The Light of Ben Chifley

July 13, 2020
The 12 July 2020, just passed, was the 75th anniversary of Ben Chifley becoming Australia’s 16th Prime Minister, where he remained until 1949.   It is interesting times in Australian political history.  Chifley was Minister for Postwar Reconstruction from 1942 to 1945 in the John Curtin Labor government, and until he replaced Curtin at Curtin’s […]

The 12 July 2020, just passed, was the 75th anniversary of Ben Chifley becoming Australia’s 16th Prime Minister, where he remained until 1949.

 

It is interesting times in Australian political history.  Chifley was Minister for Postwar Reconstruction from 1942 to 1945 in the John Curtin Labor government, and until he replaced Curtin at Curtin’s untimely death. Chifley was also the Australian Federal Treasurer (1941-1945).

 

A vision for a post-war new world, unknowing of the change in ethos, cultural valuing, and the physical ‘heritage’, that was created in the following 50 years. That would be to 1995, and the time of my own doctorate.  There is much there that the Railwayman Prime Minister could never imagine before his death in 1951.

 

The blueprint for the reconstruction in the bold new world was at the pen of H. C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs, the department’s first director-general, and would be carried, after Chifley, in the politics of H.V. Evatt. However, the gospel of the brave new world was Chifley’s “The light on the hill” speech, delivered as his Prime Ministerial speech at a 1949 Labor conference speech at the Sydney Trades Hall.

 

“I have had the privilege of leading the Labor Party for nearly four years. They have not been easy times and it has not been an easy job. It is a man-killing job and would be impossible if it were not for the help of my colleagues and members of the movement.

 

No Labor Minister or leader ever has an easy job. The urgency that rests behind the Labor movement, pushing it on to do things, to create new conditions, to reorganise the economy of the country, always means that the people who work within the Labor movement, people who lead, can never have an easy job. The job of the evangelist is never easy.

 

Because of the turn of fortune’s wheel your Premier (Mr McGirr) and I have gained some prominence in the Labor movement. But the strength of the movement cannot come from us. We may make plans and pass legislation to help and direct the economy of the country. But the job of getting the things the people of the country want comes from the roots of the Labor movement – the people who support it.

 

When I sat at a Labor meeting in the country with only ten or fifteen men there, I found a man sitting beside me who had been working in the Labor movement for 54 years. I have no doubt that many of you have been doing the same, not hoping for any advantage from the movement, not hoping for any personal gain, but because you believe in a movement that has been built up to bring better conditions to the people. Therefore, the success of the Labor Party at the next elections depends entirely, as it always has done, on the people who work.

 

I try to think of the Labor 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 the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for.

 

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 Labor movement will be completely justified.

 

It does not matter about persons like me who have our limitations. I only hope that the generosity, kindliness and friendliness shown to me by thousands of my colleagues in the Labor movement will continue to be given to the movement and add zest to its work.”

 

It was the visionary speech in the year that Labor lost power to the Robert Menzies’ government, and would remain in the political wilderness for 23 years. Thus the light on the hill was a cry in the wilderness, to deliberately mix metaphors. It was a warning about the loss of progressivist valuing in the 50 year period from 1945 to 1995. Consider what happened:

 

  • the post-war resurgence of American commercialisation (the production) and commercialism (the ideology), a transfer of war production into new domestic gadgets, much more stronger than the global commercialisation of the 1920s and 1930s.
  • the capture from Hollywood and a ‘pop paperback’ (pulp fiction) in a new global narrative, which also began earlier in the twentieth century, and also took a stronger production and export than before; helped by the…
  • the reframing of Australian and New Zealand foreign policies, along with other allied nations in the Asia-Pacific, which invested national capital in American cultural interests; it was both Chifley and Menzies who followed on from Curtin’s 1942 New Year Address (26 December 1941): “…Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”

 

And the subject of my doctorate

 

  • the religious adoption of American Protestant models of belief and practice, which had far reaching impact in the wider social and political domains than what ‘secularists’ foolishly think; the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ being both politically fluid and philosophically entangled.

 

Going back to the ‘light on the hill’ text, we can understand the warning of the desert prophet:

 

  1. “It is a man-killing job and would be impossible if it were not for the help of my colleagues and members of the movement.” Cooperation, not competition, brings success.
  2. “…pushing it on to do things, to create new conditions, to reorganise the economy of the country, always means that the people who work within the Labor movement, people who lead, can never have an easy job.” Working together, not divided, on the principle of a fair economy for all.
  3. “…the job of getting the things the people of the country want comes from the roots of the Labor movement – the people who support it.” The commitment to an inclusive and democratic process.
  4. “…the next elections depends entirely, as it always has done, on the people who work.” Although with cooperation (mentioned above), it is hard work that brings success.
  5. “…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 the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.” Welfare economy and a welfare society, not as charity or government handouts, but in the progressivist engine of structural change.
  6. “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 Labor movement will be completely justified.” However, it is more than the political machinery (referred immediately above), the work has to go to the valuing of persons – the fathers, mothers, and children.
  7. “It does not matter about persons like me who have our limitations. I only hope that the generosity, kindliness and friendliness shown to me by thousands of my colleagues in the Labor movement will continue to be given to the movement and add zest to its work.” It is not about Ben Chifley in the narrowness of biography. Chifley was orientated to the humanity of the other (Emmanuel Levinas’ Humanism of the Other).

 

Ben Chiefly amplified Labor Progressivism, at the beginning of the era which reversed the work that had been done. By 1995 Neo-Liberal Economics and the American narrative of competitive individualism had taken hold as the global culture. In the musical Keating! the ‘The Light On The Hill’ is used as  a country-influenced ballad in which Keating laments the trends in the 1996 election. Like Chifley, Keating is bitterly defeated; this time to the Menzies-shaped character of Prime Minister John Howard, and it is the once Labor’s battlers (now ‘Howard’s battlers’, or is it, ‘Howard’s batterers’?) who gave power, again, to the neo-liberal and anti-progressivist global culture. They betrayed Chifley’s dream; they betrayed the fathers, mothers, and children. But, hopefully, did not extinguish the light on the hill.

 

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Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He was a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch was the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and was a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.

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