There seems to be tacit agreement among Labor people, and even among some journalists, that Ben Chifley’s ‘Light on the Hill’ address was a standard-setter for inspirational political speeches. Delivered in the aftermath of the Great Depression to an ALP Conference in 1949, it set out to reassure those whose memory of that awful event lingered still.
Although it was just 484 words, the ‘light on the hill’ phrase has resonated down the years as epitomising Labor philosophy.
Here it is for you to analyze and critique.
“The Light On The Hill” – 1949 Speech by Prime Minister Ben Chifley
I have had the privilege of leading the Labour 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 Labour Minister or leader ever has an easy job. The urgency that rests behind the Labour 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 Labour 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 Labour 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 Labour movement – the people who support it.
When I sat at a Labour meeting in the country with only ten or fifteen men there, I found a man sitting beside me who had been working in the Labour movement for fifty-four 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 Labour Party at the next elections depends entirely, as it always has done, on the people who work.
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 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.
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.
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 Labour movement will continue to be given to the movement and add zest to its work.
There is it in all its straightforwardness. How do you assess it? What makes it inspirational in the minds of many? If Julia Gillard were to have given that address this year, what do you expect the reaction would have been, from the public, and particularly from the media?
By way of comparison, you may care to now read Julia Gillard’s speech to honour Ben Chifley on September 18, 2010.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Light on the Hill address to honour Ben Chifley
We gather as members of the Labor family to honour the life and memory of one of Labor's greatest heroes, Ben Chifley.
For the men and women of the Labor Party, coming to Bathurst is more than a visit. It is a pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage to the beloved home town of a man who embodied the Labor faith - the “light on the hill” - our enduring belief that positive government endeavour can improve the life of every Australian.
In honouring the memory of Ben Chifley, I also honour you, the members and supporters of the Australian Labor Party, who have kept the faith in good years and in bad.
Thanks to your campaigning, the Labor story in government continues.
The cliff-hanger result on August 21 underlines the importance of every Labor supporter in our return to office.
Every candidate, every booth, every supporter, frankly, every how-to-vote card.
If the result on August 21 was at first a disappointment, it has also yielded remarkable opportunity.
Let’s remember what emerged from the last minority circumstance in the House of Representatives in 1941, almost 70 years ago, the Curtin-Chifley Government - which became the greatest government in the history of our Commonwealth.
Perhaps no government will ever equal theirs.
We’d surely hope no government again faces the wartime dangers that confronted that government.
But though we may not equal the achievements of Curtin and Chifley, we can aspire to equal their vision and dedication.
And we can renew their Labor traditions for a new century.
We can lay the foundation for an era of sustained growth and prosperity ... just as Chifley laid the foundations of the long post-war boom with policies for full employment, uniform taxation, modern central banking and strengthening the place of Australia in the global economy through our role in the IMF, the World Bank and GATT.
We can build the National Broadband Network - as great a nation-building plan as the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme ... which like the NBN, in its time was also decried and attacked by the Liberal Party.
We can make better health care accessible for all Australians - just as Chifley introduced the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme that made basic medicines accessible to all, and just as he sought the establishment of a national health service.
We can serve, as Chifley said in his General Election policy speech in 1949, “our fundamental objective, the betterment of the people”.
Friends, the Curtin/Chifley Government led Australia to not only win the war but also to win the peace.
To build a post-war era based on equity and opportunity, firmly grounded in sound economic management.
In his ninth and last Budget Speech in 1949, Chifley called out to the nation as it stood at the threshold of the second half of the twentieth century, urging:
“We should not be afraid to set our goals high”.
That is my appeal to our nation tonight, as we look ahead to the first sittings of our new Parliament just a few days from now.
Let’s not lower our ambitions.
Let’s not decide that because no party holds a majority, this cannot be a Parliament that makes progress and delivers lasting achievements.
As Prime Minister, I intend to go to the Parliament and do all we can to deliver policies and programs that Labor took to the election.
I intend to embrace the opportunities of this new Parliament - working together and getting things done.
The first Curtin and Chifley government - that relied on the support of two Independents from October 1941 to August 1943 - was immensely productive, not just in marshalling the nation’s economy and resources for war, but also preparing for the peace.
From the beginning, they looked to the future.
The work on reconstruction and postwar recovery began just months after Labor took office - three years before the war ended - and it was well advanced by the time of the 1943 election, which Curtin won in a landslide.
In his recent book Graham Freudenberg remarks that "in truth, the Australian Parliament of 1940-43 was the greatest in Australian history.”
Seven decades later, in vastly different circumstances, I believe this parliament can be equally purposeful and productive.
With restraint and civility, we can put aside the empty rancour of partisanship, and seek to work together.
To build consensus in the community, and majorities in the Parliament, for the “betterment of the people”.
The parliamentary reforms for the new Parliament will change our political processes and the way we conduct our democracy, bringing new levels of openness and accountability into our democratic processes, with the hope that each of us in parliament can be judged on the contribution we make, not the points that we score.
