Letter from … Sydney

First published in Progress magazine

From afar all looks well for our Australian cousins. A Labor government has delivered sustainable growth and ensured this is the only country in the G20 not to suffer recession following the global financial crisis. Domestically, it is making majoritarian, nation-building investments in public life that sit firmly in the centre-ground of politics but are undeniably Labor legacies. These include investments in schools, disability services and high-speed broadband which are, as Ed Miliband would say, ‘for the many’. It dominates a policy agenda that the unpopular opposition Liberals have to readily adopt in huge proportions, normally dragged kicking and screaming by their own state premiers, interest groups and the voters, but overall leaving small, yet important, areas to scrap over.

However, the Murdoch-dominated commentariat is trying to tell us a different story. As in the UK, the right is trying to make a private banking crisis an issue of public spending. This has much less purchase because of the Australian Labor party’s good management of the economy, but the claim is not without its adherents. Like David Cameron, Tony Abbott as opposition leader has serious trust issues in the eyes of the voters. His strategy is to stay silent, wear pale blue ties and look soft and cuddly at all times.

Labor is now gearing up for the fight of its life. It will be overwhelmingly outspent like its social democratic counterparts in most countries, but the longest campaign in Australian history is bringing a volunteer army to the party’s cause like never before. Organisers from key seats meet for ‘in service’ training. Innovation is embraced warmly and ideas and best practice get rolled out with some speed. And the UK ‘voter ID’ model is not the only experience being looked to. Full-time organisers from the Obama campaign are leading phonebanks and training sessions that are making a difference on the ground.

This is the first real social media campaign in Australian history so, as you would expect, Facebook and Twitter are part of the campaign mainstream. In addition, the NationBuilder system that worked so well in the United States, and in the UK for the Scottish National party and the victor in Bristol’s mayoral race, is being rolled out enthusiastically.

Lacking is an Australian equivalent of LabourList and the ability it gives party members to organise and share ideas. Initiatives in 2010 like ‘Mobilisation Monday’ – where party members from the biggest city to the remotest community joined Labour’s re-election efforts using their online phonebank login and the hashtag #mobmonday – would be hard to replicate here. There is relatively little means of getting people to work across seats and in priority areas. But Young Labor is second to none in attempting to do so, while Rainbow Labor, the party’s LGBTI grouping, is running phonebanks for MPs who voted for equal marriage. Come September, it is Labor’s volunteer army that will defy its party’s critics, just as it did in the UK.

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Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress and on secondment to New South Wales Labor party

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Photo: David Jackmanson

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