Prosecuting the case for change

By Rachel Hewitt

While practising law is the dream of many graduates, for those MLS alumni leading eminent Australian think tanks it is the development of those laws – shaping policy, projects and politics more broadly – that holds the greatest allure.

After taking “the first bus” out of Canberra aged 17 to attend Melbourne Law School, Grattan Institute CEO Dr John Daley (LLB, 1989, BSc 1989) became interested in public policy while working as a research assistant to Professor Cheryl Saunders and then-Vice-Chancellor Professor David Penington.

Following stints in the public and private sectors, including senior roles at McKinsey & Company and ANZ, Dr Daley became Grattan’s first employee when the research house formed in 2008.

It was a bit private sector, a bit public sector and a bit academic and that was perfect.

Dr Daley believes the role of think tanks is to shape policy by influencing public opinion, decision-makers and “the individuals who influence them”.

But he stresses that success “has a lot of parents, so anyone from a think tank who says ‘This would not have happened except for us’ is kidding themselves”.

Nevertheless, he says superannuation tax changes, measures to boost female workforce participation and raising the pension age to 70 were policy domains where Grattan Institute was “at least a significant voice” arguing for change.

Think tanks play a role once filled by political parties, academia and civil society organisations, that now have “either fewer incentives or less time, less money or more institutional obstacles”, Dr Daley says.

John Roskam (LLB(Hons) 1991, BCom(Hons) 1991) exercised his passion for ideas through student politics before working in the government of Jeff Kennett and later as a ministerial Chief of Staff in the Howard Government. He has served as Executive Director of free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) since 2005.

Roskam says technology is changing the role of think tanks “dramatically”.

“We produced a video on freedom of speech that has now had more than 100,000 views, which is a greater reach than the circulation of many newspapers,” he says.

“Our task is not just to bring quality research and analysis to the debate but to communicate that.”

Though Roskam believes think tanks’ capacity to be heard in the public debate is increasing, he says influence is “hard to define”.

Ultimately in our democratic society it’s politicians who make the decisions, as they should. What we try and do is provide evidence, research and arguments.

Roskam cites the abolition of the Emissions Trading Scheme and the abandonment of media regulation attempts as recent advocacy victories.

“On some issues that the IPA has worked on we have seen policy change within weeks. On other issues I hope to see policy change in my lifetime.”

MLS alumna Melissa Conley Tyler (LLB 1992, BA 1992) has led the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) for more than a decade. A specialist in conflict resolution, she joined the AIIA – whose mission is to promote public understanding of international affairs – after working as a community mediator in the United States and South Africa.

The AIIA has been ranked the top think tank in Southeast Asia and the Pacific in the Global Go To Think Tank Index for the past three years. It is unique in that it doesn’t promote its own opinion. But Conley Tyler says it plays a “knowledge-broker role” and provides forums for debate through publications and about 200 events each year.

There is knowledge being produced but it’s not getting where it needs to. We connect policymakers with academia; we connect media, business and the general public. We’re trying to pull all of those together and make sure knowledge is flowing in a useful way.

But Conley Tyler says perhaps the AIIA’s greatest legacy is the success of the more than 300 graduates of its intern program.

“I see the way that they’re having a huge contribution wherever they are, whether that’s in a foreign ministry or a think tank or in media or civil society.”

Economist Dr Nicholas Gruen (LLB(Hons) 1983) has always been drawn to investigate the big policy questions of the day, from advising the Hawke Government on car industry reform, to the Rudd Government on the significance of the internet and social media for government.

It’s perhaps then unsurprising that when asked in 2010 to chair the emerging Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI), which develops innovative social programs, he jumped at the opportunity.

“We think of ourselves as a ‘do tank’ more than a think tank,” Dr Gruen says of the organisation he chaired until December. “Although what we’re doing is having a fairly substantial impact on the way people are thinking.”

He was particularly inspired by the development of a family crisis intervention initiative that was ‘co-designed’ with families and is now operating in South Australia and New South Wales.

Dr Gruen, one of Australia’s most prominent policy economists, says the Family by Family program “unlocks people’s agency in their own lives”.

“And if that isn’t about economics, I’d like to know what is.

Economists should be interested in that. They’re not – but they should be.

The university student who dreams of changing the world may be a cliché, but by agitating and advocating to shape modern Australia, these MLS graduates may have found a way.

Image credits: Rachel Hewitt, Paul Pasztaleniec, and Gabriel Jia at Fotoholics.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 17, May 2017.