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  Issue No 17 Official Organ of LaborNet 11 June 1999  

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History

The Light on the Hill

By Sean Scalmer

Fifty years after his seminal address, Ben Chifley's words still ring true -- and still challenges Labor.

Almost fifty years ago to the day, on June 12th 1949, Joseph Benedict Chifley rose to address the Annual Conference of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party.

Prime Minister Chifley was not renowned for his oratory. His voice was harsh and husky, damaged from a history of political campaigning; his manner was famously blunt and concrete rather than classical and allusive; his metaphors few; words typically brief. The occasion, too, did not suggest long speechifying to an expansive public. Chifley did not address all of his fellow citizens, he addressed his fellow unionists and labour movement members. He was not concerned to communicate Labor's vision to uncommitted Australians, but to share with his fellow comrades his views about Labor's challenges and tasks ahead.

This is the humble origin of Chifley's famous symbol of Labor's quest: 'the light on the hill'. This most well-known description of Labor's objective in politics was not grandly enunciated to a large population, but carefully expressed to a State Labor Conference. The phrase itself was not uttered until the last 150 words of Chifley's address, and then only once. For the most part, Chifley's speech was concerned with reviewing events in contemporary politics - the economic problems of Asia and Europe, the danger of depression in America, the achievements of Federal Labor in office, the threat of industrial action. The question of Labor's objective seemed swamped, as it so often is, in the battles of the moment, and Chifley only turned to it in the final minute of his address. It was then that he uttered his famous words:

I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for.

The words are striking to a contemporary audience, but 'the light on the hill' did not immediately strike a chord with members of the Australian labour movement. Indeed, when Chifley's speeches were collected and published in 1954, the editor did not entitle the June 1949 address as 'the light on the hill', but opted instead for the title: 'For the Betterment of Mankind - Anywhere'. Certainly, L.F. Crisp's biography of Chifley contained a chapter entitled 'the light on the hill', but this did not refer to Chifley's 1949 speech either, but to Chifley's final major speech of June 1951 (which did not contain the phrase), and death soon after. It was only in the 1980s, when both fans and critics of contemporary Labor attempted to place the Hawke Government in the context of the 'labour tradition', that the phrase rose to dominance. 'The Light on the Hill' is the title of Ross McMullin's history of the first hundred years of the Australian Labor Party; it is emphasised in the television series that canonizes the Chifley government, 'True Believers'; it is discussed in critical analyses of contemporary Labor, such as those by Peter Beilharz, Graham Maddox and McKenzie Wark.

However, if the power of 'the light on the hill' was not immediately recognised, it undeniably speaks to the labour movement today. What is it that makes the symbol so powerful and evocative?

Firstly, it offers an objective. It suggests that Labor in politics is not simply concerned with bread-and-butter aims, but with something else - a greater, more idealistic quest. Labor, for Chifley, is more than "putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket".

Secondly, 'the light on the hill' evokes a common quest. Not only are members of the labour movement understood as champions of a new order, but the commitment and participation of labour supporters is explicitly valued. Indeed, Chifley's speech goes on to refer to the "generosity, kindliness and friendliness shown to me by thousands of my colleagues". He refers to Labor supporters as the "roots" of the movement, and he downplays the importance of leaders: "the strength of the movement cannot come from us".

Thirdly, the speech and the image of 'the light on the hill' is opposed to careerism. Chifley suggests that the aims of the labour movement are more than simply offering a path of advancement for the ambitious few, or attaining power for its own sake. In the contemporary moment, the appeal of this simple, spiritual image is especially strong.

Fourthly, 'the light on the hill' speech is so powerful because it is not only abstract, but also, at the same time, intensely practical. Chifley does not merely suggest that Labor aims for the light on the hill. He goes on to say what this aim can mean in practice to labour's supporters:

If the movement can make someone more comfortable, give to some father or mother a greater feeling of security for their children, a feeling that if a depression comes there will be work, that the government is striving its hardest to do its best, then the Labour movement will be completely justified.

By moving from the image of 'the light on the hill' to the lives and struggles of individual Australians - the fears of depression and unemployment, the worries about children, Chifley suggests that 'the light on the hill' is both idealistic and concrete, aspirational and attainable, over there and right in front of us. Unlike other images of a 'new Jerusalem', it seems to be moored in the experiences and hopes of the everyday lives of Australians. This is what makes it so appealing.

Fifthly, the image of 'the light on the hill' is an image of unity. It unites both industrial and political labour. One of the primary aims of Chifley's speech was to foster unity behind the Labor Government, and to undercut support for the industrial action of miners during 1949. Chifley, rightly or wrongly, saw this action as sectional and damaging to the wider movement, and the image of 'the light on the hill' was designed to appeal to miners' wider sympathies. If Chifley's appeal was unsuccessful, and even misconceived, then the image itself survives to us today as a symbol of unity within the labour movement as a whole. Not only that, but Chifley also suggests that this unity should extend to non-Australians. He argues that the objective of Labor will only be reached by working for the "betterment of mankind" not only within our own country, "but anywhere we may give a helping hand."

Finally, the symbol of 'the light on the hill' is so powerful to the contemporary labour movement because it is not the subject of dispute, but of celebration. The odd thing about Chifley's description of Labor's "great objective" in 1949 was that it supplanted the ALP's stated objective at the time (at least according to its Platform): Socialization. The debate around socialism has divided Labor's supporters throughout the twentieth century. For some, Labor has been a socialist party; for others, non-socialist. Some have celebrated their claims about Labor's commitment to socialism, others have mourned them. Noone could claim that the objective of socialism has united supporters of the labour movement. Clearly, 'the light on the hill' is an entirely different sort of objective. For the socialist, 'the light on the hill' may be understood as a society without exploitation; for the non-socialist, a society which safeguards equality of opportunity; for the trade unionist, a society in which unions will be recognised and promoted. The very meaning of the image lies in the eye of the beholder, and this is undoubtedly a key element of its appeal.

Fifty years on, it is worth celebrating the anniversary of Chifley's 'light on the hill' speech. It is ironic that a Prime Minister noted for his administrative efficiency and legislative ambition is so often remembered for his ability to create a compelling new description of Labor's objective. It is worth recalling that, for Chifley at least, the objective was more than mere words.

Sean Scalmer is a Research Fellow in the Department of Politics, Macquarie University.


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*   Issue 17 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Class Consciousness
Long-time ALP member Michael Thomson has thrown a few grenades with a new book arguing that middle class trendies have taken over the ALP.
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*  Legal: Reith¹s AWAs Dealt a Blow
ASU v Electrix rules that AWAs can't be a take it or leave it proposition.
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*  Unions: Survey Misses the Point
Last week's attempt by the Australian newspaper to rank trade unions contained some fundamental flaws.
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*  History: The Light on the Hill
Fifty years after his seminal address, Ben Chifley's words still ring true -- and still challenges Labor.
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*  International: Child Labour: Kerala’s Recipe
Of India’s 55 million slave children, not one is to be found in the state of Kerala, in the south of the sub-continent.
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*  Review: Bazza Mckenzie Holds His Own
Tony Moore on perhaps the greatest Australian movie ever made.
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*  Women: Equal Pay - We've Come A Long Way
Thirty years have passed since women around Australia raised their fists in victory at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission's historic equal pay for equal work decision.
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*  Activists: Throwing Off the Chains
Thirty years ago, Zelda D'Aprano was so incensed by the lack of progress in achieving pay parity that she twice chained herself to public buildings in Melbourne.
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*  Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, a summary of industrial news for trade unions.
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