University of Melbourne Magazine

Deep in thought

  • Picture: Darren Howe

    Picture: Darren Howe

    Its mission is to help shape Australia’s big policy debates — and so far the Grattan Institute seems to have hit the mark. Gay Alcorn goes inside the think tank.

    They are into bold ideas and big thinking but today the policy specialists at the Grattan Institute are taking a moment to savour a small success in their quest to influence the nation’s agenda.

    One of the think tank’s reports on superannuation has just created a splash with its details on how excessive fees – $20 billion a year in total – are hurting the retirement incomes of Australians. The report has generated headlines, soundbites, commentary and more than a little disquiet in some quarters. “Lots of outrage,” as one of the institute’s researchers puts it, “which is what we want.”

    At the weekly meeting of the institute’s program directors – the key people driving the research – this feedback is well received, particularly the part about vested interests being upset.

    But the job is far from complete, Professor John Daley, the Chief Executive, tells his colleagues. “Step one,” he says, “is to win the people who really think about this stuff deeply. Step two is to win the public. That’s where this will have to go next, so congratulations everyone.”

    Then the meeting turns to possible follow-ups – hosting dinners with backbenchers from all sides in Canberra, as well as private and public talks and briefings to push the case for superannuation reform.

    Dr Jim Minifie (BA(Hons) 1988, MCom(Eco) 1992), the program director of the Productivity Growth section which produced the report, says the research always comes first, but there is no point doing it if it gathers dust in a drawer.

    The Grattan Institute, tucked off a laneway in Carlton, is young by think tank standards – it was set up in 2008 – and well-resourced, with an initial endowment of $15 million from both the Victorian and Federal governments, $4 million from BHP and support in kind from the University of Melbourne. Its yearly budget is about $4.5 million.

    Its “fundamental purpose”, says Daley (BSc 1987, LLB(Hons) 1989), is to influence public policy. It has little interest in researching worthy ideas with limited practical relevance. It conducts rigorous research, proposes solutions, and argues for them in the media, at private briefings, at public events and before parliamentary committees. It wants to change things.

    For inspiration, three of its rooms are named for people devoted to evidence as the driver of reform and change – nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale, Nobel Prize-winning physician Barry Marshall and Australia’s first Solicitor-General, Robert Garran.

    Minifie, an economist who joined the institute two years ago, worked intensely with two other researchers for four months to complete the Super sting report. There’s no formal academic peer review system, but the work is tested before release – in this case, academics reviewed it here and overseas, the OECD reviewed the content, and it was sent to experts so they could “tell us what we’ve got to fix”.

    The goal, Minifie says, is to change policy. “In so doing you’ve got to think about the steps… some combination of the public, the political class if you like, and the senior public service need to be sufficiently aligned that the policy would then have a chance of being picked up.”

    Grattan is politically agnostic, unlike many wellknown think tanks in Australia such as the libertarian Institute of Public Affairs, the right-wing Centre for Independent Studies or the left-leaning Centre for Policy Development. It’s evidence-based. This in an era – often labelled post-truth or post-evidence – of rancorous politics where common ground is viewed as a sign of weakness.

    Daley is a sharp and energetic 47-year-old whose degrees in science and law from the University of Melbourne were followed by a DPhil from Oxford. He has spent years working in both the public and private sectors. The Grattan job appealed because it was “a bit public sector, a bit private sector and a bit academic” and because a think tank has the freedom to look at anything it thinks is important, which is not always possible in the public service.

    He says policy debate in Australia is less hopelessly partisan than people might think.

    “We’ve had a highly partisan public debate about climate change, but when it comes to what else divides our politicians, the answer is, by and large, it’s relatively thin,” he says.

    “The real differences between Australian political parties are not that big, particularly when you compare us to the United States where the divide on policy is enormous. In Australia, there are huge chunks of policy on which the parties basically agree.”