One of Australia’s most distinguished public servants, Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM, has been appointed to the post of Chancellor of Macquarie University – one of the leading metropolitan universities in this country.

The position of Chancellor is a prestigious and influential role usually filled by a very distinguished person although the day-to-day administrative and organisational tasks involved in running a university largely fall on the shoulders of the vice-chancellor, pro-vice-chancellors and faculty heads.

However, sometimes a Chancellor can signal through his comments and actions certain views or opinions which may be a timely reflection both on the university – or universities – and society in general.

In this regard Dr Parkinson has already provided some insightful views on a contemporary topic which is currently in the public eye – and that is the question of freedom of expression in a democracy.

In his career as a public servant Dr Parkinson clearly demonstrated his interest in economic and social policy in his position as a top level advisor.

His keen observations of Australia’s future and the education of the emerging generations, however, has not disguised a real concern for the direction of public debate and discourse in Australia’s universities.

Dr Parkinson’s views on the subject have been made clear in press interviews in relation to his new appointment. He warned that the growing trend of intolerance and exclusion on Australian campuses when interest groups attempt to “shout down” controversial speakers and views actually amounts to a threat to our nation’s democratic ideals.

His view is similar to that of some worried observers in other countries, such as the United States, and this is that there is a trend to silence contrary opinion by noise and violence.

Dr Parkinson is worried that such a trend is spreading beyond universities to society at large.

Dr Parksinson is correct.

Universities have traditionally been centres for robust debate, places of intelligence and ability where ideas should be vigorously contested without the need for demonisation or victimisation.

In the final analysis, in a civilised society there is room both for both informed opinion and speculative or contrary views of factual or evidence-based material.

Proponents of an idea can be assertive but when counter arguments are simply based on ideology and uncompromising hostility the danger is that fear and intimidation will overrule the accepted rules of public discourse. The result is that fairness and balance go out the window.

We should all prefer to live in a society where sterile ‘groupthink’ is not forced upon us and where discourse and contestable argument can take place within a framework of tenability, truth and reason.

We hope that Dr Parkinson’s opinions on freedom of expression do permeate widely throughout his – and other universities.