The Fabian Society put on a ritzy two day policy conference in Melbourne last week which marked a substantial change in direction for the left-leaning think tank. Crikey spoke on one of four concurrent panels that ran on Saturday afternoon. Our topic was “Accountability and transparency: who do we trust and what can we know?” and it included former NSW Auditor General Tony Harris gloomily declaring that he had not seen a single step forward in federal accountability and transparency over the past 35 years.

The gathering at William Angliss TAFE was certainly very different to the last Fabian Society talk I gave a few years back slamming Jeff Kennett in a cramped little room at the Victorian Trades Hall building in Carlton.

Former Looksmart founder, Fabian Society national secretary and aspiring Labor MP Evan Thornley has been one of the driving forces behind the change and gave an interesting closing address to the conference on Saturday afternoon.

He identified “culture” as the biggest challenge facing the ALP but then said rather than whinge and moan about the lack of new ideas coming through, it was much better to try and do something about it by organising a major conference featuring the largest collection of “progressive thinkers” assembled in many years.

Professional conference organisers were employed, every session was captured on video and there are plans to produce a DVD with conference highlights plus a CD-Rom with the text of many of the presentations. The Fabians have traditionally been Melbourne-centric but next year’s conference will be held interstate as part of an ambitious national agenda.

Attendees seemed particularly upbeat after the conference, although one Labor MP said there were “too many Marxists” and everyone agreed the “gender balance” of the speakers needed to be addressed. It was great to get Bill Shorten, Robert Manne, John Faulkner, Terry Cutler, Kim Carr, Julian Disney, Wayne Swan, Barry Jones, Greg Combet, Michael Keating and many others speaking, but where were the Labor women? Penny Wong, Heather Ridout and Tricia Caswell snuck onto a couple of panels, but that was about it.

The media didn’t show a lot of interest which perhaps reflected the frenetic news agenda last week and the fact that political hacks don’t usually work on Friday afternoons and Saturdays. However, there was certainly plenty of newsworthy declarations as various Labor heavies weighed in to what was at times something resembling genuine debate. Heaven forbid!