I have been thinking a lot about organisational gaps on the progressive side of politics in Australia recently. It was inspired by this piece by Aaron Bastani from a few years ago where he wrote about what would help strengthen left-wing movements. It is not a new discussion but it is one that usually happens privately.
In Australia, there has been significant investment in campaigning, in particular leadership, digital skill building, messaging, strategies and tactics. The Centre for Australian Progress has been a facilitator of skilling up the progressive movement and there have also been a range of other organisations established that provide this. Unions have also built up their campaigning capacity, environmental organisations are investing in community organising and GetUp! has expanded significantly, into electoral campaigning, organising volunteers and targeted media buys, with reports that it received $10m in revenue in 2016.
For a long time, another obsession on the broader Australian Left was the lack of thinktanks. While there are no thinktanks funded as well as or have the reach of the Institute for Public Affairs or the Centre for Independent Studies, there are a plethora of funded thinktanks now. The Australia Institute is taking a much larger role and is expanding. There is also Per Capita, Centre for Policy Development and McKell Institute with full time staff. Below them is a tier of smaller organisations attached to universities such as the John Cain Foundation, Evatt Foundation, Whitlam Institute and Don Dunstan Foundation. There are also more party aligned ones such as the Chifley Research Centre, TJ Ryan Foundation, John Curtin Research Centre and Green Institute. While it is unlikely we will have the same thinktank culture as the United Kingdom or the United States and they could do with more staff, resources and push the boundaries of what is politically acceptable, it is not as pressing an issue as it once was.
Reflecting on Bastani’s piece, there seem to be three big organisational gaps on the Left in Australia. They relate to media platforms, spaces to meet and funding sources.
A big focus is often on the lack of a left-wing media in Australia. The Murdoch papers are clearly conservative and Fairfax is highly critical of much of the agenda of the Left. The Guardian is a potential voice but Comment Is Free has scaled back to set pieces by established writers. There are a few explicitly left-wing columnists in the media like Van Badham, Jeff Sparrow, Jason Wilson and Paul Syvret but they are an obvious minority. I have, however, come to a view that the extent of the focus on the day-to-day media is a distraction.
While the day to day news is important to help shape the mood, the bigger gap is platforms that set the agenda and let you know what is going on elsewhere. There aren’t really any agenda setting left-wing magazines like the New Statesman or the Nation or a journal like Dissent or Renewal. The Monthly, while progressive, is cosmopolitan left-liberal and does not set the key political debates within influential left-wing circles. Overland is primarily a literary journal while other magazines like Arena and Australian Options have little to no influence. New Matilda is more prolific but does not really shape any broader debates. Sites like AIMN, Independent Australia or Wixxyleaks seem to have some readership but they won’t be key influencers.
However much I might not like their ideological positioning, there is nothing of similar stature to Spectator Australia or Quadrant on the right. Online magazines and sites could play a role, if there could be a paid editor, but it is not the same as having a regular, agenda setting, hard copy publication.
Spaces to meet
The fragmentation of the Left across multiple political parties and the declining membership of traditional institutions that brought people together such as trade unions mean alternative spaces for people to meet, network and interact are needed. These spaces need to exist to help strengthen weak ties that might be formed online or through one off interactions.
There aren’t really spaces for this to occur currently. The closest equivalent model in Australia would be Politics in the Pub, however, it is a very decentralised, siloed model rather than an institutional space that is structured to facilitate engagement by those new to politics and build relationships across social movements and in geographical localities.
In an ideal world, SEARCH Foundation would be best placed but it is not in a state to do it on a large scale. An organisation like GetUp! could help facilitate this but it would be best done by a separate organisation whose sole purpose is to provide a social space and strengthen ties to avoid likely conflicts over control.
I would also add that in additional to a social space, the lack of broad left conferences where like-minded individuals can meet, network and talk about ideas is a big gap that needs to be addressed.
Traditionally unions have been a big incubator of funds. They provided seed funding to the Centre for Australian Progress and also provided support for thinktanks like McKell Institute and the Australia Institute. Unions, however, have limited resources and cannot be relied upon to be the sole institutional funder of progressive causes. They are constantly the target of conservatives and resources are increasingly scarce given union density is not growing.
We do not have foundations in the same way as the United Kingdom which fund a raft of organisations that promote progressive causes. Progressive individuals may fund projects but it can be hard to know what to fund that serves a good ideological purpose.
Given the attacks on institutions associated with the progressive movement such as trying to strangle unions with bureaucratic processes and attempting to remove tax deductability from environmental organisations, creating avenues for individuals to know what causes and projects to directly support would be worthwhile.
Addressing these three organisational gaps I have highlighted won’t ensure that progressives always win but it would help to strengthen the broader Australian Left.