Federal Labor MP Michael Danby claims bias is, in fact, a cause for concern in Australian tertiary institutions, and one of his prime targets is the Centre for Middle East Studies at Sydney's Macquarie University. Well, earlier today, Dr Andrew Vincent, the centre's director, joined George Negus here in the studio to face his critic. George Negus began by referring to a parliamentary speech in which Michael Danby himself a Jew, accused Dr Vincent of imparting "endless one-sided propaganda" in his courses that examine the Middle East conflict.
MICHAEL DANBY, MP AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, it's not a personal thing, but I do feel that graduates through his school get to hear the Syrian Ambassador, Syrian points of view, all kinds of apologia for extreme Arab regimes like the brutal police dictatorship in Syria, but they don't hear enough other points of view.
GEORGE NEGUS: So you do regard his work as a university lecturer and the Centre of Middle East Studies that he leads is one-sided in its view of this whole issue?
MICHAEL DANBY: Overall. I'm sure there are individual courses and individual talks that put another point of view. But this is not something restricted to him. We've had Carl Ungerer at the University of Queensland talk about how research projects in terrorism are very biased against the interests of diversity and are very one-sided in their projections. I think this is a much more widespread problem than just Dr Vincent's course.
GEORGE NEGUS: Do you feel that there is an Australian version of Campus Watch - that we've just been seeing - in this country? Andrew Vincent, do you?
DR ANDREW VINCENT, MACQUARIE UNIVERSITY: I think there might be. I don't think it's nearly as bad in Australia as it is in the United States. I think that was a very chilling program indeed.
GEORGE NEGUS: Do you feel as though you're being watched, what you do, what you say is being watched by what you would call the pro-Israel lobby?
DR ANDREW VINCENT: Yes, yes. I think there's no doubt that that's happening. And so are other Middle East centres, such as the one at the Australian National University, but that goes with the pitch. I think people need to watch us and they need to keep an eye on whether we are becoming extremists. But I think Michael is wrong when he says that we just represent one side. We've had, goodness gracious, we had the brother of the current Prime Minister of Israel who spoke at Macquarie University not very long ago. We've had Moshe Maoz, we've had Eitan Gilboa, a whole variety of Israelis who are very much in tune with Israeli current thinking.
But the other point I think that's very important to bring out is that Israel itself doesn't speak with a single mind on all of this. Israel has all kinds of different opinions in it. And it is very sad when people like Michael and like the groups in the United States are trying to frogmarch not just the whole Jewish community, but the whole community in general, into supporting a government which not all Israelis support, let's face it.
GEORGE NEGUS: Michael, when …
MICHAEL DANBY: George, that's going a bit overboard. I mean, I'm in favour of a two-state solution. I'm not trying to frogmarch anyone into any particular position. And I must say that I was very pleased when Mr Sharon announced that he was going to withdraw from Gaza. I wish Palestinian rocket attacks would stop from Gaza into Israel, and the Israelis would be able to get on with the process that they talked about of leaving part of the West Bank in order that there would be established a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in peace with Israel.
GEORGE NEGUS: In that August speech of yours, Michael, you seemed to be suggesting that there was a misuse of taxpayers' money by people like Andrew Vincent and his Centre for Middle East Studies. Do you think this is the case?
MICHAEL DANBY: No, that's too simple, George. What I was arguing was the advice that they gave and the interlocking memberships of the Council of Arab Commerce, the Australian Wheat Board had led to Australian policymakers - particularly when the National Party has their hand in it - of giving loans to Arab countries that should never have been given to them. We should never have given Saddam Hussein $800 million of free wheat, paid for by the Australian taxpayer, which was then written off. I think the people in the Department of Foreign Affairs, in other places and in the Wheat Board thought, "Well, if we can do this to the Australian taxpayer, we can do the same to the UN escrow accounts and use them for our own purposes." What I'm saying is, their advice leads to bad policy.
DR ANDREW VINCENT: It sounds like Michael is blaming me for the AWB scandal. None of my students worked for the Australian Wheat Board, none of my former students, but I'm very proud that a number of them work for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Some of them work in intelligence, some of them work overseas. And I think that the testimony of a good academic is how well their graduate students do, and I think both Amin Saikal and I have had some spectacular successes among the students that we've taught.
GEORGE NEGUS: Gentlemen, is it possible I'd like to hear from both of you on this. Is it really possible in an overheated debate like the Middle East issue, Israel and Palestine, is it possible for real balance to ever occur? 2-handed prejudice, yes, but balance, is that really possible? I'll ask Michael, but do you think it is possible? I mean, do you approach this whole issue with an open mind or not? Because you don't think Andrew Vincent does.
MICHAEL DANBY: Well, I think I do. And I think, look, part of the discussion and part of the diversity is having debates like this. I mean, people will make their own judgments about what the truth is, and I think by putting criticism and by putting pressure on people who I say have a one-sided point of view, that helps create the public climate where people can look at these kind of issues, just as Carl Ungerer and others have put pressure on the Australian Research Council for the one-sided studies on terrorism. These are very positive aspects of a democratic debate and have to take place, George. And your program is providing a service by doing that. I mean, I think, you know, denigrating Daniel Pipes in a sort of some chilling program of McCarthyism on American campuses is a bit overboard. I mean, Pipes, after all is the one conservative who's been opposed to the war in Iraq. Things are much more complicated in this area than people who have very simple approaches to it think about it.
GEORGE NEGUS: Could you see a situation, Michael, could you see a situation developing where people in the academic world in this country were targeted by extremists, if you like, on your side of the argument? Is it likely that Andrew Vincent and his colleagues could find themselves in danger of losing their jobs because they said things that people didn't really like or agree with?
MICHAEL DANBY: I think that's completely over the top, George. There's no indication of that at all.
GEORGE NEGUS: It wouldn't happen?
MICHAEL DANBY: Why would it? I mean, Dr Vincent's perfectly entitled to his point of view, however wrong it is, just as Saikal is. But these people dominate the debate in the op-ed columns and on TV programs like this, normally. I'm just trying to add a little balance in here by saying that some of the policy judgments that they've made are wrong, some of the people who work for the Australian Wheat Board, the National Farmers' Federation who do sit on this board. And the overwhelming thrust of his lecturers, saying that Syria, for instance, ought to have an embassy here in Australia at this time is wrong.
GEORGE NEGUS: Sorry. Running out time. What about your simulated lessons, the lectures that you conducted. You believe that that was actually stopped for political reasons.
DR ANDREW VINCENT: That was stopped for political reasons. But just let me respond to Michael. We're already being targeted - we have been attacked in Parliament. Now, that is targeting, there's no doubt about it. I can't respond in Parliament. The simulations that I run, which were in fact stopped as a result of pressure from this lobby group.
GEORGE NEGUS: Simulated debates about the Middle East?
DR ANDREW VINCENT: Simulated role-playing exercises, lasting for several weeks, of the Middle East, of Middle East politics, have been enormously popular. They have been showcased to the OECD as one of the best examples of Australian education, and they're done internationally. We still do them.
GEORGE NEGUS: Let me quickly get a response. Do you think that that sort of thing that Andrew Vincent has been conducting, is OK? Is that OK by you, this simulated role-playing?
MICHAEL DANBY: I have no idea, George. The NSW Education Department and the NSW Labour Government must be involved in this conspiracy because they made the judgment, not me.
GEORGE NEGUS: Look, gentlemen, we'd like to go on but obviously we've run out of time. Thank you very much.
DR ANDREW VINCENT: Thank you, George. Thank you, Michael.