But the reforms we have announced are only a framework, and within that framework Parliament must deliver results.
This is not a time for inaction, for filibustering or obstructing progress.
As the members of the 43rd Parliament arrive in Canberra on Tuesday week, I believe Australians are expecting from them a sense of responsibility, and a willingness to roll up their sleeves and get work done.
Unfortunately there are some early signs to the contrary.
The Parliament has not yet even met - but Mr Abbott has already spoken of how he wants to bring the government down.
In saying that, Mr Abbott implies that he does not intend a constructive engagement with the new Parliament - but instead, he wishes only to engineer a set of events leading to a vote of no confidence.
Friends, let me make this appeal to all members of the new parliament.
It’s understandable that members on all sides may see political opportunity in that kind of approach.
And I appreciate it’s a strong temptation for a Leader of the Opposition who came so closely to victory.
But I think there’ll be a lot of disappointment in our community if that easy option is taken.
Because it is the easy option.
The harder path is the better path - where we set aside short term partisanship in pursuit of long-term progress.
Where each of us asks not, “is this in my party’s interest?” but “is this in my nation’s interest?”
A path that leads us to finding common ground, forging compromises and doing the work that Australians expect us to do.
The political landscape emerging from this year’s election is challenging.
For Labor, we recognise there are important lessons if we are to better define and deliver the overarching purpose of the Labor Party in this, the second century of our nation and our party.
That purpose is to achieve progress for all Australians, to support them in improving their own lives and to deliver real opportunities through a stronger and broader economy.
Of course, Chifley articulated this purpose - the betterment of all the people - in his own concise and compelling way.
But he also knew that different moments in history demand different responses, to achieve the same enduring goal.
Labor governments have often confronted times of economic challenge.
And they have responded with reforms that have helped to secure our lasting prosperity.
Our goal means that we must work to make prosperity sustainable and ensure that it benefits all Australians, whoever and wherever they are.
When we achieve this, our communities can become stronger.
That requires strong and disciplined economic management.
And it requires us to deliver and implement changes that will underscore improvement in the lives of Australians for the years to come.
Changes like the National Broadband Network. Changes like a new approach to regional development.
Changes like national health reform. As well as superannuation, schools reform and making the transition to a low carbon economy.
These changes are big and daunting. They will require determination and persistence.
To succeed we will have both to consult and collaborate - to seek consensus and build new partnerships.
And we will need to focus relentlessly on implementation - the delivery of better services and infrastructure in communities across the nation.
Combining these two approaches will deliver the progress that Australians rightly expect.
Our first priority must be continued, sustainable economic growth - so that the hard work of Australians is rewarded and their future is made secure.
Australia has come through the global financial crisis in remarkably good shape, but nobody should underestimate the challenges that lie ahead.
Our economy is being profoundly affected by the industrialisation and urbanisation of Asia.
In China alone, some 300 to 400 million people are expected to move to cities in the next 20 years.
That will require new apartments and new infrastructure.
Indeed, a typical family apartment will require six tonnes of steel - or around ten tonnes of iron ore.
Multiply those ten tonnes by the millions of apartments needing to be built every year, add to it all the steel needed for rail lines and infrastructure, and you can understand why Australia’s terms of trade are now approaching the highest level in our nation’s history.
For Australia, there are many benefits from high commodity prices.
But history shows us there are equally many risks.
We need careful management, and long term policy work.
Otherwise we won’t capitalise on the benefits that the high terms of trade offers and our growth won’t be sustainable.
We must confront the risks of higher inflation, acute skill shortages and the risk of ‘Dutch disease’ - where the high value of the dollar jeopardises the competitiveness of some industries and regions.
This is not a new challenge.
But this time - unlike in previous booms - we have better insights into how we can harness a surge of income to build sustainable growth right across the nation.
As competitive pressures on non-resource sectors like services and manufacturing intensify, we need to move up the supply chain and develop more innovative, higher value-adding industries.
That requires a better skilled workforce, high levels of workforce participation, innovation and advanced infrastructure.
Investing in our people, from the earliest pre-school age through to schools, universities and the existing workforce is essential for our future.
Because in the long term Australia’s greatest asset is not actually the minerals in our ground.
It’s in the skills of our people.
Success for our farmers, our manufacturers and our service industries depends on having high-level, up to date skills.
And investing in our people will be part of driving a culture of opportunity and responsibility in which individuals, having had their skills and capacities nurtured, show the self reliance and endeavour necessary to build their futures.
I believe in a high productivity, high participation economy because I believe in the benefits and dignity of work.
For our nation to achieve its potential, we need to enlist the talents of more and more people from every corner of Australia.
That means we'll create the sorts of opportunities that mean success is determined by how hard you work, not where you're from.
Labor will also drive the investments we need in advanced infrastructure for a more productive economy – broadband, rail, roads and ports.
And we need to make the historic transition to a low carbon economy, breaking the nexus between growth and increased carbon emissions.
That means acknowledging the reality of global warming and putting a price on carbon – priorities for the new Parliament.
