Political theory in Australia is a not a single enterprise with a clearly definable ambit. Its practitioners include historians of ideas, philosophers wrestling with abstract political concepts (like justice or legitimacy), and political scientists concerned with the ethical dimensions of issues in public policy, as well as a variety of scholars from different disciplines who have reflected on general questions of political principle, social reform, or institutional design. A single chapter on political theory in Australia will thus necessarily be selective, since it cannot hope to discuss more than a fraction of the activities in the field.
At the same time, however, political theory is by nature parasitic on other disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities, since its ambit is so general – so even a discussion of a selective element of political theory in Australia will encroach on various aspects of political science, and the social sciences more generally. The aim of this chapter, then, is not to offer a guide to work by political theorists in Australia – or even the writings of political theorists about Australia – but to present an account of recent theoretical reflection on Australia: its politics and its institutions. The larger part of its purpose is to survey the work of others, particularly over the past ten years; but an important aspect of its concern is to offer some theoretical reflections of its own. This is, after all, what political theorists do.
Australia has no significant tradition of theorising about its political institutions. While Britain can point to a long history of thought, from Hobbes to Oakeshott, discussing British institutions and the modern European state, and the United States has a political tradition that includes such names as Madison, Calhoun and Rawls, Australian reflection on the Australian polity cannot boast any such pedigree. This is not because such matters have never been tackled by Australian thinkers (Melleuish 1995). But there are no figures in this tradition whom even Australian political theorists consider worthy of regular study and teaching (though Greg Melleuish has argued that Bruce Smith's Liberty and Liberalism is