Menzies chief's quest for cash

January 24, 1997

Huw Richards talks to two men in the London hot seats of learning about Australia and the US

CARL Bridge has come to Britain to promote academic interest in Australia.

As Australia prepares to celebrate Australia Day this Sunday, Professor Bridge, 46, succeeds Brian Matthews as head of the Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at the University of London. He will find his institution in reduced circumstances but with no threat to its future.

"We have had a cut in our Australian government funding. It could be much worse - some institutions have been cut altogether. And our core funding, Aus$100,000 (Pounds 50,000) from the government and the same from the Menzies Foundation, is secure," says Professor Bridge.

The freezing of a lectureship means the centre's conference programme may diminish, he says, but that is not so bad.

"We will need to do more conference work with other people and in particular with people here at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies. And that should bring benefits in terms for instance of joint research programmes."

He hopes also to find more diverse funding sources, a quest begun by Professor Matthews.

The centre's role has not changed much. "It is essentially what it always has been - the promotion of Australian studies in the University of London, in British universities and in European universities - in roughly that order," he says.

Professor Bridge arrives with the advantage of previous experience at the institute, as a lecturer from 1987 to 1989. Like Professor Matthews he comes to London from a previous post at Flinders University, Adelaide. They also share an academic interest in historian Manning Clarke - one of the key figures in Australian intellectual culture - who was also at Flinders.

A seventh-generation Australian - "Yes, I do have a convict ancestor" - he was one of the beneficiaries of the early 1970s boom in interest in Australian history, although his Sydney University doctorate was on Indian imperial history.

His academic reputation is based on extensive work on Australian foreign policy, but he has also written books on Manning Clarke and on the South Australian State Library. His next will be on war and society in the 20th century.

All of which will come in useful. "I think a lot of British views of Australia are rather dated. Sport is acknowledged, but there seems to be a reluctance to recognise that this is a society that also has good orchestras and ballet and produces Nobel prizewinners."

One way in which he hopes to help change perceptions is to bring over high-flying academics and exchange students. "It is a way of broadening Australian studies so that it becomes concerned with anything Australians do rather than focussed exclusively on specific Australian content. They might be astrophysicists or engineers or literary theorists. The important thing is that their work should have resonance over here."

Anglo-Australian links are strong but inevitably changing. "Japan is now a much more important trading partner," he says.

He thinks that an Australian Republic is a matter of time. "The polls are running at about 50:50, but support for the monarchy is concentrated among older members of the population. The main political difference is that where Labor under Paul Keating wanted to hurry the process, the Liberals aren't forcing it," he adds.

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