3
Jul
2020

Grattan Institute CEO John Daley smiling in a blue shirt

CEO handover speech by John Daley

by John Daley


Introduction

Two of my most memorable experiences while at Grattan have both been supplied by Jonathan Green. One Sunday morning – my birthday – at 7.30am, I walked to the ABC studios to talk with Jonathan about Thomas Picketty’s book Capital for 20 minutes on Radio National. It’s not everyone’s idea of the perfect birthday present, but it was for me.

And on another occasion, Jonathan asked my wife, Rebecca Coates, and I to talk on air about our large gardening opportunity near Kyneton. Until we write our definitive book about the virtues of art galleries for regional development, it is one of the few things you will find that we have done together online. But of course, Rebecca has been a constant collaborator in thinking about how to make Grattan ‘a thing’.

As part of our large gardening opportunity, we grow vegetables. I once announced a Grattan competition for the most innovative dish produced using an oversize zucchini, a test so taxing that it has not yet featured on MasterChef. But given the otherwise suppressed competitive instincts of Grattan’s staff, the challenge did succeed in disposing of a large quantity of otherwise inedible produce.

We have also planted a lot of trees on a property that was more or less denuded when we bought it about 16 years ago. Our plantings since reflect what Noel Pearson has described as the three parts of Australia’s story: Indigenous, British, and multicultural.

There are now hundreds of red, yellow, and grey box; river red, black, and swamp gums; swamp, silver, and black wattles, blackwoods and prickly moses. These are old plants, and they endure like Australia’s Indigenous culture. I’d like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation who are the traditional owners of the land where this function is happening tonight, and recognise their history, culture, and contributions to Australia.

We’ve also planted dozens of oak trees. Many people think of English Oaks (Quercus robusta for the nerds) as the essence of Britain. It’s no coincidence that the House of Commons in London is lined with oak. It’s a hard wood that endures. And like the governance institutions of the United Kingdom, oaks have transplanted remarkably well to Australia. Their tap roots penetrate all the way down to the water table, so that a 100-year oak just over the fence of our property remained bright green throughout the millennial drought. Like those British institutions, oaks often protect people from the harshness of what the world can throw at us: fire, sun, or unpleasant weather.

And for many years we’ve been planting a lot of other oak species from all over the world: scarlet, gall, and cork oaks from Europe, daimyo and Chinese cork oaks from Asia, Californian live oaks and white oaks from North America, and Algerian oaks from Africa. So far we only have a fraction of the 600 species worldwide, but the collection is growing, like the multicultural society that is now so much part of Australia.

Planting trees can be pretty frustrating. They get transplant shock. They get eaten by hares and kangaroos. They die off in the hot summer, or the winter frost. But there are few things as satisfying as planting a tree once it gets going. The oaks we planted 11 years ago in the year that I started at Grattan are now four or five bigger than me. And they have about 500 years to go before they reach maturity.

Institutions

For me, that’s the most satisfying thing about Grattan. It’s already a tree much bigger than me. And I expect it will keep growing for a lot longer as well.

That’s in the nature of good institutions.

I started my academic life as a constitutional lawyer. Grattan staff will tell you that nothing gets me so excited as discovering that there might be a constitutional law angle to a policy problem. The study of constitutional law is the source of one of my most deep-seated beliefs: a government of laws – of institutions – is a better way to live. Six months of COVID-19 have been a brutal global tutorial to show how much good government matters – not just to living better, but to living at all.

Democracy matters because history shows that it leads to better government more often than the alternatives. If you believe in democracy, then you have to take seriously the idea that voters can get it right. Over time, even a difficult argument in the public square can gain public support, and then governments will follow. That’s why I’ve always passionately believed that Grattan should talk with the public, aiming to change public opinion.

But good government isn’t purely democratic. Good government depends on expert institutions that interact with democratically elected representatives to produce outcomes better than either would produce alone. Grattan is one of those highly undemocratic institutions that helps our democratic institutions do better. At their best, those institutions have norms and a life bigger than any one individual who works for them. But in the end they are no more than the result of the efforts of those who work there.

Ownership

Owning a garden – or governing an institution – is a bit of an illusion. One likes to think that one is responsible for its success. But it’s not really true. The growing gets done by the plants, and the hard work gets done by the gardeners. On the other hand, no owners, no vision, no garden.

So I would like to thank the past, present, and by-Zoom Board of Grattan for creating the garden in which we could plant the Grattan tree. I spoke at Grattan’s launch and at the 10th anniversary about some of that history, so I won’t go through it again today. But I will mention one vital part of that history. They say that the trick to a good tree is to plant a $5 tree in a $50 hole. Well, we wouldn’t be here today if the Board hadn’t set up Grattan well, and made the very brave decision to hire an inaugural chief executive who hadn’t been part of government for 10 years before he was hired at Grattan.

That Board has been wise in many ways. It hasn’t tried to dictate outcomes. If you try to grow a tree to fit a shape dictated in advance, you get very small, very slow-growing bonsai. Running the institution just to keep donors or governments happy is ultimately a recipe for a weak tree that falls over in the first storm.

But I do want to acknowledge the wise advice that the Board has regularly provided to the head gardener, about when to plant, when to root up, and when to prune judiciously. I’d particularly like to thank Glyn Davis, David Kemp, and Ian Watt for their advice on the content of any number of Grattan reports. They only ever provided advice in the spirit that it was my job to decide whether or not to take it. Usually I took it, because it was very good advice. Occasionally I didn’t take it, and I usually regretted that later.

