Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Did the Labor Party own 'the light on the hill'?

Over the last few years quite a few political commentators have been saying that no-one really knows any more what the Australian Labor Party stands for. Some of them contrast modern Labor’s apparent absence of philosophical underpinnings with ‘the light on the hill’ that former prime minister, Ben Chifley, spoke of in 1949.

I imagined that Chifley must have been talking about the socialist objective – nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange – that Australian Labor dispensed with a long time ago.

However, when I looked, what Chifley actually said about the ‘light on the hill’ seems to have much more contemporary relevance:

‘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’ (Speech by Ben Chifley at the ALP conference in 1949).

Now, if you leave out the mention of the ‘Labour movement’, that statement doesn’t seem to me to define anything peculiar to the Labor Party. If anything, it seems to have a Benthamite liberal flavour to it. I can’t see how the meaning of ‘greater happiness to the mass of the people’ could differ much from ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. The ‘betterment of mankind’ sounds like a phrase that John Stuart Mill might have used. The internationalist flavour of ‘anywhere we may give a helping hand’ does not seem to me to express a sentiment that is peculiar to the Labor Party.

I don't think that Labor ever had sole ownership of Chifley’s light on the hill. Chifley made a great speech but it didn’t define what Labor stood for in the way that Menzies ‘forgotten people’ speech a few years earlier still defines a lot of what the Liberal Party stands for. The idea of ‘bringing something better to the people’ was just as much a Menzies objective as a Chifley objective. Today, it is just as relevant to Tony Abbott as to Julia Gillard.

When a political party doesn’t have a guiding philosophy voters are largely left in the dark about how it is likely to respond to the problems it will face in government, other than that it is unlikely to bite the hand that feeds it (trade unions in the case of the Labor Party). The policies that the parties take to an election tell only a very small part of the story of what they are likely to do in government. Tony Abbott has written books about his guiding philosophy (his latest was reviewed on this blog last year). Like him or loathe him, voters do at least know where Abbott is coming from.

I think Julia Gillard could probably give Labor something distinctive to stand for – something to move forward to – if she sets her mind to it either as prime minister or leader of the opposition. There could be the germ of a distinctive objective for a social democratic party in moving toward more equal opportunity for children in some of the things that Gillard has been saying about education. But those ideals, if they exist, remain hidden beneath endless outpourings of meaningless verbiage.


Anonymous said...

Hi Winton,
I think there is a lot more to Julia Gillard than what we are seeing. I for one do not trust her, I think she has a lot to answer for in her past, and a lot of that is still with her. Are we seeing the real Julia, I don't think so, and I don't think I want to, I feel she is toeing the line for the people that helped her oust Rudd.

Anonymous said...

Hi Winton,
I did post a comment not sure it got through.
I do not trust Julia Gillard, mainly because of her past. I don't think we are seeing the real Julia, and I don't think I want to.
I feel she would do anything to keep the power of being PM no matter what, that's a scary in itself.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Mags
Both comments got through.
I look at the comments before publishing them in order to avoid spam.
Julia has certainly been very ambitious. I think she has become more sensible as she has matured. But I could be wrong about that. Perhaps the real Julia is the radical student politician who has just changed her image in order to attain power. That is a scary thought!

Anonymous said...

Hi Winton,
Yes I do the same with first time comments as well, I'm over at WordPress, I still have a blog at Bigblog, but they still have a heap of problems over there for a month now no fix in sight, so I started another blog.

Yes I agree Julia has been very ambitious, and I also agree it's a scary thought to think she is still the same person she was years ago, but is just putting a different face to the people.

Jan Smith said...

I think Julia would make an excellent new type of leader for our country. I think it was terribly unfortunate for her that she was made PM the way she was. I really don't think it was ever her personal intention to oust Rudd. If you look at the way she used to look at Kevin on the floor of Parliament house, she was really backing him and believed in him and the policies they were trying to implement.

I blame the faceless hounds in the back room for this dilemma because I reckon they were 'bought off' and Julia (if she ever wanted to be PM) had to step up to the plate.

It still amazes me how many men in Australia, don't like the idea that a woman is the same as a man. Same beliefs, same ideals, same capabilities.

No one is perfect...including me :-)

But as my "X" used to say..."I was trying" LOL

Winton Bates said...

Hi Jan
I hope you are right about Julia and I hope the power brokers in the Labor party give her a reasonable chance to try to define some guiding principles for the Labor party.
I might even be tempted to vote for Labor again if I thought they had a way to move forward to a better society.