LABOR heavyweights from all factions hope a new think tank, due to be launched in Sydney on Monday, will provide the intellectual muscle for a rebirth of social democracy in Australia.
The McKell Institute is intended to play a similar role in Centre-Left politics to groups such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs on the Centre-Right.
Its founders hope to distinguish mainstream, market-friendly, progressive ideas from those associated with Green-tinged think tanks such as the Australia Institute.
Australian Workers’ Union boss Paul Howes, who will sit on the board of the institute, said yesterday it would assist the labour movement’s return to being “a movement of ideas”.
“One of the problems for progressives is that the conservatives have well-funded, public and interesting think tanks such as the IPA and the CIS,” Mr Howes told The Weekend Australian.
“I want progressives to have forums like conservatives do to drive the ideas of the future.
“A lot of the other organisations out there, on the Left, you wouldn’t identify as social democratic or as progressive moderates in the Labor tradition.”
Others to serve on the board include former NSW deputy premier John Watkins, former NSW union boss Michael Easson and Labor-aligned campaign adviser Bruce Hawker. While the institute will not be formally aligned with Labor, it’s hoped it will help restore the party’s flagging fortunes with voters by redefining its values.
Mr Howes said William McKell, who was NSW Labor premier from 1941 to 1947 and later served as governor-general, was a beacon of a centrist model for Centre-Left government.
“Labor in NSW always had the philosophy of making the market work for people, of civilising capitalism,” he said.
“That is still the driving force behind social democracy but in the past 10 years there hasn’t been a clear ideological split between social democrats and conservatives. There is a crisis of identity for social democracy globally.”
The institute will start with a small full-time secretariat based in Sydney and will be a non-profit organisation.
It will host public lectures and roundtables and undertake research programs, beginning with a study of housing affordability to be released next year.
Membership will be open and free. However, to guarantee independence, political parties will not be allowed to contribute, and politicians will not sit on the board.
Mr Watkins, who now heads Alzheimer’s Australia, said the McKell Institute would counter the “negativity” in Centre-Left thinking over the past decade.
“I think we’ve lost the confidence in speaking about things such as social justice and fairness and the need to eradicate poverty in Australia,” he said.
“The thing about McKell was his practical answers to real problems. That surely has to be a hallmark of the McKell Institute.”