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Marsh, Malcolm Ian (1943–2017)

by Chris Cunneen and John Edwards

Even from his early days studying at Harvard 40 years ago, the central theme of Ian Marsh's work, was that the two-party political system had passed its use-by date. Parties had lost their capacity to represent, to aggregate, to advocate, to negotiate and, ultimately to govern. Professor Ian Marsh, a political scientist who died last month aged 73, was ahead of his time. The theme that drove much of his work has become even more pressing today.

As friend and fellow political scientist Stephen Mills remembered at his funeral, Marsh was an inspiring teacher, a prodigious researcher and a prolific writer.

He wrote or co-wrote six books, including his two major works, Beyond the Two Party System in 1995 and the 2012 Democratic Decline and Democratic Renewal, both well received and both influential among those in his field. He edited or co-edited another seven books, wrote chapters for more than 20 books, dozens of journal articles, and a vast number of working papers, consultancy reports, conference papers, book reviews, case studies and newspaper op-eds.

Rather than succumbing to despair and cynicism, Marsh engaged in an energetic quest for solutions. A parliament freed of two-party dominance, was one in which serious inquiry can be undertaken, in particular through the committee system.

Marsh was, Mills recalled, "an exemplary scholar and a model public intellectual. His interests spanned the political globe but he was an Australian through and through, focusing his intellectual skills and energy to create a rich legacy of ideas and options to improve our national life. He was also a generous colleague and mentor and, a wonderful friend."

Marsh began early in politics, but not as an academic. Malcolm Ian Marsh – always known as Ian – was born at Crown Street Women's Hospital, Darlinghurst, on August 5, 1943, second son of Malcolm Howard Marsh, an industrial chemist, and his wife Grace, nee Reeves. Although the second son, he was an only child. His elder brother Robert, born in 1934, had died at the age of 2. All his life he was conscious of the shadow of an older brother he had never known.

From the age of seven through to 13 Marsh boarded at Trinity Grammar. Temperamentally unsuited to boarding school in the 1950s, he developed his life-long aversion to team sports. Moving to Newcastle Boys High School for his final years he achieved an excellent pass in his Leaving Certificate in 1960. While still at school he joined the Young Liberals, though he toyed with the Radical Club while at Newcastle University College. In 1969 his life took a dramatic turn when he was appointed private secretary to Australia's minister for defence Allen Fairhall, the member for a nearby federal seat. He later worked for Fairhall's successor as minister for defence, Malcolm Fraser. Later he went to work for McKinsey & Company, management consultants, before becoming research director for the Liberal Party in 1974.

In June that year, at the Sydney Film Festival, he met Lorine Ligtvoet After a whirlwind romance, they married at Balmain three months later. Marsh was always sure that this was the most important achievement of his life – his friends agreed.

In 1977 he changed course again when he and Lorine went to Boston for five years. At Harvard he won his PhD in political science.

Returning to Australia in 1983 Ian began his academic career. Over the next three decades Marsh worked at the University of New South Wales, the Australian National University, and the universities of Sydney, Tasmania and Canberra.

In recent years he spent much of his time working with former Liberal minister Fred Chaney, a friend from the Fairhall days, on policy for indigenous Australians. At Marsh's funeral Chaney recalled their work on attempting to remedy "the misgovernment of remote Australia" and in "trying to put flesh on the Prime Minister's hope that his government could work with, not on, Aboriginal people". Working with Marsh, Chaney remarked "lifted my spirits". He was "a generous collaborator and in these collaborations was devoid of self-interest and self-aggrandisement".

Well known to his colleagues as leading theorist in his field, Marsh was better known to his many friends in Australia, England, Italy and the United States as a celebrant of the good life of music, drama, painting, conversation, laughter and wisdom with a special love for Cezanne, Beethoven's last quartets, T. S. Eliot's poetry, good food and good wine. The range, variety and number of his friends was a source of wonder, even to them. The Marshes hosted dinner parties, lunches, and excursions notable for loud but good-tempered debate, and hilarity and the unflagging and often hilarious conversations covered current and local politics, films, theatre, books. And then a little later in the evening, after Plato and Deakin, the mystery of things.

The couple's homes in Canberra, Boston, Hobart and Paddington were for more than 40 years havens of welcome for his vast circle of friends. So was their Mackerel Beach retreat on Pittwater.

Marsh was drawn to minorities. He supported gays, refugees and the aboriginal community. He was drawn to the Greens when they were a tiny party and then drifted off to smaller bands when they became serious political forces. He was drawn to Anglo Catholicism in the Sydney Diocese – a minority of a minority.

Speaking at his funeral economist John Edwards recalled that the word he most associated with Marsh, his characteristic word, was "mystery" – the mystery of great painting, the mystery of great music, of great literature, the knowledge of some greater thing that escapes logic or empirical evidence. The mystery of life, as he would say, and very often also the mystery of death.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 October 2017

View the list of ADB articles written by Malcolm Ian Marsh

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Cunneen and John Edwards, 'Marsh, Malcolm Ian (1943–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/marsh-malcolm-ian-31588/text39049, accessed 8 May 2021.

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