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MELBOURNE University has demoted one of its most outspoken academics after a complaint against him by the State Government.
Paul Mees, a senior lecturer in transport planning and a prominent public transport advocate, was told his pay would be slashed and his position downgraded after he made a strongly worded attack on the Government over transport privatisation.
In the attack, made at a public forum last year, Dr Mees said the authors of a 2007 report on privatisation were "liars and frauds and should be in jail".
The university acted after a complaint from the head of the former state Department of Infrastructure, Howard Ronaldson, threatening legal action over Dr Mees' remarks and demanding that they be removed from a university website.
Documents obtained by The Age show that one of the university's reasons for acting against Dr Mees was a concern about its relations with the Government.
In a letter to the Government on October 23, Professor Nick Low of the university's transport research centre wrote that Dr Mees' remarks were "directly contrary to our wish to conduct our relations with the State Government in a spirit of partnership and collaboration".
Dr Mees, a former president of the Public Transport Users Association, made his remarks on August 23 at a university forum on the privatisation of Melbourne's public transport.
He told the forum that figures in a report by then director of public transport, Jim Betts, on the results of privatisation were deliberately misleading.
He accused Mr Betts — who has since been promoted to secretary of the Department of Transport — of covering up the failure of privatisation to advance his position in the Government.
"These people whose job it is to regulate these private operators on behalf of the public interest, they are telling lies," Dr Mees said.
About two months later, Mr Ronaldson complained in writing to Melbourne University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis and to Professor Low.
Mr Ronaldson demanded Dr Mees' speech be removed from the university's website.
"I would hope that a satisfactory resolution of this matter can be achieved quickly, and if possible without the need to involve lawyers," Mr Ronaldson wrote. A podcast of the speech was immediately removed.
Without telling Dr Mees, the university also launched an investigation into whether he had damaged the university's reputation. The inquiry, conducted by Michael King of Monash University's law faculty, found Dr Mees had "brought the university into disrepute by making derogatory and insulting comments" about government officers.
Dr King found it did not matter whether Dr Mees' statements were true or not. "His defence of truth should be dismissed," says Dr King's report.
"Academics are entitled to be forthright in their views. But it is not their role to make allegations of personal misconduct or criminal misconduct in a public forum," Dr King wrote.
He rejected Dr Mees' defence that the comments were not "insulting or derogatory", that he spoke the truth, and that it was part of his duty as an academic to "expose corruption".
In the report, Professor Low is quoted saying the Government "had had enough of Dr Mees' over-the-top remarks and (wanted him) reined in".
Professor Low has been in negotiations with the State Government over funding a research project into greenhouse gas emissions from transport. Mr Betts has agreed to be a partner in the application for funding.
Dr Mees has since quit the university, and will give his final lecture next week. He has accepted a role with RMIT's planning department.
Dr Mees says he is appealing against the university's finding on him, which led to him being told his annual pay would be cut from $96,000 to $88,000. He also says he is planning to sue the university over the way it conducted the investigation, and "for charging me with misconduct over being a whistleblower".
In a statement emailed to The Age, Melbourne University provost Peter McPhee said the university supported the rights of its staff to comment publicly on issues within their academic expertise.
"The university strongly supports and encourages the principles of academic freedom," Professor McPhee said.
He said Dr Mees had been the subject of a number of previous complaints, including from a student and colleagues, before the latest incident.
The previous complaints, which dated from as early as 2005, did not lead to action being taken against Dr Mees at the time.
Liberty Victoria president Julian Burnside said it was not clear if this was a case of academic freedom under attack.
"To say that his defence of truth should be dismissed could mean that there was no truth to what he said," Mr Burnside said. "Certainly his comments are intemperate.
"But the question that needs to be answered is whether any part of the university's thinking in this matter was that they have a working relationship with the department?"
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