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QUT Dispute: Open Letter to Michael Noonan

Dear Michael,

We welcome your decision to at last begin the public debate over your work. For over five months you have maintained the line that no one can discuss your work who has not seen it and you did not intend to show it to anyone. Now you have shown some of it. However sadly you do not seem to realize that your work has the potential to do real damage to other people. Thus you talk scornfully of "external groups" who had demanded to see your documentary. You refer here presumably to Kevin Cocks the CEO of Qld Advocacy Org and Sam Watson the Indigenous activist. Both of them have written to QUT's Vice Chancellor expressing reservations about your work.

Kevin is a great Australian and a tireless worker for the disabled. He is moreover the recipient of the Human Rights Medal for 2005 and ironically he is also a distinguished alumnus of QUT. Yet the VC dismissed his concerns about your research and refused to meet him. Similar treatment was meted out to Sam Watson who is a brave Aborigine who has fought heroically to advance the cause of his people. You share QUT's arrogance here and indifference to the harm and distress your work has caused the most vulnerable people in our society and those who support them.

But you understand none of this just as you still refuse to recognize the legitimacy of our concerns. You say we are politically motivated. What you mean by that is beyond us. We have throughout been motivated by nothing less than a horror of what you have done to the disabled. That horror is compounded by disgust for those who had the responsibility of providing you with adequate supervision. Indeed if you go back to our original article you will see that we hold most responsible those who supervised you.

You think you have received great support from QUT. But in reality they have let you down. Hardly surprising given that your principal supervisor Geoff Portmann does not possess the formal qualification to mark an undergraduate essay. He does not have a degree. Moreover your Associate Supervisor Assoc Prof Alan McKee has described himself as a "porn researcher". We defend absolutely his right to research pornography, but it is hardly the best qualification for supervising research in the area of disability, especially as you have chosen to place such an emphasis on researching the sexuality of the disabled. We should add here that both Portmann and McKee brought charges against us and this affair was never a case of Hookham and MacLennan against the poor lone defenseless PhD student.

You accuse us of a deliberate and premeditated assault on your PhD candidacy and your career. You claim we have incited students to rally against you. These are untruths. Your supporters taped all the student demonstrations and you know that they were never aimed at you but expressed support for us against QUT. It is also a lie that we incited the students. You have brought charges to that effect against us and they still hang over us. Let us point out here Michael that students are free to make up their own mind. We are proud of their support but it was freely given. We do not see them as the pawns you obviously think they are.

We are also proud of those members of the disability community who took part in the first ever demonstration by the disabled against an Australian University. That was a wonderful achievement for the "University for the Real World". You make no mention of that demonstration. How surprising. Do you think we incited the disability community as well?

Still what are a few untruths among poststructuralists like you who do not believe there is such a thing as the truth? You and your fellow poststructuralists have never understood that when words lose their anchoring in a belief in the truth then our very humanity is in danger. Thus you tell us that you are very proud of your work. You call Darren and James "stars". You say they are "really funny guys". Repeatedly you have assured us that you love and respect them and would never exploit them. Yet at your seminar you said you wanted to offend and exploit! And the full title of your thesis was "Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains".

You tell us everyone had a ball in Boulia. But Michael this is just another strand in the web of weasel words that you and the Public Relations dept of QUT have spun so effortlessly. People need to avoid being trapped in the web and to look instead at your tape. What "friend" would expose another friend to ridicule? What "friend" would film James trying to put an ironing board into a car and failing because he did not understand it had to be folded up?

What friend would take James and Darren into a class of students and have the students laugh at them? You did and you claimed they got a "standing ovation". That is another postructuralist maneuver! There was no standing ovation and people should go to youtube and watch Atle Nielsen's account of what it was like to be in your class when you exhibited James and Darren.

James longs for a girl friend. This should be a trigger for our compassion, but no, in the brave new world of QUT research it is a source for comedy. In Unlikely Travellers James' mother says that it would take a very special girl to be able to form a relationship with James. She is of course right. But she needs to ask herself if you are not exploiting her son's needs when you sent James off into a pub carrying his horse head pencil to find a girl. Did you think, Michael, that James would meet that very special girl at 11.00 am in the morning in the Boulia pub? Or were you just laughing at the thought of him trying to find her? Would you Michael go up to strangers in Boulia and ask if there were any girls or if they ate cats? We don't think so.

It is clear now that it is beyond you to understand that these are not the acts of a true friend. You have clearly demonstrated that you are totally incapable of grasping that depicting James and Darren in the way you have done is humiliating for them. Instead you cast yourself in the role of victim and say that you are the one who has been humiliated. But this "Noonan as victim" argument is truly self-serving. You have been lionised at the Brisbane Film Festival. You have the full support of QUT. But none of this hides the truth that it is Darren and James who have been laughed at while you their "friend" looked on and joined in the laughter.

