There can be no fairness without decent work

No matter where you turn these days there seems to be a discussion about the future of work. From parties sloganeering about “jobs of the future”, to talk about the “disruption” of the “sharing economy”, to predictions about automated cars replacing taxis and therefore thousands of transport workers, you hear and read about the changing nature of work almost daily.

The future of work has, however, not been synonymous with discussions about making work fairer. The dominant theme has been that the changing of nature of work, mostly via advances in technology, is something that we will just have to grin and bear, even if we know that future jobs will be less fair. What is concerning is the seeming acceptance of this as an inevitability. The idea that jobs should remain fair to support a fair society as the economy changes is almost absent outside trade union and academic circles. In many ways, it reflects the fact that many progressive, especially younger Australians, seem to have ceded the primacy of politics in shaping our future. Young Australians today are facing an uncertain future, underpinned by growing intergenerational inequality and uncertainty at work.

Last year, I sat in a workshop in Parramatta about full employment. Full employment is not a term you hear that often these days. The concept of full employment felt a bit alien and almost quaint, associated with the supposed post-war golden age that ended 1970s. The fact that a mere mention of the term ‘full employment’ by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten earlier that year caused a flurry of excitement shows how out foreign the concept is in our modern society.

The workshop, organised by the Whitlam Institute, brought together trade unionists from both sides of the Tasman to talk about reviving an agenda of full employment. Part of the background reading for the workshop was a 1942 report by British social reformer William Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society.

Reflecting on it today, what struck me as I read the report was how radical it seemed and also how bizarre that the views of a leading British establishment liberal from the 1940s felt more radical than what we hear today in our discussions about work. Beveridge explained that full employment “means that the jobs are at fair wages, of such a kind, and so located that the unemployed men can reasonably be expected to take them.” He went on to state that “Employment is not wanted for the sake of employment, irrespective of what it produces…It must be productive and progressive.”

The legacy of the Great Depression hung over the country and Britain was still at war with the Axis, yet they were planning for a future without war, without want, squalor and ignorance. The goal of full employment had moral and ethical underpinnings and there was a societal responsibility to provide it. It’s a far cry from the rhetoric about any job being a good job that is used to berate job seekers.

Not only was the immense optimism of Beveridge stark but also his certainty that a fairer society would be constructed. Rather than shaping our own future, the overwhelming mood today is reacting to a future pre-determined for us where automation will take our jobs. There is elevation of buzzwords from management consultants like ‘resilience’, ‘agility’ and ‘fit for purpose’, to hide the fact that responsibility is shifted solely onto the individual. We are told we must constantly adapt to the changing world, accumulating more and more debt to update skills that were only just attained. If you fail to succeed, it is your own fault. Challenging this is seen as being defensive or attempting to “future-proof”.  Work has in effect become a duty that we do for the economy rather than employment providing both meaning and security. It reduces us to cogs in the engine room of the economy.

I am one of the lucky ones. I have the security of full-time job, earn an above the average wage, have access to leave, have autonomy and enjoy my work. I know this is not the norm. Many people struggle to get enough work, let alone have a job with decent pay and conditions that can support their future aspirations.

You have to be a part-time worker to be underemployed and Australia has the third highest level of part-time work in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The high proportion of part-time workers has driven underemployment and it is growing. Official unemployment may be just over 700,000 but when you include the underemployed it is more like 2 million.

Even those who have full time employment face challenges. Analysis by the Centre for Future Work identified that less than half of the labour force are full time workers with access to leave.

Young people in particular have felt the brunt of the current labour market. Full-time employment for young Australians has declined steadily since the Global Financial Crisis. Research commissioned by the ACTU found that 49% of 18 to 24 year olds said they cannot rely on getting regular work and 64% have no form of career progression. For those who are not tertiary graduates, it is even harder to get work. Over the past few decades, the dominant trend has been a rise in high skill employment as a share of employment. While there has not been a massive increase in low skilled jobs as a share like in the United States, middle skilled jobs have declined.

