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The falling out between the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation and the ANU highlights the right’s hypocrisy over the values it purports to defend. By Mike Seccombe.

Howard, Abbott and the Ramsay Centre

John Howard at the launch of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation in Sydney last year.
Credit: AAP Image / Peter Rae

Before his death four years ago, at age 78, Paul Ramsay was a very good friend to the conservative political cause. Over the years, he gave millions to the Liberal Party.

He could easily afford it: his healthcare empire had made him a billionaire several times over. He appreciated that Liberal health policy was better for profits than Labor policy, but his generosity wasn’t just about business. He was deeply culturally conservative.

Ramsay never married and had no children, so inevitably, as he entered his latter years, the question arose: what was going to happen to all that money – estimated at $3.4 billion – after he died?

Tony Abbott had some ideas. He wanted to see Ramsay’s wealth used to fund the culture wars.

Abbott doesn’t put it like that, of course. As he described it in a piece for Quadrant magazine last month, from 2011 he and Ramsay began a series of conversations about their shared values, about “deeper cultural and spiritual heritage” that used to be inculcated into young people through their education but were no more.

“What this current generation was missing, I put to him,” Abbott boasted, “was familiarity with the stories and the values that had made us who and what we are.”

Where in today’s world was the “deep focus on Christian faith”, the historical narrative from the cradle of Western civilisation through Greece and Rome, Shakespeare and British history? Largely absent, Abbott argued.

Instead, he said, “every element of the curriculum was supposed to be pervaded by Asian, indigenous and sustainability perspectives. Almost entirely absent from the contemporary educational mindset was any sense that cultures might not all be equal and that truth might not be entirely relative.”

Over several years and “quite a few dinners and breakfasts”, Abbott pressed his case. As Ramsay warmed to the idea, a plan emerged. He would fund scholarships for bright students to study “the Western canon” at three leading Australian universities. There would be funding for postgraduate fellowships, for “outstanding scholars of strong character and a record of intellectual leadership”, as well as “lectures, seminars and summer schools promoting an understanding and appreciation of the high culture of the West”.

In April 2014, John Howard was brought in to chair the project. Then, a few weeks later, Ramsay died.

Fast forward four years to this week, and the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation finally released an “indicative” curriculum for its bachelor’s course in Western civilisation. It was impressive. Considering the great arc of history covered – from “Plato to NATO”, as one Ramsay source put it – it was, frankly, about as good and eclectic a selection of materials as one could imagine to provide a sound general knowledge of Western culture. Beginning with the ancients, Homer, Cicero, Virgil, Plutarch et al, it swept on through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton. There was a bit of the Bible, some Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin. It went to philosophers and political thinkers, economic theorists, great works of music, literature, art and architecture. Among the names: Locke, Kant, Koestler, Bach, Mozart, Raphael, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Adam Smith, Marx and Engels, De Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Freud, T. S. Eliot, Arendt, Solzhenitsyn, Foucault.

But the Ramsay Centre was never just about syllabus. For both students and the academic institutions with which it might partner, the centre represented a big bucket of money.

As we now know, Ramsay’s first choice among those institutions was the Australian National University, presumably because its arts and humanities programs are Australia’s top ranked.

The plan was to offer up to 60 places to students with ATAR ratings of 97 or above in the first year of the program. Thirty of those would be scholarship places, of $25,000 a year for up to five years. In the second year, a further 10 scholarships would be available to the best of those enrolled.

It was further proposed that Ramsay would fund 12 staff to teach and administer the program.

And yet, a couple of weeks ago, the deal fell over. Cue outrage from the political right, led by The Australian newspaper and the usual array of populist talkback hosts and conservative politicians and hangers-on. To them, the ANU’s withdrawal was proof of the power of leftists in the academic and student unions. As “evidence” of alleged double standards, they singled out the university’s externally funded Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.

As portrayed in The Australian, the ANU was hostile to the very idea of a course on Western civilisation. It was rubbish, of course. Why would the university spend five months in negotiation if that were the case?

Initially the ANU maintained a dignified silence about the issue, but as various victims of Murdoch media pogroms can attest, ignoring the culture wars does not make them go away.

On Tuesday last week the vice-chancellor of the ANU, Brian Schmidt, released a statement, saying the ANU had a “fundamentally different vision for the program than the Ramsay Centre, and that there was no prospect of us reaching agreement”.

