The article appeared in the UTS student journal
Vertigo No.7 in 2000, and appears with the kind permission of the
author, Ryan Heath
FEAR AND LOATHING ON UNIVERSITY COUNCIL (UTS)
The UTS Students' Association's 'Log of Claims' Campaign has been running since late last year (1999). It aims to highlight the dramatic decline in resources and conditions for students and staff - heightened since the Liberals' election in 1996. As more people have begun to realise that the Students' Association has a point, the messier things have become.
Where the controversy began - students getting involved in university governance.
At the May 8th (2000) Student Affairs and Equity Meeting, the Students' Association put up a series of recommendations about increasing student to staff ratios. The general argument was that as student numbers increase and staff numbers drop, quality of education is undermined and is the primary cause of 'deteriorating material conditions for students'.
Further, the following motion was passed:
To recommend to Council:
That when Faculty Dean's advisory boards consider strategies to reduce staff, increase class sizes or to rationalise courses, that the Dean of that Faculty must consult students widely and via their peak representative body the Students' Association with:
5.1 the reasons for the proposed cuts/rationalisations
5.2 budget analysis and alternative options
5.3 well-advertised time frames for decision-making processes and for consideration of student submissions on the matter.
What really raised eyebrows, however, as high up as UTS Chancellor, Sir Gerard Brennan was a motion expressing support for official UTS participation in the 2001 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras......
Fast Forward to University Council June 15, 2000
In contrast to the surroundings, most of the people were stale. The only thing more out of date was their understanding of students and social issues.
From the outset, things looked grim for Team UTS Students. Reserve Ryan Heath was forcibly prevented from going on the field by the referee, Sir Gerard Brennan. Despite being the elected Students' Association President, Heath was allowed to speak only three times during the three hour meeting.
It was clear from kick-off that among the key issues of contention would be two of the proposals contained in the Student Affairs and Equity Committee report. One (printed earlier in this article) to force student consultation when major changes are happening to courses, and another to endorse and fund a UTS Mardi Gras Float in 2001.
On one hand Sir Gerard, a former Chief Justice of the High Court, rightly demanded more independence and accountability in decision-making at UTS. However, in the very same meeting, he silenced others trying to protect the independence of the Student Affairs and Equity Committee (SAEC) and promote the rights of disadvantaged groups within the university.
You can take the boy out of the background but you can't take the background out of the boy.
Sir Gerard Brennan was appointed in 1995 as the 10th Chief Justice of Australia, just three years after his principal judgement in the second Mabo case which upheld the Native Title of Indigenous Australians.
The press release which heralded Brennan's election as Chancellor of UTS spoke glowingly of his " vigorous defence against perceived political attacks on the judiciary which challenged the integrity and independence of the courts". But the Brennan story goes a lot deeper.
The 1999 book The High Price of Heaven, by the award-winning journalist, David Marr, has several interesting references to Brennan. Published by Allen and Unwin, Marr's book is subtitled " a book about the enemies of pleasure and freedom" , a label placed by implication on Brennan himself.
Marr describes Brennan as a " man deeply influenced by a living belief in Catholicism and an intimate understanding of its values and history. Brennan's brand of Catholicism brings with it not only an instinct for racial justice but a freight of bigotry about homosexuality which he has now helped fix in Australian law" .
Specifically, Brennan is raised in The High Price of Heaven in the context of the case of Malcolm Green, a man who killed a real estate agent in May 1993, by smashing his skull and stabbing him with scissors a dozen times. The victim, 36 year old Don Gillies, allegedly made a sexual advance on Green.
The tactic used to give Brennan the leverage to argue that this gruesome act by Green was merely manslaughter (and not murder) is known as the "Homosexual Advance Defence" . While used in several previous cases, it was the judgement of Sir Gerard Brennan which enshrined "homosexual advance defence" as a precedent in Australia's legal system.
Brennan's judgement means men can now be considered justified in grievous bodily harm or killing another man who tries to kiss or fondle them.
Despite Green's act being judged as murder in the initial trial, and again by the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal, Sir Gerard Brennan was one of three High Court judges to overturn the murder conviction. This was a decision made not on legal technicalities, but as David Marr suggests, on the \ldblquote gut feelings\rdblquote of those judges.
The gut feeling of Brennan was one of disgust and fear towards homosexuals. These are feelings that have been developed by the values by which Brennan was born and raised. Feelings that he is now carrying onto his work as UTS Chancellor.
Open homophobic attacks at UTS University Council
Rachel Galea, President of the UTS Catholic Students Movement.
When Council met, the early Recommendations of the SAEC were challenged by senior UTS bureaucrats, and the more conservative members of Council. This practice is most unusual, as Council generally passes recommendations made to it without question, or at most, clarification.
To the shock of many in attendance, as the agenda turned to the funding of the Mardi Gras float, Brennan removed himself from the chair and handed a legal opinion paper he had prepared to UTS Registrar, Jeff Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald then distributed the document, but many senior university figures were denied a copy until they specifically requested one.
