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Conference Wrap Up: Building a Progressive Australia

Being the oldest political party in Australia, Labor and the progressive movement have a proud legacy of innovation and progress in Australian society. Our movement has laid the basis for nation building and economic growth, the expansion of social services and one of the world’s best social nets.

At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century it is clear that there are new challenges that we now face as a progressive movement. Challenges that must be addressed if we are to continue to be a source of innovation and progress in Australia.

Over last weekend more than 500 Labor members, supporters and Progressive Australians gathered at Sydney University to take up that challenge and plan the future of the progressive movement in Australia.

The Building a Progressive Australia Conference was organised by the Chifley Research Centre, Labor’s national think-tank, with two very clear objectives.

  1. First, the conference aimed to renew Labor’s values for the 21st century, looking to the timeless goals of our movement but refocusing them on current challenges.
  2. Second, the conference provided an important opportunity to explore ways to rebuild the progressive movement, drawing particular lessons from our history and the experience of similar political parties overseas.

The participants in the conference and the many more who participated online deserve congratulations for starting a critical conversation about how to keep Australia on a progressive political course.

Sharing a Vision for Progressive Australia

Attendees came from all states and territories and were joined by colleagues from New Zealand, the UK and US. Keynotes and plenary sessions helped to frame the debate.

James Purnell, former Secretary of State in the last UK Labour Government gave an overview of the current debates in social-democracy over our commitment to reform and renewal. Barack Obama’s model of community organising was outlined by Mitch Stewart, the Director of Organizing for America. They were joined by Matt Browne from the leading US progressive think-tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP), and Tom McMahon the pioneering head of the US Democrats who first implemented organising strategies for US elections.

Australian speakers also featured strongly, sharing their vision for a progressive Australia. Newly elected leader of the NSW Labor Party, John Robertson, delivered an important address to the conference on the need for Labor to embrace a reform agenda and to open up our party to greater participation from members and supporters.

Ged Kearney from the ACTU spoke about the need to connect with new constituencies, like contractors and others in marginal employment, to build the Labor base. Speakers from the union movement, academics and voices from important campaigns in climate change and community services all added their voices to the discussion and debate.

Active Government & Civil Society

A key discussion at the conference included the need to reconnect a Labor agenda with its historic role as a movement outside of parliament and firmly embedded in civil society.

James Purnell and a number of speakers drew on the experience of community organisers in the UK and the US to make the point that progressive politics is more often about listening to constituencies than governing from on high. The way progressives can rebuild from opposition was an important conversation for Labor members and supporters from New South Wales and Victoria, with former Premier Bob Carr and Chief Minister Clare Martin leading discussion.

One of the important international experiences that has a direct relevance for Australia is the implementation of an organising agenda here. In the UK, the work of groups like Citizens UK have rejuvenated urban community politics by picking up local political issues and organising communities of interest around them.

In the US, the organising experience is firmly entrenched in the progressive community and in the culture of the US Democrats. The need for respect and empowerment of supporters is now part of the election campaigning techniques employed by the Democrats. In Australia, the work of groups like the Sydney Alliance provide a new example of how faith groups, unions and local communities in our largest city can use organising to build local power. The new training organisation, Campaign Action, has now demonstrated how progressive campaign training and organising can help win seats.

Where to from here?

Many people have asked ‘what are the next steps?’ We’ve kick-started that conversation but now it’s your turn to continue the conversation in your local community, with your friends or in your union or Labor branches.

Over coming weeks the team at Progressive Australia will be releasing the videos from the sessions along with a toolkit to help you take the ideas discussed at the conference to a wider audience. Our website will continue to be a site for open discussion and debate on the future of progressive politics.

We are committed to growing the movement through Progressive Australia using the forumfor an ongoing conversation with Party members, supporters and the community.

In coming months we will have more to say about future events around Australia so stay tuned to www.progressiveaustralia.org.au for updates and to continue the conversation

The passion, conviction and excitement shown throughout the weekend is simply the beginning of something bigger. Renewing Labor’s mission to deliver genuine progress in Australia won’t be achieved without much hard work, but it is the only challenge that really matters.

How will you be renewing the progressive movement in your local community?

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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