Irreconcilable tension in Australia’s constitutional democracy

howard-schweberAustralia’s constitution exacerbates political conflict rather than being a source of solutions and stability, according to a leading American academic who will join Flinders University as the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Political Science in January 2012.

Professor Howard Schweber, from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is the first appointee under the prestigious Fulbright Commission program awarded to Flinders University for 2011-15.

Professor Schweber has a strong interest in Australia’s political system and its constitutional foundations and will further this interest during his stay with a comparative study of the philosophy and practice of democratic constitutionalism in Australia and the United States.

In a paper published in October 2007, Professor Schweber and co-author, Associate Professor Kenneth Mayer, maintain that the inherent contradiction between the wording of the Australian constitution and the conventions that influence its implementation were fully exposed by the constitutional crisis of 1975 when Prime Minister Whitlam was sacked by the Governor General, Sir John Kerr.

Professor Schweber said that when Australia’s constitution was tested “it failed to mitigate or channel political disagreement”.

“At a time when the constitution should have served as a stabilising force, it was instead used to amplify political conflict and decimate the conventions that had emerged over time as universally understood elements of political practice,” Professor Schweber wrote.

Later in his paper, Professor Schweber notes: “The dismissal and dissolution of 1975, while clearly authorised by the constitutional text, involved cascading violations of many conventions thought to be at the core of responsible government”.

Professor Schweber canvasses the consequences of “attempting to combine a written constitutional text with directly contradictory constitutional conventions”.

“How do we determine what parts of the constitution should be read literally, and the circumstances in which the text should trump convention? Ultimately, we conclude, there is an irreconcilable tension at the centre of the Australian model of constitutionalism.”

Professor Don DeBats, Head of the Department of American Studies at Flinders, said Professor Schweber’s appointment highlighted “the tremendous opportunities that flow from Flinders hosting the Distinguished Chair in American Political Science”.

“Professor Schweber is an outstanding scholar who will inject his enthusiasm and insights into Flinders’ study and research programs and take those opportunities to engage on important issues like nation building around the country,” he said.

Professor DeBats said a key objective of the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Political Science program was to foster on-going collaborative research projects.

“Professor Schweber’s five months at Flinders, from January to May 2012, will provide such research opportunities and the relationships formed between Flinders and the distinguished scholars from the US and their institutions could extend for decades to come,” Professor DeBats said.

Fulbright Commission Executive Director, Dr Tangerine Holt, said the Fulbright Commission was delighted to partner with Flinders University because of its well-established programs and expertise in American studies, including strong links with US scholars, leading US institutions and the US Congress through its very successful internship program for Australian students.

“We very much look forward to Professor Schweber arriving in Australia as the first appointment under this flagship Fulbright partnership,” Dr Holt said.

“He is a highly regarded scholar in constitutional theory who brings extensive knowledge of American constitutional politics to Australia,” she said.

“While at Flinders University he will further his comparative study of constitutional thought in Australia and the United States.”

Professor Schweber is based in the Department of Political Science and Legal Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and will come to Flinders and the School of International Studies from his most recent posting in Kazakhstan. He will also bring previous experiences in Jordan, Israel, and Pakistan to his post at Flinders which will be hosted by the American Studies Discipline.

Professor Schweber has a substantial background in American History with a University of Chicago Masters Degree and a thesis focused on “Law and Political Philosophy in Puritan Massachusetts, 1629-1648” and a PhD in Political Science from Cornell University with a thesis exploring “Tort Law and the Construction of American Citizenship in Illinois and Virginia, 1850-1860.”

He also has a Doctor of Jurisprudence from the University of Washington and a thesis which examined “The Customary International Law of Human Rights and the Israeli Occupation.”

At the University of Wisconsin he is affiliated with the Law School.

Professor Schweber’s interest in Australia arises from what he sees as its “distinct and particular model of constitutional understanding,” leading him and Ken Mayer to ask, in two articles in the UCLA Pacific Basin Law Journal, “Does Australia Have a Constitution?”

The Australian-American Fulbright Commission is a non-profit organisation in Australia, established through a bi-national treaty between the Australian and United States governments in 1949. The Fulbright Program is one of the largest and most prestigious educational exchange programs in the world.

The five scholars to sequentially occupy the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Political Science are expected to bring their own research projects to Flinders with Professor DeBats anticipating interest from across the four University faculties in engaging with them.

The Fulbright Commission will work with Flinders University on an associated program of visits and presentations around Australia for the Distinguished Chairs.

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One thought on “Irreconcilable tension in Australia’s constitutional democracy

  1. Will Professor Schweber be giving lectures which 1st or 2nd year students will be able to attend; or even better be lectures which are part of 1st and/or 2nd year subjects.

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