A Question of Political Will

Posted by on November 26, 2014 in August (Winter) 2014, Focus

A Question of Political Will

Jenny McAllister

In 2006, Sheri Berman put the case that “the ideology that triumphed in the twentieth century was not liberalism… it was social democracy.”

As the Abbott Government commences a full scale assault on the social democratic institutions which have defined Australian national life, Berman’s bullish assessment provokes the obvious counterpoint – Ah yes, but what of the 21st century? For the social democrat, the answer is surely – “It depends.” That’s because for social democrats, political outcomes are always dependent on political action.

Rejecting both the invisible hand lauded by classical liberals, and the historically inevitable revolution anticipated by Marx, social democrats assert that political action can and should shape history.

Certainly, the Government’s agenda is far from assured. Its proposed measures to attack Medicare, cut indexation of pensions, and increase fees for higher education face significant hurdles in the Senate and a hostile reaction on the ground. The institutions of civil society, including the trade union movement, are rallying in response to changes which were both unheralded during the election, and profoundly unfair.

However, the Government is also rallying its significant political resources in support of their budget and their broader vision for Australian society. As progressives develop our response at this pivotal moment, it worth considering the balance of these resources, before assessing how best to mobilise our own.

Conservative politics in Australia

The US conservative Joseph Overton coined the term ‘the Overton window’ to describe the range of ideas that the public will find acceptable; essentially the ideas a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to hold public office.

The main game for a political movement is to move the window, by pressing on issues which currently lie outside this window, creating space for sympathetic elected politicians to move their position, or forcing unsympathetic politicians to abandon theirs.

Despite their endless complaining about institutional left wing bias, the Australian Right has been extremely successful over the last twenty years in influencing the terms for Australian public debate in this way. If you spend even a moment on the internet, in the rabbit warren of conservative websites, think tanks, conferences and organisations, you’ll appreciate the depth of their commitment. A brief scan reveals the Australian Taxpayers Alliance, the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation, the HR Nicholls Society, Americans for Tax Reform,  www.stopgillardscarbontax.com , Menzies House blog, the  Conservative Action Network,  the Conservative Leadership Foundation, Free Speech Australia, and the Australian Libertarian Society – all with interconnecting institutional and personal relationships.

I don’t raise these connections in order to assert a vast right wing conspiracy. I raise them because they suggest a level of political organisation which the progressive side of politics would find hard to match. It’s a rational response to the declining (but still significant) influence of their other great political tool – the radio shock jocks – whose influence is waning as broadcast media gives way to social media.

Playing a different role are the two large think tanks – the Institute for Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies.

These organisations sit at the centre of the Right’s ideological architecture. In his speech last year to the IPA, Tony Abbott paid grateful tribute to them, and reassured them of his commitment to implementing important parts of the agenda the IPA had set out in its 75-point plan. The plans demands at that time included (amongst other things)  repeal the carbon tax, abolish the Department of Climate Change, repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, repeal the renewable energy target, repeal the  National Curriculum, means test Medicare, eliminate the National Preventative Health Agency, cease subsidising the car industry, break up the ABC and put out to tender each individual function, privatise SBS and reject proposals for compulsory food and alcohol labelling.

Just over twelve months later, much of this agenda is underway. Again, I don’t assert a conspiracy. This is a conservative government; we knew it would implement conservative policies. But it does suggest the broader question: where is the progressive equivalent?

A robust social democratic architecture

If we are serious about winning as social democrats, we need a serious political architecture that can match the architecture of our opponents.

For me, this involves three core elements.

The first is that Australian progressives need a more mature appreciation of the relationship between parliamentary and non-parliamentary political activity. This would require activists in both spheres to acknowledge their mutual responsibility for the current position of the “centre” of politics in Australia. It would mean an end to finger pointing about the responsibility for our position, and a constructive engagement about how to assert a progressive vision for Australia. It would mean also mirroring the Australian Right’s capacity to paper over the many significant differences in parts of their ideology, and instead collaborate in areas of agreement.

In fact, it would mean accepting that, in any successful movement, different people play different roles. Rather than seeing different elements of our movement for change as a threat or a waste of time, we would instead harness that diversity to move the debate along.

It might mean questioning the wisdom of having two progressive parliamentary parties, a situation which sees resources diverted to internal contests between progressive candidates, and arguably distracts both parties from the task of shifting the overall debate in Australian politics.

The second element requires a renewed focus on progressive grass roots networks.

People are more and more suspicious of big organisations – banks, corporations, government, and political parties. At the same time, the media is changing; the business model which supported large, centralised media outlets is profoundly challenged by the rise of the internet and the proliferation of more targeted media channels, including social media.

In this environment, there is nothing more politically powerful than an organised group of supporters. Think about the NDIS. If you’d asked in 2007 whether disability would be at the top of the political agenda in 2013, few people would have said yes.

Labor winning government was critical. But this policy needed more than a position on the government benches – it also needed a capacity to argue the case on the ground. A grass roots campaign, built on principles of community organising, was able to lock in bi-partisan support for Disability Care in 2013.

These ideas have been powerful in the Australian union movement for twenty years. They are increasingly powerful in Labor’s thinking about our campaign capability.

Over the next few years Labor will need to further intensify our focus on our members and supporters, which in turn will require further democratic reform inside our organisation. We will also need to collaborate more effectively with the many other grass roots campaigns which are emerging as the media landscape changes.

Finally, we need to get serious about our intellectual architecture. At its heart, this is a battle about ideas.

Over the last decade, we have seen a range of new progressive voices enter Australian politics. The Fabians, Per Capita, the Centre for Policy Development, Catalyst, the McKell Institute, the Chifley Research Centre, the Australia Institute and the Evatt Foundation all contribute significantly to the social democratic universe.

Given their limited resources, these organisations punch above their weight. However it’s not a fair contest. The Centre for Independent Studies lists 11 administrative and program staff on its website, and an additional 17 research fellows. The IPA website lists a staff of 29. Presumably not all of them are paid; Chris Berg is on record conceding that the IPA makes it through each financial year with a budget of less than $2 million.[i] This dwarfs anything available to progressives.

For progressive think tanks to compete, two things must happen. First, there should be some consolidation amongst the think tanks. It is simply not realistic to imagine that a host of brands, each staffed with 1 or 2 people can compete in this David and Goliath contest. Second, as a progressive movement we need to get serious about finding additional resources for these organisations, through both small and large donations.

Could this actually happen?

Politics is a game for optimists.

I do see signs of a new wave of thinking and campaigning. Progressives are ahead of the curve on social media and campaigning. But we are well behind on the think tanks.

Ultimately, as Sheri Berman reminds us, this is a question of political will.


Jenny McAllister is the ALP’s National President. This article draws on material first developed for a speech delivered to the NSW Fabians in 2013.

[i] Crikey, December 15, 2008. Retrieved 28 June 2014. http://www.crikey.com.au/2008/12/15/comments-corrections-clarifications-and-cckups/

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