Liberal-aligned institute considered La Trobe, Monash before striking Melbourne Uni deal

Liberal-aligned institute considered La Trobe, Monash before striking Melbourne Uni deal


The Liberal-backed think tank behind a research institute set to launch in September considered opening at La Trobe and Monash universities before striking an agreement with the University of Melbourne.

Discussions between the Menzies Research Centre, a self-described “independent think tank associated with the Liberal Party of Australia”, and the three universities commenced in 2017 over a library and research centre in the name of former Liberal prime minister Sir Robert Menzies.

The Robert Menzies Institute will open in the historic Old Quad at Melbourne University – but the student union is pushing back.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Senior Liberal Party officials including federal president Nick Greiner had started pushing for an equivalent to Western Sydney University’s Whitlam Centre, which received $7 million from the Gillard government in 2012 for renovations.

Three sources familiar with the negotiations, who requested anonymity to speak openly, said party officials wanted the Robert Menzies Institute – now the subject of protest from students and academics – in the former PM’s home state of Victoria.

The Menzies Research Centre considered La Trobe and Monash because of their historical connection to Sir Robert: both opened during his prime ministership and were products of his emphasis on university education.

Led by executive director Nick Cater, the Menzies Research Centre made an initial approach to Monash and met with La Trobe officials in 2017, where the two sides discussed the potential availability of any buildings on campus.

They were ultimately overlooked for Melbourne University, which was also interested and offered a space in the Old Quad, the oldest building on campus.

Then vice-chancellor Glyn Davis and the Menzies Research Centre agreed on its suitability considering Sir Robert’s history there as a student, then chancellor and the fact almost 3800 of his works were already at the Parkville campus.

The federal government subsequently granted $7 million to Melbourne University, which announced the Institute’s opening in April this year.

A La Trobe spokeswoman confirmed in a statement: “La Trobe was briefly considered as a possible location for the Robert Menzies Institute in about 2017, but the Board of the Menzies Research Institute made a decision to offer it to the University of Melbourne and all discussions with La Trobe ceased at that point.”

Similar prime ministerial libraries exist for Bob Hawke at the University of South Australia, John Curtin at Perth’s Curtin University and the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University.

Like the Robert Menzies Institute plans to, the Whitlam Institute sponsors research and regularly hosts events.

Professor Anna Cody, the Dean of Western Sydney University’s law school, said the main difference she saw between the two was the link between the Robert Menzies Institute and an outside body, the Menzies Research Centre.

“The Menzies Institute will have a legitimate and important function if it fulfils its objective of stimulating public policy from a range of views,” she said. “I think it’s the relationship with the Menzies Research Centre and thereby the Liberal Party that is the question.”

University of Melbourne students and academics are now mobilising against the opening of the Robert Menzies Institute in September, with an open letter being distributed online that has garnered 400 signatures.

The student and academics’ unions argue the institute’s links to the Liberal Party and board that includes conservative commentator Peta Credlin will prevent it from critically and fairly scrutinising its central topics of immigration, higher education, Menzies’ legacy and the monarchy.

News Corp commentator Peta Credlin donated to the Robert Menzies Institute before being chosen for its board.

National Union of Students president Zoe Ranganathan announced on Thursday that the group would hold a protest on August 11 against the “explicitly partisan think tank funded by the Liberal Party and big business”.

“We’ve defeated conservative institutes such as the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation before and we are determined to do the same again,” she said.

Executive director Georgina Downer told The Age on Wednesday that the institute would be independent and encourage two-sided debate.

“We won’t be prescriptive of how people engage with the institute or the conclusions that are drawn,” said the two-time federal Liberals candidate.

Former diplomat and Liberal candidate Georgina Downer is the executive director of the Robert Menzies Institute.Credit:Wayne Taylor

The Menzies Research Centre nominated two people to the board: Ms Credlin, who was chief of staff to then prime minister Tony Abbott and is now a News Corp commentator including for Sky news; and Geoffrey Hone, chairman of the right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Both Ms Credlin and Mr Hone donated towards the establishment of the Institute before being chosen for the six-person board.

While the Whitlam Institute board includes former Labor senator John Faulkner and Liberal minister Peter Collins, the Robert Menzies Institute board is Liberal-dominated. It will be chaired by former Qantas chief Leigh Clifford, and former Howard minister David Kemp will be deputy chair.

Ms Credlin and Mr Hone alongside Melbourne University Business School dean Ian Harper and pro vice-chancellor Su Baker make up the board.

Monash University was contacted for comment.

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