cradleCradle of Australian Political Studies – Sydney’s Department of Government

by Michael Hogan

Connor Court

ISBN: 1925138518

RRP – $39.95.

Reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald


The origins of the Department of Government and International Relations at Sydney University – currently headed by Professor Colin Wight – extend back almost a century to 1917, when various public administration courses were taught within the economics faculty at Sydney University. This eventually led to a chair in Public Administration in 1934 – with the conservative Francis Bland becoming its first Professor in 1935.

As Michael Hogan points out in his useful historical and academic analysis, this was followed in 1947 by the establishment of the Department of Government and Public Administration, which Hogan states is “arguably Australia’s oldest political science department and certainly one of its most successful”. Hence his book’s catchy title Cradle of Australian Political Studies.

In terms of its areas of study, teaching and research, over time the Department of Government has moved from a primary focus on public administration and public policy to a broader range of interests, including political theory, comparative politics and international relations. But, in its early decades, the right wing Professor Francis Bland ruled the roost. Hence, it should have come as no surprise that, after he retired from Sydney University in June 1948, Bland was elected in 1951 to the safe federal Liberal seat of Warringah, which is currently held by the Hon Tony Abbott. An arch-Tory, Bland served in the House of Representatives for ten years until his retirement from federal parliament in 1961.

As well as Professor Bland, the two most influential figures of Sydney University’s Department of Government were arguably the cultivated bachelor, Professor R.N. (Dick) Spann, who assumed the headship in 1954, and the irrepressible, irreverent and entrepreneurial Henry Mayer who, after becoming Professor of Political Theory in 1969/1970, briefly, and rather reluctantly, became head of department in the tumultuous years 1974 and 1975, when he was replaced as head by associate professor Ken Turner.

Seldom seen out of a grey suit, Dick Spann was a man of culture and considerable scholarship. A charming conversationalist, he was also, as Hogan puts it, “politically conservative, one of the earliest members of the Association for Cultural Freedom, and a regular contributor to the Quadrant journal that defended similar anti-communist views.”

Although he was happy to follow Spann in joining the Association for Cultural Freedom, and also in championing teaching by tutorials as a supplement to mass lectures, Henry Mayer was in many ways quite different. Loud, assertive, brilliant, extremely productive and sometimes sexist and confronting, Mayer was the driving force in the Australian Political Science Association. Indeed it was Mayer who helped transform the “APSA Newsletter” into the journal Politics (later The Australian Journal of Political Science).

Mayer also authored a path-breaking study The Press in Australia in 1964 – the year that for the first time witnessed the existence of a national newspaper, The Australian. Thereafter Mayer edited Australian Politics: A Reader which, as Hogan explains, “became a standard source for students of Australian politics in most Australian universities”. From its first publication in 1966 this key work went into five editions – the last in 1980. From the Third Reader onwards, it was co-edited by Helen Nelson and was generally referred to as “Mayer and Nelson”.

After Dick Spann died suddenly in July 1981, just as he was about to retire, and Henry Mayer retired unhappily from Sydney University at the end of 1984, staff demands for effective self-management, for non-professorial heads, for a culture of consensus decision making, and for an increased number of women in the department continued to take hold.

The latter included Anne Summers who, in 1975, had published the hugely influential Damned Whores and God’s Police: the colonisation of women in Australia. With Mayer making a strong case on her behalf, the University adopted the highly unusual decision of accepting the published book as her thesis and awarding Summers a PhD. This occurred in 1980, five years after Damned Whores and God’s Police had seen the light of day.

In her autobiography Ducks on the Pond, published in 1999, Summers writes of her introduction to the Department of Government:

Henry Mayer made me feel very welcome and immediately arranged for us to meet weekly. The other professor in the Department of Government was Dick Spann, a courtly man of about 60 who taught Public Administration and English Political Theory, and whose ineffable courtesy enabled him to conceal whatever distaste he may have felt for the new notions of women’s liberation that I so enthusiastically espoused. Henry, on the other hand, had embraced them with an excitement that at first I found startling.

As Cradle of Australian Political Studies makes clear, 1990 was a turning point – both for the Department of Government and for the University of Sydney.  That year witnessed the replacement, as Vice-Chancellor, of John M Ward – who embodied a more traditional consensus approach to administration – by Professor Don McNicol. From the moment of his appointment as VC, McNicol allegedly embraced the notion of a corporate university with considerable enthusiasm.

According to Hogan, this signaled the transformation of the university into a corporatised body adopting the principles of private enterprise and line management rather than collegial decision-making.

McNicol’s appointment as VC occurred four years after the first personal computers were made available to staff – an “innovation” that fundamentally changed the work culture and therefore the general academic environment.

The discerning reader of this surprisingly informative and entertaining academic history might be forgiven for thinking that, after these two radical changes to academic life and standards, it was downhill all the way for Sydney University and for the Department of Government in particular. Certainly, while McNicol’s successors as Vice-Chancellors may not have embraced the demands of managerial efficiency with utter delight, they have all continued on a similar and seeming inexorably path of regarding the university as primarily being a corporation.

Sadly from the 1990s onwards, one of the deleterious side effects of the new administrative environment was the disappearance of the tribe of full-time tutors – who had often made studying politics and government at Sydney University so personally and intellectually rewarding.

For the record, in the early 1980s, on secondment to Sydney University from the multidisciplinary, team-teaching Faculty of Humanities at Brisbane’s Griffith University, I single-handedly taught a course in Political Theory in the Department of Government. All in all, it was a pleasant and fulfilling experience.

Things seem so different now. As Professor Raewin Connell wrote in July 2014 in the Sydney Alumni Magazine – under the heading of The Corporate University:

I’m winding up my career at a time when I don’t think it’s a happy time for universities. We’ve fallen into a culture of hyper-competitiveness where universities are regarded by their managers and governments essentially as competitive firms, competing against each other for resources, rather than what (should be) the reality, which is a knowledge system based on cooperation and sharing.

Professor Fitzgerald, a columnist with The Australian, recently edited Alan Reid’s unpublished Labor novel of the 1950s, The Bandar-Log, (Connor Court)