- Lunch with the AFR
Our chief statistician, the man who runs the organisation responsible for crunching millions of datapoints, met his match at a Chinese-Peruvian restaurant.
Before meeting David Gruen, chief statistician and boss of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, for nine courses at Inka in Canberra, I got very lost inside Parliament House. My confused walking turned into a run, flummoxed as the pale green of the House of Reps side transformed into the dusty red of the Senate. I realised I was going to be late.
Late to meet the Australian Statistician: the man charged with deciphering clarity amid waves of impenetrable economic data; finding order among chaos; pulling meaning from numbers. Guys like that aren’t late to lunch.
Thankfully, some enthusiastic Uber driving allowed me to arrive at Inka in Canberra’s Centre only eight minutes after the scheduled start time. There, I discover David Gruen speaking animatedly with the AFR Weekend photographer.
As I bustle up, they are discussing whether they can somehow include the clay Peruvian statues that line an entire wall of the dimly lit restaurant in the photograph. We shake hands, Gruen pretends he doesn’t notice my tardiness, and we slide into a rich leather booth. I ask whether he likes to cook.
“Fortunately, I am surrounded by people who love to cook,” he says. “I can’t really say I’m that practised, though I am certainly an enthusiastic participant in the eating.”
It’s a busy time for Gruen and his team, who are absorbed working through the 2021 Census data, the first results of which were released this week.
Gruen took the helm of the ABS at a crucial time: when COVID19 was spreading fast. He’s long had an interest in real-time data and decided the statistics agency should have short surveys with small sample sizes and then quickly publish the findings. This real-time insight was a turnaround for the office, which is known for its meticulous and slow calculations. Gruen says tapping into the economic data streams around the country remains a huge opportunity for the ABS.
The latest census was the first one successfully conducted online, but it has still taken almost a year to deliver the initial results.
Dressed in the smart shirt, tailored trousers and the contemporary spectacles of a well-heeled public servant, 67-year-old Gruen looks pleased at the restaurant choice that boasts a Japanese-Peruvian menu.
“We have been meaning to try this place for some time,” he says.
We, of course, is Jenny Wilkinson, Gruen’s partner of 40-odd years, who is deputy secretary of the Treasury, and a key architect of the former Morrison government’s $89 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy following the COVID-19 outbreak.
Wilkinson was named last week as the next Department of Finance secretary, a role she will start in August.
Wilkinson and Gruen are something of an economic power couple; they met at university before both working at the Reserve Bank of Australia, and after several decades as internationally respected speakers and economists, it’s easy to imagine the pair hosting foreign dignitaries at various high-quality restaurants in Australia’s bush capital.
Our waitress runs through the specials of the day, and it is here both Gruen and I make a critical mistake: we don’t look at the menu properly.
“Should we just get the tasting menu?” Gruen suggests, and I only glance down at the price before agreeing. Unthinkingly, we have just committed to nine courses.
Wine? I ask and he shakes his head. I have a quick internal debate about whether it would be rude to have wine in front of him. I decide it would be. The parameters are set.
As edamame with chilli garlic and guacamole with fried plantains are served, I take a sip of my soda water and begin mining the Australian Statistician for golden titbits about his life.
Born in Sydney, Gruen and his brother, Nicholas, grew up on a series of farms, always close enough so their father, the respected economist Fred Gruen, could drive to the universities where he taught agricultural economics.
Fred Gruen arrived in Australia in 1940 from Austria. Once here, the Jewish refugee, having escaped the horror of Nazi persecution, met and married Ann Darvall, who hailed from a wealthy agricultural family.
The couple raised their two sons on cattle and sheep farms, alongside a cast of colourful characters from roving drovers to irreverent farm hands.
“I can’t claim to be able to shear a sheep,” Gruen says. “But I have been the roustabout in a shearing shed when the shearing’s on which is really hard work.”
