Saturday, January 31, 2004

John Cain’s Off Course

Andrew Norton predictably leapt into the fray first thing this morning, in defence of his employer, the University of Melbourne – the institution that is subject of a new book by ex-Vic premier John Cain and John Hewitt, Off Course.

Norton’s defence is mainly in the style of a catalogue of errors (of which there are many and glaring) – perhaps a fair enough mode for critiquing a book that purports to be about defending higher education from the barbarians. Nonetheless, less nitpicking and more substantive rebuttal by Norton would be welcome. (Vitiating against this happening however, is the way Norton sees his defensive armoury as circumscribed by his employment: “I . . . do not comment on its policies in public [and so] I will restrict my comments to other matters”. As to how commenting on events a decade or more old – Off Course seems to focus on the decade from 1985, judging by Norton’s critique (I haven’t read the book) – is a matter of policy and not history, is an open question.

My suggestion to Norton is that he could, almost certainly, gainfully attack the substance of Off Course by detailing Labor complicity in the undermining of the University of Melbourne, and so, Australia's uni system more generally. (Having attended Melbourne as an undergrad between 1984 and 1989, and worked (briefly) there as an academic in 1992, I am in full concurrence with what I take to be Cain and Hewitt’s basic thesis – the steady erosion of a once-great institution.) That a Labor government was in power federally until 1996, long after having set-up, with its 1987 Wran Report, the groundwork for later scorched-earth, bust-‘em up downsizers like Alan Gilbert, for me, leads to instant suspicion of John Cain on grounds of hubris and hypocrisy.

As Premier of Victoria until 1990 (and with a Labor government clinging on for another two and a bit years), John Cain’s now turning on Parkville’s sandstone eminence is more than just a bit rich. The ultimate criticism of Off Course, then, may be that it is an attempted alibi (and a ham-fisted one at that) for John Cain – a oblique piece of blame-shifting from a man who was at the very centre of important decisions that fucked-up higher education for my generation, and who now has the nerve to be writing about that time as if he were some kind of disinterested spectator, then and now.

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