The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Wayne Swan

Wayne Swan

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer

3 December 2007 - 27 June 2013

19 September 2009

NO.027

The Light on the Hill in the Fog of Global Recession

25th Ben Chifley Light On the Hill Oration

Bathurst

19 September 2009

Ladies and gentlemen of the Bathurst Branch, and beyond.  Delivering this oration is a great honour, especially in its 25th year.  And for a Labor member who cares deeply about our Party's history, a wonderful privilege as well.

Because the man we remember tonight, Ben Chifley, wasn't just a titan of the Australian Labor Party.  He was in his time the most respected person in the country.  Perhaps the most respected in our history.  His entire life embodies something about our nation: the ability of someone from the humblest of backgrounds to rise through talent and sheer hard work to the very top - and then, once there, to pull others up behind him.

Americans have a saying about their greatest leader, Abraham Lincoln - that he rose from a log cabin to the White House.  We could almost say the same thing about Chifley.  I say almost, because while like Lincoln he spent his youth in a wattle-and-daub hut, as Prime Minister he would accept nothing more luxurious than a simple room at the Hotel Kurrajong… sharing a bathroom with other guests.  He was living at the Hotel Kurrajong in June 1949 when he wrote those famous words about our party's objective: "the light on the hill".

Sometimes politics is criticized for lacking poetry.  Every single one of us has a duty to dispute this. Because a simple piece of poetry lies at the very heart of everything we do.  "The light on the hill."

Doesn't sound much.  Even Chifley's biographer David Day dismissed it as a "rather vague reformist objective" that "would be seized upon by Labor supporters as best expressing the aims of the movement."

It's certainly simple.  Just five words.  All of just one syllable.  No "isms" - like socialism or liberalism or capitalism.  No corporate jargon.  A plain speaking man like Ben Chifley today might say "and no bullshit either".  But you and I know this simplicity is its strength.

No one would accuse Martin Luther King of lacking poetry, but his most famous quote - the one that summed up the hopes for justice of millions of Americans in the 1960s - had just four one-syllable words: "I have a dream".  And nobody would say President Obama's famous three words "Yes We Can" do not carry a poetic ring.  No biographer has ever dismissed these as vague sentiments.

Abraham Lincoln is famous for appealing in six words to "the better angels of our nature".  As a piece of rhetoric it's no more precise and hardly more complex than Ben Chifley's five short words.  But no one would dismiss it as a vague sentiment either.

"The light on the hill."  Like Reverend King's dream, and President Lincoln's angels, and President Obama's "Yes We Can", it works.  And of course, like King's and Lincoln's words, it is religious, derived from Matthew chapter 5, verse 14.  "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid."

This shouldn't surprise us.  Religion played a big - sometimes good and sometimes dark - part in Ben Chifley's life.  He was born a Catholic, married a Protestant, was estranged from his church, but was never able to escape a calling or a duty.  A few months after his "light on the hill" speech he would tell the Labor caucus that they "were evangelists for a great cause".

In addition to being simple, poetic and spiritual, like King's and Lincoln's words, Chifley's words express hope and duty.  The hope that a better society is possible, and the duty we all have to create it. 

"The light on the hill" is actually what great political statements are made of.  But it could mean little without Ben Chifley's own life.  It expressed his character - one all Australians of his day admired.  And the fact is, everyone who heard Ben Chifley talk about "the light on the hill" in 1949, knew what he was getting at.

Australia at that time had just endured a terrible war.  39,000 Australians had been killed.  Their widows and children and parents still felt the pain.  20,000 more had suffered in Japanese prisoner of war camps.

On the home front, the settled ways of the past had all changed.  Women had gained new freedoms.  The nation was being reconstructed.  Further sacrifices were still being asked.  And still fresh in their mind was the mass unemployment and starvation of the Great Depression.

But Chifley never asked them to relax and make themselves comfortable just because things were starting to look up.  When he asked the Australian people to strive for "the light on the hill", he was asking them to create a country and a world worthy of the sacrifices that had been made on their behalf.  And they did.

Australia didn't just survive the great catastrophe of the 1940s, we came out of it stronger.  The achievements were impressive: the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the post-war immigration success, national airlines, new universities and technical colleges, the US Alliance, membership of the United Nations, and participation in the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

And we came out of it fairer - moving successfully from a war economy to a peacetime economy while retaining full employment.  Ordinary Australians gained fairer pensions and unemployment and sickness benefits.  200,000 new houses were constructed between 1945 and 1949 alone.

The story of post-war Australia is one of a country where the sacrifices of working people were rewarded with a good society in which the bounty of peace was to be shared equally.  My dad was one of the returned servicemen and women who benefited.

