EXCLUSIVE it screamed ... well hardly SMH ... Tassie Times had this astonishing yarn weeks ago (Feb 18) and fully expected Tassie MSM to follow it up [ which (of course) they failed to do* ]: Dr Powell, The Examiner letter and Mr Nikolic MP and Liberal Trolls attack Dr Powell again
SMH EXCLUSIVE: Academic accuses Liberal whip Andrew Nikolic of threatening his career over letter of criticism
As government Whip, Andrew Nikolic is Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s new enforcer in the Parliament and disciplinarian in the party room.
But the Liberal MP also takes an uncompromising approach to confronting dissent among his own constituents when he believes that criticism is politically motivated.
A university lecturer in Tasmania has accused Mr Nikolic, a former brigadier in the Australian Army, of “unreasonable interference” and threatening his career after the MP contacted the lecturer’s boss, the vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania, to query a letter to the editor published in the Launceston Examiner.
The letter by Dr Michael Powell, a lecturer in history and politics, blasted funding cuts to the university and called on Mr Nikolic to decide whether to “stand up for the university” or be “merely a mouthpiece” for the Abbott government.
Mr Nikolic hit back in a letter published by the Examiner but went a step further and emailed university vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen to ask whether the lecturer was representing the view of the university and whether or not he had broken any protocols in going public.
He also raised Dr Powell’s candidacy for the Labor Party in a state election more than three decades ago as being a factor in his motivation.
Mr Nikolic insists he has done nothing to “stifle the free speech” of Dr Powell and that he was simply checking whether his letter was outlining the university’s view of the Abbott government.
But it is not the first time that Mr Nikolic has drawn links between political opinion and someone’s employment.
In 2012, as the Liberal candidate for the seat of Bass, he was accused of online bullying when he threatened to go to the employers of 13 people who “liked” a satirical story about him posted on Facebook.
He wrote to all 13 people who clicked the “like” button after reading the story but did not go through with his threat to contact their employers. He later complained that the anonymous author of the article was also standing against him for election.
Mr Nikolic has also in the past contacted Greens senator Peter-Whish Wilson to ask why his “taxpayer-funded” media adviser Tim Beshara had time to tweet about the corruption scandal engulfing the then O’Farrell Coalition government in NSW, asking “what relevance to Tassie” the issue had.
Mr Nikolic’s vigorous approach to criticism was raised in Parliament in a recent speech by Tasmanian Labor senator Helen Polley, who accused him of having a “glass jaw” and “tittle-tattling” to Professor Rathjen.
“He is obsessed with anyone in our community that challenges his view and expresses a different view about this unfair budget that they brought down. He has been unrelenting in his personal attacks and putting pressure on people who dare to critique this budget,” Senator Polley said in a speech on February 22.
[ • You can read the history of Mr Nikolic, including his run-in with Martin Gaylord Editor-in-chief New Examiner, in these Tassie Times’ articles here (the first article includes extensive links on the MP’s history): Dr Powell, The Examiner letter and Mr Nikolic MP and Liberal Trolls attack Dr Powell again ]
But the Powell letter has taken on far more importance than mere “tittle-tattle”, as the episode comes in the middle of delicate negotiations, led by Mr Nikolic with the University of Tasmania, that could see a $400 million to $500 million injection of federal cash into the regional university to get it on board with the Coalition’s higher education reforms.
Professor Rathjen has declined to back his lecturer amid vocal criticism from some Tasmanian academics over free speech and academic freedom.
Dr Powell has accused the university of bowing to political intimidation. He said he was “disciplined” by the dean of the arts faculty, Susan Dodds, over a second letter which the Launceston Examiner declined to publish.
Dr Powell has found support in colleague Professor Henry Reynolds, who said it was “perfectly appropriate” for an experienced lecturer in history and politics to express a view on reforms to the university sector.
Professor Reynolds, who is married to the former Tasmanian Labor senator Margaret Reynolds, said it was a “retrograde step” for university hierachy to “police” comments by staff.
“They don’t seem to have any sense that members of academia have a right, and some would say a duty, to talk publicly about issues within their expertise,” he said.
Last week, Fairfax Media contacted the Launceston Examiner to put Dr Powell’s claim that a string of his letters had not been published since the university matter blew up. The letter, referred to by Mr Nikolic, was subsequently published on Friday.
In a tweet to Senator Whish-Wilson, Mr Nikolic asked whether Dr Powell was running as a Greens candidate.
• John Hawkins, in Comments: My efforts to eject Senator Erich Abetz from parliament, he being a dual national, arise from similar behaviour by a Tasmanian pollie to pressure a citizen. Abetz threatened to sue me for defamation over large political donations from Gunns limited before he became Minister for Forests in the Howard Government …
*UNTIL ... yesterday ...