The absence of work that is secure, well-paid and full-time makes it difficult to plan for the future. You cannot get a mortgage if you live contract to contract, nor does it provide the stability that many seek if they want to have a family, or the luxury of flexible working arrangements for raising that family if you can afford to have one. It only serves to compound structural inequality between genders and generations.

On the other extreme, while many Australians cannot get enough work, many are working excessive hours. According to the Australia Institute, Australians are donating $128 billion in unpaid overtime each year to employers and it is growing. Rather than working the fifteen hours a week that Keynes predicted, two thirds of full-time employees are working more than 40 hours a week. Australia ranked 29th in the OECD in employees working very long hours with 13% of employees working 50 hours or more a week, more than the United States, Canada and most of Europe. Unsurprisingly Australia was also ranked 32nd out of 38 countries in time dedicated to personal care and leisure. We all know friends and family members who constantly work even when at home. The lines between work and home are blurred as technology has advanced, giving many people access to their work 24/7, and many people struggle to balance work and life.

Part of the driver of excessive working hours has been our work culture. The Australia Institute found that on average workers are performing five hours a week of unpaid overtime by working through breaks, taking work home and answering email out of hours.

While all this is happening, it is not as if ideas to address these problems are wanting. There has been a longstanding agenda of decent work, echoing Beveridge. Decent work is employment that “respects the fundamental rights of the human person as well as the rights of workers in terms of conditions of work safety and remuneration. … respect for the physical and mental integrity of the worker in the exercise of his/her employment.” The agenda seeks to provide opportunities for productive work and delivering a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality.

There are rafts of books, reports, inquiries and essays outlining practical ways to improve the world of work and ensure decent work. They offer routes to reverse the erosion of pay, conditions and job security that has occurred over the past few years.

We could tighten legislation around sham contracting and independent contracting and provide portable leave schemes so entitlements to paid leave are not lost when workers change jobs, substantially improving pay and conditions for many. It would remove the loopholes and financial incentives that exist to undercut decent work.

There could be the elimination of the distinctions between work so that all jobs have access to rights and conditions regardless of whether you are full-time, part-time, permanent or temporary to stop employers from gaming the system.

Everyone could be guaranteed genuinely flexible conditions to allow them to combine care and work and be provided with affordable universal care for children, those with disabilities and the elderly.

We could address underemployment and the excessively long hours that are worked by redistributing work through shorter working weeks, guaranteeing more paid leave and job sharing. More radically we could democratise workplace relationships through employee representation and institute a job guarantee to combat unemployment.

We could even go back to older ideas such as making the state as an exemplar of employment as Whitlam once did instead of the current situation where now poor conditions in the private sector are used to stoke envy and take away conditions in the public sector.

None of these ideas are particularly new and imaginative or truly out of left field and yet most of have not captured the imagination of most progressively minded young people when work is discussed. You don’t see many young people writing on these topics or even discussion in social media by anyone but the usual suspects of trade unionists and industrial relations academics. It almost feels unfashionable. Debates about the future of work are less about people and more about robots. The image that gets invoked by full employment and decent work is a cookie cutter 1950s house with a white picket fence, nine to five job, male breadwinner with a wife at home and two children in the suburbs. Talking about full employment and portable leave isn’t as exciting as “fully automated luxury communism”. When you discuss work it is a post-work agenda whether it isf the inevitability of a basic income as a result of job killing robots or the mentality of ‘Do What You Love’ that dominates.

The idea of the universal basic income has gained traction because of fears about automation. Part of the appeal of the basic income seems to be because it is utopian and for some time much of the Left has been without a utopian vision. It is a vision that is not steeped in nostalgia but rather modernity and in the minds of many it credible associates itself with the future. I also suspect part of the appeal is the individualism associated with it and scepticism and mistrust of the state. There is no associated duty or requirement of contribution or reciprocity, it is a right.

Universal basic income may restore universality and reshape welfare into social security but alone it is no solution. On its own it won’t address growing inequality as a result of the polarising labour market or the increasing concentration of wealth and power. There is a reason why supporters range from democratic socialists to free market advocates.

A basic income is not without its problems. It seems unlikely that any payment would be liveable on its own and it is likely to degenerate into a form of wage subsidy or a new Poor Law. Just as easily it can become a Trojan horse by the free market advocates to dismantle the welfare state where individuals are given a fixed amount and told to look after themselves.

