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Brownstone Institute

Why Is Our Education System Failing to Educate?

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30 minute read

From the Brownstone Institute

BY Julie PonesseJULIE PONESSE

I suspect many of you know my story. But, for those who don’t, the short version is that I taught philosophy — ethics and ancient philosophy, in particular — at Western University in Canada until September 2021 when I was very publicly terminated “with cause” for refusing to comply with Western’s COVID-19 policy.

What I did — question, critically evaluate and, ultimately, challenge what we now call “the narrative” — is risky behaviour. It got me fired, labeled an “academic pariah,” chastised by mainstream media, and vilified by my peers. But this ostracization and vilification, it turns out, was just a symptom of a shift towards a culture of silence, nihilism, and mental atrophy that had been brewing for a long time.

You know that parental rhetorical question, So if everyone jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” It turns out that most would jump at the rate of about 90 percent and that most of the 90 percent wouldn’t ask any questions about the height of the cliff, alternative options, accommodations for the injured, etc. What was supposed to be a cautionary rhetorical joke has become the modus operandi of the Western world.

Admittedly, I am a bit of an odd choice as the keynote speaker for an education conference. I have no specialized training in the philosophy of education or in pedagogy. In graduate school, you receive little formal instruction about how to teach. You learn by experience, research, trial by fire, and by error. And, of course, I was terminated from my position as a university teacher. But I do think a lot about education. I look at how many people are willing to outsource their thinking and I wonder, what went wrong? Confronted with the products of our public school system every day for 20 years, I wonder what went wrong? And, finally, as the mother of a 2-year-old, I think a lot about what happens in the early years to encourage a better outcome than we are seeing today.

My aim today is to talk a bit about what I saw in university students during my teaching career, why I think the education system failed them, and the only two basic skills any student at any age really needs.

Let’s start by doing something I used to do regularly in class, something some students loved and others hated. Let’s brainstorm some answers to this question: What does it mean to “be educated?”

[Answers from the audience included: “to acquire knowledge,” “to learn the truth,” “to develop a set of required skills,” “to get a degree.”]

Many answers were admirable but I noticed that most describe education passively: “to be educated,” “to get a degree,” “to be informed” are all passive verbs.

When it comes to writing, we are often told to use the active voice. It is clearer, more emphatic, and creates greater emotional impact. And yet the predominant way we describe education is passive. But is education really a passive experience? Is it something that just happens to us like getting rained on or being scratched by a cat? And do you need to be acted on by someone else in order to become educated? Or is education a more active, personal, emphatic and impactful experience? Might “I am educating,” “I am learning” be more accurate descriptions?

My experience in the classroom was certainly consistent with thinking of education as a passive experience. Over the years, I saw an increasing trend towards timidity, conformity and apathy, all signs of educational passivity. But this was a strict departure from the university culture that met me as an undergraduate in the mid-90s.

As an undergraduate, my classes were robust theaters of The Paper Chase-style effervescent debate. But there was a palpable shift sometime in the late 90s. A hush fell over the classroom. Topics once relied on to ignite discussion — abortion, slavery, capital punishment — no longer held the same appeal. Fewer and fewer hands went up. Students trembled at the thought of being called on and, when they did speak, they parroted a set of ‘safe’ ideas and frequently used “of course” to refer to ideas that would allow them to safely navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of topics considered to be off-limits by the woke zealots.

The stakes are even higher now. Students who question or refuse to comply are rejected or de-enrolled. Recently, an Ontario university student was suspended for asking for a definition of “colonialism.” Merely asking for clarification in the 21st century is academic heresy. Professors like myself are punished or terminated for speaking out, and our universities are becoming increasingly closed systems in which autonomous thought is a threat to the neoliberal groupthink model of ‘education.’

I spent some time thinking in concrete terms about the traits I saw in the novel, 21st century student. With some exception, most students suffer from the following symptoms of our educational failure. They are (for the most part):

  1. “Information-focused,” not “wisdom-interested:” they are computational, able to input and output information (more or less), but lack the critical ability to understand why they are doing so or to manipulate the data in unique ways.
  1. Science and technology worshipping: they treat STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as a god, as an end in itself rather than an instrument to achieve some end.
  1. Intolerant of uncertainty, complications, gray areas, open questions, and they are generally unable to formulate questions themselves.
  1. Apathetic, unhappy, even miserable (and I’m not sure they ever felt otherwise so they may not recognize these states for what they are).
  1. Increasingly unable to engage in counterfactual thinking. (I will return to this idea in a moment.)
  1. Instrumentalist: everything they do is for the sake of something else.

