May 17, 2022

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Meet Andrew Charlton, the economics guru trying to win Parramatta for Labor

Charlton, 43, is a centrist, evidenced-based, data-driven economist with entrepreneurial flair.

Many modern Labor politicians want to be associated with the economic reform credentials of the Hawke-Keating governments in the 1980s and ’90s. Very few, if any, have seriously emulated the Labor heroes.

Charlton’s experience suggests he has the potential to be a modern Hawke-Keating reformer – if he succeeds in winning the seat of Parramatta held by the retiring Labor MP Julie Owens by 3.5 per cent.

Unlike many other top academic and policy economists, Charlton has a knack for communicating complex economic issues in easily digestible ways.

At Sydney University in 2001. Narelle Autio

Charlton won the university medal for economics at the University of Sydney in 2000. A Rhodes scholar, he received a PhD in economics from the University of Oxford.

He wrote an entertaining book, Ozonomics, arguing that much of the political rhetoric on the economy was misleading and that the bigger issues were workers’ rights, immigration, protectionism and investment in technology and education. He also co-wrote Fair Trade for All with Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz.

By the age of 27, Charlton had returned from the UK to work as a top economic adviser to prime minister Rudd, helping the Labor government deal with the 2008 global financial crisis.

Charlton, right, when he was studying overseas in 2005. 

Rudd trusted Charlton, appointing him Australia’s “sherpa” for G20 summit that Rudd helped elevate to the global leaders’ level. The sherpa role has traditionally been held by career public servants.

Rudd, who wasn’t immediately available for comment, said last month that Australia should be “harnessing the talents of people” such as Charlton.

“He is a highly talented individual, brilliant economist, helped me navigate Australia’s way through the global financial crisis, and remember we saved a quarter of a million, working-family jobs in Australia as a result,” Rudd told ABC’s 730.

“And he helped me, by the way, get Australia a permanent seat on the G20.”

Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers, who worked for treasurer Wayne Swan, has also endorsed his friend, Charlton.

Economic ‘whiz kid’

At Alpha Beta in 2015. 

In the media more than a decade ago, Charlton became known as the youthful-faced economic “whiz kid”.

Among senior economic bureaucrats Charlton was regarded as bright, but lacking experience.

Since then, Charlton – now a father of three young children – has gained more experience.

After a stint as an adviser at Wesfarmers, in 2015 he founded economics consultancy AlphaBeta’s Australian business, working with governments, businesses, investors, and other institutions to better use data to respond to economic and social challenges.

Charlton had a business association with former McKinsey consultant Fraser Thompson, who was based in Singapore. Thompson is now the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Sun Cable, the proposed $30 billion solar power network in the Northern Territory to dispatch clean energy to Singapore via an undersea cable backed by billionaire investors Mike Cannon-Brookes and Andrew Forrest.

AlphaBeta has the reputation of having the polish of consultants, but the rigour of trained economists.

Not always in line with Labor policy

Charlton’s analysis hasn’t always agreed with the political mantra of Labor or the trade unions.

Charlton concluded in 2015 that dividend-obsessed superannuation funds and over-cautious business leadership was suppressing investment by firms.

Cutting the 30 per cent corporate tax rate lifted business investment and hiring, AlphaBeta found in research that boosted the Coalition’s push for cutting company tax.

He found in 2017 that technological change such as robotics and machine intelligence, which has been a source of anxiety for workers and unions, would not cause mass unemployment, and that better investment in automation could add $2.2 trillion to Australia’s annual income by 2030.

Last July Charlton wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that Scott Morrison was committed to the National Disability Insurance Scheme and partly blamed the Gillard government for design faults causing massive cost overruns.

A study co-authored by Charlton in 2018 found Uber drivers preferred their flexibility over a minimum wage, in contrast to Labor’s criticism of the gig economy and push to set minimum pay and conditions.

Neither was the Coalition immune from criticism. AlphaBeta found 38 per cent of people who were granted early access to about $33 billion in superannuation during the pandemic recorded no drop in their incomes.

During the pandemic, the innovative Charlton attained small business revenue data from accounting software platform Xero to glean real-time insights on the fast-changing economy for the government and business.

The novel approach helped business and policymakers understand how the pandemic was affecting productivity via the reallocation of firms and workers.

Most recently, Charlton co-founded non-partisan, think tank e61, which seeks to combine data with tools from economics, data science and statistics to answer important economic questions facing Australia. It is conducting a review of Australia’s response to COVID-19.

Parramatta will be pivotal to Albanese

Charlton has stepped down from e61 to uphold its non-partisan position.

Dan Andrews, a former Treasury and OECD senior official who is now at e61, says Charlton is a “modern Australian economist.”

“He collaborates to create new data sets, makes research happen and to build our understanding of the economy and how the world works,” says Andrews, who first met Charlton in 1999 as a fellow cadet at the Reserve Bank of Australia.

“Back in the ’80s policy could be guided by textbooks because there were massive distortions in the economy.”

“Now, the world is more complicated, and you need data and research to identify the reform opportunities.”

Charlton’s big payday came in February 2020 when AlphaBeta’s Australian business of 35 people was acquired by global consultancy Accenture. Within months, he and his barrister wife, Phoebe Arcus, had bought a Bellevue Hill mansion.

They have since reportedly bought a more modest red brick home for $1.95 million in north Parramatta in the electorate where he aims to win.

Parramatta will be pivotal in determining if Albanese or Morrison win the election, with both parties acknowledging the race between Charlton and Liberal candidate Maria Kovacic is very close.

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