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Professor Desmond Manderson
Australian National University

In Australia over the past 25 years, the ‘big picture’ of what a constitution is, and why it matters, has been relentlessly reduced to a technocratic minimalism that shows scant interest in the social and cultural functions of a constitution in the modern world.  The notorious ‘dual citizenship’ cases (2017-18), involving section 44 of the Australian Constitution, provide an exceptional case study. The paper develops through a legal analysis of the bases of the court’s reasoning; but also by a close consideration of what is arguably the most important painting of Australia’s constitutional history, Tom Roberts’ ‘Big Picture’ (1901-3). What did Roberts know? What does his painting show? At a moment when the rule of law and the public sphere is under threat as never before, we can and should expect more of our peak legal institutions. Rejuvenating civil society and public life is everyone’s responsibility. But how can we reinvent the project of citizenship if law sits on its hands? And what are we to make of the fact that Roberts’ bravura canvas marked not the efflorescence of his powers but the beginning of their decline.  Have Australians, in short, ever cared about the big picture?

Des Manderson is jointly appointed in the ANU College of Law and its College of Arts and Social Sciences.  He is Director of the ANU Centre for Law Arts and the Humanities.  He is the author of several books, most recently Danse Macabre: Temporalities of Law in the Visual Arts (Cambridge 2019). He has a string of letters after his name but prefers not to use them; like military medals, they are not so much a sign of accomplishment but an ability to keep one’s head down under fire.

 

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