To elaborate on this last point, when I used to ask my students why they were at university, the following sort of conversation would usually ensue:

Why did you come to university?

To get a degree. 

Why? 

So I can get into law school (nursing or some other impressive post-graduate program). 

Why? 

So I can get a good job. 

Why? 

The well of reflex answers typically started to dry up that point. Some were honest that the lure of a “good job” was to attain money or a certain social status; others seemed genuinely perplexed by the question or would simply say: “My parents tell me I should,” “My friends are all doing it,” or “Society expects it.”

Being an instrumentalist about education means that you see it as valuable only as a way to obtain some further, non-educational good. Again, the passivity is palpable. In this view, education is something that gets poured into you. Once you get enough poured in, it’s time to graduate and unlock the door to the next life prize. But this makes education, for its own sake, meaningless and substitutable. Why not just buy the subject-specific microchip when it becomes available and avoid all the unpleasant studying, questioning, self-reflection, and skill-building?

Time has shown us where this instrumentalism has gotten us: we live in an era of pseudo-intellectuals, pseudo-students and pseudo-education, each of us becoming increasingly less clear why we need education (of the sort offered by our institutions) , or how it’s helping to create a better world.

Why the change? How did intellectual curiosity and critical thinking get trained out of our universities? It’s complex but there are three factors that surely contributed:

  1. Universities became businesses. They became corporate entities with boards of governors, customers and ad campaigns. In early 2021, Huron College (where I worked) appointed its first board of governors with members from Rogers, Sobeys, and EllisDon, a move author Christopher Newfield calls the “great mistake.” Regulatory capture (of the sort that led the University of Toronto to partner with Moderna) is just one consequence of this collusion.
  1. Education became a commodity. Education is treated as a purchasable, exchangeable good, which fits well with the idea that education is something that can be downloaded to anyone’s empty mind. There is an implicit assumption of equality and mediocrity, here; you must believe that every student is roughly the same in skill, aptitude, interest, etc. to be able to be filled this way.
  2. We mistook information for wisdom. Our inheritance from the Enlightenment, the idea that reason will allow us to conquer all, has morphed into information ownership and control. We need to appear informed to seem educated, and we shun the uninformed or misinformed. We align with the most acceptable source of information and forego any critical assessment of how they attained that information. But this isn’t wisdom. Wisdom goes beyond information; it pivots on a sense of care, attention, and context, allowing us to sift through a barrage of information, selecting and acting only on the truly worthy.

This is a radical departure from the earliest universities, which began in the 4th century BC: Plato teaching in the grove of Academus, Epicurus in his private garden. When they met to discuss, there were no corporate partnerships, no boards of directors. They were drawn together by a shared love of questioning and problem-solving.

Out of these early universities was born the concept of liberal arts — grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy — studies which are “liberal” not because they are easy or unserious, but because they are suitable for those who are free (liberalis), as opposed to slaves or animals. In the era before SME’s (subject matter experts), these are the subjects thought to be essential preparation for becoming a good, well-informed citizen who is an effective participant in public life.

In this view, education is not something you receive and certainly not something you buy; it is a disposition, a way of life you create for yourself grounded in what Dewey called “skilled powers of thinking.” It helps you to become questioning, critical, curious, creative, humble and, ideally, wise.

The Lost Art of Counterfactual Thinking

I said earlier that I would return to the subject of counterfactual thinking, what it is, why it’s been lost and why it’s important. And I would like to start with another thought experiment: close your eyes and think about one thing that might have been different over the last 3 years that might have made things better.

What did you pick? No WHO pandemic declaration? A different PM or President? Effective media? More tolerant citizens?

Maybe you wondered, what if the world was more just? What if truth could really save us (quickly)?

This “what if” talk is, at its core, counterfactual thinking. We all do it. What if I had become an athlete, written more, scrolled less, married someone else?

Counterfactual thinking enables us to shift from perceiving the immediate environment to imagining a different one. It is key for learning from past experiences, planning and predicting (if I jump off the cliff, x is likely to happen), problem solving, innovation and creativity (maybe I’ll shift careers, arrange my kitchen drawers differently), and it is essential for improving an imperfect world. It also underpins moral emotions like regret and blame (I regret betraying my friend). Neurologically, counterfactual thinking depends on a network of systems for affective processing, mental stimulation, and cognitive control, and it is a symptom of a number of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia.

