Is Melbourne still the intellectual capital of Australia?

Federation Square, Melbourne

A panel of  Melbourne's intellectual heavy-hitters fought for the city's reputation at the Melbourne Now event on March 6 2014. Robert Manne chaired the debate with Jeff Sparrow, Hilary McPhee, Chris Feik and Elizabeth Finkel.

Watch the debate

Is Melbourne still the intellectual capital of Australia?

What the audience said

Find out what the audience had to say about Melbourne's place as our intellectual capital on the Twitter hashtag  #ideasandsociety.

Thoughts from the speakers


Professor John Dewar: Vice-Chancellor, La Trobe University

Panel Chair

Robert Manne: author and editor of twenty books including Left, Right, Left and Making Trouble and essayist for The Monthly. Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice-Chancellor's Fellow, La Trobe University.
Ultimately there was a sense from Professor Manne and the four panelists that Melbourne has provided a space for intellectual engagement, initiative and creativity in the years since the war that has been quite unlike that of other cities in Australia. The question remains as to how this might change in coming years. 


Elizabeth Finkel, editor of Cosmos Magazine and Vice-Chancellor's Fellow at La TrobeDr Elizabeth Finkel brought to the discussion her powerful advocacy for science. She listed a dozen major scientific achievements that have come out of Melbourne. Listening to a list of 12 science stories might sound uninspiring to many, but it was quite the contrary - a range of fascinating and vital developments have emerged from this city.

For Dr Finkel, the question was really not whether Melbourne has achieved highly in science, but whether the city's scientists can continue to do so in the face of a lack of funding.

Dr Finkel also spoke about the importance of science communication, and of her mission as Editor of Cosmos Magazine  to 'educate, titillate and guide' in regards to science. Her contribution bridged the gap between science and the arts in the panel discussion - a consideration for ongoing discussion.

Chris Feik, editor of the Quarterly Essay and publisher of Black Inc. Books

The fourth panellist, Chris Feik, is editor of the Quarterly Essay and thus one of the many writers and editors working on a publication within the Morry Schwartz stable – a stable of publications that includes Black Inc., The Monthly and the brand new Saturday Paper. Feik  acknowledged the importance of Melbourne's status as a UNESCO City of Literature – this recognition gave the city The Wheeler Centre and has created a forum for events about writing and ideas quite unlike anything else in Australia.

Hilary McPhee AO, founding director of McPhee Gribble Publishers Hilary McPhee AO spoke about the radical political culture in Melbourne in the 1960s and 1970s that allowed her and Diana Gribble to start up McPhee Gribble publishers in 1975. McPhee Gribble challenged the dominance of the two big publishing houses in Melbourne by publishing unknown authors, launching the careers of a number of now-famous writers and thinkers.

Jeff Sparrow, editor of Overland and co-author of Radical Melbourne
For Jeff Sparrow, editor of Overland Journal , it was interesting that in Australia this debate is framed around cities – something he saw as a reflection of our urbanised population. He also raised the question of whether the internet diminished the role of geography – but told the audience that despite the connectivity of the online world, the majority of subscribers and contributors to Overland continue to come from Melbourne.