The assumption of technological determinism that often underpins support for a basic income robs us of agency and there is no guarantee it will actually occur. The oft cited claim is that 47% of Americans will lose their jobs when an OECD study concluded the actual figure is more likely 9%. The claims that technology will destroy jobs and create significant unemployment are not new, nor has it borne out in the past. Rather than determining what should happen, we are told we should just accept it and be ready to adapt.

At the same time, there is a prevalence of the Do What You Love (DWYL) mantra where passion is what motivates work. It takes the form of working unpaid internships, terrible hours and bad pay because of the supposed pleasure you get from your job. Your job is not work, you do not do it for compensation but because you love the job. Having decent work is an afterthought to chasing your dreams.

Trawling through the website Ethical Jobs, you can see it in full flight. Charities and non-government organisations list voluntary roles and unpaid internships that are actually unpaid jobs. The roles are in graphic design, marketing and fundraising, communications, research and campaign work. They want passion but have fixed hours you will need to work and sometimes even require experience. The worst example I came across was a 6-8 hour per week voluntary assistant role to someone who received a $100,000 fellowship from a private charitable foundation for climate change campaigning. It is justified in the name of providing experience to people to get a job but what it does is erode the decency of work for all and strengthens socioeconomic privilege.

Only the privileged are able to work for free, subsidised by their family wealth. In many industries, the reliance on experience from unpaid work to get a job means that only the economically privileged can seek a career primarily for personal reward. If you are one of the lucky ones who can stay afloat, it is a sign of your class. As Miya Tokumitsu wrote in her Jacobin essay ‘In the Name of Love’:

“By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it.

It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

What really has been lost is the belief that all jobs should be decent. There is now the belief that the “shit jobs” will disappear due to technology or if you hate a job, go find another one in your search for “the job”. Rather than improving work, you move on.

In a way both the appeals of DWYL and the post-work accelerationism behind a basic income are similar. They are both individualistic and focused on exercising personal choice to do what you want. Neither draw on a common belief or on contribution or reciprocity and both weaken a push for decent work for all. But why do both have such appeal amongst younger crowds?

That question cannot be answered without acknowledging the context of the last forty years that emphasised the individual and promoted a culture of consumer choice.

In 2016, Sydney University academic Ariadne Vromen, in conjunction with academics Michael Xenos and Brian Loader released some comparative research on the issues young people care about and their views on inequality. The research found that many young people individualised everyday social problems, away from traditional notions of collectivism and state responsibility.

The scope young people imagine for taking political action has been shaped by dominant political discourses that emphasise opportunity, choice, responsibility and rights. The dominance of this discourse reflected the broader neoliberal political context. Individuals and their agency are emphasised while downplaying structural factors and taking collective action to address material grievances and transform society. It is little surprise that trade union membership is much lower amongst younger Australians.

The research found that most young people seemed to conceive of equality in post-materialist rather than materialist terms. They suggested equality was created by everyday equal treatment in society, regardless of background and identity. Young people did not spontaneously suggest that it was up to governments to address their grievances and redress the experience of identity based inequality.

The research also found was very little critical engagement with inherited class privilege and a limited acknowledgement of structural disadvantage as most responses focused on how young people can choose to move out of disadvantage.

These views pose a big challenge for an agenda of decent work. An agenda of decent work does not mesh that easily with individualistic notions of opportunity, choice, responsibility or rights. It is fundamentally collective. It requires shifting unequal relationships of power.

To ensure the future of work is fair, what will need to be overcome is my generation’s internalising of neoliberal norms. The challenge is how to unpick the dominance of individualism and transform that into an understanding that collective action is needed that seeks structural change that goes beyond moments and can scale up into change. It requires rebuilding a solidarity that goes beyond traditional identity politics, a willingness to organise to take power not just reject it. It’s no easy task after forty years of neoliberalism.