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that we have lost our ability for counterfactual thinking en masse. But why did this happen? There are a lot of factors — with political ones at the top of the list — but one thing that surely contributed is that we lost a sense of play.

Yes, play. Let me explain. With a few exceptions, our culture has a pretty cynical view of the value of play. Even when we do it, we see play time as wasted and messy, allowing for an intolerable number of mistakes and the possibility of outcomes that don’t fit neatly into an existing framework. This messiness is a sign of weakness, and weakness is a threat to our tribal culture.

I think our culture is intolerant of play because it is intolerant of individuality and of distractions from the messaging we’re “supposed” to hear. It is also intolerant of joy, of anything that helps us to feel healthier, more alive, more focused and more jubilant. Furthermore, it doesn’t result in immediate, “concrete deliverables.”

But what if there was more play in science, in medicine and in politics? What if politicians said “What if we did x instead? Let’s just try out the idea?” What if, instead of your doctor writing a script for the “recommended” pharmaceutical, s/he said “What if you reduced your sugar intake… or… tried walking more? Let’s just try.”

“The stick that stirs the drink”

The non-superficiality of play is hardly a new idea. It was central to the development of the culture of Ancient Greece, one of the greatest civilizations in the world. It is telling that Greek words for play (paidia), children (paides) and education (paideia) have the same root. For the Greeks, play was essential not just to sport and theatre, but to ritual, music, and of course word play (rhetoric).

The Greek philosopher, Plato, saw play as deeply influential to the way children develop as adults. We can prevent social disorder, he wrote, by regulating the nature of children’s play. In his Laws, Plato proposed harnessing play for certain purposes: “If a boy is to be a good farmer or a good builder, he should play at building toy houses or at farming and be provided by his tutor with miniature tools modelled on real ones…One should see games as a means of directing children’s tastes and inclinations to the role they will fill as adults.”

Play is also the basis of the Socratic method, the back-and-forth technique of questioning and answering, trying things out, generating contradictions and imagining alternatives to find better hypotheses. Dialectic is essentially playing with ideas.

A number of contemporaries agree with Plato. The philosopher Colin McGinn wrote in 2008 that “Play is a vital part of any full life, and a person who never plays is worse than a ‘dull boy:’ he or she lacks imagination, humour and a proper sense of value. Only the bleakest and most life-denying Puritanism could warrant deleting all play from human life…..”

And Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, wrote: “I don’t think it is too much to say that play can save your life. It certainly has salvaged mine. Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing things necessary for survival. Play is the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder — in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization.”

Education as Activity

Play is key but it’s not the only thing missing in modern education. The fact that we have lost it is a symptom, I think, of a more fundamental misunderstanding about what education is and is meant to do.

Let’s go back to the idea of education being an activity. Perhaps the most well-known quotation about education is “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” It litters university recruitment pages, inspirational posters, mugs, and sweatshirts. Typically attributed to William Butler Yeats, the quotation is actually from Plutarch’s essay “On Listening” in which he writes “For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.”

The way Plutarch contrasts learning with filling suggests that the latter was a common, but mistaken, idea. Strangely, we seem to have returned to the mistake and to the assumption that, once you get your bottle filled up, you are complete, you are educated. But if education is a kindling instead of a filling, how is the kindling achieved? How do you help to “create an impulse to think independently?” Let’s do another thought experiment.

If you knew that you could get away with anything, suffering no impunity, what would you do?

There is a story from Plato’s Republic, Book II (discussing the value of justice) that fleshes out this question. Plato describes a shepherd who stumbles upon a ring that grants him the ability to become invisible. He uses his invisibility to seduce the queen, kill her king, and take over the kingdom. Glaucon, one of the interlocutors in the dialogue, suggests that, if there were two such rings, one given to a just man, and the other to an unjust man, there would be no difference between them; they would both take advantage of the ring’s powers, suggesting that anonymity is the only barrier between a just and an unjust person.

Refuting Glaucon, Socrates says that the truly just person will do the right thing even with impunity because he understands the true benefits of acting justly.

Isn’t this the real goal of education, namely to create a well-balanced person who loves learning and justice for their own sakes? This person understands that the good life consists not in seeming but in being, in having a balanced inner self that takes pleasure in the right things because of an understanding of what they offer.

In the first book of his canonical ethical text, Aristotle (Plato’s student) asks what is the good life? What does it consist of? His answer is an obvious one: happiness. But his view of happiness is a bit different from ours. It is a matter of flourishing, which means functioning well according to your nature. And functioning well according to human nature is achieving excellence in reasoning, both intellectually and morally. The intellectual virtues (internal goods) include: scientific knowledge, technical knowledge, intuition, practical wisdom, and philosophical wisdom. The moral virtues include: justice, courage, and temperance.