Coming back from the battles in the Pacific after 1945, what the "the light on the hill" meant to him was a job, a social safety net, an expanding economy, a safer world and a future for me and my sister and brothers.  These were the things his own father, who fought with General Monash on the Western Front in the First World War, was denied.  Chifley was determined that people like my dad would not have to endure a return to the mass unemployment and insecurities of the pre-war years. 

There will be some here tonight who remember those times or who have heard parents and grandparents recounting them.  The ideal of a better future - a "light on the hill" - motivated the Chifley Government and the Australian people to create the Modern Australia we now enjoy.

For this reason, I believe Ben Chifley's "light on the hill" speech is the quintessential expression of Australian patriotism.  In its call to sacrifice, nation building and equality, it expresses the essence of the Labor cause, indeed the Australian cause.  It's our simple but eloquent political poetry.  Poetry that he turned into the prose of government.

Everyone who is invited to give this lecture starts off with the intention of replacing Ben's five simple words with something better.  But I believe there is still no better expression of the hope that fuels us, the light that guides us, and the cause that inspires us.  Ben Chifley's beacon remains our beacon today; as important now as the day it was said.

I've always been a great admirer of his approach to politics, especially his concern for the effects of public policy on typical Australian families.  It was something handed down to me by my great friend and someone I'm sure many of you admire, Mick Young - whom many consider to be the closest inheritor of Chifley's values.  But we are all in a sense the inheritors of Chifley's vision.  Each generation has to interpret it in its own way.

Gough Whitlam gave "the light on the hill" new meaning with his agenda of equality and opportunity in the 1970s.  The 1950s, '60s and early '70s had changed the world. People wanted equality and freedom.  Gough recognised that it was time once again to share the benefits and opportunities of post-war growth with many more people.

The same principles informed the Hawke-Keating years as well.  By the early 1980s the old world economy was about to be swept away.  Economic policy was on the verge of change.  As Malcolm Fraser's Treasurer, John Howard was incapable of carrying it off.  It took a Labor Government to do it.

There is, as you know, a big public debate underway at the moment about who was responsible for the achievements of those years.  In his new book, The March of Patriots, Paul Kelly has argued that the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments were part of the same reforming continuum.  My view is there is really no comparison between what has been achieved under the previous Labor and Liberal Governments.

Labor opened up our economy, linked us more closely with Asia, expanded educational opportunities, re-introduced Medicare, legislated universal superannuation, introduced enterprise bargaining, changed our defence posture, invented competition policy and recognised native title. 

After being elected promising to halt change, and to instead make us "relaxed and comfortable", John Howard's two big reforms were the GST and WorkChoices.  Labor fought both because neither were about increasing the nation's prosperity and wellbeing.  They were simply about dividing the spoils of previous reform and settling old scores.  Those issues were about the 1980s, not the future.

Critical issues like climate change, genuine tax reform and reforming Federal-State relations were put in the too-hard basket and stayed there for 12 long years.  And we're now left with the task of catching up in far more difficult economic times.

There's a thread that runs through Australian political history: the Coalition enjoys the easy times, but it is Labor that makes the difficult decisions and carries the nation forward, often in the tough times.  I think the bulk of the Australian people trust us to make the big changes because history has shown that only Labor governments can be trusted to spread the gains and the sacrifices across the whole community.

Today we are in another period of profound economic change brought on by the global financial crisis and the resulting international recession.  Such a devastating economic shock will have repercussions felt a decade from now.

I want you to consider the scale of those events.  The six months following the collapse of Lehman Brothers last September saw the biggest falls in output for advanced economies since the Great Depression that so scarified people like John Curtin and Ben Chifley. 

$43 trillion was wiped off the value of global share markets in record time.  The Australian Stock Exchange fell 8.3 per cent in just one day.  Our dollar dropped by 16 per cent in just a week.  The inter-bank lending market was shut down and, like dominos, the world's largest insurance company, America's fourth-largest investment bank and the world's largest providers of housing finance were bankrupted or bailed out.  Entire banking systems were saved or nationalised - something that would have amused Ben Chifley.  Without the intervention of the IMF, half the banking systems of Eastern Europe would have gone under.  By January, consumer confidence in the major economies had fallen to new record lows.  Industrial production came to a shuddering halt.  World trade collapsed.  Six million Americans lost their jobs almost overnight.  And 60 million in the developed world are still expected to lose their jobs in the course of this year.

I could go on.  But you get the picture.  If the world had acted like it did in 1929, the result would be the same: catastrophe.

The thing you quickly realise when calamities like this occur, is that there's no manual that tells you how exactly to respond.  Despite this, when this terrible crunch came, there was no sense of panic.  We were confident that we were getting the very best of advice.  And that the world had learned its lesson.