The legal opinion outlined why the former Chief Justice of the High Court believed the recommendation to fund a UTS-based Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras float was illegal.
Brennan cited Section 5 of the University of Technology, Sydney Act, 1989 to argue the university was a corporation with no power to disburse funds to a Mardi Gras float. Brennan argued that Muslim and Christian students would find the float "morally undesirable, perhaps offensive". Disturbingly, Brennan ignored the spectre of youth suicide, queer bashings and numerous studies to arbitrarily declare Mardi Gras was of " no educational significance and not the concern of the University" .
This view is at odds with those of UTS Catholic Chaplain, PeterMaher and President of the UTS Catholic Students Movement, Rachel Galea:
"Mardi Gras is a time of educational significance. A time for educating people about anything from attitudes to diseases," says Galea, an Education student from UTS' Kuring-gai campus.
" If we can run lots of programs making international students feel accepted and welcome, then what's the problem for doing the same for people who are homosexual. I'm sure if you did a survey amongst UTS students you wouldn't find much resistance".
She goes on to say, " I think it's ridiculous to say it's illegal to put UTS money into the float. If we're a community that's about acceptance, I don't have any problems. If they can fund crappy artwork and cushy lounges then they can fund the float," said an annoyed Galea.
Galea's thoughts are echoed by UTS Cathoic Chaplain, Peter Maher. Indeed, some members of University Coucnil are prepared to go futher than Galea and Maher, but will not go on the record.
Aside from the possibility of offending religious groups, it was Vice President of University Enterprieses Bob Robertson who revealed asecond level of fears and intentions of those backing Brennan's paper. While supporting the " moral" arguments made by Students' Association President Ryan Heath, Robertson claimed it would be economically disastrous. In the current " precarious economic environment" to fund a Mardi Gras float would potentially alienate many full-fee paying Asian students, and other fee-paying students of religious backgrounds.
The bottom line was the imperative of the dollar combined with the bigotry of conservative Catholicism to again marginalise queer students and staff at UTS. A decision made only more painful by the fact that the proposal was knocked back at the final hurdle, with verbal homophobic attacks that saw Heath leave the meeting in tears of anger.
Brennan's choice to allow these feelings to interfere with the work of the Student Affairs and Equity Committee now pose difficult questions for all queers on campus and those who back Sir Gerard in his new role.
UTS Vice Chancellor, Tony Blake, (the man with all the executive power) is one such person. Blake has a reputation as one of the most progressive Vice-Chancellors in Australia. Upon Brennan's induction as Chancellor, Blake said:
"His contributions to social justice sit well with the values to which we at UTS are committed" .
But 'social justice for whom?,' queer students and staff at UTS might ask.
Blake went on to say " Sir Gerard is considered a man of compassion...... Sir Gerard Brennan formed part of a movement that has looked to the Constitution for the protection of individual rights and freedoms."
But Sir Gerard Brennan's actions are not matching Blake's or others' words. The Out Action Collective of UTS (OUTS) believes Brennan and the University Council must put their own actions and beliefs under the microscope.
As someone frustrated by the UTS Management's lack of respect for the right of council members to access important information to arrive at decisions with reference to, rather than dependence on, the advice of UTS bureaucrats, Brennan must justify or rescind his hypocrisy on the issue of Mardi Gras.
Ray Goodlass, Greens NSW LGBTI Spokesperson, had the following letter published in the Sydney Star Observer on 21 December 2006. Hopefully the whole letter was published, but at any rate, the main thrust of what Ray was writing about has presumably appeared. Goodlass mentions an article about the topic which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 14 December 2006, but I have unfortunately not been able to obtain a copy of the article to date (22 January 2007).
"As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 December (2006), a Sydney man has been jailed for less than 20 years for the stabbing murder of a transvestite prostitute.
Supreme Court Justice Peter Hidden said Alen Imbrisak, 32, was so offended " by sexual contact with a person he discovered to be of his own sex" that he stabbed transvestite Lei Zainal four times in the neck in Darlinghurst in 2003. Justice Hidden on Thursday (14 December 2006) jailed Imbrisak for 18.5 years, and a minimum 13.5 years, for the murder. What is of concern to the Greens is that Justice Hidden appears to have accepted the gay panic defence as a mitigating factor.
Justice Hidden said that while the motive was unclear, Imbrisak appeared to have been affronted because Zainal was a man. Quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, Justice Hidden said, " It was that the deceased approached him, offering sexual services, that he assumed that the deceased was a woman. He realized from the pitch of his voice that he was not. He was affronted by being approached sexually by a man." Though Justice Hidden also said " it was clearly spontaneous, and its very ferocity demonstrates that the offender was not thinking rationally at the time, " it does not lessen our concern that the relatively light sentence might have been because of the gay panic defence.
If this is the case the Greens believe the judiciary is in need of education on the issue as gay panic is not acceptable as a mitigating factor in murder cases."
LESBIAN & GAY SOLIDARITY PAGE