For Aristotle, what our lives look like from the outside — wealth, health, status, social media likes, reputation — are all “external goods.” It’s not that these are unimportant but we need to understand their proper place in the good life. Having the internal and external goods in their right proportion is the only way to become an autonomous, self-governing, complete person.

It’s pretty clear that we aren’t flourishing as a people, especially if the following are any indication: Canada recently ranked 15th on the World Happiness Report, we have unprecedented levels of anxiety and mental illness, and in 2021 a children’s mental health crisis was declared and the NIH reported an unprecedented number of drug overdose deaths.

By contrast with most young people today, the person who is flourishing and complete will put less stock in the opinions of others, including institutions, because they will have more fully developed internal resources and they will be more likely to recognize when a group is making a bad decision. They will be less vulnerable to peer pressure and coercion, and they will have more to rely on if they do become ostracized from the group.

Educating with a view to the intellectual and moral virtues develops a lot of other things we are missing: research and inquiry skills, physical and mental agility, independent thinking, impulse control, resilience, patience and persistence, problem solving, self-regulation, endurance, self-confidence, self-satisfaction, joy, cooperation, collaboration, negotiation, empathy, and even the ability to put energy into a conversation.

What should be the goals of education? It’s pretty simple (in conception even if not in execution). At any age, for any subject matter, the only 2 goals of education are:

  1. To create a self-ruled (autonomous) person from the ‘inside out,’ who…
  2. Loves learning for its own sake

Education, in this view, is not passive and it is never complete. It is always in process, always open, always humble and humbling.

My students, unfortunately, were like the Republic’s shepherd; they measure the quality of their lives by what they can get away with, what their lives look like from the outside. But their lives, unfortunately, were like a shiny apple that, when you cut into it, is rotten on the inside. And their interior emptiness left them aimless, hopeless, dissatisfied and, unfortunately, miserable.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine what the world would be like if it were made up of self-ruled people. Would we be happier? Would we be healthier? Would we be more productive? Would we care less about measuring our productivity? My inclination is to think we would be much, much better off.

Self-governance has come under such relentless attack over the last few years because it encourages us to think for ourselves. And this attack didn’t begin recently nor did it emerge ex nihilo. John D. Rockefeller (who, ironically, co-founded the General Education Board in 1902) wrote, “I don’t want a nation of thinkers. I want a nation of workers.” His wish has largely come true.

The battle we are in is a battle over whether we will be slaves or masters, ruled or self-mastered. It is a battle over whether we will be unique or forced into a mold.

Thinking of students as identical to one another makes them substitutable, controllable and, ultimately, erasable. Moving forward, how do we avoid seeing ourselves as bottles to be filled by others? How do we embrace Plutarch’s exhortation to “create […] an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth?”

When it comes to education, isn’t that the question we must confront as we move through the strangest of times?

Author

  • Julie Ponesse

    Dr. Julie Ponesse, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, is a professor of ethics who has taught at Ontario’s Huron University College for 20 years. She was placed on leave and banned from accessing her campus due to the vaccine mandate. She presented at the The Faith and Democracy Series on 22, 2021. Dr. Ponesse has now taken on a new role with The Democracy Fund, a registered Canadian charity aimed at advancing civil liberties, where she serves as the pandemic ethics scholar.

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Brownstone Institute

WHO Accords Warrant Sovereignty Concern

Published on

From the Brownstone Institute

BY Ramesh ThakurRAMESH THAKUR 

In agreeing to undertake to implement the WHO advisories, states will be creating a new system of pandemic management under the WHO authority and binding under international law. It will create an open-ended international law obligation to cooperate with the WHO and to fund it.

On 11 March, my article criticizing what appeared to be a slow-motion coup d’état by the World Health Organization (WHO) to seize health powers from states in the name of preparing for, conducting early warning surveillance of, and responding to “public health emergencies of international [and regional] concern” was published in the Australian. The coup was in the form of a new pandemic treaty and an extensive package of more than 300 amendments to the existing International Health Regulations (IHR) that was signed in 2005 and came into force in 2007, together referred to as the WHO pandemic accords.

The two sets of changes to the architecture of global health governance, I argued, will effectively change the WHO from a technical advisory organisation offering recommendations into a supranational public health authority telling governments what to do.

