The Beige Brigade


Last weekend in Melbourne, the Australian Fabian Society held its first national policy conference in over a decade. Over two days at the William Angliss Conference Centre, more than 200 people gathered to debate a range of issues addressing the conference theme: Economics, Equity and Trust in the 21st Century.

Speakers included the ACTU’s Greg Combet, Australian Industry Group’s Heather Ridout, Professor Ian Lowe of the Australian Conservation Foundation, former federal speech writer and policy advisor Dennis Glover, and politics professors Robert Manne and James Jupp along with current and former ALP politicians such as Jenny Macklin, Wayne Swan, Simon Crean, John Faulkner, Penny Wong, Barry Jones and John Button.

A Fabian society leaflet from the 1800s

Also present, all the way from the UK, were Geoff Mulgan, former director of Tony Blair’s Policy and Strategy Division and founder of the UK progressive policy think tank, Demos, and young Australian expatriate Ryan Heath, currently speeches and events advisor for Britain’s most senior public servant, Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell.

The conference, which coincided with the 30th anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, was replete with memories from Labor’s senior warriors and infused with a sense of history and tradition, of both the Fabians and the ALP. But perhaps the most encouraging element was the presence and passionate involvement of young people, and a conference-wide focus on ALP renewal and the future of progressive politics in Australia.  

The Australian Fabian Society  is itself engaged in a process of renewal. Melbourne business-man and Looksmart founder Evan Thornley has recently taken over from the indefatigable Race Mathews as the society’s youngest ever national secretary and, supported by an energetic and committed national executive, has set about the process of restructuring the organisation as a truly national body, and revitalising its intellectual network and policy development functions.  

The themes of the conference focussing on economic policy, the central place of fairness in Labor politics and a discussion of the true meaning of trust in current Australian political discourse reflect a serious intent to reposition the progressive Left as the natural repository of political ideas. Many of those present expressed the hope that the conference would be the first step in developing a coherent set of policies which could, if adopted, enable the Federal ALP to present an inspiring and practical progressive agenda for Australia’s future.

One of the most ingenious initiatives of the conference organisers was to offer 25 fully sponsored student places, ensuring that a significant proportion of conference attendees were from the usually poorly represented under-30 demographic. Demand for the sponsored registrations exceeded supply and, in addition, another dozen or so participants aged under 35 paid their own way to attend, meaning that more than 15 per cent of total registrations came from this age group. It might not seem a particularly high figure, but for a gathering usually dominated by white back-and-sides haircuts, the presence of so many younger people gave cause for great hope for the future and made for some pretty fiery debate!

At an informal lunchtime session on the second day, the already-mentioned Ryan Heath author of a forthcoming book entitled Please just f**k off: it’s our turn now joined a panel of young (though, unfortunately, exclusively male) participants to refute Mark Latham’s recent assertion that ‘young people should forget about organised politics,’ and set a feisty kitten amongst the aging pigeons.  

Basing his approach on the recent UK Electoral Commission Campaign to young voters, which asked the question ‘If you don’t do politics, what do you do?’, Heath challenged his audience to think of one thing each person could do to involve young people in organised politics. He went on to outline some of the reasons that youthful enthusiasm is discouraged, or actively undermined, by the often rigid and old-fashioned attitudes of those within the ALP.

An unwillingness to change with the times, a stifling of the dynamism that characterised previous incarnations of progressive politics most notably the Whitlam revolution of the late 1960s and a shift away from ‘the art of the possible to the black art of micro-management’ all served, Heath asserted, to put young people off joining established political parties. Instead, they were increasingly being drawn to more radical and informal social movements, such as the progressive online activist site GetUp! represented on the panel by Toby Brennan.  

Perhaps most controversially, Heath came armed with a list of ‘the 12 least useful commonwealth Labor MPs,’ which he dubbed ‘the beige brigade,’ and a corresponding list of 12 highly successful and relatively young, public figures including Eddie McGuire, Liz Ellis and Larissa Behrendt, who could replace them (should any of them be enticed to join, let alone stand for, the ALP).

While such an open attack on serving MPs raised a few eyebrows, a gathering of Labor supporters desperate for renewal and electoral success generally accepted Heath’s point that the ALP cannot afford to support aging and ineffective incumbents while stifling the ambitions of highly qualified and impassioned young contenders.

Among a range of impressive policy discussions and stimulating debate about progressive ideas, over the two-day conference one argument cut through: that young people are impressed by ideas, action and success, not by navel-gazing, convoluted theory and an impractical commitment to traditional ideals that are usually unsustainable in practice.

It’s a lesson that was learned by UK Labour in the early 1990s and was crucial to its resurgence and subsequent dominance of British politics. That the Fabians and the ALP are starting to grapple with this truth bodes well for the future of progressive politics in Australia.

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.