Political Legacies: Australian Political Studies and the University of Melbourne

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The Department of Political Science at the University of Melbourne is the oldest political studies department in Australia. It had its origins in the pioneering efforts of William Macmahon Ball in the interwar period, culminating in the establishment of a dedicated program in Political Science in 1939. Ball was appointed the inaugural professor in 1949. This article examines the formation of the Department at Melbourne, highlighting Ball's founding vision of strength through diversity. The Departmental history is placed within a legacy that is traced back to the foundations of the University in 1853. Though not a tradition in the customary sense, the argument rests on the identification of three themes--breadth of scholarly field, analytical focus on society and public engagement--that can be used to link the Department of Political Science into a longer history of political studies at the University of Melbourne.

Keywords: W. Macmahon Ball; political science; public culture; social liberalism; Australian social sciences

INTRODUCTION (1)

The Department of Political Science at the University of Melbourne is the oldest political studies department in Australia. It had its origins in the groundbreaking efforts of William Macmahon Ball during the 1930s, culminating in the establishment of a dedicated program in Political Science in 1939. Macmahon Ball ('Mac Ball' or simply 'Mac') was appointed foundation professor of Political Science in 1949. The Department has a dynamic tradition of research and training, pioneering work on Australian politics, international relations, political sociology and political psychology, among other areas. Academics and alumni from the Department have gone on to become prominent figures in the academy in Australia and overseas, in public affairs and politics at all levels, in the print and electronic media, and in public controversy across the decades. Mac's founding vision was of strength through diversity and a steadfast commitment to the importance of informed vigorous debate for a healthy public culture.

The figure of Mac B all is the obvious point of departure for an historical reflection on the links between Australian political studies and the University of Melbourne. Mac's pioneering efforts in the establishment of the discipline of political science at the University are milestones in the history of political studies in Australia. In terms of disciplinary history, Mac began his famous course on Modern Political Institutions in the early 1930s: the first dedicated political science subject offered at the University of Melbourne. He was the driving force behind the establishment of a department of Political Science in 1939, initially administered within the History School. The Department became fully established with the appointment of Mac as the foundation professor in 1949; it was the first department of political science in Australia. While many politics departments in Australia have been transmogrified or amalgamated over recent years, the Melbourne department to this day retains both its disciplinary distinctiveness and organisational robustness.

The perseverance of Melbourne Political Science as a vibrant independent department can be attributed in no small measure to Mac's legacy and his founding vision. Diversity, not orthodoxy, has ensured the Department's ongoing vitality and distinctiveness across the decades and changing circumstances. Paradoxically, the strength of the Department as a distinct 'disciplinary' entity has resided in an adherence to neither a particular school of thought nor a specific methodological orientation but rather to a non-specific plural culture. Tested at times, this culture of diversity and tolerance has enabled the Department to maintain its own identity and to flourish. There is no Melbourne School of Political Science in the strict sense; neither canon nor singular disciplinary tradition. …