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Dec 12, 2008

The Grattan Institute: Centre for Ruddist Thinking

The $50 million Grattan Institute is about remake the think tank landscape in the PM's image, writes Andrew Crook.

Since it was announced in April, barely a peep has been heard from the Grattan Institute, Kevin Rudd’s $50 million super think tank named after a street abutting Melbourne University. Headed by ex-McKinsyite John Daley, it’s supposed to mimic the Washington-based Brookings Institution, the think-tank of choice for Clinton-era centrists. But if the list of backers is any guide, the local version’s shaping up as the intellectual playground for a new-Ruddism, backed by a truckload of taxpayer cash.

The Institute says it will be “apolitical”, dealing with “fact-based” conundrums, as if facts are ideologically neutral and government the preserve of disinterested policy wonks. But it really represents the dawning of a new era as the right-wing think tanks of decades past are subsumed by the ALP-connected. Add Grattan to outfits like OzProspect and PerCapita — whose bright sparks attempt to solve society’s problems through their own enlightened managerialism — and you’ve got an intellectual revolution afoot.

Grattan (nothing to do with Michelle, apparently) is the brainchild of ex-Victorian public service scion Terry Moran. Moran was picked to head the Prime Minister’s department in February and the Institute got the green light shortly afterwards. Its chief spruiker and chairman is the illustrious Allan Myers QC and the board reads like a who’s who of plugged-in elites including Melbourne University Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis and Moran’s VPS successor Helen Silver. Victorian Treasurer John Lenders is also involved — his government matched Canberra’s initial $15 million cash injection.

A horrified John Roskam of the right-leaning Institute for Public Affairs said last month that he’d be “absolutely amazed if it [Grattan] could accommodate an opinion critical of a Labor government.” He has every reason to be concerned — the IPA, and its ideological bedfellows at the Centre for Independent Studies and Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute have been effectively frozen out of the national debate. The idea of Rudd launching a major policy initiative alongside someone like Henderson, as John Howard did with the Intervention, is all but unthinkable.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, the union-funded Catalyst, with a shoestring budget of $220,000 per year and 1.4 full-time staff, hopes Rudd’s ideas factory won’t monopolise debate and discussion at the expense of actual progressive thought:

“I would hope that the Grattan Institute would reach out from the policy insiders and build community links with other independent think tanks,” Catalyst Executive Officer Jo-anne Schofield told Crikey.

“I think it would be a real shame if it marginalised progressive thinking. It should support a freer model of thinking.”

But the Grattan Institute is on different plane — it’s shaping up as a quasi arm of government that replaces frank and fearless advice with something eminently more pliable. The irony is that the Rudd Government’s obsession with experts (detailed in Crikey earlier this year) reflects less a return to a disinterested public service and more a proliferation of pick-and-mix advice witnessed at 2020. Grattan is looking like a permanent 2020, staffed by wonks rather than celebrities.

Even if Grattan was to evolve as a crucible for a vibrant ‘new-Ruddism’, it ignores the complete lack of content at the centre-left’s ideological core. Third Way trailblazers like Demos (remember their 14-dimensional plan to save child care?) are now so out of favour among governments as to appear a sad anachronism. Of course, think tanks have been historically the preserve of the political right — they provide a haven for pro-business ideas likely to founder in the face of mass democracy or social movements. Their left and centre-left derivations represent for the most part a backlash.

Crikey understands the PM was hunkered down at Grattan Street’s Prince Alfred Hotel last weekend celebrating the birthday of one of Glyn Davis’ offspring. It’s safe to assume the duo was also toasting the endless possibilities for a $50 million ideas quango to call their very own.

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3 thoughts on “The Grattan Institute: Centre for Ruddist Thinking

  1. Barry Naughten

    John Roskam ‘of the right-leaning Institute for Public Affairs’ may be ‘horrified’ and ‘absolutely amazed if it [Grattan] could accommodate an opinion critical of a Labor government.”
    If so, how is it so that among the Directors of the Grattan Institute is the Honorable David Kemp, not only a former Coalition Minister but son of the founder of the IPA, CD Kemp? Kemp sen. was also one of the guiding lights of Menzies’ Liberal party.
    Has there been a parting of the ways between David Kemp and the IPA? If so, how serious?
    It is surprising that an economic neo-liberal, and spokesman for Big Business, such as Roskam is so publicly animated in this post ‘red October’ day and age, when the credibility of Thatcherism is at such a low ebb and likely to remain so.

  2. Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    The unthinkable should remain unthinkable.
    At least the ‘balance’ being sort here is not just with resources but also with seriously competent, creative intellects.

  3. John James

    This article seems to be full of contradictions. I hope its not a foretatse of the quality of work by the Grattan Institute.
    The article dismisses John Roskam’s concerns about the Grattan being willing to profer advice critical of government policy but then describes the Grattan as ” shaping up as a quasi arm of government that replaces frank and fearless advice with something eminently more pliable”
    Then the article states that the Grattan ignores the ” complete lack of content at the centre-left’s ideological core” Well, here here! You just read Bernard Keane and Greg Barns often enough and you realise how woeful the Centre-Left are. And this is the”intellectual playground for the new Ruddism”
    The ghost of Gough walks!