Gruen came to economics when he was 29, after studying biophysics and completing a PhD at Cambridge University. Breezily he describes completing his graduate diploma and PhD in economics, before entering the Reserve Bank of Australia alongside Philip Lowe, Glenn Stevens, and Guy Debelle, with whom he remains close friends.
As we move our plates to make room for some assorted nigiri, it’s easy to see that Gruen is a deft conversationalist. He enjoys intellectual banter, and as we dip our chopsticks into the pink fish, he describes the sharp debates he, Lowe, Stevens, and Debelle would have in the early days of inflation targeting.
“We would have discussions about everything. What was the right model for Australia? Was inflation targeting the way to go?”
It was just after the early ’90s recession, and the RBA was changing the way it operated. Gruen remembers heated debates over the best way to lock in a long-term inflation target, an issue that would prove quite a headache for Lowe 30 years later as governor of the Reserve Bank in 2022.
I probe around who defended which economic theories. Did everyone agree inflation should be the main game for the RBA? Did anyone have any radical economic ideas they’ve since smoothed over?
“It’s very enjoyable to be challenged with ideas,” Gruen says diplomatically. “And we were certainly willing to challenge each other, but it was never acrimonious.”
Unfortunately, I don’t get a chance to press him because another plate has arrived: this time kingfish ceviche with lime coriander and cancha. In a short space of time, the number of dishes on our table has ballooned to six. We are on our second course.
Gruen’s dedication to the public service is absolute. He’s never been interested in becoming a politician, citing the relentless schedules and the pressure on family, but says, “being helpful” is the best way he can be of service to the Australian people.
This knack for “being helpful” has led to Gruen hobnobbing with global leaders of all stripes. Before his role as the Australian Statistician, he was the Deputy Secretary, Economic and Australia’s G20 sherpa at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
He remembers accompanying then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to the Hamburg G20 in 2017, where he found himself inside a secure “black box” that American intelligence had dropped into the centre of the conference centre.
Inside, was France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Theresa May, and US President Donald Trump who were meeting safely removed from all outside communications signals.
I ask what they were discussing and Gruen gives me a superior look before saying: “I can’t really say, but it really was a pinch myself moment to be in that very small room with all that power.”
Gruen, who met Trump again at the Osaka Summit with then-prime minister Scott Morrison in 2019, describes the former US president as a “big personality, who dominates the conversations he’s in”.
But when I ask who the most impressive person he’s met is, Gruen says without hesitation: Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster and former World Chess Champion, who once gave a lecture at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Gruen frequently plays online chess and describes himself as a good amateur, who can sometimes give the 14-year-old prodigies a run for their money. He learnt to play from a school friend, who went on to become Australian champion.
“But luckily, I was never tempted to try and do it professionally,” he says. “Not only is it a vow of poverty, but it’s a pretty sad existence if you don’t end up being the best in the world.”
Before our lunch, another journalist suggested I keep an eye out for “that Gruen swagger”; that the Australian Statistician has what Bill Gates describes as “raw intellectual horsepower”; and that over the years he’s shaken off any pigeonhole that economic boffins are dull company.
But it’s nearly an hour into lunch and I can see that charm is getting stretched. As the hokkaido scallops and slow cooked and glazed black Angus short rib are put in front of us, both Gruen and I wilt slightly. I count third and fourth courses.
After two years of COVID-19 lockdowns, I’m not practised at a full lunch and Gruen seems to be thinking along the same lines.
“I usually just have a sandwich,” he says.
We both nervously agree that sleeping after lunch is nice, but who has the time?
Gruen and Wilkinson met at ANU, while he was completing his PhD, and she was working through her undergraduate degree. Gruen was her tutor for a while, but it wasn’t until a few years later when he plucked up the courage to ask her to a Japanese restaurant in Kingston and they began dating.
When I ask whether they delved into any deep philosophical discussions on their first date, Gruen looks a bit put-out and says:
“The only thing I can really remember is that we went Dutch,” he says, referring to splitting the bill down the middle. “Which is something my wife has since reminded me of many times.”
