Winning the War of Ideas

The second Progressive Australia Conference brought together hundreds of activists, united in a shared passion for a fairer, more just Australia.

In opening the conference, Labor’s National President, Jenny McAllister, challenged the conference to bring together progressive values with an intellectual and campaigning architecture to win the war of ideas.

An edited version of her remarks is provided below.



We meet at a time of loss.

There’s no sugar-coating the disappointment that comes with defeat.

It is all the more surprising then, we also meet at a time of great hope.

The ballot for Labor’s leader was an unequivocal success.

So many of us here for so many years have argued that handing power to the people would strengthen us.

That argument has been well and truly settled.

Four and a half thousand new members have joined our ranks.  More than 70 percent of our members chose to participate in a historic process that has set the pace not only for Labor, but for all Australian political parties.

The question we now confront is where to next?


Before considering this, I want to take a moment to reflect on the significance of today’s gathering.

Only a few years ago, in 2011, we were here together, reeling from the shock of an election that left us barely clinging to government.

We’d been outspent four to one by our opponents, drawing on a deep well of funds from those keen to oppose us on climate, and oppose us on a resources tax.

But at that unhappy time, something very important happened here at the inaugural Progressive Australia conference.

We came together, 400 people, at that dark moment, and found hope in the stories coming from the US and UK about the power of community.

We named the failures of our old model – an arms race for corporate donations and a dependence on narrow technocratic messaging at the expense of authenticity.

We saw the opportunities presented by social media, by the crumbling of the old media’s hegemony, and by the power of conversations and stories between ordinary people.

Like political activists around the world, inspired by the Obama story, we imagined our movement built to twice its strength.

We found we could envisage a Labor party built on members, rather than on money.

That last conference was the moment when progressives in our movement crystallised our support for community organising.

And by the 2013 campaign, the landscape looked very different.

One million, two hundred thousand telephone calls, 250,000 homes doorknocked, and fundraising from small donors eclipsing any single contribution from other sources.

Just yesterday, at the National Executive, we confirmed that Labor’s National membership now, for the first time in many years, exceeds 50,000 members.

It was here in 2011 that we rediscovered our movement roots, and it has made a big difference.

In the same way – this conference can make an impact.

I want to set out some broad areas where a concentrated effort this weekend has the chance to shape a new consensus for our future.


Labor’s purpose

We meet under different circumstances.

At this election we didn’t just scrape through.

We lost.

And not only did we lose, we lost badly.

We certainly did not lose as badly as we might have.

But the fact remains that our primary vote was in the low thirties. It’s a defeat akin to 1996.

Undoubtedly, we were punished for our disunity in government.  I have heard no serious commentator dispute this.

Our conservative opponents naturally go further and assert that the election was a rejection of all that Labor stands for.

They would say that – and I’m not really interested in taking advice from Tony Abbot or his friends in the major dailies about our political philosophy.

Indeed, my strong sense is that the core values which define Labor’s agenda, remain at the heart of Australian values.

It’s no coincidence that the Coalition chose to not contest our plan for school funding… to not contest our plan for workplace relations… to not contest our plan for Disability Care.

It is no co-incidence that for all their triumphalism, the Liberal primary vote rose by less than two percent.

It confirms the analysis of the American writer Sheri Berman, who says that the ideology that triumphed in the twentieth century was not liberalism, it was actually social democracy.

The ethic of shared responsibility for our community’s wellbeing is at the heart of both modern Labor and modern Australia.

If we failed, it was not, as some have suggested, just a failure of communication.

It was a failure of confidence.

If our communication was confused, it was because we did not consistently back our own values. We were unwilling to lay out clearly the philosophical underpinnings of equality and justice which informed so many of our policies.

And as a movement, we were unprepared for the inevitable conflict which comes from taking on significant vested interests.

As we seek to build for government again, I don’t believe we should back away from the causes that define our movement. To name just one current example, we should certainly hold our ground on climate change and carbon pricing – a moral cause which defines our generation.

We must be clear about our purpose – amongst ourselves and with our public.

Without this clarity, we can’t hope to steer a steady course through the shallow trivia of daily politics.

It means starting with our values.  The path forward lies not in policy detail but in a broader discussion about our political philosophy.

As the co-chair of the National Policy Forum I found it was one of the persistent themes from all delegates when we held our first meeting earlier this year.

For me personally, the most important starting point for Labor’s rebuilding is a much clearer statement of our commitment to tackle inequality – not inequality of opportunity – but inequality itself.  On this note – I should say I’m particularly looking forward to this afternoon’s keynote with the remarkable Patrick Diamond.


On building a culture of healthy conflict

I do recognise that others will doubtless disagree with this personal priority.

