From one David to another: appointment of new ABS boss leaves a pointy-headed hole in PM&C

By Stephen Easton

Thursday November 28, 2019

Economist Dr David Gruen has been appointed to take over as head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics from David Kalisch on December 11, partially vindicating the pundits who wrongly tipped him to become the next Australian Statistician back in 2014.

Formerly one of the top Treasury officials, Gruen instead moved to his present role as deputy secretary for economic policy and G20 sherpa in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

“He has a demonstrated track record of leadership in public policy and outstanding economic and international credentials,” says the official announcement from Josh Frydenberg and Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar.

“The skills and experience Dr Gruen will bring to the position will ensure the ABS continues to be responsive to community, business and government needs for data, statistics and insights.

“The Government wishes to thank the outgoing Australian Statistician Mr David Kalisch for his leadership over the past five years. Mr Kalisch made a significant contribution during his time as the Australian Statistician.”

Once Gruen takes over the ABS, an independent statutory body, it is less likely he will have to snap into action and deal with sudden hot-button political issues like a sign on a departmental toilet door inviting staff to choose whichever bathroom best fits their gender identity, as he did recently.

At Treasury, Gruen was appointed executive director of domestic policy, in the macroeconomic group, in 2008, five years after he started working at the department.

He worked at the Reserve Bank of Australia for 13 years, leading the research department from 1998 to 2002, and during the 1990s was a researcher at the Australian National University’s Research School of Physical Sciences.

Gruen was awarded a Fullbright Postdoctoral Fellowship and was a visiting lecturer in the economics department and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University from 1991 to 1993. He has two doctorates — one in physiology from Cambridge and one in economics from the Australian National University — as well as an honours degree in theoretical physics.

He also comes from a family of highly respected economists. His brother is Lateral Economics CEO Dr Nicholas Gruen, who has contributed strongly to The Mandarin over the years, and their father Fred Gruen was an agricultural economics professor at Monash University.

The announcement of Kalisch’s successor coincides with his valedictory address to public service colleagues on Thursday evening.

Kalisch faced a campaign to boycott the Census over the agency’s efforts to collect and store more useful personal information about Australians, which weren’t communicated well enough to the public when first introduced, and found himself in the spotlight again when the Census website crashed on the big day.

In a previous speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia, he went through the hard lessons he learned in the job.

The appointment shows highly respected economics correspondent Peter Martin was not too far off the mark when he unequivocally reported Gruen would leave Treasury to head the ABS in July 2014; he was just five years early.

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