But we were also guided by something more: our values.  Five words like "the light on the hill" don't tell you how to react in specific situations or commit you to a correct set of policies.  But they provide something absolutely necessary for success and for good economic decisions: a sense of purpose and a set of moral principles.  The same principles that guided Ben Chifley's Government after the Second World War: a willingness to accept responsibility and make courageous decisions;

to take the people with you by sharing the sacrifices and the gains equally; and to do more than just survive - but to use it as an opportunity to build a better future.  That's a pretty good summary of what we did.

We acted without hesitation or reservation to cushion the blow on the Australian economy and the Australian people.  We took a range of measures to support the stability of our financial system.  We welcomed the Reserve Bank's decision to cut interest rates further and faster and to a lower level than in living memory.  We provided three waves of fiscal stimulus to boost demand and support employment.

Australia isn't through the thick of this crisis yet.  The most dangerous thing you can do in a worldwide recession is declare victory too early.  But the relative success of our strategy is now plain to see.

Here is the comparison.  Over the past year: the US economy contracted by 3.9 per cent - a record fall; the UK economy contracted by 5.5 per cent - also a record fall; the Japanese economy contracted by 6.4 per cent - second only to their biggest fall, which happened the previous year; but the Australian economy grew - the only economy in the advanced world to do so.

Like the Chifley Government, we haven't been content just to survive the shock of the global recession. Ben Chifley understood - as we do - that no matter how bad things get, you should never let it distort your focus on the future.  He had the foresight to see that from the rubble of war lasting gains could be made.  That's what we're aiming to do out of the rubble of the global financial crisis.

We have used it to begin to build a new era of prosperity and create a society with more opportunities for every Australian.  Our nation building investments are providing the largest upgrade of school facilities in Australia's history; a major expansion of public housing; new road, rail and harbor construction; an increase in sustainable energy provision; hundreds of thousands of new university, trade and training places; as well as subsidised jobs for the unemployed. 

This isn't 24-hour news management - it's Labor's mission.  The challenge to keep ordinary Australians safe from economic hardship.  The challenge Chifley set for us.

We haven't escaped the consequences of this global recession, but Australians have been spared the mass unemployment, the mortgage foreclosures, the bankruptcies, the wealth destruction and the insecurities seen elsewhere.

Like the post-war era and the social and economic upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s, the global recession is changing our world.  Once again, it's Labor that is called upon to respond.  And once again, guided by the idea of a better society, we have responded in the Labor tradition of nation building and sharing the gains.

Despite these successes, the Liberals keep playing the role of a whingeing, carping, negative, opposition.  They opposed our initial stimulus.  They opposed our measures to guarantee the liquidity of our banking system.  They opposed our Nation Building and Jobs Plan.  And now they want us to declare victory early and withdraw public investment at the precise moment that it is working.

The reason for this is easy to pinpoint.  Labor knows where Australia needs to go in troubled times, because we are guided by a sense of moral purpose. 

We have our "light on the hill".  The Liberal and National parties have nothing but the blinding light of ideology.  A blinding light that obscures their vision; that means they can't see what's good for Australia and what's necessary to cushion our people from the worst this global recession can throw at us.

And worse still - some have no guiding light at all.  Joe Hockey even admitted in the past fortnight that jobs were no longer the highest priority of the Liberal Party (as if they ever were).

You can call their ideology "neo-liberalism" or "neo-conservatism" or any other name.  It doesn't really matter.  What does matter is that for all their surplus of calculating and divisive ideas, they have a deficit of moral and national purpose.

Nobody could accuse you here tonight, of that.  We are driven by an ideal, not an ideology.  Every generation of Labor supporters has to face up to its own challenges.  Since 1949, every Labor government has had to reinterpret Ben Chifley's beacon - "the light on the hill" - to suit the needs of the times.

To Ben Chifley, "the light on the hill" meant honouring sacrifice through equitable post-war reconstruction.  To Gough Whitlam, it meant that every child should have a quiet place to work, a desk on which to study, and a lamp to read by.  To Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, it meant creating an open, globally-engaged, competitive nation with new opportunities, new social protections and reconciliation.

To us today it means constructing sturdier foundations for a new generation of prosperity, that does more to harness the talents and toil of more Australians.  An "Education Revolution".  National cooperation to reform our health system. A Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.  A fairer tax system.  Working to stamp out homelessness.  And many things besides.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is a massive reforming - Labor - agenda.  An agenda that will build a better society.

It's often said that we campaign in poetry and govern in prose.  But keeping the vast majority of Australians free of unemployment and free of the fear of losing their home and the prosperity they have worked so hard to enjoy, is Ben Chifley's poetry brought to life.

What will "the light on the hill" mean to the speakers you invite here in a decade's time?  I can't tell you that.  It will be up to the younger people here tonight to give you the answers.  Five simple words alone won't tell them how to respond to the challenges of the future.  But those words will always ensure that the next generation continues to seek something better - continues to seek a country that builds a better life for every single one of its citizens.

Thank you.