Political Economy Now! the Struggle for Alternative Economics at the University of Sydney

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Political Economy Now! The Struggle for Alternative Economics at the University of Sydney

Gavan Butler, Evan Jones and Frank Stilwell

Darlington Press, Sydney, 2009, pp. 226, RRP $34.95

University campuses now seem far quieter than those of yesteryear. Nowhere is this more apparent than in relation to the struggles by staff and students in Sydney University's Faculty of Economics that began in the late 60s and continued for more than three decades. The 1970's and 1980's were periods of particularly intense struggle, with demands for a Department of Political Economy being backed by an array of student protest activities. Eventually a successful outcome has been achieved and the alternative political economy courses continue to operate as an alternative to the mainstream economics program.

I enrolled at Sydney as a callow compliant youth, only to become caught up in the most exciting episode of student activism in that University's history. Students invaded the Vice-Chancellor's office in the historic Main Quadrangle, urging that the new brand of economics--political economy--could see the light of day and compete equally with orthodox theory. The demand was that they could study political economy (Marxist and institutional economics, post-Keynesian approaches, feminism, etc.) as well as the mainstream micro/macro economic theories (providing an uncritical view of the rule of the market).

The story of the long struggle is now documented in Political Economy Now!, penned by three of main combatants in the fight--Frank Stilwell, Gavan Butler and Evan Jones. These renegade academics were not deterred by the David and Goliath situation that emerged, as they came up against the likes of Vice-Chancellor Bruce Williams and other orthodox economics stalwarts such as Professors Warren Hogan and Colin Simkin. Butler, Stilwell and Jones were relatively junior lecturers when they arrived in the early 1970s, but they were backed by other farsighted academics, notably Associate Professor 'Red' Ted Wheelwright and Geelum Simpson-Lee, staff-elected Dean of the Economics Faculty.

The book acknowledges the unrelenting efforts of the student activists--including the late Michael Brezniak, Clive Hamilton [formerly executive director of The Australia Institute and now Professor of Public Ethics], Stephen Yen [a lawyer for ASIC] and Paul Porteous [a Fellow at Harvard University and formerly senior advisor to the President of Madagascar]. Personal memoirs from these and other student activists are sprinkled throughout the book--one at the end of each chapter.

There are also photographs of the many demonstrations. One shows a group of students on the roof of the cloisters in the Main Quad in June 1983, waving a banner calling for the Vice-Chancellor to 'resolve or resign'. The authorities instituted disciplinary action against six of the activists, including Anthony Albanese [now a Federal Minister], and then laid further charges against three other student leaders involved a week later in the occupation of a wing of the Merewether [Economics Faculty] building. Police were called to evict the protestors and they arrested one student. Concern about 'cops on campus' and victimization of student leaders were added to the demands for political economy courses. The students occupied the Merewether building again a few days later and stayed there in a sit-in/sleep-in for 10 days. Significantly, the police were not called in this time--the students had demonstrated they were not to be deterred by the prospect of disciplinary action.

Earlier protests had seen signs such as 'Re-instate David Hill' hoisted on campus, referring to the former Economics tutor who had supported the student's demands for course reform--the same David Hill who went on to be head of NSW State Rail, the ABC and Soccer Australia. As the staff-student movement advocating the alternative gained momentum during the 1970s protest activities became more diverse and intense. …