Achieving decent work for all cannot be seen as a throwback to the 1950s. It must be clear that it does not mean a return to the past because that it not possible. The future of work cannot not only be full employment that provides fair income and certainty, it has to also mean a fuller democracy where individuals can reach their potential, a good life for all. It means rejecting the determinism of automation where we must adapt to a future we cannot control. It requires rejecting the co-option of individualisation into the absence of rather than transformation of authority. The single minded focus on basic income and ethic of Do What You Love will only lead us astray. Work matters to our lives. Without the stability, income and certainty that decent work provides, there can be no real choice or freedom in life. Ultimately, without it we cannot have a fair society.

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It’s time the Australian Left got serious about transformational change

One of my big gripes of late has been that there is lots of focus by progressives on capacity building, campaigning tactics and strategies but far less on what changes need to be embedded to change society. When progressives are in power, the focus is often redistribution and providing more funding to services but often what is lacking is deeper thinking about statecraft.

What prompted my thinking was this piece in the New Socialist, written about constructing a new left political economy. In this moment of economic, democratic and ecological crisis, we should not accept tinkering at the edges and a repeat of the past. We need to think about institutional frameworks. Neoliberalism did not come fully formed, its seeds were planted to weaken the existing institutional structures and transform the country. Competition policy, restricting right of entry, new public management, contestability, separating policy and service delivery and allowing free-riding in collective bargaining are all examples of these neoliberal seeds that weakened collective institutions and gradually brought about privatisation. These rules, structures, policies and mindsets were embedded into our institutions and continue regardless of who is in power at the top. They are far more insidious than the overt use of state power by conservative governments.

Many on the Left tend to focus on redistribution and provision of service, the immediate need, rather than the political economy and institutional structures that exist as foundations. The rules and regulations that exist, the way state power can be used and the culture it enforces has massive implications. We need to think about what institutional frameworks are needed to drive the outcomes we want so we do not have to rely on those explicitly on the Left of politics being in elected office, particularly at state and local government levels.

Taxing and spending alone will not be enough to achieve outcomes like eroding away the commodification of housing and other public goods, inserting in new democratic norms into both the public and private sectors, industrial policies that provide training, genuine career pathways and economic development, helping to break up the oligarchies that control our economies, ensuring individual not corporate control over our own information, reducing precarity, changing how we approach care so we acknowledge it is work and decarbonising the economy. Raising additional revenue and more social spending is essential for a fairer society but it cannot be the limits of our imagination. We need to think about the seeds of transformational change at all levels. All the workshops and conferences about messaging and campaigning techniques cannot be a substitute for this. Calls to vague sentiments about a more caring, peaceful, sustainable society are insufficient.

Some more modest ideas are floating out there such as more creative approaches to central banking, employee representation on company boards, full employment underpinned by a jobs guarantee, large scale public renewable generation, campaign finance reform,  changing our industrial relations laws to strengthen workers’ bargaining power and taxing externalities like carbon and congestion but much more is needed.

Without this deeper, harder thinking and a transformative agenda, we will be like Sisyphus. We may make some gains uphill but are condemned to watch it go backwards once conservatives get into power and slash spending.

It’s time to revisit free education

In an era of stagnant wages, intergenerational divides and increasingly concentrated wealth and opportunities, the current policy consensus is neither fair nor is it working for a growing segment of the world’s population.

A recent Pew Global Poll found 52 per cent are not satisfied with the way their democracy is working. For many, the status quo means a future that is not better, with a majority believing that quality of life for young people will be lower than that of their parents.

Australia is no exception. That same poll found that 41 per cent of Australians are not satisfied with how democracy is working here and that less than half of the country has a lot of trust or somewhat trusts that the national government will do what is right for the country. Over two thirds of Australians believe children today will be financially worse off than their parents.

The dissatisfaction and concern about falling living standards for future generations is leading to longstanding policy assumptions being rethought, and nothing symbolises this more than tertiary education. Across the world over recent decades there was a shift towards user-pays in tertiary education. That is now being reversed.

The platforms that British and New Zealand Labour took to elections this year show this understanding emerging, with both having policies to make education free once more. Even Hillary Clinton took a tuition-free college plan to the last US presidential election. It is time for Australia to follow suit.

