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.

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