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Our future is public


Archive photo of Melbourne Public Library

In April 1855, only four months after dust had settled on the Eureka Rebellion, Melbourne's first public university was opened to these following words before a modest crowd by its founder and Chancellor Sir Redmond Barry:

'We are engaged this day in throwing open, for the first time, the portals of a great institution, founded in the second year of the political existence of the country, at a time when the convulsions of domestic perturbations filled all but the most constant with apprehension and alarm.'

The social 'convulsions' and sense of apprehension of Barry's Melbourne in 1855 reflect a mood not unrecognisable from the social climate of Australia in 2014. Though the precise circumstances were radically different, the forces of change in 19th century Melbourne were remarkably similar with the newly settled colony buckling under the pressure of rapid advances in technology, redistributions of wealth and a shift in political order.

Life in 1850s Melbourne was by no means just or stable, but the response to instability serves as a useful blueprint to the world of 2014. In the face of a fivefold population between 1851 and 1861 and insufficient resources, the response was not to shut out, but to create and 'throw open' the society to new ideas and spaces for human flourishing. In that same decade Justice Barry was responsible for the founding of the State Library of Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria, the University Melbourne, the Philharmonic Society and the Royal Melbourne Hospital amongst a suite of private institutions. 

Across a century and a half, each institution has contributed to the public life of this nation in a way that cannot be measured accurately except to say that without each the cultural life of this country would be significantly diminished.

But in 2014 is it even possible to carve out new public institutions or reboot those that have waned in relevance? Around the world trust in institutions, both private and public, has plummeted. Much of this is justified.

The crushing testimony by victims to the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse has repeatedly revealed fundamental and systematic failings of institutions whose only object was to care.

The 2007 global financial crisis exposed flaws at every level of institutions entrusted by millions with their entire livelihoods.

Voters around the world have retreated to the margins of political life where messages are clear, if not democratic, in the face of established political parties who have shirked their founding values.

The rhetoric of conflict is swelling in Eastern Europe and North Asia and has ignited in the Middle East and central Africa as political groups and states abandon international institutions in favour of unilateral action.

In all of these examples and countless others, betrayal, dishonesty and corruption are prominent and recurring features.

So what would a Barry of 2014 seek to carve out of the mess? What would it take to muster the courage to 'throw open the portals' of the next great public institutions? And why is this a matter of ethical as well as political concern?

Though Barry's views on social hierarchy, gender roles, his judicial approach and even dress sense were anachronistic by mid-19th century standards his approach to public institutions was remarkably innovative.

The first point to note is that their very foundation was novel: a public library, hospital and university may seem like essential ingredients for a civil society today but they were in fact radical additions to 1850s Melbourne. So from the outset a great public institution of the 21st century is unlikely to look like the State Library of Victoria or the Melbourne Museum or anything that currently exists. It may not even take physical form, but it will capture the same vital essence.

From this starting point of radical invention, I think there are three additional pillars that we can look to for guidance in building and restoring institutions that are relevant for the 21st century and beyond.

The first is social inclusion. Despite holding a deep seated belief in class distinction, Barry maintained that Melbourne's library, gallery, university and hospital should be free and open to all who could come.

Aside from free entry, inclusion played out through the question of whether public libraries ought to include the 'cheap literature' of the present day alongside those texts of historical significance that might lead to self-improvement.

In another speech at the opening the Free Public Library of Ballarat East, Justice Barry knocked the issue on the head, albeit in a fairly condescending fashion:

'But why this indignant crusade against classes of works at the least harmless and entertaining, even though their aim may not openly be that of positive instruction in some particular branch of abstruse learning or favourite doctrine? Men's minds are not cast in one mould — what charms one may repel another…Persons of wavering religious principles are not always to be captivated by a tract. Those who partake too freely of intoxicating drink are not usually allured by a Rechabite lecture'.

These institutions only remain 'public' for as long as the public at large are able to actively and easily participate in their daily happenings and reinvention. Concomitant with accessibility is the need for a plurality of institutions that are able to channel a range of human faculties and passions and include a wide range of audiences. For public institutions to be trusted again by the public they must first include the public.

The second pillar is longevity. The grand proportions and weight of Joseph Reed's design for the State Library and later a number of buildings at Melbourne University gives some indication as to the ambition of the trustees of 1855 that these ought to be institutions that transcend generations.

This architectural confidence was driven in no small-part by gold rush headiness, but beyond the structure they have remained vital over 150 years by challenging and refreshing their institutional purpose in order to maintain relevance in function and service to the Public.