Wilkinson and Gruen seem to run their home somewhat like their careers; efficiently but with a great appreciation for the task at hand. Gruen says they also have an underlying competitiveness that forms an enjoyable charge in their relationship.
At the Reserve Bank, where Gruen says he followed Wilkinson who got a job there first, they were careful not to have overlapping reporting lines. Though they have done the same job at different times. For much of the last decade, they’ve actively maintained a “Chinese wall” between them as they ascended into their respective important roles.
“We do have to be careful because I get access to information before it’s released, which would be of interest to her,” Gruen says.
We’re talking about Sir Roland Wilson, an Australian statistician who went on to become the Secretary of the Department of the Treasury in 1951, when I ask Gruen whether he’d ever be interested in the Treasury Secretary job.
This question startles him. There were rumours his partner, Wilkinson, could one day be Treasury Secretary.
He considers me for a moment before answering: “Theoretically, yes, but it’s a very high-pressure job.”
Gruen and Wilkinson have also periodically been touted as a potential future RBA governor or deputy governor.
We sit for a moment, both watching with some resignation as a plate of crispy Brussels sprouts drizzled with glaze arrives at our table. I eventually break the silence by bringing up The Sure Thing, a podcast investigation put together by The Australian Financial Review journalists, Angus Grigg and Lap Phan.
The podcast reveals how an employee of the Australian Bureau of Statistics leaked the employment figures before their official release in 2014, to an old school friend. That friend then turned $10,000 into $7.8 million in nine months placing bets on the direction of the Australian dollar.
“Oh, that was fantastic,” Gruen says. “I loved every minute of that podcast. It happened years before my time, but it shows the level of responsibility we have with our data.”
We batten down the hatches as the eighth course comes out: this time it’s Huancaina-style potatoes. We discuss Gruen’s three children who are now adults. Like his own family, theirs seems to be both highly academic and extremely sporty. (Gruen’s Austrian father taught him to ski at an early age.)
When each of their three kids turned 10, Wilkinson and Gruen took them on the Overland Track, a 65 kilometre bushwalk that links Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair in Tasmania that generally takes about six days and five nights.
“They would share the tent with us, and in a three-person tent you can put a kid in the middle, it’s not a problem,” he says.
“The trip was sort of built up for the younger ones because the older ones went off and did it, and now they’re quite keen outdoors people who come on holidays with us.”
He pauses, a potato between his chopsticks.
“It’s remarkable how enthused our children are at the prospect of travel when we pay for it.”
Like many successful, professional men I’ve spoken to in recent years, Gruen mentions he would like to have spent more time at home while his kids were growing up.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I would have taken more time off,” he says.
“Thank goodness we’re moving in that direction as a society for fathers, but I didn’t take much time off when they were younger.”
We’ve been sitting at Inka for nearly two hours, when our final course comes out. By this stage: we are exhausted. We have traversed every corner of polite conversation.
We’ve covered marriage, children, careers, Trump, inflation, chess, agriculture, World War II, the media, getting lost in Parliament House, and everything to do with Peruvian-Japanese relations.
As the chocolate fondant with warm miso is placed between us, we both seem imbued with a surge of new life. We order coffees and seem determined to finish our marathon lunch on a high note.
As Gruen graciously shakes my hand, and tells me to thank my editors for footing the bill, I can imagine Inka seeing Wilkinson and Gruen, the understated economic royalty of Canberra make another appearance. I walk slowly back to Parliament House where I get lost trying to find the Senate entrance.
INKA, 148 Bunda St, Canberra ACT 2601
Sparkling water, $10
Tasting menu, $80 per person
Salsa de Palta
Kingfish Ceviche classico
Crispy Brussel sprouts
Papas à la Huancaina
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Jessica SierJournalistJessica Sier writes on technology, internet culture, cryptocurrencies and software from our Sydney newsroom. She has previously covered global capital markets and economics. Connect with Jessica on Twitter. Email Jessica at email@example.com
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