Possibly vehemently disagree.

I want to say a few words about the importance of building a healthy culture of conflict. I know it sounds a little odd.

But as Hegel taught us, conflict is essential to progress.

There will always be conflict in our broad church.

There should always be conflict in our broad church.

If the leadership ballot has taught us anything, it should be that we are mature enough to disagree civilly. When we can, it will strengthen us.

As we seek to reshape Labor’s philosophy for modern times, this is a strong platform to build on.

I realise quoting Tony Blair in such a crowd risks a mixed response.

But I love this quote. He says:

“Let us have the confidence once again that we can debate new ideas, new thinking, without forever fearing the taunt of betrayal. Let us say what we mean, and mean what we say.”

The agenda this weekend deliberately sets out to cultivate debate and disagreement, to draw in new ideas, and span across multiple traditions.

It seeks to model the culture we’ll need, as we re-imagine our story for the 21st century.

Labor’s Australian story blends libertarianism, labourism, socialism, communitarianism, fabianism, environmentalism, non-violence, and feminism into our own blend of social democracy.

This weekend, our agenda tries to tease out some of these themes:

We’ll hear from two of our leading parliamentary women – Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong on Labor’s future.

Tomorrow we’ll see excellent panels on the significance of the state for progressives, and on the question of liberty in policy making around public health.

Today’s workshops on the role of faith in progressive politics and on environmentalism also seek to explore our broadest traditions.


On an intellectual infrastructure for progressives

I’ve focussed so far on the importance of political clarity – what one of our politicians-turned-authors, Lindsay Tanner, recently described as “politics with purpose”.

We also need to acknowledge that Labor’s task is always harder.

We need to understand how bitterly our agenda will be resisted.

There are things here we can learn from the conservatives – who for thirty years have been absolutely clear about the kind of society they are trying to create, and have built the institutions necessary to prosecute their agenda .

If we think about the conservative arsenal – it includes prominent columnists and radio commentators, think tanks like the IPA and the Sydney Institute, online communities like that around Menzies House, and increasingly, a ‘tea-party’ style grass roots right wing movement like the ‘convoy of no consequence’ which descended on Anthony Albanese’s office when he dared to challenge their flat earth world view.

The conservative forces constantly push the boundaries of debate – think about the IPA’s 50 point plan for Australia which sets out the radical interventions that the Liberals themselves don’t dare to name.

As progressive, we have our own significant resources. But too often we lack co-ordination between ourselves. And too often we emphasise, rather than minimise, our differences.

A mature movement can surely appreciate that we’ll use diverse tactics in pursuit of a common goal.

A mature Labor party can surely appreciate that critique from progressives can assist by opening up the political landscape, giving us greater freedom to act on our beliefs.

Tomorrow’s panel on building the intellectual infrastructure for the Left presents one opportunity to think seriously about the resources we’ll need if we are to win.

Not just win government, but win in the battle of ideas.


An organisation to suit our purpose

It brings me to the question of our own organisation in the Labor Party.

As we’ve seen in the last months, the extension of real power to members is extraordinarily energising.

There is nothing more important to our members than having a real say, and nothing more conducive to growth.

And growth is essential if we are to build a movement capable of mounting a progressive argument and winning.

This is the beginning, not the end, of democratisation.

It is time for a conversation about our candidate selection, about the election of our delegates to state and national conferences, and about the selection of the committees which govern our national and state organisations between conferences.

Democracy itself is necessary, but not sufficient.

Our efforts are not simply directed at building a perfectly democratic organisation.

Our goal is to build a powerful organisation, capable of taking our arguments to the Australian people.

And we need to imagine a meaningful campaigning role for the many new members who will join us, and for the union members in our affiliates.

To build a powerful, member based organisation, we’ll need democracy.

We’ll also need training, and resources.

We’ll need to place our trust in the local women and men who’ll lead our local campaigns, allowing them to set their own agenda, confident in their ability to read and understand their local community.

The agenda is scattered with excellent panels and speakers on community organising and campaigning.  It is also scattered with speakers on organisational reform, including a panel tomorrow afternoon around “Reimagining Labor”.


I started by reflecting on the Progressive Australia Conference in 2011.

I think we can all be proud of the political impact of that conference.

My challenge to this conference – to all of us – is for us to bring together:

…the vision for a powerful values based agenda…

…the vision for an architecture to prosecute that agenda, with …

…the vision for our party’s organisation and campaigning.


About Jenny McAllister

Jenny McAllister

Senator Jenny McAllister has served as a Senator for New South Wales since 2015. She is currently the Shadow Cabinet Secretary and Shadow Assistant Minister to the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Senator McAllister is also a former National President of the ALP and a member of the ALP National Policy Committee.

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