Fixed into the concept of longevity is the need for reflexivity and renewal. Rather than enduring physical architecture, an enduring 21st century public institution will require well designed structures of governance that make adequate space for challenge, debate and renewal and do not rest too heavily on any one individual.

The third pillar is independence. 'Free, secular and democratic' was the founding vision for the State Library of Victoria: an institution that was able to draw support from political circles but was firstly accountable to the public. This separation is important for two reasons. The first is that independent public institutions provide space for citizens to participate in civic life in a way that is fundamentally different from the mechanics of politics. At their best these institutions call on participants to share their passions and faculties, to reason and build rather than simply react to their short-term interests.

Secondly an enduring institution of the 21st century should be independent of government because the strength of our independent public institutions provides the scaffolding necessary to weather the inevitable faltering within the political or legal arms of government. 

The presence of a plurality of institutions diffuses public power in a way that is able to provide an informal but powerful check on the execution of rights and interests. Bodies such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience, community media organisations particular unions and demonstrate this most clearly today.

So with these three characteristics in mind, why is this question of institution-building a question of ethics?  

It is of ethical concern because how we build or fail to build our institutions is directly linked to the kind of human characteristics we believe should be celebrated and pursued. The kind of Australia we live in today can be directly attributed to the kinds of institutions built by Barry and his peers 150 years ago. The kind of Australia we live in today is still paying the price for the institutions of indigenous lore and culture that were paved over to make way for that colonial vision.

While the rule of law and good policy are critical elements to a free and democratic society it is only through many strong and good institutions that we can engender a decent and humane society.

In a world acutely plagued by 'perturbations' and 'apprehension' I hope to meet that uncertainty with the courage to build with and support those who are willing to throw open the doors to the institutions of our future. 


Andy LynchAndy Lynch is a Juris Doctor student at Melbourne Law School and the president of SYN Media. This essay is was highly commended in the 2014 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers. 

Image of the State Library of Victoria in 1930 via the State Library of Victoria collections. Obtained under Creative Commons licence via flickr.

Topic tags: Andy Lynch, Margaret Dooley Award, Justice Redmond Barry, public institutions



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Existing comments

A well-deserved prize in the 2014 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers, Andy. Your choice of subject matter and your argument speak to me primarily of one word: charm. A most essential ingredient for a writer. I agree that well-governed public institutions are vital to the well-being and health of communities. Take note, politicians!

Pam | 26 August 2014  

Bravo, bravo, bravissimo.

Jim Jones | 27 August 2014  

Andy makes some very good points. I was very conscious of the importance of Redmond Barry when I belonged to the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society for many years - in founding so many public institutions or helping to do so, he showed the importance of long-term thinking, at a quite unstable time in Australia's history. We are doing little of this today, concentrating on crisis management and entrenching the status quo in out political system.

Rodney Wetherell | 27 August 2014  

What a truly remarkable essay by a wordsmith with an insight grounded in history on this occasion

Bill M | 27 August 2014  

Excellent!! Unhappily though, far too visionary, patriotic and perspicacious to influence the current brand of politician in this country.

john frawley | 27 August 2014  

Thanks for your insights Andy ... and well done! Public institutions are crumbling all over the world ... just check out the great social businesses that are around seeking to address the "lack" in social, "independent" and enduring institutions at present! I wonder if we should, instead, be seeking ways to embed the notion of "interdependence" in our public institutions ... food for thought!

mary tehan | 27 August 2014  

A delight to read, thoughtful and erudite, thank you Andy. Broad reading and a liberal education always seems to be the best way to raise a community. Redmond Barry, a lawyer who had vision and took responsibility, what an example to the rest of us.

Jane | 27 August 2014  

Perhaps the kind of institution we need is not one of bricks and mortar, but a body of eminent Australians who have proven track records of benevolence and ability, who are (now) independent of institutions with self-promoting agendas like politics, business or sectarianism. Such a group could devise and publish programs to improve our way of life, and rely on public support to pressure politicians to overcome their self interests and act for the greater good. It is amazing how wise many ex-politicians sound when the have cut their ties with the parties who tell them what to say and do.

Robert Liddy | 27 August 2014  

This article deserves the front page in the The Age! !!! Very sophisticated insight and it is promising to have young people with such view! Hopefully some politicians get to read this too! Thank you!

B | 01 September 2014  

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