The long-running failings of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, discussed last week and yesterday by Crikey, need to be addressed. ABARE is a key input to the policy process in critical areas such as infrastructure, agricultural sustainability and climate change. Regardless of its part performance, Australia needs ABARE, or something like it, and needs it working effectively.

While ABARE’s problems came to the fore under the leadership of Brian Fisher, it is clear that the bureau is culturally predisposed to making the type of errors it has repeatedly made since the 1990s. It is telling that many senior ABARE staff have gone on to rewarding private sector positions in the resources sector, or as consultants and lobbyists representing industries with big stakes in carbon abatement mechanisms. Fisher himself, having become one of the Howard Government’s favourite bureaucrats for his climate change work (complete with a Public Service Medal and an Order of Australia award), joined CRA International as vice-president before moving to spin-off firm Concept Economics. There he now works with right-wing economist Henry Ergas – currently conducting the Liberals’ tax review – Howard advisers Peter Conran and John Kunkel and former ABARE colleagues Anna Matysek and Stephen Beare.

Agency culture is notoriously difficult to change, and especially change quickly. Guy Pearse has suggested that a critical reform is therefore to develop an independent government climate change research capacity outside ABARE. The establishment by the new Government of a Department of Climate Change is a step in the right direction, but a full research capacity needs to be developed to succeed the ad hoc modelling capacity currently being used for the Garnaut Review  (which includes ABARE). This then would at least provide some contestability of ideas on carbon issues, rather than the ABARE monologue we’ve endured for more than a decade.

A first step toward changing the culture of ABARE itself would be to improve its funding certainty. In 1999, the Department of Primary Industries and Energy was split into the Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Industry, Science and Resources. That split has been perpetuated since. It means that a significant part of ABARE’s research funding comes from a different department, which immediately places it in doubt each year, depending on the priorities of the Minister and executive of that department.

Moreover, ABARE, like other research organisations such as CSIRO, is required to source part of its funding from the private sector – 40%. This was a Keating Government imposition (raised to 40% by the new Howard Government in 1996), and is supported by the current Government. As demonstrated by the MEGABARE incident with the ACF, the funding requirement has played a significant role in aligning the interests of ABARE with those of the sectors it researches, undercutting its purported independence. You have to pay for genuinely independent, quality research, and removing ABARE’s heavy reliance on the private sector, and providing greater year-to-year certainty for its funding, would be a first step in making ABARE’s internal culture more rigorous.

There’s also the problem of a lack of external accountability. For Fisher and his team for much of the term of the previous Government, there was virtually no formal scrutiny via the Estimates process. The Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, ostensibly intended to provide oversight of ABARE and its home department, failed to subject the Bureau to rigorous scrutiny, with the likes of Labor’s Kerry O’Brien content to give Fisher and co a sleigh ride at Estimates. Only with the arrival of Greens senators Rachel Siewert and Christine Milne did ABARE start to attract serious scrutiny. For a Government committed to seriously addressing climate change, there should be sufficient sense of purpose to ensure that ABARE will know its modelling will come under challenge when they have to front up at Estimates, not just from the Greens, but from Government senators whose views will carry greater weight with Tony Burke and Martin Ferguson.

Only then will ABARE start properly fulfilling its goal of contributing to the competitiveness of our agricultural and resource sectors. For the last twelve years it has encouraged denial and a business-as-usual approach that will inflict long-term damage on the very industries it thinks it has been protecting.

Brian Fisher was invited to discuss ABARE by Crikey but did not return our calls.