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The Australian National University

Reinterpreting 'The Mason Court Revolution': An Historical Institutionalist Account of Judge-Driven Constitutional Transformation in Australia

Theunis Roux (2015) 43 (1)

There have been two major periods of judge-driven constitutional transformation in Australia. The first spanned the High Court's successful transformation over the course of the last century of the strongly federalist 1901 Constitution into a weakly federalist one. The second took the form of what is generally thought to have been the less than fully realized 'Mason Court revolution' – the Court's attempt, from 1987-1995, to turn the Constitution into a device for expressing core Australian political values. What explains these different outcomes – why was the first transformation so successful and the second only partially achieved? This article proposes an answer to this question based on a generalisable account of the role of constitutional courts in processes of constitutional transformation. In short, the argument is that the seminal Engineers decision triggered a self-reinforcing trajectory of institutional development that led to a stable politico-legal equilibrium by the middle of the last century. The judges responsible for the second attempted transformation sought to break free of this equilibrium in order to respond to what they thought were pressing social needs. In the absence of a significant exogenous shock to the system, however, the equilibrium structured and constrained what they were able to do.

Vol 43, Issue 1, 2015

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