On 3 May, the Australian published a reply by Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, co-chair of the WHO working group on the IHR amendments. Bloomfield was New Zealand’s Director-General of Health from 2018–22 and received a knighthood for his services in the 2024 New Year’s Honours list. His engagement with the public debate is very welcome.

Rejecting the charge that the WHO is engaged in a power grab over states, Bloomfield wrote that as a one-time senior UN official, I “would know that no single member state is going to concede sovereignty, let alone the entire 194 members.”

I bow to the good doctor’s superior medical knowledge in comparison to my non-existent medical qualifications.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same with respect to reforms across the UN system, or sovereignty, or the relationship between “We the peoples” (the first three words of the UN Charter), on the one hand, and UN entities as agents in the service of the peoples, on the other. On medical and not health policy issues, I would quickly find myself out of my depth. I respectfully submit that on sovereignty concerns, Dr. Ashley may be the one out of his depth.

On the first point, I was seconded to the UN Secretariat as the senior adviser to Kofi Annan on UN reforms and wrote his second reform report that covered the entire UN system: Strengthening the United Nations: An Agenda for Further Change (2002). The topic of UN reforms, both the case for it and the institutional and political obstacles frustrating the achievement of the most critical reforms, forms a core chapter of my book The United Nations, Peace and Security  (Cambridge University Press, 2006, with a substantially revised second edition published in 2017).

I was also involved in a small Canada-based group that advocated successfully for the elevation of the G20 finance ministers’ group into a leaders’ level group that could serve as an informal grouping for brokering agreements on global challenges, including pandemics, nuclear threats, terrorism, and financial crises. I co-wrote the book The Group of Twenty (G20) (Routledge, 2012) with Andrew F. Cooper, a colleague in that project.

On the second point, I played a central role in the UN’s reconceptualisation of sovereignty as state responsibility and citizens as rights holders. This was unanimously endorsed by world leaders at the UN summit in 2005.

On the third point, in Utopia Lost: The United Nations and World Order (1995), Rosemary Righter (the former chief leader writer at the Times of London) quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s description of the United Nations as “a place where the peoples of the world were delivered up to the designs of governments” (p. 85).

So yes, I do indeed know something about UN system reforms and the importance of sovereignty concerns in relation to powers given to UN bodies to prescribe what states may and may not do.

In agreeing to undertake to implement the WHO advisories, states will be creating a new system of pandemic management under the WHO authority and binding under international law. It will create an open-ended international law obligation to cooperate with the WHO and to fund it. This is the same WHO that has a track record of incompetence, poor decision-making, and politicised conduct. The insistence that sovereignty is not being surrendered is formulaic and legalistic, not substantive and meaningful in practice.

It relies on a familiar technique of gaslighting that permits plausible deniability on both sides. The WHO will say it only issued advisories. States will say they are only implementing WHO recommendations as otherwise, they will become rogue international outlaws. The resulting structure of decision-making effectively confers powers without responsibility on the WHO while shredding accountability of governments to their electorates. The losers are the peoples of the world.

A “Litany of Lies” and Misconceptions? Not So Fast.

Bloomfield’s engagement with the public debate on the WHO-centric architecture of global health governance is very welcome. I have lauded the WHO’s past impressive achievements in earlier writings, for example in the co-written book Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey (Indiana University Press, 2010). I also agree wholeheartedly that it continues to do a lot of good work, 24/7. In early 2020 I fought with a US editor to reject a reference to the possible virus escape from the Wuhan lab because of WHO’s emphatic statements to the contrary. I later apologised to him for my naivete.

Once betrayed, twice shy of the message: “Trust us. We are from the WHO, here to keep you safe.”

Sir Ashley was merely echoing the WHO chief. Addressing the World Governments Summit in Dubai on 12 February, Director-General (DG) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attacked “the litany of lies and conspiracy theories” about the agreement that “are utterly, completely, categorically false. The pandemic agreement will not give WHO any power over any state or any individual.”

DG Tedros and Sir Ashley do protest too much. If Australia chooses as a sovereign nation to sign them, that does not mean there is no loss of effective sovereignty (that is, the power to make its health decisions) from that point on.

This is why all 49 Republican senators have “strongly” urged President Joe Biden to reject the proposed changes. The expansion of “WHO’s authority over member states during” pandemic emergencies, they warn, would “constitute intolerable infringements upon US sovereignty.” In addition, 22 Attorneys-General have informed Biden that the WHO writ under the new accords will not run in their states.

