A number of high-profile fellows have resigned from the Centre for Policy Development over concerns that the progressive think tank is moving to be more centrist. John Quiggin, Mark Bahnisch, Steve Keen, Ben Spies-Butcher, James Whelan and Eva Cox all resigned as fellows yesterday, after the centre released a policy paper by Sam Hurley advocating for broadening the GST to food. The paper was reported by The Australian Financial Review as “Left-wing group opposes Labor Party’s do-nothing GST policy“.

John Quiggin told the other fellows of his resignation in an email, which started a chain of emails with further resignations. Fellows aren’t paid employees of the centre, but Quiggin told Crikey he no longer wanted his name associated with it. In a post on his Facebook page he said:

“Like Mark Bahnisch, Eva Cox and a number of others, I’ve resigned as a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. It’s a sad day, since CPD has done a lot of great work, and I’ve enjoyed being involved in it. But the leadership of the Centre has taken a decision to move to the right in the hope of being more relevant to the policy process. The most recent outcome has been a paper on tax policy that broadly accepts the Treasury view of the issue, and pushes for a broadening of the GST base, which means taxation of fresh food. This isn’t a new or innovative idea. Rather, it has been part of rightwing orthodoxy for decades. CPDs endorsement allows its advocates to claim some ‘left’ support. That claim obviously gained credibility from having Fellows like Mark, Eva and me. So, we had no alternative but to resign.”

Quiggin told Crikey that the paper was what precipitated his resignation, but that he had qualms over the centre’s new direction. Quiggin says the CPD seems to be trying to replicate think tanks like the Grattan Institute. “I like the stuff the centre had put out, I don’t feel the need for another Grattan, I don’t see why it needs to be replicated. I’m concerned in the process what they’re doing is trading on Left or centre-Left history to promote centre-Right policies.”

Cox labelled the tax paper the “last straw” as the centre has had fewer policies that are “genuinely different” from the mainstream. “I’m interested and have been for some time in creating serious alternative policies, and my feeling is that the CPD keeps moving further and further into the mainstream and at the moment I think they are spending much more time trying to get a seat at the table rather than seriously challenge the policies that are on the table.”

“I’ve been complaining for a long time and been concerned about the general direction we’d been moving in and looking at that paper it made it clear that things I’ve been saying and others have been saying, that nobody was listening.”

Ben Eltham, a fellow at the centre who didn’t resign yesterday, says he is “deeply disappointed” with the paper and that its arguments are “flawed in many respects”. Cox said of the paper: “Instead of having a proper debate, it accepts all the assumptions and just plays around the edges.”

But Eltham said he wouldn’t be resigning over the paper. “I don’t think I can contribute by resigning. If there’s a small amount I can contribute by staying in the tent, I’d like to engage, and I’d like to chat to these guys.”

The change in direction coincides with the tenure of CEO Travers McLeod, who replaced Miriam Lyons at the end of 2013. McLeod’s influence on the changes has been a common theme for fellows who spoke to Crikey. Following the CPD’s popular founder Miriam Lyons as CEO “was always going to be hard”, according to Eltham. McLeod sent an email to the fellows after the resignation, which Eltham describes as “defensive”.

McLeod told Crikey: “CPD has a diversity of fellows. As CEO, I value their expert, often divergent, views on important policy issues. I acknowledge the concerns of John, Eva and others but feel their decision to resign was hasty and unnecessary. It is disappointing that legitimate differences of opinion have turned into an unwillingness to have the debate at all. I am disappointed to see them go.”

“I believe the role of the think tank is to build conversations and tackle policy challenges in an effective way, not get stuck in ideological trenches that only prolong the problem,” said McLeod.

Antoinette le Marchant, chair of CPD’s research committee, defended the report on behalf of the committee in a statement to Crikey. “CPD is very proud of Travers and his team, together with the insights and rigour they bring to the organisation. This report, like many others from CPD, has sparked debate, as it should. It has done so consistently with CPD’s values. We have an exciting program of research ahead.”