Senator Sarah Henderson – Estimates questions to the ANU regarding the Gaza solidarity student encampment

June 6, 2024

Professor, are you seeking to dismantle the encampment at ANU?

Senator HENDERSON: Professor, are you seeking to dismantle the encampment at ANU?

Prof. Bell: At this time, Senator Henderson, we believe the encampment is a peaceful protest.

Senator HENDERSON: Are you involved or engaged in any discussions with protesters behind the encampment with the view to entering into any sort of agreement, as has happened, much to my disdain, with Melbourne university, Sydney, and also UQ?

Prof. Bell: As we said to both Senator Faruqi and Senator Thorpe, we have been in an extended correspondence with some of the members of the encampment to determine a way to have a conversation. I think conversations are hugely important. I think finding ways to create spaces for those conversations really matters, and it is something that we all seek to do.

Senator HENDERSON: Are you considering, as I say, entering into any sort of agreement? I understand there are a range of demands from the protesters. Capitulation in any form to any group of people is, I would put to you, of great concern. It is deeply concerning what has been agreed by the University of Sydney, Melbourne and UQ. Are you looking to go down that path?

Prof. Bell: Senator Henderson, thank you for showing your concern about my colleagues. For us, we are trying to have a conversation—and I want to be really clear; I say ‘conversation’. It is not about demands; it is about being in a room with people and actually starting to work out what the conversation is. Until that happens, I’m not willing to make a determination about what the outcome would be.

Senator HENDERSON: I want to raise a case study with you, and I have been contacted by many parents and students. This has been provided to me on the basis of the person remaining anonymous. So I would ask you, Professor Venville, if you might be able to identify this person, to keep that confidential. This person has written multiple times and wrote to you on 1 May. I will just try to summarise what this person said. This is a mother. She said, ‘I am extremely concerned about my child, who sleeps on your campus while you allow pro-Palestinian students to camp on the grounds. And now the organisers have publicly and proudly announced on mainstream media that they are pro Hamas. Are you aware that Hamas are a recognised terrorist group? The same ANU student organisers protesting on your grounds also don’t condemn the 7 October attacks, meaning they condone murder of over one thousand innocent civilians, including babies and the elderly, as well as abducting well over 200 people who they are still currently terrorising and raping. Today I saw footage of your students calling out for an intifada revolution on megaphones. Do you know what intifada means? How is your administration allowing for this? It is your responsibility to create a safe environment for our kids. We pay a lot of money for that, and your university gets funding to create such a space, conducive to study, as opposed to anxiety and fear amongst a community of students who are being targeted. Why do our Jewish kids need to reach out to security and admin to chat about things? Why are you not addressing and holding these terrorist supporters accountable and calling them in for chats?’ This goes on. There has been a lot of correspondence between this particular parent and yourself. This encampment, this conduct, this use of terrorist slogans, is causing enormous harm. And what you might see as peaceful, Vice-Chancellor, members of the Jewish community are frightened by—fearful, they feel sickened. And that is just one example of what this is doing. Could I ask you to respond to the concerns of parents like this mother, because this is having a profound and very damaging effect on many of your students and their families?

Prof. Bell: Thank you for sharing that with me, Senator Henderson. I, much like you, find those hard words to listen to, and I’m sure my colleagues here also constantly worry about our students and our staff. We worry about creating a place that lives up to the mission of a university, which is about being a place of learning, research and teaching. And we are responsible in that way to think about how we balance academic freedom, which is at the core of a university, with creating and maintaining our code of conduct and our safe and responsible activities. In doing all of that, that means when we find clear violations of our code of conduct we use our disciplinary proceedings, and, as I said at the outset, Senator, we have resorted to our disciplinary proceedings 10 times in this space. So we are working to be very clear about what is acceptable and what is not. I know that is going to be something that we continue to do every day.

Senator HENDERSON: I will use this example, which was sent on 1 May: ‘Today I saw footage of your students calling out for an intifada revolution.’ Is that conduct that breaches your university rules?

Prof. Bell: One of the challenges, Senator—and I know you know in some ways better than I do—is that the way we think about hate speech in Australia and language is intensely challenging. I notice over the last two days there have been challenges in this building too. On our campus we try to navigate between the laws for hate speech, freedom of speech, academic freedom and our codes of conduct. And, for us, being able to navigate those requires constant work, and it means being able to make determinations where we see clear violations of our code of conduct, and we have pursued those where we can. Hence, we have had 10 disciplinary proceedings on foot this year.

Senator HENDERSON: For instance, Monash University has made a determination that those sorts of signs, including ‘river to the sea’, which means the destruction of Israel, are prohibited. Why won’t you take the same strong stand in relation to those sorts of terrorist slogans?

Prof. Bell: On balance, we believe those slogans to be hurtful speech, and where we have had the capacity to hold someone accountable for those we have done so through our disciplinary proceedings.

Senator HENDERSON: But ‘intifada’ and ‘global intifada’ mean a call for terrorist uprising, and, in the context of Jewish Australians, it means violence towards Jews. So how is that something that you can in any way defend, Vice-Chancellor?

Prof. Bell : Tony, can I ask you to weigh in here for a moment about freedom of speech and how we balance those things with our code of conduct?

Prof. Connolly : Yes. As Chair of Academic Board, we have oversight in a way of our academic freedom and freedom of speech policies. Starting with the premise, the default, to freedom of speech and academic freedom, they are contained or constrained by a range of regulations, as well as by the laws of this country to do with, and including, the wellbeing of other students and staff. Around those particular regulations, quite a complex, well thought through and, may I say, legislatively dictated decision-making process has been established within the ANU and other universities in this country, for deciding when and if those policies, which are designed to protect the wellbeing of our staff and students, have in fact been breached by the actions of staff and students. So the decision-making there lies with the various officials of the university, and I can assure you, from my understanding of those policies, that they are state-of-the-art decision-making policies in this field. And at this point no decision has been reached on a range of these issues.

Senator HENDERSON: That is also in consistent with the University of Sydney. It has not taken action in relation to the word ‘intifada’, but there was a sign for a meeting in relation to global intifada, which means terrorist uprising, or words similar, to Jews around the world. And the decision was made to pull that sign down and to prohibit that meeting going ahead. So, Professor, I would put to you that your stand on this type of language is not consistent even with the University of Sydney, which has had many incidents of hate speech, some of which it has not acted against, and I would put to you that means that Jewish students at ANU are not safe, and are not being properly protected if you are not taking action against those sorts of slogans being shouted on a loudspeaker.

CHAIR: Just before you answer this question, there is the opportunity for the senator to have a follow-up question as well after this.

Prof. Venville : I would really like to clarify that we have communicated, and the Jewish students who are here today have been very clear that those terms are hurtful to them. We have communicated that very clearly to the encampment participants where we can and asked them not to use those terms, and they have, at times, refrained from using the terms. But sometimes terms return. We keep asking them not to use them, where we can, and then, if we are able to, we use our disciplinary proceedings to take action.

Senator HENDERSON: Professor Venville, thank you very much for that clarification. So how many times have you taken disciplinary action or other proceedings in relation to the use of those terms?

Prof. Venville : Specifically in relation to those terms, I will take that on notice. I don’t know. But, as the Vice-Chancellor has repeatedly said, we have 10 situations where we are taking disciplinary proceedings up to this date.

Senator O’SULLIVAN: I would just like to table this map. While someone else takes the call, I wonder if someone could just circle for us on the map where the encampment was and where it has moved to, so that I can refer to it when I ask my questions.

Prof. Bell : It feels like a test for me.

Senator O’SULLIVAN: We can do that while we move on.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard