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Our future is public

  • 27 August 2014

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