On 8 May, the UK said it would not sign the new treaty unless clauses requiring transfer of pandemic products were deleted. Under Article 12.6.b of the then-draft, the WHO could sign “legally binding” contracts with manufacturers to get pandemic-related “diagnostics, therapeutics or vaccines.” Ten percent of this is to be free of charge and another ten percent at profit-free prices. In the latest, 22 April draft, this last requirement comes in Article 12.3.b.i in slightly softer language.

The UK wants to retain the right to use British-made products first to address domestic requirements as judged by the government, and only then to make them available for global distribution. The draft, the government fears, will undermine British sovereignty.

On 14 May, five senators and nine representatives from the Australian parliament wrote a formal letter to PM Anthony Albanese expressing deep concern over the likely prospect of Australia signing the accords that “will transform the WHO from an advisory organisation to a supranational health authority dictating how governments must respond to emergencies which the WHO itself declares.” If adopted and implemented into Australian law, they wrote, these would give the WHO “an unacceptable level of authority, power and influence over Australia’s affairs under the guise of declaring ‘emergencies’.”

“Legally Binding” vs “Loss of Sovereignty” is a Distinction without a Difference

They can’t all be part of a global conspiracy to peddle a litany of lies. The WHO is offering up a highly specious argument. Sir Ashley didn’t really engage with the substance of my arguments either. He dismissed criticism of the proposed changes as “an attempt by the WHO to gain the power to dictate to countries what they must do in the event of a pandemic” as a “misconception.”

The G20 Leaders’ Bali Declaration (November 2022, paragraph 19) supported the goal of a “legally binding instrument that should contain both legally binding and non-legally binding elements to strengthen pandemic planning, preparedness and response (PPR) and amendments to the IHR.” In September 2023, the G20 Delhi Leaders’ Declaration (28:vi) envisioned “an ambitious, legally binding WHO” accord “as well as amendments to better implement” the IHR.

Lawrence Gostin, actively involved in the negotiations, was co-author of a report last December that said containing transnational outbreaks under WHO leadership “may require all states to forgo some level of sovereignty.” A joint Reuters-World Economic Forum article on 26 May 2023 stated: “For the new more wide-reaching pandemic accord, member states have agreed that it should be legally binding.”

The WHO itself describes the IHR as “an instrument of international law that is legally-binding on 196 countries.” Last year it published a document that includes section 4.6 on “legally binding international instruments” such as a new pandemic accord.

I get the argument that sovereign states are voluntarily agreeing to this. In terms of legal technicality, it might well be more accurate, as Libby Klein suggests in her draft letter to Australian MPs, to use words and phrases like “ceding autonomy,” “yielding “effective control over public health decisions,” “outsourcing public health decision-making to the WHO,” or “offshoring our public health decision-making.” This is the legalistic distinction that Bloomfield is effectively making.

However, simply because states must voluntarily sign the new WHO accords doesn’t mean they will not be ceding sovereignty once the accords are adopted. With all due respect to Dr. Tedros and Sir Ashley, this is a distinction without a difference. Every single “legally binding” requirement will mean a transfer of effective decision-making power on health issues to the WHO. That is a curtailment of state sovereignty and it is disingenuous to deny it.

Since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, states have been required to conduct themselves increasingly in conformity with international standards. And it is the UN system that sets most of the relevant international standards and benchmarks of state behaviour.

For example, for centuries countries had the absolute right to wage wars of aggression and defence as an acknowledged and accepted attribute of sovereignty. By adopting the United Nations Charter in 1945, they gave up the right to wage aggressive wars. I am very glad they did so. Just because the surrender of this aspect of sovereignty was voluntary, it doesn’t mean there was no surrender of sovereignty.

Similarly, by signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), Australia and around 185 states surrendered their sovereign right to make or get the nuclear bomb. Again, I am very glad they did so.

Article 10 of the treaty does permit withdrawal after a three-month notice to other states parties and the UN Security Council:

Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treatyif it decides that extraordinary events…have jeopardisedthe supreme interests of its country.

Australia could still act as a sovereign state and pull out of the NPT but, absent exculpatory events, only at the reputational cost of acting illegally under international law.

North Korea first announced withdrawal from the NPT in 1993, suspended the withdrawal, withdrew in 2003, has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006, and acquired up to 50 bombs. Yet, the UN has refused to accept the withdrawal and it is still listed on the UN website as an NPT member, with the explanatory note that: “States parties to the Treaty continue to express divergent views regarding the status of the DPRK under the NPT.”

