Making a difference - Economics fuels passion for policy
Professor Paul Kerin Professor Paul Kerin is in economics to shape debates that improve productivity, to serve the public interest and to educate the next generation of economists as change agents.
“If students want to equip themselves to have an impact, an economics degree is a great way togo,” he says.
“What is the point of studying if you don’t improve your life and progress society? Economics can help you make decisions that really influence society in a positive way, whether it be in business, the public sector or academia.”
The new Head of the University’s School of Economics has spent a lifetime practising what he preaches, with a distinguished career as an economist in academia, business, government and education.
It all started with his undergraduate (1982) and Masters degrees (1985) at the University, and now Professor Kerin is back to ensure the economists of the future have the great opportunities he had.
“The University of Adelaide has a proud tradition in economics,” he says, pointing to the way Adelaide economists have long influenced government and industry. “When I was an undergraduate, there was a strong public policy emphasis.” He nominates Geoff Harcourt as especially influential. Professor Harcourt, who taught at the University for close to 25 years, focused on post-Keynesian economics and public policy – the University created a visiting professorship in his honour.
Other notable Adelaide economics achievers include Professor Bruce Chapman AO and Professor Jonathan Pincus, both honoured in July with Distinguished Fellow Awards from the Economics Society of Australia. Professor Chapman, known as the “father of HECS”, came back from Yale in the early 1980s to lecture at the University. Coincidentally, Paul Kerin was Professor Chapman’s research assistant in 1980/81. Professor Pincus, a former Head of the School of Economics and now a visiting professor, was a research leader at the Australian Productivity Commission, with a teaching reputation for“ actively challenging his students to think beyond the square”, as the Economics Society put it.
It’s a tradition of engaged research that Professor Kerin has embraced in his own career. His Honours thesis, on the regulation of financial reporting, is even more relevant to today’s world of self-managed superannuation than it was in the early 1980s; and his Masters, which focused on moving wheat off the Eyre Peninsula, influenced his Harvard doctoral dissertation, on transport economics.
He went on to a long industry career, which saw his economic training improve productivity in settings ranging from giant retail chains to international management advisers. After his stint as Managing Director of A.T. Kearney in Australia and New Zealand, he spent a decade teaching at the Melbourne Business School, focusing on economics and corporate strategy.
His appointment prior to joining the University of Adelaide was Chief Executive Officer of the Executive Services Commission of South Australia, from which he resigned due to his concerns that government policy kept consumer costs unnecessarily high.
It’s not the only time Professor Kerin has applied an economist’s insight in a regulatory environment that needed change. After publicly arguing for many years that the single desk marketing monopoly that had been run by grain company AWB Ltd should be abolished, he was appointed to the board of Wheat Exports Australia (WEA), which was charged with overseeing the deregulation of the industry. It worked so well that board members recommended that WEA be abolished. “Few government bodies ever do that,” he says with a wry smile.
And for more than 30 years he has made the case for economic principles in the media, appearing on the ABC and writing for the policy press on everythingfrom the cost of public transport to the National Broadband Network.
Since returning to the University he has engaged in the vital arena of ideas where economics intersects with policy. In an opinion piece written with colleague and Executive Dean of the Faculty of the Professions, Professor Christopher Findlay AM, he proposed replacing economically inefficient stamp duties and company tax with a levy on land which would free up resources, “every extra dollar of tax raised costs Australian citizens at least $1.29”.
Tax reform is an issue Professor Kerin says is particularly important for South Australia. “Growth in our economy depends on the government getting the pre-conditions right,” he says.
Which puts economics centre of the policy stage: “Productive reform deepens the economy but sometimes economic ideas take time to take hold,” he says. And Professor Kerin sees a big role for the School of Economics. “We have fantastic people.”