In last week’s New Matilda, Australian Ryan Heath, now working for the Blair Government in London, sounded a wake-up call to progressive thinkers in his homeland. The success of New Labour, Heath insisted, is largely due to the continuous infusion of new ideas and policies from an established and engaged network of progressive think tanks, many of which developed their strengths during UK Labour’s long years of opposition between 1979 and 1997. In comparison, Heath bemoaned, Australia has ‘not a single think tank worth writing home about’.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

While some at the Centre for Independent Studies and the Sydney Institute might beg to differ, those of us on the progressive side of politics in Australia must accept that Heath is right on the money. After almost a decade in the political wilderness, the ALP is apparently as bereft of ideas as ever it was during its official ‘small target’ period in the late 1990s. While much of disenchanted former Labor leader Mark Latham’s recent attack on the ALP was undermined by the author’s intemperance and apparent desire for vengeance, his characterisation of Kim Beazley’s ALP as a party supremely uninterested in ideas or policy development hit home with the many Labor supporters who have been desperately looking for ideas on the progressive side of Australian federal politics since Paul Keating departed the scene..

Indeed, the only thing that can overcome the creeping cynicism and increasing ennui that is driving more and more forward-thinking Australians away from political engagement is the lifeblood of new ideas. But to expect those ideas to come solely, even primarily, from the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party is unrealistic. When the pursuit of social research and new thinking is left to elected Opposition MPs, it must inevitably come into conflict with the ever-present demands of political life – the representation of local electorate concerns, the battle with current government policy and its passage through parliament, and the continuous, often ugly, but always necessary, campaigning for re-election.

It is no accident, then, that much of the platform which delivered New Labour to power in the UK in 1997 was developed by the network of think tanks and public policy institutes Heath refers to in his article. As he concludes, Australian Labor has a lot to learn from its UK cousin.

But things in his home country are not as dire as perhaps they were when Heath departed for a career in White Hall. While there’s still a long way to go, the signs are strong that a renaissance in the progressive think tank sector in Australia is just around the corner.

Arguably the best-known of Australia’s left-leaning or progressive think tanks to arise over recent years is Canberra-based The Australia Institute (http://www.tai.org.au). Headed by former Labor researcher Clive Hamilton, TAI is, as Heath acknowledges, avowedly non-aligned but openly progressive, and was created to fill what Hamilton has described as ‘a yawning policy vacuum’. Focusing primarily on social and environmental issues, TAI is widely regarded as the only truly successful progressive think tank in the nation. The fact that it is not aligned to the ALP or, indeed, any other political movement, does not diminish the significant contribution to progressive policy debate and development made by the institute since its launch in 1994. Its recent publications have attracted significant media and public attention, turning the spotlight on the social ills of four-wheel-drivers and introducing the word œaffluenza  to the sociological lexicon, among other achievements.

A certain degree of partisanship, such as TAI’s devotion to progressive social and environmental causes, is a necessary element for any think tank with an eye on long-term survival. Operating as an ideologically independent organization can lead to significant problems in attracting financial support and talented researchers in our highly partisan political culture. One of Australia’s newer public policy think tanks, Melbourne-based OzProspect (http://www.ozprospect.org), has endeavoured to present itself as officially non-partisan, but has found that the applicants to its innovative fellowship program for young writers and researchers have come primarily from the progressive side of the ideological fence. Director Tim Watts, himself yet to turn 30, estimates a 70/30 split in favour of progressive applicants, and believes that this is primarily due to the organization’s focus on young Australians and new voices in public debate. While noting that ‘people generally get more conservative as they get older’, Watts acknowledges that OzProspect’s marketing, which targets universities, The Age and The Bulletin, and the Crikey website, probably reaches more people of a progressive political persuasion than those from the conservative side. Fellows, however, are selected purely on merit.

Regardless of its non-partisan position, the experience of OzProspect makes one thing clear: there are plenty of young Australians desperate to contribute their energy and ideas to a progressive policy think tank.

OzProspect has mentored and supported more than a dozen young (that is, under 35) Australian public affairs writers since its inception in 2001. Virtually a one-man organization, the think tank was the brainchild of Watts, who returned from a stint working for the New America Foundation in Washington with a desire to hear more voices and new ideas in Australian public debate. Originally established with the objective of capturing the voice of the ‘radical centre’, OzProspect fellows have contributed ideas and articles on a range of social and political issues, including population policy, political advertising, the trafficking of women as sex slaves, work-family balance, the commercialisation of refugee detention, immigration and multiculturalism, reproductive technology, media policy and international women’s issues. Mostly, these contributions have expressed a progressive sensibility.

Despite this, OzProspect’s determinedly non-partisan stance has dissuaded some potential supporters from committing crucial funds to the organization. Despite a common misconception, there are plenty of cashed-up, left-leaning individuals and organizations in Australia who are ready and willing to provide money to a well-structured, left-aligned think tank that is, unlike the Chifley Centre over recent years, able to make a real contribution to progressive politics.

Evan Thornley, the research director of the Australian Fabian Society (AFS) is one insider who sees light at the end of the tunnel – some might say he’s carrying the torch himself. Recently appointed national secretary, Thornley, who has been widely tipped as a future federal Labor minister, is taking over from the indefatigable Race Mathews, who, having almost single-handedly kept the AFS alive over recent years, is moving to the position of President. This generational change at Australia’s oldest political think tank is heralding a revitalisation of the organization, which Heath acknowledges as having ‘a good events program, but little else’.

The newly re-elected AFS executive has recently undertaken an ambitious project aimed at creating a truly vibrant and engaged progressive policy think tank to work in association with the ALP. Thornley says the money is there – ‘we’ve just got to find the model’. The Australian Fabian Society is therefore embarking on a six-month research project to determine the most suitable structure, which will then be presented to investors in 2006.

In July this year, Thornley travelled to the UK, where he met with representatives of major policy institutes and think tanks such as Compass, IPPR and the UK Fabian Society. The lessons learned in the ‘mother country’ were invaluable and pointed to the real potential in setting up an Australian equivalent. Thornley is now working with others in the AFS to determine the ‘five big ideas that are worth pursuing’ by a future progressive / ALP-aligned Australian think tank – and insists that the AFS’s early priority is to re-establish Labor’s economic credentials by returning the economy to centre-stage and moving away from that crazy Lathamite idea that ‘economics is the other guys’ issue’.

With membership now at a ten year high of over 1000 people, the AFS is also preparing for its first major policy conference in ten years, a sure sign that ideas are resurgent on the progressive side of Australian politics. A Fool’s Paradise? Economics, Equity & Trust in the 21st Century will be held at the William Angliss Conference Centre in Melbourne on the 11th and 12th of November this year, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. The conference website promises that the event will ‘bring together national and international speakers from business, government, academia and the community for plenary sessions, panels, workshops and discussion on the ideas and policies which will . create a better, more sustainable, future for all Australians’.

It sounds like a promising first step towards a revitalisation of the ‘left’ side of Australian politics, but its success is surely reliant on the involvement and participation of progressive thinkers from all walks, and all stages, of life.

Meanwhile, young progressives in Australia must ignore the advice of embittered political failures to disengage from organised politics, and bring their ideas to whichever table will have them. The seeds of a healthy progressive think tank industry in this nation lie with us.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.