University of Melbourne Magazine

Deep in thought

  • Good policy just takes time. “If you look back at the history of reform in Australia, if a government does one really big thing every year it has comprehensively outperformed. If it does one thing every three years, it’s probably batting about average… I would say that the best evidence wins a lot of the time.’’

    The Grattan Institute may be politically unaligned, but it’s not value-free. Its ethos is to contribute to policy in Australia “as a liberal democracy in a globalised enonomy”. It chooses its subjects in seven areas – Cities, Energy, Health, School Education, Higher Education, Australian Perspectives and Productivity Growth – and focuses on big, achievable things that aren’t being tackled elsewhere.

    Daley is conscious that only one of its program directors – Jane-Frances Kelly, head of Cities – is female. “If you look at the senior levels of policy makers across Australia they are very (male) skewed, and that is ultimately the kind of pool we are drawing out of. If I had more female program directors I would be happier.”

    For the work itself, it is an “article of faith that we are driven by the evidence and we talk to all sides of politics and we are not aligned”.

    “We also deliberately pick off topics precisely because we think they’re amenable to the type of analysis that we do, and if the answer to the question is ultimately going to be driven by pure political philosophy then that’s a bad place for us to go. For example, we don’t do any work on medical ethics, because no amount of crunching the numbers is going to convince you that stem cell experimentation is or is not a good idea.”

    The Grattan Institute is being noticed. Daley points out that both the majority and dissenting reports of the recent Senate inquiry into the Government’s pre-budget Commission of Audit quoted its work, something that pleased him enormously.

    Grattan is regularly cited in the mainstream media as a credible source of factual information on contested topics, and it has played a part in shifting the parameters of some debates.

    Two years ago, Grattan proposed increasing to 70 the age for accessing the aged pension and superannuation.

    ‘It’s intellectually interesting, it’s engaging, it matters for the future of the country.’
    – John Daley

    “At the time everybody said we were crazy, and today, it’s official government policy to move the pension age to 70 and the Treasurer (Joe Hockey) has said that he and the PM are thinking of moving the superannuation age as well, so in two years official policy has moved a very long way,” he says.

    Then there’s the work of Dr Ben Jensen (BCom(Hons) 1996, PhD 2003), until recently the program director of School Education, on the consistent steps needed to turn disadvantaged schools around. His 2012 report, Catching up, looked at the best-performing education systems in East Asia, and what Australia could learn from them.

    His work has been taken up in state bureaucracies, and has shifted the education debate beyond the constant demands for more money.

    There’s also Grattan’s work on childcare showing that reducing its cost is much more important than paid parental leave when it comes to increasing workplace participation – now a widely accepted proposition.

    Andrew Norton, program director of Higher Education, points out that across politics there was scepticism about the demand-driven system in higher education, in place since 2012, which uncapped undergraduate student places.

    Norton’s 2013 report, Keep the caps off!, argued that overall the system was working well to lift the supply of graduates, improve choice and increase accessibility to disadvantaged students. That position is now widely accepted.

    And Dr Stephen Duckett, a former health department secretary and now in charge of Health at the institute, has put the high cost of Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in clear focus. His report, Australia’s bad drug deal, revealed we were paying at least $1.3 billion a year too much for prescription drugs compared with countries such as New Zealand.

    Drug companies were not happy, but Duckett and other Grattan program directors are unafraid of entering political debate. Duckett points out that the evidence is Australia’s health system is efficient by international standards and he has strongly criticised the May Federal Budget, which “took a wrecking ball to trust in Commonwealth-state relations”.