NMHRC to investigate QUT-Noonan claims

September 27, 2007

Well, interesting.
In my previous post on the QUT shenanigans, there’s mention of the National Health and Medical Research Council – the peak body for research ethics in Australia, possibly investigating claims that QUT PhD student Michael Noonan may have breached protocols in relation to his research project “Laughing at the Disabled”.

I emailed the acting Director of Progam Assurance, Dr Gordon McGurk (see below)

Dear Gordon, I am writing as a concerned academic.
I would like to know if the NHMRC is investigating claims of unethical research practices made against QUT PhdD student Michael Noonan in relation to his thesis “Laughing at the disabled”.
I understand that Mr Noonan may well have violated well-established ethical guidelines for dealing with Indigenous people in some aspects of the video work he is compiling towards his thesis. There is an allegation against him that he has possibly misrepresented May Lulu Dunne and obtained a consent form/release form from her under false pretenses, or worse.
Drs Hookham and MacLennan are facing serious misconduct charges for raising some of these issues and from my understanding of their case, they have been badly treated by QUT for blowing the whistle on what they saw as poor supervision of Mr Noonan’s thesis and the ethical issues surrounding his work with both disabled persons and Indigenous Australians.
As a supervisor of postgraduate students I am familiar with ethics considerations in relation to thesis work and other research projects in Australia and elsewhere. I also know that in most cases they are stringently enforced. I can only wonder at what the breakdown was at QUT in relation to Mr Noonan’s thesis.
Are you in touch with QUT over this matter and do you intend to conduct any inquiries of your own, or to cause the NHMRC to investigate this matter further?
Thanks
Martin

About an hour later I received a response:

Dear Martin

Following yesterday’s revelations regarding the alleged lack of consent or ethical approval before filming Ms Dunne, I am making this issue a matter of urgency. I have put together a brief for the Chief Executive to alert him and the executive to what may have happened.

The NHMRC had planned to investigate other alleged breaches following the conclusion of the legal action between QUT and Drs Hookham and MacLennan. However, this most recent information may precipitate some action sooner than planned.

Yours sincerely

Gordon McGurk


QUT sacks academics – update

September 27, 2007

I have just received this message from John Hookham regarding the ongoing disciplinary action against him and Garry MacLennan at QUT in Brisbane. You can find my previous posts on this case here.

Dear Colleagues,

Some months ago, I sent out a letter informing you about a PhD project entitled Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts and Offends. This was a project being carried out by Michael Noonan who is a PhD student at our university, Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

My colleague, Dr Gary MacLennan and I strongly objected to this project on the grounds that it set out to demean people with cognitive disabilities. We felt that the central thrust of the project was to mock and ridicule people with intellectual impairment. Furthermore, we questioned the fact that the university had given this project ethical clearance. We pointed out that the correct protocols for Ethical Research involving Humans had not been properly followed. We brought this to the attention of the university, (QUT) by writing to the Dean and by submitting a Formal Complaint to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Prof Arun Sharma.

All our objections were ignored. As a consequence we wrote an article in the Higher Education Supplement of the national newspaper, The Australian. In the article we were critical of the project, the supervisory team and the Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) that approved the project.

As a result of writing this article, Dr MacLennan and I were charged by the university for Misconduct and had to face a Misconduct Investigation Committee. The Chair of this committee and the two academics on the committee were chosen by the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Peter Coaldrake. We had no say whatsoever about who should be on the committee.

In my opinion, the Hearing that we faced was nothing other than a kangaroo court or Star Chamber. It seemed clear to us, from the outset, that we would be found guilty and that the verdict was pre-determined. During the process, we were not allowed to screen the film to show what we had objected to and the committee refused to view the material. This despite that fact that it was our response to the material that had prompted us to write the article. The committee also refused to examine the ethical clearance process.

In my opinion, during the Hearing, witnesses for my defense were threatened and intimidated. At the end of the Hearing, my representative, Dr Lisa Bridle, was frightened that the university might take some action against her for supporting me and immediately burst into tears.

The next day Dr MacLennan collapsed and had a nervous breakdown. He was treated by a medical physician.

The committee subsequently found us guilty of all the charges brought against us. There is no appeal process and the Vice-Chancellor decides on the penalty. There are no checks and balances in the system to limit his power. Prof Coaldrake decided to suspend us without pay for six months. He also informed us that he would be bringing a second series of charges against us.

Fortunately we were able to get legal counsel and we are currently in the process of contesting the manner in which our investigation was conducted. But we still have further charges hanging over our heads.

In the Hearing one of the charges against us was that we had misrepresented Michael Noonan’s work. There was a scene in the film involving an interaction between one of the disabled men (James who is autistic) and an Aboriginal woman. This took place in a country barroom. James was told by Noonan to enter the bar and ask if there were any young women in the town as he was looking for a girlfriend. In the scene we saw, the Aboriginal woman was inebriated and embraced James.

Noonan claimed that we misrepresented him as he never intended to screen that scene in public again. But now he has put this scene up on the web and said he is very proud of it. An Aboriginal friend of ours has gone to Boulia and made contact with May, the woman in the scene. Her name is May Lulu Dunne and she is a tribal woman from the Northern territory. She is horrified and feels shame that such images of her have been put up on the web. She emphatically denies giving permission for the filmmaking and her partner supports her version of the affair. It must be said however that Noonan claims to have a release form though no one has sighted it.

QUT has a policy of reconciliation with indigenous Australians. It has also signed onto the ethical protocols for research involving indigenous Australians.

Ted Watson who is acting for May Dunne has made an official complaint to the NHMRC, which is the body charged with seeing that university research involving humans is ethical.

