Celebrating 30 years of Comparative Constitutional Studies at MLS

By Lauren Smith

When Melbourne Law School established the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies (CCCS) in 1988, with Professor Cheryl Saunders AO as its first director, the world was on the cusp of a major explosion in comparative constitutional law. Thirty years later, it continues to play an important role in developing and examining constitutional law in both a scholarly and pragmatic way.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it triggered a wave of democratisation and constitution-making across the world.

Established in 1988, Melbourne Law School’s Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies found itself at the forefront of scholarly discussion and research in this area.

Now in its 30th year, the Centre is firmly established as a regional and global leader of scholarship, teaching and academic engagement in the study of public law.

CCCS Director Professor Adrienne Stone says the foundation of the Centre was a prescient move by Professor Saunders.

"Although constitutional law has always been comparative in some sense, the field grew enormously post-1989 with the successive waves of democratisation that occurred through Europe, Asia and Latin America during the late 1980s and 1990s,” Stone says.

“By having a Centre here that was founded at that time, I think she anticipated a really important global movement in constitutionalism and founded a Centre that put it at the forefront of those developments.”

Professor Michael Crommelin AO, who became Dean of MLS in 1989 and played an important role in its founding, says the Centre was “very deliberately outward-looking”.

“There have been lots of notable achievements along the way, but the firm establishment of its place in the international scheme of things is particularly significant,” he says.

“One thing that is quite outstanding is the development of an international network of scholarly links, very broadly-based geographically.”

Crommelin says this network of established contacts enables the Centre and its people to work collaboratively and contribute to global developments in comparative constitutional law.

Adrienne Stone and Cheryl Saunders
Professor Adrienne Stone and Professor Cheryl Saunders at the launch of The Oxford Handbook of the Australian Constitution. Image credit: supplied.

Stone became Centre Director in 2008 and was last year appointed President of the International Association of Constitutional Law, cementing the CCCS’ international reputation and influence.

She describes the work of the CCCS as having three strands: broad comparative constitutional studies and global public law; constitutional law and practice; and Australian public law. Stone notes that Saunders has been a dominant force in all these areas for decades.

The combination of legal and practical expertise, in particular, she says, has “really been a marker of Cheryl”.

“Cheryl has been a really important practitioner of constitutional law and a very sought-after adviser on constitutionalism.

“In addition to being globally-focused, the Centre is a leading participant in academic and practical debates about public law in Australia.”

Enhancing public understanding of constitutional issues has been part of the Centre’s ethos since its early days.

Saunders points to the Centre’s work in the 1990s, as the research arm of the Constitutional Centenary Foundation, to help celebrate the centenary of the Australian Constitution.

She says one major challenge of that time, which continues, was “how you get people talking about the Constitution in a way that is both engaged and informed”.

“Constitutional debate involves more than an expert standing on a platform delivering information in a top-down way,” Saunders says.

We learned to set up deliberative bodies comprising people from many different backgrounds, to provide materials to assist them to come to groups with constitutional questions, and generally to provide a context in which people could engage actively with constitutional issues.

More recently, in 2016, that same methodology and practical approach developed by the CCCS was fed into the framework used by the Referendum Council on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in its regional dialogues with communities across Australia. That process culminated in the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru last year.

Stone says there are many within the Centre who are engaging on questions of Indigenous recognition. The Centre made a submission to the Federal Parliament’s Joint Committee Inquiry on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in June and held a public information session providing advice on how to write submissions.

Co-Director Associate Professor Kristen Rundle says the Centre works hard to engage with parliaments and governments on significant issues of public law reform and development.

“We are involved in public workshops to enable us to share expertise and contribute to capacity-building,” Rundle says.

“I think what we’re doing now, with respect to constitutional recognition, is an obvious example of that, as is the extent to which our submissions are taken seriously by those entities [governments and inquiries].”

The Centre also attracts a range of scholars and international visitors who “derive and contribute a great deal” to the scholarly community here and overseas, Crommelin says.

Rundle agrees this contributes to the “wonderful sense of collegiality and community” surrounding the Centre.

Stone says students make up an important part of the Centre’s community, including JD students who provide research assistance and support.

Counted among the Centre’s alumni are former Minister for Health and Attorney General Nicola Roxon, Commonwealth Government Solicitor Stephen Donaghue QC, former MLS Dean Professor Carolyn Evans, Victorian Government Solicitor Kristen Walker QC and CEO of the Grattan Institute John Daley.

Stone says such connections are important for the Centre and Melbourne Law School’s teaching programs.

“We have very strong and longstanding associations with the highest levels of the Australian judiciary,” she says.

“They are part of our conferences and our seminars, but there is also an important teaching element to CCCS through the specialised courses in the Masters [program], which have often been co-taught with members of the judiciary.

We also have a great group of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows – that means there is a really good early career research community here.

Saunders says that while the Centre is now quite different from its early days in some respects, “it’s still wonderful”.

“And certain characteristics have been consistent over time. The Centre has always approached comparative constitutional law from a global perspective; always had a focus on Asia; always been deeply comparative, or in other words, really wanting to understand how other people’s systems work and engaging with people from those systems to assist in that understanding.”

As to the future work of the Centre, Stone says the horizons are vast. “Part of what I want to do is to keep up with and continue to engage with the region and the world,” she says.

“I think probably that there will be an increased need for the Centre to engage with the boundary of international law and constitutional law.

“The field is just so dynamic that there is going to be a place for the Centre to do this work for a long time.”

Banner image: Professor Cheryl Saunders meets with international visitors in the early days of the Centre. Image credit: supplied.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 20, November 2018