Like these two important examples, states will lose key parts of the right to exercise their sovereignty over national policy settings and decisions on health if the WHO accords are adopted. It is their sovereign right to reject the treaties now. They should exercise it before it is too late. The complications entangling the post-Brexit referendum in the UK demonstrate only too vividly how challenging it can be for a state to extricate itself from a supranational authority despite the sovereign right to do so.

The best way to allay these fears and concerns would be to return responsibility to where accountability lies: with the national government and parliament. States should learn to cooperate better in global pandemic management, not hand effective decision-making powers and authority to unelected and unaccountable international technocrats.

The Effort Should Be Put on Indefinite Hold

It is an iron law of politics that any power that can be abused, will be abused by someone, somewhere, some time in the future. For current examples of overreach by a technocrat, look no further than Australia’s eSafety Commissioner. The truly frightening thing about her example is the realisation of just how much her efforts have been deliberately embedded in a global campaign to “bureaucratise” and control the internet.

A softer conclusion is that powers once granted over citizens to authorities are far more difficult to claw back than not giving them the powers in the first place. Thus far from retreating, the Censorship-Industrial Complex is simultaneously being broadened to embrace additional sectors of governance and public policy and globalised.

report from Leeds University documented that pandemics are rare events. They are not becoming more frequent. For poor countries, their global disease burden is much lower than that of the big killer diseases like TB, malaria, and HIV/AIDS. For industrialised countries like Australia, the disease burden has been greatly reduced since the Spanish flu with improved surveillance, response mechanism, and other public health interventions.

There is no emergency justifying the rushed process. An immediate pause and a slow and deliberative process would lead to better policy development and deliver better national and global health policy outcomes.

“Pause for thought, argue for a wider delay, think it through properly. And don’t sign till it’s right.” David Frost, who led the UK Brexit negotiations.

Just so.

Author

  • Ramesh Thakur

    Ramesh Thakur, a Brownstone Institute Senior Scholar, is a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, and emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

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Brownstone Institute

Musk Wins Latest Censorship Battle in Australia

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US billionaire Elon Musk, Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant

From the Brownstone Institute

BY Rebekah BarnettREBEKAH BARNETT

Can Australia’s eSafety Commissioner block content globally on demand? Not today, ruled the Australian Federal Court, in a win for Elon Musk’s social media platform X.

In a decision on Monday, Justice Geoffrey Kennett refused to extend a temporary injunction obtained by eSafety last month, which forced X to remove footage of the Wakeley church stabbing, an alleged religiously motivated terror attack.

Under the Online Safety Act (2021), the eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, has the authority to order removal of such ‘class 1 material’ within Australia under threat of hefty fines.

eSafety argued that X had not gone far enough to block the content from Australians, as a geo-block can be circumvented by a VPN. X argued that eSafety was effectively seeking a global ban on content, straying outside of the Australian online harm regulator’s jurisdiction.

eSafety applied to the Federal Court to extend its temporary injunction against X, with a hearing taking place on Friday 10 May. The temporary injunction was due to expire at 5pm on Friday, but was extended to 5pm Monday—to allow time for Justice Kennett to deliver a decision on the matter.

In his decision, Justice Kennett held that X had taken “reasonable” steps to block the stabbing content as required under Australian law, and that eSafety’s request for a global ban was not reasonable.

Therefore, “The orders of the court will be that the application to extend…is refused,” said Justice Kennett, meaning that as of 5pm Monday, the injunction is no longer effective.

In a statement on the Federal Court decision, eSafety said that the matter will return to Court for a case management hearing on Wednesday, 15 May.

Source: X

“The application for this injunction should have never been brought,” said Dr Reuben Kirkham, Co-Director of the Free Speech Union of Australia (FSU) in a statement, questioning the validity of the Commissioner’s bid to enact a global content ban on X. “The eSafety Commissioner is overreaching and behaving more like an activist than a responsible public servant.”

Dr Kirkham, who was present for the hearing, told Dystopian Down Under that he counted 12 lawyers present (seven for X, five for eSafety), which, if eSafety is ordered to pay costs, will lump taxpayers with “a considerable amount of unnecessary legal costs.”

Digital civil liberties nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) echoes FSU Australia’s position, stating that, “no single country should be able to restrict speech across the entire internet,” and likening the Commissioner’s actions to “[using] a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

An affidavit submitted by the EFF to the eSafety vs. X proceedings called for the Court to consider the international impact that a ruling in eSafety’s favour would have in setting a precedent for allowing one country to enforce content bans on citizens of other countries.

“If one court can impose speech-restrictive rules on the entire Internet—despite direct conflicts with laws [in] a foreign jurisdiction as well as international human rights principles—the norms of expectations of all internet users are at risk,” stated the EFF in an article summarizing the affidavit.