In Australia, the argument for income contingent loans for higher education was that it financed the expansion of higher education, and that public funding is otherwise mainly subsidisation of those who are better off, who would go to university anyway and become better off still. The mantra was that a tertiary education would lead to substantially better life financially.

However, with degree inflation in combination with stagnant wages and rising house prices, students are racking up debt without it necessarily leading to a life that is materially better than that of their parents. Many fear that this will result in the first generation that will be worse off than their parents since the Second World War.

Though under the present regime payment only occurs when a certain salary threshold is met, the psychological impact of that debt cannot be underestimated, particularly in light of soaring house prices. It fundamentally damages the compact that private payment for tertiary education means future opportunities that result in a person being substantially better off materially.

It can seem like a future of endless debt without a career path or security. Between 1991 and 2016, the average cost of an undergraduate degree more than doubled. Full-time entry level jobs are increasingly hard to find — even for those with a degree, give that there are an estimated 20 graduates per available job. Some cannot even afford to rent on the wage that entry-level jobs pay in their respective areas.

Housing is increasingly out of reach, with housing in Sydney costing ten times the average annual income in 2015, up from four times the average annual income in 1985. No wonder that almost 40 per cent of Australians who do not own a home cannot currently afford to buy and another 20 per cent do not think they will ever be able to afford to buy.

Falling real wages, increased income precarity and collapsing home ownership rates all strengthen the case for free education. Higher education is no longer the ticket to a much better life because of the precariatisation of formerly middle-class ‘white collar’ professions.

While free higher education is not the only stance worth revisiting in Australia, it is symbolic of many policy areas that require a massive rethink: how we treat housing, the role of government in providing employment opportunities, the operation of social security and the taxation of wealth.

This current era of inequality and insecurity demands a break from the policies of the present. Bold ideas like free higher education for a better future are needed because without hope, there is only distrust and resentment left.

Published in Eureka Street on 9 November 2017

Another world is possible, but only if we seize this moment

We are on the precipice of a moment of transformation. The orthodoxy of the last forty years feels as if it is exhausted and on the verge of collapse. What fills the vacuum is yet to be seen.

There is hope. The predictions of a calamity for British Labour did not come to pass. The public is tired of being told their future will be worse than their parents’ generation and they cannot enjoy what past generations took for granted: security, stability, an improvement in their material circumstances.

The British election had a global impact for social democratic movements. Here in Australia, many even asked who our home grown answer to Jeremy Corbyn is. That, however, is the wrong question and lesson. This isn’t about personalities or individuals – for progressives it never is. Rather the lesson of the British election for those on the Left should be to challenge what ideas we think are possible and to put forward a transformative vision for a better future.

The times call for a bold platform for a better future for the many and we must not hedge on it. We need to be unapologetic and hopeful. People are not happy with the status quo and established party systems are being overturned across the world.

The conservative side of politics has no answer to the crisis of housing affordability and the growing precariat, other than mindless appeals to xenophobia and the politics of division. They are in denial about the realities of climate change and comfortable with entrenched inequality.

Within Australia, inequality is growing. It is growing within our capital cities, with those living in rich and poor suburbs experiencing substantially different health and educational outcomes. It is growing as well as between urban and regional communities. It is a challenge that social democratic parties at all levels of government must face head on.

This moment is a time to articulate that another world is possible. Imagining a better future requires a dash of utopianism to consider bold ideas, as well as meticulous attention to the nitty gritty of policy and legislation. The Left in Australia is capable of both – but we must be smart, united and determined.

The alternative is to cede the future to a xenophobic nativism where the majority are pitted against each other, with an increasingly wealthy and disconnected elite making decisions about who is deserving and how to distribute the scraps they are prepared to share. The PASOKification that has torn apart sister parties in Western Europe is the future if Labor does not put the interests of working people front and centre.

It means a vision for better future for the generations to come, rather than the fear of a future in which our lives are worse than those of our forebears.

It means tax settings that fund the public services we need to build a good society that can stop the growth of inequality and ultimately make our society more equal.

None of this will happen naturally or automatically. It will require our ideas and our hard work. We have a better future to create and do not have a second to lose.