I and he are convinced that QUT has acted in violation of the protocols for research involving indigenous Australians. These are as follows

National Statement for Research Involving Humans

Research involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

Six core values

· Reciprocity

· Respect

· Equality

· Responsibility

· Survival and Protection

· Spirit and integrity

The Clauses

The researcher should ensure that the research methods are respectful.

There should be evidence of support for the research project from relevant Aboriginal and Torrres Strait Islander communities and the research methodology should engage with their social and cultural practices.

The researcher should seek to identify any potential negative consequences of the proposed research, to design process to monitor them and to advise steps for minimizing them.

The research methods and processes should provide opportunities to develop trust and a sense of equal research partnerships.

The benefits… should include… research outcomes that advance the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

The described benefits from research should have been discussed with and agreed to by the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander research stakeholders.

The Statement makes it quite clear that researchers need to obtain permission from not only the participants but also the Aboriginal community. Aboriginal academics and elders have fought hard for these protocols to ensure that their people are not exploited. QUT is bound by these protocols but is clearly in violation of them here. Prof Rod Wissler has appeared on national television as a spokesman for QUT claiming that the scene with May is fine and does not breach research ethical protocols.

It is quite clear that Michael Noonan has ignored these research protocols. So not only are the disabled being laughed at in Michael Noonan’s research, he has also included a comical portrayal of an Aboriginal woman, who has done nothing to merit such ridicule and mockery.

Once again I ask you as concerned academics or citizens to make clear that such practices violate our ethical code and are unacceptable. Those concerned should write to Gordon.McGurk@health.gov.au of the National Health & Medical Research Council and ask him to investigate this matter immediately.

Please also write your concerns to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough at Mal.Bough.MP@aph.gov.au and the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin at j.macklin.mp@aph.go.au

Thank you once again for your support.

John Hookham

This message was also sent from Ted Watson

Dear Friends,

My Name is Ted Watson. I am an Aboriginal man. I have been granted power of attorney to act on behalf of May Lulu Dunne who was filmed by Michael Noonan in the Australian Hotel in Boulia Easter 2006 as part of his PhD Project. The project was called Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains.

In Easter 2006 Noonan took two intellectually impaired men to Boulia to find girls and to ask about the Min Min Lights. He sent them into the pub and there they met May Dunne. She is a tribal woman from the Northern Territory and is a decent caring grandmother of 52 years of age. She had too much to drink when Noonan filmed her but this is an exception for her. On Noonan’s film she comes across as the stereotypical drunken indigenous woman that white people love to portray. In May’s own words she tells us

“At no time was I asked permission to be filmed or sign any paper…I was hurt and shamed to see my actions shown on the internet in [the] Courier Mail newspaper website at our local library by Mr Ted Watson on Friday 14//07. I watched ABC and SBS hoping I would not be see[n] by everybody especially my people and family in a drunken way. I am upset now and want my pictures taken of the website…”

Noonan and QUT have broken all of the protocols for doing research involving indigenous Australians. We the Aboriginal people of Australia fought hard for these protocols. They are

National Statement for Research Involving Humans

Research involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

Six core values

· Reciprocity

· Respect

· Equality

· Responsibility

· Survival and Protection

· Spirit and integrity

Clauses in the Protocol
The researcher should ensure that the research methods are respectful.

There should be evidence of support for the research project from relevant Aboriginal and Torrres Strait Islander communities and the research methodology should engage with their social and cultural practices.

The researcher should seek to identify any potential negative consequences of the proposed research, to design process to monitor them and to advise steps for minimizing them.

The research methods and processes should provide opportunities to develop trust and a sense of equal research partnerships.

The benefits… should include… research outcomes that advance the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

The described benefits from research should have been discussed with and agreed to by the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander research stakeholders.

I repeat that Michael Noonan has clearly broken all these protocols. Yet QUT set up an internal review following a complaint about his research and they found him not guilty. The academics who did this have betrayed my people and they have also shamed their own university.

May has also asked me to say that she thinks it is nasty to make fun of and rubbish people like Darren and James who do not understand what is going on. May herself is the guardian and carer of an intellectually disabled man. The Aboriginal people of Boulia were horrified when Noonan and Spectrum Organization put Daren and James into the rodeo ring and made them act being a bull and a matador so people would laugh at them. May and her family could not understand why people were being so cruel to James and Darren. But then we Aborigines have never understood why white Australians can be so cruel to other whites.

There is now an interview with me up on YouTube. The link below will get you there.

Please pass on the link to all interested parties especially indigenous groups all round the world.

We Aborigines are having a very hard time now, what with our rights being trampled on and our land being taken off us. We need help and support from everyone.

We need an apology from QUT to May Dunne, compensation for her suffering and the removal of Noonan’s footage of her from the Courier Mail website.

Yours in the struggle

Edward James Watson

This is now an international issue that hopefully will seriously embarrass QUT and vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake. Here’s an interview with UCLA Professor of Philosophy Calvin Normore. He describes the suspension of Garry and John as a serious threat to academic freedom.


What’s happening at QUT?

July 9, 2007

Student blogs at QUT that have been commenting on the suspension of Garry MacLennan and John Hookham have been deleted by the administration.
So the defence of free speech means denying free speech. Phil Castles again puts his head up in this clip. How long before he too is facing disciplinary action?

There’s also an update (16 June) from the Courier-Mail newspaper in Brisbane, home of QUT.

The story has also raced around the world, here’s a link to The Gimp Parade blogged by Kay Olson of Minnesota, who describes herself as an overeducated, underemployed feminist with a disability.