You claim your research follows all the correct protocols. You also state that we have received a fair hearing. Both of these claims are currently being challenged in the courts. You finish your article by claiming that we have endangered the right to "controversial research". Let us try and point out a simple logical error here. If we had not spoken up at your seminar, if we had not gone into print then there would have been no controversy. We have actually created the debate. The first response by you and your supervisors was not to debate us but to charge us and we were found guilty and suspended for 6 months. You and Portmann and McKee brought charges against us for a second time when we went into print again. Will you three bring more charges after this article? It is not controversial research that is in danger in this whole affair but the freedom of academics to speak out. We went into print and the full might of QUT was brought against us.

Let us finish by returning to your seminar and two of the scenes that you are so proud of. Firstly the scene where Darren and James are responding to your question (not shown on the Courier Mail tape) about what would they do if a girl fancied them both. James struggles to answer this. He stands immobile, then his face twitches and he eventually stammers out "We would take turns". There is laughter off camera, from you and someone else. At the confirmation we witnessed students and academics laugh at James' face twitches and then explode into laughter when he said "Take turns".

You have described this scene as "Wonderful and funny". There is nothing at all wonderful about it. To be charitable in the extreme this scene is very ordinary in aesthetic terms. Of course you are indulging in the typical hyperbole of show business, where the rule is the bigger the turkey you have on your hands the more you hype it up. But academia is not show business. Something more than hype should be expected from a PhD candidate and his supervisors.

But to be fair to you, students, academics and you laughed at the "taking turns" sequence. So obviously you thought it funny. But what exactly is funny in this sequence? The idea that anyone could fancy both Darren and James? That James hopes to find a girlfriend? That he interprets your question through his experience of schooling where he would have been taught to resolve conflict by sharing? What about the face twitches? These did provoke laughter. At the confirmation you owned up to doubts about showing them, but you told us that James' mother said it was ok to show them because that was the way James was. But is it ok to laugh at the way James is? And by extension to laugh at other people who are also different?

The second sequence we want to deal with in detail is the scene with May the Aboriginal woman. It is morning in Boulia pub and May is quite clearly drunk. We pass no judgment on that at all. Indeed we are full of compassion for May. But once more you treated someone's disability as an opportunity for more comical footage. So May drapes herself over James, grabs him kisses him to his obvious discomfort and your amusement. Have you given even a passing thought to what May's family and people would now be feeling about this footage?

Here you tell us you are "really proud of the work". However when we described this scene in our original article on April 11 th you brought a charge against us of misrepresentation claiming that you had made it quite clear that you would never show that scene again. You repeated this charge at our disciplinary hearings. We were found guilty of this charge, Michael, yet now you tell us of your pride. Why then did you bring a charge against us?

Throughout this sorry affair it has become abundantly clear that very few at QUT will admit to understanding the damage done to the disability community by your work. That for us has been a major disappointment. However we know all too well the culture of fear and viciousness that prevails at QUT. Our VC Peter Coaldrake has quoted Henry Kissinger's remark that academic politics is so vicious because there is so little at stake. We grant the viciousness of academic politics. After all he should know!

However we would point out that despite what the VC believes there is a lot at stake here. We will pass over the fact that both our careers have been destroyed by QUT's actions. It is simply incredible that we should have to point out to an Australian Vice Chancellor that Free Speech, freedom of the press and academic freedom are not trivial matters, despite what Professor Coaldrake might think. Above all else, moreover, for the disabled and their families who love and support them, laughing at the disabled is not a trivial matter and that is why we have spoken out against your research and your supervisors. We believe that what you and Portmann and McKee have done is to legitimize the ridicule and mockery of those with a disability. Thanks to your and QUT's sniggering at the intellectually impaired it is again 'cool' to laugh at the disabled.

Dr John Hookham

Dr Gary MacLennan

1 Com:

John Tracey | September 06, 2007

What a load of crap. Are these people on the same planet as the rest of us?

Readers should look at the footage, and the public response to it to understand the above rant in context.


MacLennan and Hookaham have now been exposed for their repressive and paternalistic attitude to disability.

They can wriggle and squirm and continue to try and argue that Noonan's work is exploitative, but now the footage has been made public, in the context also of Unlikely Travellers being released, they are now totally isolated (except for S.A.).

The above article, and the original Philistines article is racist and misogynist in what it says of the Aboriginal woman in the Boulia Pub - just look at it for yourself and weigh it up against what the above article says of it.

Here is my analysis of the Boulia Pub scene


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