The second great challenge I want to discuss tonight is at the heart of Labor’s vision - ensuring that opportunity and prosperity extends to all parts of the nation.
This is a fundamental Labor priority.
We are a party born as much from the regions as from the cities – from Barcaldine, as well as Balmain.
That’s why the regional development we finalised with the Independents is not for us a break from our past.
It consolidates a direction we’d already taken in our first term in office.
And it builds on a strong history of standing up for regional Australia.
Equity and opportunity for all is at the heart of the Labor faith.
In today’s Australia, inequality of opportunity can be as much a product of region as it is a product of socio-economic background.
Labor’s commitment to regional Australia comes from our enduring belief in the principle of universality - quality services, a better life and a fair go for all our people and every region.
For us, universality is a core social value ...an article of faith as old as party itself - dating back to our very first manifesto back in 1891.
For more than a century, Labor has represented and delivered for regional communities like Bathurst, which Ben Chifley so proudly represented.
And so today, we will deliver for regional Australia in new ways.
The NBN will deliver high speed broadband to every corner of the land.
And we will ensure that every region - city and country, coastal and inland - will pay the same uniform wholesale price.
High-speed broadband is crucial for every region in Australia to participate fully in the economic opportunities of the future and the productivity transformations of the digital age.
It means our children will grow up in an Australia where more people are contributing to, and benefiting from our national prosperity, whether they grow up in Bathurst or in Brisbane, in Cessnock or Sydney, etc.
Ben Chifley always understood post-war reconstruction as being about the whole nation, not just some parts of it.
So too, broadband will be to the 21st century what the railways were to the 19th - not just an engine of growth, but a civic bond drawing our whole Commonwealth closer together.
Universality drives our educational reforms from pre-school to university.
We are not prepared to tolerate country kids falling behind city kids, indigenous kids falling behind non-indigenous kids and poorer children around the country being left behind.
Chifley went without a great education and longed for it all his days.
Our purpose is to right this kind of historic wrong, to ensure that every child in every school gets a great education and fair access to the opportunities for learning beyond school.
If we succeed in that goal, we will have truly accomplished our ‘education revolution’.
Our historic health reforms and our GP Super Clinics also build fundamentally on the principle of universality of care, the same values that drove the creation of the Medicare system by the Hawke Government a quarter of a century ago.
It’s our commitment to universally high health standards that has inspired the creation of regional cancer centres.
Because we simply can’t accept the current situation, where Australians living in our rural and regional areas are three times more likely to die of cancer within five years of diagnosis.
Nor can we accept Australians having to wait years for essential elective surgery in some areas.
That’s why we’re implementing the national target for 95 per cent of Australians to receive their elective surgery in clinically recommended times.
This commitment to universality runs like a golden thread through Labor’s reform program.
It’s why we can lay claim to be a true Labor government – governing with modern Labor values, for the challenges of today.
Friends tonight is a night for optimism.
I am confident Labor can deliver strong, stable and effective government in the unique circumstances of this new Parliament.
In this term of office we will build on Australia’s strengths to deliver opportunities and benefits to all Australians.
We should not be afraid of this moment.
We have a remarkable opportunity to remake our democracy and to remake our nation.
If we handle the economic challenges of the decade ahead as well as we handled the global recession, we can build lasting prosperity.
The many historic buildings in Bathurst in 2010 still stand as a monument to the lasting prosperity built in the Gold Rush 150 years ago.
Our challenge today is to also build an enduring legacy for the future: investments in physical infrastructure and superannuation savings that will bring strength to our nation long after we have gone.
But more than that, investing in our people - what economists describe as our ‘human capital’ - because those investments endure for a lifetime.
Remember that kids entering school today will still be in the workforce in the 2070s, just as a baby born when Chifley became prime minister in 1945 would be reaching retirement age in this year, 2010.
That is the scale of our ambitions.
We want change that will reach across eras and span generations.
As the kids being born and entering school today grow up and grow old, we want them to inhabit a nation vastly better than the one we know today.
Richer not just materially but socially as well – a nation rich in concern for the less well off, at home and abroad.
A nation that is closer to closing the gap and reconciling with its First Peoples.
A nation richer in the good things of culture and recreation that are the just reward for those who work hard and seek renewal.
Friends, we might be a minority administration but I want our government to deliver outcomes and vision for Australia as though we had won a landslide, just like Curtin and Chifley did between 1941 and 1943.
They did not sit fretting about the numbers on the floor of the House of Representatives.
But based on a respectful partnership with their parliamentary colleagues, they made the bold decisions demanded by the times, informed by Australia’s needs and inspired by Labor’s values.
With goodwill and cooperation, we can do the same.
We can strengthen opportunity for all Australians, and build an enduring legacy for future generations.
That is how we will honour Ben Chifley and keep the Light on the Hill burning bright.
There it is – PM Gillard’s September 2010 speech. How did you find it? How does it rate compared with Chifley’s? What were her take home messages? Were they clearly articulated? Were they lucidly stated? Were they memorable?
Let’s have your critique of both the Chifley and the Gillard speeches.
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