X’s Global Government Affairs posted about the hearing, stating, “We’re glad X is fighting back, and we hope the judge will recognize the eSafety regulator’s demand for what it is—a big step toward unchecked global censorship—and refuse to let Australia set another dangerous precedent.” At the time of publishing, no updated statement on the Judge’s decision had been issued.

Source: X

Dr Kirkham calls the Commissioner’s application to extend her injunction against X “part of a pattern where the eSafety Commissioner’s office seemingly engages in gamesmanship rather than respecting the rule of law or acting as a model litigant.”

Indeed, the ruling in X’s favour comes amidst mounting controversy over the eSafety Commissioner’s ongoing battle with X, which appears to be driven partly by Julie Inman Grant’s global censorship ambitions, and partly by personal feelings.

Inman Grant, who formerly directed Twitter’s Public Policy (Australia and Southeast Asia), has repeatedly criticized Elon Musk since his purchase of the Twitter platform in 2022.

Moreover, Musk’s advocacy for a broad interpretation of free speech on the internet conflicts with Inman Grant’s professed view of free speech as a right that needs to be “recalibrated” for online spaces.

YouTube video
For its part, X has failed to comply with routine reporting to the eSafety Commissioner’s satisfaction, leading eSafety to initiate civil penalty proceedings against X in December last year. If found non-compliant, X could be fined up to AUD $780,000 per day, backdated to March 2023, when the determination of non-compliance was made.

Perhaps the biggest controversy between X and eSafety centres on the highly charged and subective issue of gender ideology.

Inman Grant has enforced the removal of a string of posts on X questioning gender ideology, including one suggesting that men can’t breastfeed, and another about a trans-identified male who allegedly injured female players during a women’s football game in NSW.

In an internationally high-profile case, the Commissioner recently issued a removal notice over an acerbic gender-critical post by Canadian activist Billboard Chris, raising questions over whether the Government should be able to police opinions and censor statements of biological fact on the internet.

FSU Australia is currently involved in Administrative Appeal Tribunal proceedings on behalf of Billboard Chris (real name Chris Elston) against the eSafety Commissioner. Additionally, X has threatened to sue eSafety over the matter.

Source: X

Returning to the issue of the Wakeley stabbing footage, Inman Grant’s attempt to globally ban the content has been supported by the Australian Government, which leveraged the incident to call for more censorship, including the reintroduction of an unpopular misinformation bill.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has also responded to calls to address violence against women by proposing to further expand eSafety’s budget and remit, which could see deep fake pornography and “other misogynistic material” censored by the regulator.

No one will argue against explicit pornography being blocked from children’s view, but it is around the grey edges of definition creep on terms like ‘harm,’ ‘adult cyber abuse,’ and ‘misogynistic material’ where disagreements will undoubtedly kick off.

In a move of ‘no confidence’ against eSafety, FSU Australia has launched a petition to abolish the office of the eSafety Commissioner altogether, arguing that a combination of parental controls and platform incentives will suffice in keeping children safe on the internet.

A more moderate approach may be to curtail eSafety’s remit to its original function of dealing with child abuse content (as in 2015), and revenge porn (as in 2017), before the regulator’s purview and powers were significantly expanded with the introduction of the Online Safety Act in 2021.

However, in the media and political conversation, there is little appetite for a moderate approach, as conveyed in a viral guest appearance by media personality Tracey Holmes on a recent episode of the ABC’s failing show Q+A.

Calling out the double standard in the censorship conversation, Holmes told the studio audience,

“I don’t agree with any kind of censorship in a general sense. I don’t think Elon Musk is contributing to any social cohesion split inside this country. I think our mainstream media is doing enough of that. I think our politicians do enough of that…

“Of course there are fault lines everywhere, but there’s only one way you can stop those fault lines from getting bigger, and that is to have the ability to have the town square to hear different points of view…

“And I think unfortunately we’ve been fed ‘this side or that side’ for so long, people are giving up on mainstream media, that’s why they’re tuning out. That’s why they’re going to YouTube…we have let them down.”

Hopefully, some higher-ups in the corporate media tuned in to hear what Holmes had to say.

Read more about the judge’s decision

Republished from the author’s Substack

Author

  • Rebekah Barnett

    Rebekah Barnett is a Brownstone Institute fellow, independent journalist and advocate for Australians injured by the Covid vaccines. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of Western Australia, and writes for her Substack, Dystopian Down Under.

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