Originally appeared in the 2017 NSW Labor Conference edition of Challenge

Three gaps on the broader Australian Left

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.

Media platforms

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.

Funding sources

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.

Why isn’t there a regular broad Left Conference?

A few months ago, the annual ALS Freidman Conference was held in Sydney. It is a get together of hundreds of classical liberals and libertarians regardless of their party affiliation. It got me thinking that though the Left often has conferences, there is no equivalent centrepiece event.

While there are left-wing conferences, there is often a focus on techniques rather than ideas. The largest frequent conferences, organised by Australian Progress, tend to be more about campaigning strategies and tactics rather than ideology. There have been other conferences more focused on ideas but they have been one-offs or party-centric such as Labor’s Progressive Australia, the Greens Reboot or SEARCH’s Left Renewal Conference.

It seems odd that there seems to be a lack of an ideological conference culture on the Left in Australia. Where events about ideas and policy do occur, they seem to be either academic or exclusive and small rather than seeking involvement and a mass audience. Maybe it is because the yardstick for comparison is somewhere like the United Kingdom where the Fabian Society and other organisations host regular conferences and are not held back by geographic distances. Maybe it once existed locally but disappeared as the institutional Left started to shrink.

I do, however, think there is appetite for a regular, pluralist Left conference about future we want that is not bogged down by partisan or factional squabbles or be stuck in the past. Ideas, policy and ideology matter because what is the point of strategy and tactics if we don’t have end goals?

There are a range of topics that need to be debated whether it is the challenge of generational politics, whether we can rebuild solidarity, organising around housing affordability, tackling inequality in all its forms, fighting climate changing, how to get a treaty, aiming for a six hour work week and universal basic income.

Any conference should seek to push boundaries and build better relationships amongst the broader Left. It should also be fun, forward looking and more like a festival, incorporating art, music and culture. Something exciting like The World Transformed rather than the usual talkfests where we hear from the same people who already have a platform. It also needs to be engaged beyond the traditional Left and avoid just having the same older set of speakers we hear all the time.

Organising a big festival-like conference is easier said than done and it will probably be better to start small and scale up but a regular event should be on the agenda for the Left so there can be a proper organised space for debating and exchanging ideas that cuts across the silos that do exist.

Why we need Comment is Free Australia to be better

I’ve been a fan of Guardian Australia since it launched in 2013 and think it has shifted the tone of public conversation in Australia. Its coverage of federal politics and investigative journalism has been great in the short time it has existed and has improved as time as passed. It may not be as well resourced as News or Fairfax but it has punched above its weight and it was why I decided to start paying for it. One thing I have noticed though is that I am far less enamoured that I used to be with Comment is Free Australia.

When it first launched, I really enjoyed Comment is Free Australia because it provided an outlet for a range of voices that weren’t heard that were both articulate and interesting. It still does that and provides some great perspectives, for example, voices like Van Badham, Jason Wilson and Jeff Sparrow. It was refreshing to see voices to the left of social liberalism and other very different perspectives in the mainstream media but it feels far less common than it once was.

Maybe it was the different focus of the previous Comment Is Free editor or a decision by Guardian Australia to focus on a set cohort of regular writers or maybe it is just a reflection of op-eds more generally devolving into a kind of clickbait to get more hits, I’m not sure as to why but more often than not it feels like it now plays to the same old audience. Whereas the op-eds used to be more thought provoking and challenging, it feels like I have heard it all before.

This is not meant to be an ultra critical post, I have no doubt that the Guardian Australia gets inundated with lots of pitches for op-eds and has limited resources but I miss the diversity of voices that were thought provoking and whose impact lasted more than 24 hours.

I know things can’t stay the same but with the disappearance of The Drum and the increasing number of op-eds that are obviously click-bait that you read published by News and Fairfax (even in hard copy papers), it makes it even more important for there to be quality op-eds from a diversity of contributors. You can set up blogs or online magazines but they don’t have that same reach that the Guardian Australia has.

Op-eds are important because they can set the agenda and shape public debate but if there’s only a similar cohort that get that opportunity, it means our public conversation will continue to be narrow and shallow. Comment might be free but its role in public debate is sacred.