynic in me that also asks: ‘why does a state government hand over such a sum, around Christmas, when the centre has been running for three years, with lots of money, and when that government is facing electoral annihilation in imminent elections?’ If the aim were to prevent Mr Murdoch’s media empire putting the boot into state Labor, it seems a bit late for that.

Head of the USSC Professor Geoffrey Garrett said the additional support from the NSW Government was ‘vital to the Centre’s mission’. But what is that mission?

According to AAA patron Rupert Murdoch, at the launch of the USSC, the aim was to help ensure that “Australians must resist and reject the facile, reflexive, unthinking anti-Americanism that has gripped much of Europe”. No doubt Murdoch’s media empire will help. AAA board member and retired Liberal MP Michael Baume made it clear the AAA would pull the funding “if the Centre succumbed to the anti-American prejudice endemic in Australian universities”.

Notice that the bulk of the funds (federal government, state government, state established university) are public moneys that have been entrusted to a private business lobby (the AAA), which in turn pulls the strings of the hybrid AAA-University of Sydney board.

Propaganda wars have become more important in an age of unpopular wars, privatisations and an imperialism that ‘dare not speak its name’. Attacks on critics or those causing embarrassment to Washington - like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – can be vicious. But are others willing to speak plainly about Washington?

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