University of Melbourne Magazine

Deep in thought

  • The idea for a well-resourced, heavyhitting domestic policy think tank came from Terry Moran AC about 2005, when he was Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria (he was later the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet under the Rudd Government).

    The broader story is a case study in how these things get up – a coming together of wounded state pride, personal connections and a few people who kept pushing. Moran gives credit to then-Premier Steve Bracks AC for embracing big ideas, to Greg Hywood and Chris Barrett (BCom 1990, BA(Hons) 1991, MA(IntRel) 1999) – then working within the Department of Premier and Cabinet – Treasurer Peter Costello AC for agreeing in principle to federal matching funds, and Professor Glyn Davis AC, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne.

    The idea stalled for a year when the Victorian Government and the University of Melbourne bid for the US Studies Centre, which eventually went to the University of Sydney with the support of Prime Minister John Howard. Bracks says “we were really angry” about that, and determined to push ahead with a major think tank for Victoria. The University was also disappointed and refocused on supporting what would become the Grattan Institute.

    Moran is blunt about the gap the institute was intended to fill.

    “Firstly, universities are doing a terrible job of turning the fruit of their research into papers and positions that will contribute to public policy,” he says. Second, most policy is multidisciplinary, which can be hard to pull off at a university. And the third reason was that it “was obvious then that media was heading for trouble and it was an opportunity for public policy work to be picked up when the media was less and less able to afford the resources to go and research things”.

    Norton, a former adviser to Federal Education Minister Dr David Kemp (BA(Hons) 1965, LLB 1966) in the Howard Government, spent more than a decade in government and says the public service has been “cut to the core” through successive efficiency dividends and is nervous about big-picture policy work in case it causes political controversy. “I know when I worked in government we stopped the public service doing things because of the danger of it being revealed publicly before it was ready to be. That has a negative influence on public policy debate,” he says.

    There has been rigorous discussion over the years about how many areas Grattan should focus on – take on more or do a few topics in depth.

    Moran says of the Grattan Institute that “for a while I felt they were just there to put out papers and weren’t worried about having any impact, but that debate has been won from my point of view”.

    Bracks says the Grattan Institute is “now seen as the pre-eminent domestic policy institute in Australia, and there’s a bit of competition in that space. It’s addressing issues that no one else is really doing.”

    Daley is confident it is having an impact.

    “I don’t think I can prove that Grattan was a primary driver of any (policy shifts). Success always has lots of parents…What we can say is that some important recent changes are at least consistent with the direction we were pushing, and at the time we were in a relative minority pushing for them and today they have more or less happened.’’

    There’s a sense of intensity about the work at Grattan. It’s serious work but great fun, says Daley.

    “It’s intellectually interesting, it’s engaging, it matters for the future of the country, you get to work with a good number of people who are similarly motivated. What’s not to like?”

     Who’s who at Grattan


    John DaleyProfessor John Daley, Chief Executive Officer, has 25 years’ experience in the public, private and university sectors.


    Andrew NortonAndrew Norton was an adviser to the University’s Vice-Chancellor and a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.


    Jim MinifieDr Jim Minifie is a graduate in applied economics from Stanford University. Chief economist of the Boston Consulting Group for seven years.


    Stephen DuckettDr Stephen Duckett has held senior positions in health care in Australia and Canada. Headed the Commonwealth Department of Health.


    Tony WoodTony Wood worked at Origin Energy for 11 years, and was an adviser to the first Garnaut climate change review.


    Jane Francis KellyJane-Frances Kelly spent three years in the British Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. She has also worked for the Queensland, Victorian and Commonwealth governments.


    Grattan Says: Findings From Recent Reports