Debate on reforming Australian federal democracy grows louder

July 15 / 161


A recent government discussion paper on reform of Australia’s federation – highlighting options such as state income tax and a different distribution of the GST – has attracted much national attention, demonstrating the interest on an issue in which two University of Melbourne academics are leading the charge. 


Earlier this year constitutional scholar Cheryl Saunders and former Law School Dean Michael Crommelin AO, generated a lively Roundtable discussion with academics from across the University on the future of the Australian federation.  Initiated in response to a White Paper from the Commonwealth on the reform of Federation, the roundtable, held at the Melbourne Law School, reflected the University’s long interest and involvement with Federation. 


The University of Melbourne is the alma mater of many founding fathers that debated and drafted the nation’s Constitution. 


At Henry Parkes’ inaugural constitutional conference in 1890, Alfred Deakin was one of the youngest members, and a University of Melbourne law graduate. Alfred Deakin played a significant role in shaping the text of the Constitution, but his contribution to popularising the movement was perhaps even more significant. 


His famous speech at the Australian Natives Association banquet at Bendigo in March 1898 is noted for converting to the cause the anti-federalist David Syme and his newspaper The Age. Deakin was one of only a few delegates to correctly predict that the Senate would not function effectively as a House of the States, but would in time come to be ruled by ‘two great national parties’. 


In 1901, John Quick, a University of Melbourne law graduate, published The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth with Robert Garran, which included a comprehensive history of the federation movement. This work was considered one of the leading authorities on constitutional matters and remains a monumental work of scholarship. 


In addition George Turner, Isaac Isaacs and Henry Bournes Higgins – all  alalumni of the University – were also part of a core of key federalists who contributed to the national debate on Australia’s constitution. Other professors at the University sought to engage in the process of federation more directly. Edward Nanson, professor of mathematics, had campaigned for electoral reform since the 1880s. Harrison Moore, who became Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University in 1892, produced The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, the first scholarly study of the subject.


The significant involvement of both University of Melbourne alumni and staff in developing the process, debating the principles of the constitution and driving the popular movement for federalism is something about which a public-spirited institution can be proud. 


Later this month this debate on reforming Australian federal democracy will continue at Melbourne Town Hall. Professor Saunders and ABC Radio National host Jonathan Green will discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by the current reform of Australia’s federal democracy in a discussion hosted by the John Button Foundation and the Melbourne School of Government. This public event is an opportunity to actively engage in a discussion about the issues raised in the Commonwealth Government’s just released Green Paper on the reform of the Australian federation and is fitting contribution to the University of Melbourne’s deep history with this subject. 


The Annual John Button Oration: What is the best way to reform Australian federal democracy? Tuesday 14 July, 6.30pm. Registration is free, but essential.

Story by Ben Martin Hobbs

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