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“Crisis, Uncertainty and Democracy”: Opening Australian Political Studies Association (APSA) Conference 2011

Welcoming Opening Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Chancellor of the Australian National University and Professorial Fellow at The University of Melbourne, Canberra, 26 September 2011

  • Professor John Ravenhill, Head of ANU School of Politics and International Relations and Conference Host
  • APSA President Associate Professor Katherine Gelber
  • Senior Ngunawal Elder Mrs Ruth Bell
  • Keynote Speaker Professor Don Emmerson and other distinguished guests Conference Participants


Wearing the first of my three relevant hats this morning, as Chancellor of the host university ANU, I am delighted to welcome you all to the 2011 APSA Conference.

APSA was founded 60 years ago at the ANU, after a 1951 seminar to mark the jubilee of federation, with ANU political scientists Leicester Webb and Fin Crisp present at the creation. And without succumbing to the kind of institutional chauvinism demanded of us all in this ever more ruthlessly competitive age (not least at Glyn Davis’s Melbourne University, where I wear my second relevant hat), I think it’s fair to say that ANU political scientists have been playing a very prominent leadership role in our discipline ever since.

That’s been so right across the spectrum from electoral studies with scholars like Don Rawson and Don Aitkin, to international relations theory from Hedley Bull to Chris Reus-Smit, to IR generally from with Coral Bell to John Ravenhill and a legion of others including Andrew Mack and Ramesh Thakur in peace studies, and Bob O’Neill, Paul Dibb, Des Ball and Hugh White in strategic and defence studies.

I hope it’s not only our history but our future that makes ANU an appropriate venue for this 6oth anniversary conference. Last week we published our strategic plan for the next ten years – ANU by 2020 - in which we spelt out more clearly than has ever been the case in the past our determination, as Australia’s only national university, based in the national capital, to really focus resources and effort not only in maintaining our standing in research and teaching, but in developing our status as a national public policy resource: the third role that the world’s great universities always play.

At the moment that capacity is very disaggregated, uncoordinated and underdeveloped, but all that will start to change in the next few months in ways I cant yet spell out in detail – but watch this space! Political science, international relations and defence and security studies are by no means the be-all and end-all of public policy research, education, training and outreach – economics, the environment, development studies, health sciences and a host of other areas have strong public policy dimensions. And nor of course do all of our own disciplinary areas have only a policy dimension. But in every major school of government or public policy around the world our discipline and sub-disciplines are at the heart of the product that is delivered, and that will be the case at the ANU.


The second hat I am wearing this morning is as a fellow academic political scientist – or at least a purported one - as a professorial fellow at Melbourne University engaged in teaching graduate seminars in international relations and supervising masters and PhD students. After 35 years away from the academic coalface – and, among other things, 35 years of grade inflation! – it’s all been a bit of a shock to the system.

Perhaps the most disconcerting feature of the system as it’s now operating, particularly for my younger colleagues trying to lay the foundations for their career, is the institutional pressure – even with the recent modifications to the ERA system -- to publish in the kinds of formats rather that are least likely to be read by anyone other than one’s immediate professional cohort and are least likely to have wide policy influence (i.e. heavily peer reviewed journals rather than popular journals like Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy, in journals rather than books, and by academic book publishers rather than more mainstream ones).

And overshadowing all of this for us, as with those in other humanities disciplines, is the reality that, in just about all the international rankings systems which every university finds fault with but is imprisoned by, there is a reliance on citations indicators which inherently work much less well in comparatively evaluating performance in the humanities than they do in the sciences.

I hope that some time at this conference, even if only in the corridor margins, can be spent in wrestling with this problem, which affects us all. Two particular strategies have been recommended in this respect recently in the wonderful, and wonderfully named, international politics blog The Duck of Minerva, which may be unfamiliar to some of you, and which I cant resist drawing to the attention of those of you who have not yet been reduced to practising them, but for whom desperate measures seem called for.

