AFR: Reason Deserted the ANU Debate

As in all conflicts, truth became the first casualty in the war of words over the ANU’s decision to divest its holdings in seven companies. Facts ignored, logic and reason abandoned, combatants of the two sides daubed themselves in the green and blue war paint of their respective tribes and charged onto the battlefield. Worryingly, the Battle of ANU is symptomatic of modern public discourse. Tribalism and belief systems have replaced logic and reason. To question is heresy. To analyse is to be ‘rational’, a term nowadays ranked somewhere between animal cruelty and a sexually transmitted disease.

Liberated of facts, critics of the ANU’s divestment decision attacked the university on the basis that coal had a bright future for at least the next half century. ANU’s defenders protested the university had every right to divest its holdings of fossil fuel shares for the sake of the planet.

Protagonists from both sides conveniently ignored the fact that the ANU had retained all its shares in coal-producing companies as well as those in all but one gas producer, dumping instead its nickel mining shares and those of other several other metal mining companies.

Government ministers championing deregulated student fees and the entry of non-universities into the higher education system attacked the ANU for exercising its freedom to decide in which companies to invest. Yet a true blue member of the libertarian tribe would acknowledge that the ANU has every right to decide on its share portfolio.

In defending the ANU’s decision, Vice Chancellor Ian Young wrote: "What will our industries be in 20 or 30 years' time? I am confident they will not be in producing fossil fuels." Yet the dumped nickel miner that the ANU alleges “causes social harm” produces a metal essential for solar energy equipment. 

Yes, gas produced by Santos is a fossil fuel. So is the gas produced by BHP Billiton and Woodside, in which the ANU continues to invest. Santos gas, like other natural gas, produces half the carbon emissions of coal, but the ANU is keeping its coal shares. In the Post-modern Era such inconvenient truths are cast aside as irritating irrelevancies.

In dumping its nickel and gas shares while retaining its holdings in coal, the ANU seems to have adopted Groucho Marx’s philosophy: “Those are my principles… and if you don’t like them I have others.”

Companies producing any metal or just about anything are now vulnerable to public denigration by the ANU for causing “social harm.” Rigour and transparency have been the hallmarks of academic thinking from the Age of Reason. No more. An entirely opaque process was used to name and shame the first seven companies announced by the ANU. A consultant ranked companies in which the ANU had invested according to five criteria while feeling under no obligation to advise any of them of its assessments or, in some cases, even to ask for input.

Ironically, the first universities were established in the Dark Ages. Perhaps it is to this era that the ANU hankers?

It was the ANU’s denial of natural justice to seven companies before trashing their reputations that has caused legitimate outrage. 

Emboldened by the cheering of his defenders, Vice Chancellor Ian Young has pledged to press on with the university’s opaque divestment procedures: to this day, the ANU refuses to publicly release the report that led to the blacklisting of the seven companies.

Decent people from all tribes would agree that publicly denigrating companies for “doing social harm” is reckless and irresponsible where crucial information is withheld from them and from the general public. If the information were reliable, as the consultants continue to assert, why were the companies denied the right to respond to the allegations made against them before the divestment decision was made?

With the passing of the Age of Reason, only the near-extinct third tribe – the rationalists – would argue that such decisions should be open, transparent and logical.

Craig Emerson is managing director of Craig Emerson Economics whose clients include Santos. The views expressed here are his own.