Arguably, the University of Sydney’s decision to give former Prime Minister John Howard an honorary doctorate on September 30 has backfired badly.
Academics and students spoke eloquently against the award before and during the ceremony, prompting some students who had just been given their degree to join in.
The university had cited Howard’s “world-leading gun law reform, leadership in East Timor and contribution to Australia’s economic reform” as reasons for the award. While many would question these, the elephant in the room was Iraq.
Howard will go to his grave as the prime minister who took Australia to a war in 2003 that led to permanent war in the Middle East and the destruction of millions of lives.
Rather than conferring an honour, Howard should be tried for war crimes. His British counterpart Tony Blair is facing mounting public pressure to be tried for war crimes following the release of the Chilcot Inquiry.
In what has become typical of the arrogance of the university’s ruling elite, Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson, who is linked to the Liberal Party, refused to reconsider the award despite being petitioned by more than 1000 academics and students to do so.
Dr Nick Reimer, who helped organise the vocal protest outside the Great Hall, started one of the petitions which read in part: “To confer a doctorate on him is an insult to Indigenous people, refugees, and anyone committed to multiculturalism, peace and social progress in this country and in the world.”
The petition slammed Howard for his “jingoistic, divisive and reactionary politics” which, they said, are responsible for “widening fractures” in society, especially anti-Muslim racism. It also blamed Howard for policies that have led to the sharp escalation in racist attacks against asylum seekers, First Nations peoples and a rise in militarism. It also cited the Howard-inspired “assault on the independence of university research (the so-called ‘history wars’)” as a reason not to bestow any award.
Frank Stilwell, from the Department of Political Economy, congratulated the protesters saying it would have been terrible if Howard had been given the award “without a significant public show of opposition to a deplorable decision”.
Other speakers at the hastily organised rally included retired Maritime Union of Australia activist Kevin Tory, Dr Christopher Humphrey Hartney, Dr Lucia Sorbera, Mark Goudkamp, Chloe Rafferty, Dr Beth Yahp, Professor Linda Connor and Kitty-Jean Laginha.
In a comment piece for the September 30 Sydney Morning Herald, Connor and Reimer said: “Universities’ responsibility to provide a source of rigorous independent analysis and expertise can only be discharged if they stand above the horse-trading of political influence and favour. This was exactly the principle at stake when La Trobe University tried to appease politicians by suspending Roz Ward, the Safe Schools program co-founder, earlier this year. In normalising honorary degrees for former PMs, universities signal they have no interest in maintaining a critical independence from political power.”
As if to prove their point, Tom Switzer a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney rushed to Howard’s defence saying on October 4 that Howard may have made a mistake on Iraq, but “he was motivated by good intentions”.
Switzer, a conservative commentator, former Liberal Party advisor and Sydney university graduate, was at the university that day to wish his mentor well. He would have heard the many eloquent and passionate speakers protesting Howard’s award. In sharp contrast, there were half a dozen Liberal student supporters who repeatedly declined to give a single reason for why they supported Howard receiving the award.
Switzer belatedly stepped into the breach by arguing that Howard, despite his “mistake” on Iraq, is not a war criminal. But how else can one describe the man who signed Australia up to the Iraq War on the basis of blatant lies and against the opposition of a large majority of Australians?
Andrew Wilke, the former intelligence officer who resigned over the flawed intelligence on Iraq, summed it up well when he said: “John Howard, along with the former US President George W. Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, not only have the blood of countless people on their hands but also stand accused of heinous war crimes and should front an international court.
“The University of Sydney debases itself by this decision and diminishes the worthy recipients of its honorary doctorates.”