Interview on 2GB with Ben Fordham
Topics: Western Civilisation scholarship program

Ben Fordham: Now, what do you make of this? Students and staff at an Australian university are up in arms over a plan to offer a degree on Western civilisation. The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation has been talking with the Australian National University to set up an undergraduate degree and a scholarship program to study the topic: Western civilisation. But now, a petition has been established opposing it, and the student union has spoken out against it. The president of that union, Eleanor Kay, says Western civilisation is often used a rhetorical tool to continue the racist prioritisation of Western history over other cultures. The federal Minister for Education is Simon Birmingham and he’s on the line.

Minister, good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Ben, good to be with you.

Ben Fordham: What do you make of this?

Simon Birmingham: Oh look, these comments from the Tertiary Education Union and the National Union of Students are frankly ridiculous and quite appalling in the sense that what they are trying to do is actually restrain the academic freedoms and academic integrity that we should see at our universities. University should be a place where ideas are debated and contested, where we are absolutely looking to get the best out of all different cultures and histories and civilisations. And of course, the great irony of what these union fanatics are doing is that they are actually undermining the very basis on which many universities were built. The whole foundation of universities, academic freedom and academic integrity, has come largely out of the principles and development of Western civilisation.

Ben Fordham: Well, I don’t know how you can keep a straight face and say: look, we don’t want to study Western civilisation, when, in fact, we’re living in a Western civilisation.

Simon Birmingham: Well look, that is quite right, Ben, and universities already have different centres looking at Islamic studies, Asian studies and the like, and there’s nothing racist about that. That is about understanding cultures that we have to work with, live with, advance our relations with, and it’s making sure that we know how to work with those cultures. But of course, we also must know our own history, and far too much of the research over recent years shows that not enough Australian schoolchildren are effectively learning about our civic institutions and our history, and we’ve got to work harder to try to lift that outcome. But we also see that amongst young Australians, they’ve got a declining faith in the value of democracy. Well, if not democracy, what’s the alternative? And that clearly shows that we need to build people’s understanding that though we have many imperfections across our democratic systems and structures, they remain, of course, the bedrock of what has given us one of the most prosperous countries in the world, one of the freest places in which to engage. These are actually all developments that have been achieved thanks to Western civilisation and the work of so many people before us.

Ben Fordham: Just briefly, I’m not sure of the extent of your powers as the Education Minister. I mean, is it up to the Australian National University here? Is there anything that can be done so that this degree and this scholarship program goes ahead?

Simon Birmingham: Well, of course, I mentioned academic freedom, academic integrity before, and part of that is that universities are granted great autonomy and freedoms to make decisions themselves, but I do urge the ANU to stand strong in the face of this union action, that they really ought to follow through on their convictions, which was to engage with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. This is philanthropic money coming through to a university to extend the area of their study. They should grab it with both hands.

Ben Fordham: Good on you. Thanks for coming on.

Simon Birmingham: Cheers mate.

Ben Fordham: Simon Birmingham, the federal Minister for Education. So we’ll see what happens at the Australian National University, but if the president of the Student Union and others get their way, we’ll have a blindfold approach to studying history. I mean, history happened whether you like or not. You can’t go changing it. And we do live in a Western civilisation, even though some people like to cherry-pick the very worst of it and pretend that that’s all that happened.