The irreconcilable difference between the university and the Ramsay Centre related, he said, to “academic integrity, autonomy and freedom”.

In all its funding partnerships, including on Arab and Islamic Studies, said Schmidt, the university insisted on retaining control of “both curriculum and staffing decisions”. The Ramsay Centre did not want to abide by this rules. Although it suggests to The Saturday Paper that it is prepared to negotiate on curriculum content, it wanted an equal say on the matter with the university, and also a say on staffing.

One does not have to have read Virgil’s Aeneid to recognise a Trojan Horse. Particularly when those offering the gift happily boast that it is a Trojan Horse, which is what Tony Abbott effectively did in his Quadrant piece.

Abbott made it quite plain that the primary objective of those behind the plan was not educative but ideological. He cited “O’Sullivan’s law”, named after John O’Sullivan, a former editor of Quadrant: “Every organisation that’s not explicitly right-wing, over time becomes left-wing.”

He went on to express his confidence that the Ramsay Centre would remain a right-wing institution, for a couple of reasons. First, because its board, including Howard, Abbott, Liberal MP Julian Leeser and the Catholic fundamentalist former union leader Joe de Bruyn, were determined to guard “Paul’s legacy”. And second, because “even in Australian universities there is still a cadre of teachers for whom history can’t be re-written, facts are facts, and great books are still well worth reading”.

Not only were his words insulting to the bulk of Australia’s academics, they were risible, given Abbott’s own relationship with facts. This was the man who, as prime minister, tried unsuccessfully to bribe the University of Western Australia into hosting a so-called Consensus Centre headed by climate change sceptic Bjørn Lomborg.

The political realities behind the failure of negotiations between the Ramsay Centre and the ANU were, of course, ignored in the blizzard of angry opinion pieces run by The Australian – 175 articles and counting, according to the ANU on Thursday. There was one exception: Peter van Onselen had the intellectual honesty to lay the blame, at least partially, where it was due. It was Tony Abbott’s fault, he said, for advertising in print his simplistic left–right world view, “as though Western civilisation is owned by one side of this crude ideological divide”.

It’s not just Abbott. The political right generally is increasingly prone to portraying their critics as a threat to Western civilisation. And no one has done it as consistently as Abbott’s mentor, and Ramsay Centre chair, John Howard.

Consider this example, again from the pages of The Australian this week, which began a paean of praise for Howard, written by the federal environment minister, Josh Frydenberg.

“The positive contribution of Western civilisation has been a constant theme in John Howard’s speeches during the course of his public life,” wrote Frydenberg, who then quoted Howard: “ ‘Despite what any self-appointed cultural dietitians tell you, Australia is part of Western civilisation.’ ”

The more you think about that quote, the more inane it becomes. Who are these people who deny that this country is part of Western civilisation? They don’t exist.

The purpose of Frydenberg’s article was to puff Howard’s new book, a collection of his past speeches, entitled Howard: The Art of Persuasion, released this week. Frydenberg went on to make particular mention of a speech made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Quadrant, in which Howard alleged a “long march” of the “soft left” through Australian institutions, noting their “dominance in Australia’s universities”.

Frydenberg thought that speech “prescient … in the light of the Australian National University’s recent response to proposals from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation”.

So did Alan Jones, in a fawning interview with Howard on 2GB. He recited the “long march” quote, and also the part of the speech where Howard decried “the black armband view of history”.

Howard responded to his host in that cunning way he always has, insisting there was room to criticise the Western cultural tradition – “it’s not perfect, no tradition is … by all means debate it, analyse it ” – then savaging those who do just that.

“Unfortunately,” Howard said, “that determination to denigrate and pour scorn on our past, to elevate the failures and diminish the successes, is still going on. It goes on in universities, it goes on in schools, it goes on in sections of the media … not all sections of the media, of course.”

Jones and Howard were oblivious to the irony of their complaint: that the very process of interrogating our society, its institutions and values, is the essence of the civilisation they purport to defend.

The dogmatic insistence of the Ramsay Centre – that its curriculum should be immune from such interrogation – is evidence of a failure to embody the values it seeks to teach.

 

This piece was modified on June 18, 2018, to make clear what it was the Ramsay Centre was asking in terms of say in curriculum and staffing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2018 as "Ramsay cul-de-sac". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.