One is simply to organize ‘citation cartels’, in which all members agree to frenetically cite each other, in defiance of the operation of ordinary market mechanisms: see ‘peace, democratic’.

The other, which can work if one reached a certain threshold of professional stature, is to write something so comprehensively awful that other political scientists will write innumerable articles driving up one’s citation count: see ‘Huntington index’….


The remaining hat I guess I am wearing is I guess that of a long time political science, and especially international relations, practitioner, who has managed to disengage pretty comprehensively from the domestic scene but is still yielding to more temptation than he should to try to change the wider world.

The proper course in these matters for those of us of a certain age – and I would certainly recommend it to all my former Cabinet contemporaries, including those who rush into print or on to the box almost daily – is that recommended to me by the former British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, when I tried to inveigle him, back in 1996, to become a member of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

“My dear fellow”, he said to me, “I can’t possibly join your Commission: I’m a CLOOF”. “What on earth,” said I, “is that”. “You cant possibly tell me you don’t know what a CLOOF is: everyone knows that”. I confessed that my ignorance was boundless. “Well then, if you must,” he said resignedly, “ a CLOOF, my dear young fellow, is a Clapped Out Old Fart.”

One of the core defining characteristics of CLOOFs is that they always believe that things were better then than now. But while I’m obviously running the risk of confirming the diagnosis, looking at the quality of contemporary political discourse, which the theme of this conference – “ crisis, uncertainty and democracy” (and what a splendidly apt theme it is) – invites us all to do, I cant help but believe that it’s at a lower ebb than I can ever remember, certainly in this country, certainly in the US, and in most other parts of the democratic world as well.

That’s not exactly a unique observation, but it’s one of which I, for one, have had recurring direct personal experience. Most recently last week -- when I wrote in an internationally syndicated column what was intended to be a serious and measured contribution to the Palestinian statehood debate, focusing on what was in Israel’s own best interest, and referring only passingly to Australia, and our Prime Minister.

All that I said, in the last paragraph of the article, was “ Being on the wrong side of history is never a comfortable position. But that is exactly where the US, Israel, and its closest friends – including my own country, Australia – will be if they resist the tide of international sentiment in favour of moving now to recognize Palestinian statehood.” That was reported in The Age next day as “Evans lashes out at Gillard on Palestinian issue”…!

The same article was dismissed a say earlier by the foreign affairs correspondent of the paper which ran it, The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, as all that you’d expect from an ‘international bloviator’ like me. A nice phrase, I acknowledge, and maybe not entirely unearned -- but occurring in a piece riddled with the author’s staple references to the ‘insanity’, ‘derangement’ or ‘moral cowardice’ of those with a different view. One senses that if those words were denied Mr Sheridan, he would struggle to ever complete a paragraph; and that Dr Freud, in his study of the phenomenon of psychological projection, might have found the case of interest.

The trouble is, as we all know, that it has become almost impossible in the mainstream media to conduct any kind of serious public debate on any sensitive public policy issue. It may be that this is just some kind of worldwide cyclical downturn we are going through, and that greater maturity will find a way of reasserting itself.

But that’s not something I think we can bank on, and it makes it all the more imperative that those who are capable of making a serious analytic or policy contribution to the debates that matter here and abroad have their voices heard. All of you here have that capacity in one way or another, and my profound hope is that in your daily professional lives – and above all in the stimulating environment of this annual national conference – you will find ways of communicating not just with each other, but with a wider community audience which is desperately hungry for some maturity, and above all some substance, in the discussion of all the problems which affect, directly or indirectly, the quality of their lives.

On the evidence of the more than 200 hundred papers that are due to be delivered over the next three days -- across the spectrum from Australian politics and government, to ethnicity and identity, to comparative and international politics, to political and social theory -- this will be a stimulating event making a substantial contribution to the quality of political discourse of just that kind.

I wish you every success in this respect, and every enjoyment of the social interactions which are part and parcel of these conferences, and have pleasure in declaring the conference open.