I’d also like to acknowledge the counsel of Grattan’s two chairs, Allan Myers and Alex Chernov. They usually gave me my head. They occasionally – wisely – told me that I should think again. And they resolutely backed Grattan whenever an external stakeholder had failed to convince Grattan’s staff of the merits of its point of view, and then made the foolish error of thinking that pressuring the Board might help.

And the Board has been generous in acknowledging that the success of Grattan is primarily the result of the extraordinary efforts of its extraordinary staff. After all, when you visit a garden, you mostly go to see the trees, not the owners.

Growing

The staff at Grattan have been an extraordinary group of colleagues, friends, and fellow-travellers in the mission to improve Australia’s government. Visitors often remark on Grattan’s culture; what they’re seeing is the humanity of the people who work there. They all have that rare combination of figuring out the right answer much faster than the average bear, while knowing that they just might be wrong. That intellectual honesty is at the core of Grattan. It’s why people – politicians, public servants, journalists, and the public – trust us.

That trust has been back in fashion through the COVID-19 crisis of this year. Contrary to social media speculation, I did not engineer the virus in a Chinese laboratory in a cunning plan to demonstrate Grattan’s flexibility. But the crisis has shown how Grattan can make enormous contributions to both official and public thinking within weeks on a problem that was definitely not on the work-plan in January 2020. Results just in show that Grattan has had a bigger media presence on COVID-19 than almost all other think tanks put together. A good tree can blow with the breeze, but stand fast. And that is exactly what Grattan’s staff have done.

I’d particularly like to thank all of the Program Directors of Grattan, past and present, for your support. Our weekly meetings have been a pleasure. As a result of your wisdom, the management decisions in my name were invariably much better than the decisions I would have made by myself. You have coped with my suggestions and illegible hand-writing with good grace. And you have all taken the opportunity of Grattan to drive Australian public policy to a better place.

I’d also like to thank those who have worked on the Australian Perspectives team over the years. Danielle Wood, Brendan Coates, Cassie McGannon, and Carmela Chivers have managed ‘my’ projects successfully, and the Chief Executive less so. You indulged the Chief Executive’s desire to do the fun stuff of writing reports, primarily by writing them for him, and then tolerating his failure to work through them until very late in the piece. They have been some of my most enjoyable times at Grattan, both working with you, and then bringing the best of your thinking to the wider world.

Another freedom I have had at Grattan was to work with two of the best editors in the business. James Button and Paul Austin share a fascination for football that I find incomprehensible. But I do understand their brilliant instincts as truly great pruners, prepared to take away a branch, no matter how pretty the acorns, if that’s what the tree needs. Both of them are artists, who love beautiful writing. For them, Grattan reports have a moral purpose. But they’ve also imposed an aesthetic a little for its own sake in a world that always needs a little more beauty. Writing is a craft, which one never stops learning. It’s been an immense privilege to have my writing improved by them over the last 11 (I’m sorry Paul, past 11) years.

People often pontificate about the virtues of cross-disciplinary thinking; Grattan is one of the few places that I’ve seen where people with science, arts, economics, and legal backgrounds work together to produce results quickly that are better than the sum of the parts. It’s been a luxury to work with so many fascinating people from such varied backgrounds.

An enormous thank you to all the staff of Grattan, past and present, for making the past 11 years such a fulfilling ride. You’ve done amazing work, and made me look way more knowledgeable than I am. ‘Needs to put in more effort’ is something I’ve never ever heard in a Grattan performance review. You’ve made Australia a better place. And you’ve been a really wonderful group of people to play with, whether gathered around a whiteboard, in the tea room, around the table tennis table, or over Zoom.

And finally, thank you to all of Grattan’s other stakeholders. First to the University of Melbourne, without which we wouldn’t be here either, and I’d like to acknowledge Duncan Maskell, its Vice-Chancellor, and his predecessor Glyn Davis for their part in Grattan. The University has provided not only material support, but an intellectual environment that at its best holds us to the very highest standards of rigour. I’d like to thank all of Grattan’s other collaborators – academics, public servants, and other players in the public policy debate – whose comments have invariably turned our first drafts into much, much better reports.  And thank you to all of Grattan’s supporters and donors, without whom the show could not go on.

The future

Today isn’t really a farewell. It’s more an abdication and a coronation. As those oak benches in the House of Commons occasionally hear, ‘The King is dead. Long live the Queen’. The institution goes on well beyond me. It’s incredibly satisfying to have been the first head gardener for a tree with that kind of strength.

There is no-one that I would rather have as Grattan’s next head gardener than Dani. We’ve worked together for more than 6 years. She is a brilliant economist (one description that I have never been entitled to), a compassionate colleague (except when looking for victory on the table tennis table), and an outstanding manager. Grattan should be so lucky. I expect that Grattan will flourish under her leadership, and that she will in turn hand it on as an even more magnificent tree.

Because trees grow bigger than you. And last much longer. Most of the trees we’ve planted near Kyneton will not grow even to half size within my lifetime. I hope that will also be true of Grattan. I look forward to seeing how Grattan keeps growing in stature, and for the sake of Australia I hope my grandchildren will too.

One person can plant many trees. But you probably only get to create an institution once in your life. Grattan has been that chance for me. Thank you everyone for being part of it.