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John Passant

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January 2009



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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
Tony Abbott thinks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Un-Australian. I am looking forward to his government setting up the House Un-Australian Activities Committee. (1)

Make Gina Rinehart work for her dole

Sick kids and paying upfront


Save Medicare

Demonstrate in defence of Medicare at Sydney Town Hall 1 pm Saturday 4 January (0)

Me on Razor Sharp this morning
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace this morning for Razor Sharp. It happens every Tuesday. (0)

I am not surprised
I think we are being unfair to this Abbott ‘no surprises’ Government. I am not surprised. (0)

Send Barnaby to Indonesia
It is a pity that Barnaby Joyce, a man of tact, diplomacy, nuance and subtlety, isn’t going to Indonesia to fix things up. I know I am disappointed that Barnaby is missing out on this great opportunity, and I am sure the Indonesians feel the same way. [Sarcasm alert.] (0)



Reflections on teaching (tax) law

Teaching is one of the great professions.  For those who do it well it can be a real joy. Inspiring others to begin the search for their truth, to learn, is a wonderful gift.  Inspired students then inspire teachers even further.

Many years ago I taught tax and other law subjects in the Law Faculty of the Australian National University.

The other day I bumped into a former student of mine whom I hadn’t seen since my teaching days. He is now a major leader in the Australian Rugby Union and managing partner of a law firm.

I told him I had left the ANU because it seemed very unlikely I would be promoted.  As he said that’s the price you pay for your politics.

As an aside the Liberal Students’ campaign against left-wing bias in Unis is rubbish.  Most of the bias I met was against the left, and most lecturers accepted the status quo, which is why many of them were not good teachers.  They didn’t have the world vision to engage students in discussion and debate about the political and social aspects of the law, for example.

And anyone who has done economics will know that neo-liberalism is the dominant ideology, handed down from on high.  Almost every Economics Faculty is dominated by the same-thought neo-liberal approach. The present global economic crisis is destroying that supremacy.  Soon we will all be Keynesians.

Universities perform an important function in capitalist society.  They help some students to think independently; to question, to critically analyse the world around them (through the lens of law, economics, science, the arts and so on).

These people have the capacity to move society forward with their insights and thoughts.

But Universities also perform another role –  they turn out the functionaries, the managers who control the workforce.  This necessarily entails a regimented thought process.  So teaching contains a duality – inspire students, but not too much that they lose sight of their future roles as the worker drones for the queen bee of capital.

My former student mentioned that I was the best lecturer he had had in the Law Faculty because I challenged students to think, not just regurgitate sterile paragraphs from cases, or commentaries.

My student ratings consistently put me in the top range of teachers in Faculty.  (To be fair, while ninety  per cent loved me, 10 per cent couldn’t abide me. I put this down to the fact this ten per cent had been educated in the years before they did tax in ways that were somewhat different to mine. I was the shock of the new.)

I didn’t have any great theories.  I respected students.  I wanted them to understand tax law not as some arcane subject of correct answers, but an area where difference and greyness ruled over cases, the expressions used in the statutes and so on.  ‘Doubt all’ was my motto, including what I said. Challenge me, I urged my students.

So, for example, instead of just looking at the capital/income distinction I would raise the question of why the distinction exists, and who might benefit from such a distinction.  I saw this discussion as being a way for them to better understand the legal intricacies of the distinction.

My method was soft Socratic, throwing out questions for the class to discuss. Many students would respond with questions of their own, questions which the class then debated and discussed.   Often the discussion provided insights that were beyond my capacity to develop on my own.

I was keen on student participation.  Students received bonus marks for participating in the class discussions.  Students presented a topic each in tutorials.

I abhor exams. I believe they don’t stretch students nor do they come close to replicating what actually happens in a workplace. They are essentially rote learning exercises on a grand scale, vomited up.

So I developed, with the students, a range of topics each year to write essays on.   One year I asked students to form into teams to develop legislative proposals for combating what the Government regarded as a mistaken High Court view of one of the pillars of taxation.  I led them through the whole policy and law development process and they loved it.  (There were complaints from some teams about slackers dragging down their mark, but teams are what most workplaces have, so I persisted with the idea.)

There was always something else as well.  Respect.  Students deserve our respect as human beings, as people who can and will excel if given the opportunities.  Sometimes students lost the right to respect, for example through plagiarism, but in most cases students respond well to being treated with care.

That was my vision – to empower students. To inspire them to learn.  I didn’t achieve that for all students, but when I look back on my time teaching I can say that for many students I made a difference.


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