Once disparagingly described as Kevin Rudd’s “$50 million super think tank”, the Grattan Institute has become one of Australia’s most often-quoted sources of research.
In 2017-18, Grattan – a registered charity – was cited more than 25,000 times by the media, its annual report showed, meaning it received 500 mentions in an average week.
Among its many missives on finance, infrastructure and health, Grattan CEO John Daley pointed to Bill Shorten’s election commitment to fix Australia’s dental health system as an illustration of the body’s positive influence.
To get to know some of the behind-the-scenes advisers to Australia’s policymakers, The New Daily asked five different think tanks for the three major changes they helped steer, which have yielded tangible benefits to the public.
On April 28, just weeks out from polling day, the Labor leader promised dental subsidies for nearly three million pensioners and a future where Australians had universal access to dental services.
Mr Daley said the public policy-focused think tank put the issue back on the national agenda after it released a report in March urging the government to take responsibility for funding primary dental care.
Mr Shorten proceeded to politicise the cost problem which, according to Grattan, saw two million Australians choose to forego or delay dental care in the past year.
The report which detailed what a universal dental scheme would look like, how much it would cost, and the pathway to get there, was a catalyst for change, Mr Daley told The New Daily.
“This scheme was clearly the basis for the recent ALP election promise to go down this path,” Mr Daley said, adding that “policy reform always has many parents”.
The Andrews government in Victoria included free dental treatment for public school students in its 2019 budget. This will take the form of about 250 dental vans, all of which will be operational by 2022. Mr Daley said Grattan’s report likely helped push along this initiative.
Housed at the University of Melbourne, Grattan began in 2008 after three years in the making, received $15 million in funding from the Victorian and federal governments, with BHP Billiton and National Australia Bank donating an extra $4 million and $1 million respectively, to kickstart operations.
The funds available to Grattan in its endowment – a pool of money largely used to generate an income stream for researchers – reached $37.4 million at the end of the 2018 fiscal year.
In 2008, then-chairman Allan Myers said the institute was working to build a $50 million endowment. Yet, the size of the fund has never passed the $40 million mark.
It does not receive continued financial support from any state or federal government and rejects commissioned work, which according to its website, is to enable it to pursue independent research.
Super think tank
In its early days, Grattan was labelled “Kevin Rudd’s $50 million super think tank” because some board members had been prominently featured in the then-prime minister’s much-vaunted 2020 Summit.
But the establishment of the body spanned party lines, as former Liberal prime minister John Howard warmly welcomed the institute’s entry, saying in 2008 – a year after his term ended – that it had been wonderful “since the election of the Rudd government [to be] able to bring what’s been a long process to conclusion”.
Grattan recently released its first Program Impact Report, highlighting the policy areas it had contributed to in 2018.
Mr Daley said education had been another notable beneficiary of Grattan research.
State and territory governments poured more money into underfunded government schools after former education minister Simon Birmingham, with the help of the institute, introduced sweeping funding reforms, he said.
Senator Birmingham’s school funding plan was passed in June 2017.
“Grattan contributed substantially to the design of the funding reforms … was prominent in building public support for those reforms, and was highly influential in designing the amendments to the bill proposed by the cross bench and that ultimately passed,” Mr Daley said.
Grattan’s report, Super Sting, was picked up by the 2018 financial services royal commission, which previously did not have the issue of excessive superannuation account fees, on its radar, Mr Daley said.
The issue was referred to the Productivity Commission, which recommended a “best in show” system for default funds that drew on the tender model it had proposed.
“Obviously, this is not policy of either party, but a lot more people are talking about the issue,” Mr Daley said.
This is part four of a five-part series on Australia’s most influential think tanks. Tomorrow, we look at the Australia-China Relations Institute