Responding to the challenge

Since its foundation, Labor has been Australia’s progressive party. For 120 years we have been a source of innovation and progress in Australian society, laying the basis for nation building and economic growth, the expansion of social services and one of the world’s best social safety nets.

We have produced generations of the nation’s most important, and memorable, leaders. Our legacy as a party runs through Australian society at all levels.

Now Labor faces new challenges in the 21st century that the Party and broader progressive movement must respond to.

We face political challenges, like the turning of the tide at state level, which has seen Labor already removed from office in Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. We have seen hopes raised at federal level with the euphoric victory of 2007 now giving way to the hard slog of minority government.  In outer-metropolitan areas Labor seems at each election to be looking at tougher electoral battles against conservative and populist candidates. In our once proud inner-city heartlands we face challengers positioning, posing and posturing themselves to our left.

But these political challenges belie a deeper issue for Labor. All political parties involved in mainstream electoral politics face competing interests and constituencies. Labor is no exception to this but our balancing act is often more precarious than others. Our great source of strength as a Party has always been our ability to bring together a viable electoral coalition of working-class and forward-looking Australians. Our broad church has always sought to include more than to exclude.

The traditional assumption was that Labor appealed to working families, whether they worked ‘by hand or by brain’ on material issues and service delivery, while progressives, often in Australia’s large inner-cities, were brought onboard by the Party’s universalising commitments to public education, public health and commitment to progressive social reform.  The rise of white-collar work and the transformation of inner-city suburbs maintained Labor’s vote share, but often hid the changes occurring in these areas. Meanwhile, in our outer-suburban areas, work and family time clash for our working class base. Travel times, poor services and cost of living all conspire to make balancing work and family difficult for many.

In the face of these new challenges Labor has been flat-footed. We have been slow to act while our vote share has deteriorated and we have allowed our base to fracture, with some leaving Labor to the Greens Party, while others have shifted to the Coalition.

Renewing Labor’s historic mission to deliver genuine progress in Australia needs to be at the centre of any renewal process. We need to confidently project our values, through a long-term narrative with immediate policy impact. We need to work to the values our base voters share, rather than to the issues that divide them.

In November last year the Chifley Research Centre commissioned the first ever “Progressive Australia” survey as part of the preparation for this conference. The findings will be a core part of the discussion on 30 April and 1 May 2011. The survey found that voters feel increasingly distant from their goals of emotional wellbeing and happiness. The majority all felt that our lives over the last 20 years had become materially wealthier, but that our quality of life had declined. A full 47 percent felt that their emotional wellbeing had decreased over the last 20 years and 39 percent felt that their overall happiness had fallen over the same period. Rather than just being a post-material issue for so-called elites, it’s clear that these sentiments are widely and deeply felt in the electorate. They are felt in our inner cities and in our suburbs, our regions and towns. They are powerful mobilising issues for a progressive agenda.

For Labor to build the progressive Australia of tomorrow we need to engage with these issues and find the ways the traditional levers of social democracy can assist. We need to use the tools of active government to reshape markets and services as needed, but we also need to build and mobilise the sort of civil-society that can help people to move beyond their feelings of disappointment.

Labor has always seized the new issues of the day and provided the hope and inspiration for people to make change. At the Progressive Australia Conference you can be a part of this too. Please register and join the conversation now.


About Nick Martin

Nick Martin

Nick is the Assistant National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party, and Chair of the Chifley Research Centre. He has worked at the National Secretariat in Canberra since 2005, helping to rebuild the Labor Party at the national level in the lead-up to the 2007 election campaign. He has a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) and a Bachelor of Laws, both from Canberra's Australian National University.

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