Ms Karen Chester

Honorary award citation


Ms Karen Chester is an outstanding University of Queensland-educated economist who has had a role in some of the most consequential Australian public policy reforms of the past three decades.

Ms Chester is now Deputy Chair of the Productivity Commission, which offers Australian governments advice on economic, social and environmental matters affecting Australians.

It is a far cry from her childhood in suburban Brisbane, during an era of double-digit inflation, high tariffs and a closely-regulated Australian dollar. Her early impression was that poor public policy was part of her family’s problems – for instance preventing her mother from flying to Perth to see her dying grandmother.

However, as a newly-minted graduate working in the engine-room of a reformist federal government, she came to see public policy, informed by evidence-based economics, as part of the solution. When properly applied, it could be an instrument for inclusive improvements in living standards.

The recipient of an Archibald Scholarship, Ms Chester graduated with first class honours in economics in 1986. The nation was on the cusp of reform fervour, and her first graduate job was in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, where she was absorbed in matters such as reforms to welfare and trade policies. Although a long way from home, she was surrounded by fellow UQ graduates, many of whom became mentors and confidants.

Indeed it was when fellow alumnus Ted Evans, AC, was head of the Commonwealth Treasury that Ms Chester became the first woman and the youngest person to be promoted to  Treasury’s senior executive. In that role she worked on matters as momentous as compulsory superannuation and the design and introduction of the goods and services tax (GST).    

While at the Commonwealth Treasury, Ms Chester also led the team working with another UQ graduate, Dr Vince FitzGerald, AO, on the seminal FitzGerald Report on National Saving.

Later, when she made a successful move to the private sector, it was as Chief Executive Officer of Access Economics – a role she took on as a part time CEO with two young daughters.

During more than a decade in the business sector, Ms Chester’s roles included Global Head of Infrastructure; and partner at the global consulting firm Mercer, where she advised some of the world’s largest superannuation and pension funds.

She returned to the public sector as a Commissioner of the Productivity Commission late in 2013. In addition to her Commissioner role, she chaired an  expert panel’s capability review of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission – the world’s first capability review of a regulator.

In 2016 she was appointed Deputy Chair – second in charge to yet another UQ graduate, Peter Harris, AO.

She currently leads two inquiries.  One is into the system underpinning the distribution of GST revenue to the states and territories. The other relates to Australia’s superannuation system.

Previously, she has presided on inquiries and projects in areas including overcoming Indigenous disadvantage, Indigenous educational outcomes, the housing decisions  of older Australians, intellectual property arrangements, and natural disasters.

Moreover, Ms Chester has given priceless time, advice and mentorship to students and graduates as an Alumni Ambassador for the UQ Faculty of Business, Economics and Law.

Chancellor, I present to you Ms Karen Chester (qualifications to follow, in formal graduations language) for a Doctor of Economics honoris causa, bestowed by the Senate of The University of Queensland.



Doctor of Economics honoris causa