Penny Wong: Light On The Hill Address

The ALP’s Senate Leader, Penny Wong, has delivered this year’s Light On The Hill Address in Bathurst.

WongWong, the ALP’s Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, told her audience that “Labor stands for fairness, growth and building the future”.

She said: “Labor’s record of opening Australia’s economy to the world has been one of the most important ways of achieving these goals – from Chifley’s support for Bretton Woods, to Whitlam’s across the board tariff cut, to Hawke and Keating’s dismantling of protectionism, to Rudd and Gillard’s pursuit of trade agreements and a place for Australia in the Asian Century. In today’s world, the forces of globalisation drive economic, technological and social change. Labor knows we won’t improve living standards by pulling down the shutters.”

However, Wong said: “Labor recognises that while globalisation brings tremendous benefits, it can also drive rapid, unpredictable and sometimes unsettling change. That is why we see a role for government in implementing policies which empower our citizens to participate in the globalised economy. Policies that will allow more Australians to prosper and benefit from economic change, rather than being discarded and left behind.”

The Light On The Hill speech is named in honour of former Prime Minister Ben Chifley, who governed from 1945 until the end of 1949. Chifley coined the expression during a speech to an ALP conference in 1949.

Wong has been a senator since June 2002, following her election at the 2001 federal election. She was Minister for Climate Change and Water in the first Rudd government from 2007, and Minister for Finance and Deregulation in the Gillard and second Rudd governments from 2010.

Text of Senator Penny Wong’s Light On The Hill speech in Bathurst.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Let me acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

Let me also pay tribute to the Bathurst branch of the ALP for organising this annual dinner over so many years now – thank you to Sue West and other members of the branch for their work.

I also acknowledge the Catholic Bishop of Bathurst, Bishop Michael McKenna and the Catholic Dean, Father Pat O’Regan.

And my federal and state Parliamentary colleagues – Stephen Jones, Sharon Claydon, Sam Dastyari, Doug Cameron, Michael Daley, Penny Sharpe, Mick Veitch and Amanda Fazio.

INTRODUCTION

Many years after he’d left the railways, Ben Chifley recalled the feeling of driving a train through the dark – the “eyes of fourteen carriages looking at you round the bends.”

He could still feel his hand on the throttle, he said, and “hear the blow of the steam and the hiss of the Westinghouse.”

By then, of course, he had his hand on a much more powerful throttle – the economic and monetary policy of the nation.

And perhaps there is a note of nostalgia in his remark that, when it came to driving an engine, “they may question your decision afterwards, but while you’re in charge of that engine, nobody can!”

You can almost see him, perhaps with his pipe in the corner of his mouth, safely steering the powerful engine of government policy through the night, alert for unexpected hazards and safeguarding the citizens whose lives and livelihoods depended on his skill and judgement.

But like all engine drivers, Chifley first served his time as a fireman – a stoker.

It was back-breaking labour, and in summer the heat was murderous, but the fireman’s job was an important one.

It was the fireman who judged how much fuel to add, or how little, to keep the steam at a constant pressure and the train at a steady speed.

And it was the fireman’s skill and experience in spreading the fuel evenly, despite the rocking and the swaying of the train, that was essential to getting the best pace from the engine.

When I think of Ben Chifley, I think not only of an engine driver who became Prime Minister – I think of an engine stoker who became Treasurer, who understood the need for the judicious application of fuel at the right moment and the importance of an even burn for achieving the greatest efficiency.

Both as Treasurer and then as Prime Minister, Chifley’s vision of the economy was one where government played an active role: through policies designed to produce growth and to reduce inequality.

Think of the post-war immigration program – extending Australia’s helping hand to those whose homes and lives had been devastated by war and, at the same time, turbo-charging Australia’s post-war growth.

Labor’s decision to embark on a large-scale immigration program stemmed from Chifley’s – and his colleagues’ – belief that population growth was essential for stimulating economic expansion, for embarking on nation-building infrastructure projects, and for the security of the nation.

The launch of the post-war immigration program was one of the most important developments in our nation’s history.

It was a decision which changed Australia for the better, contributing to economic development in the post-war decades and creating a more diverse, vibrant and tolerant society.

And it was a decision which required political courage on the part of the labour movement.

It was just one of a raft of reforms by the Curtin and Chifley Governments which fundamentally reshaped Australia.

As Bob Hawke has pointed out, Curtin and Chifley also set the goal of full employment; established the uniform tax system; expanded the manufacturing base; transformed the social security system; reformed the banking system; and accepted for the first time a share of Commonwealth responsibility for education, health, housing and transport.

Chifley was determined to reshape Australian society, to build a stronger and fairer nation that would give meaning to all the sacrifices made in the war effort.

These reforms underwrote the two decades of economic prosperity which followed.

There was no trade-off in the policies of the Curtin and the Chifley Governments between building and growing the economy on the one hand, and a fair go for all Australians on the other.

Growth and fairness went hand in hand as far as Ben Chifley was concerned.

It has taken more than half a century for economic theory to catch up to a railway man from Bathurst.

We now see recognition from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – not known as bastions of socialism! – that excessive inequality in a society retards the growth of its economy.

When the possibility of fulfilling your potential through education depends on the circumstances of your birth, or your opportunity to participate and contribute to the workforce can vanish with a car accident or an illness, the economy loses your skills.

When brilliant young entrepreneurs’ access to start-up capital depends on connections rather than talent, the growth – and the jobs – that their enterprise could provide are lost.

When the uneven spread of fuel means only some of it burns, the engine splutters and stalls.

When the uneven distribution of opportunity prevents people from contributing to their full capacity, the economy splutters and stalls.

Just as fairness underpins economic growth, growth supports fairness.

Growth delivers more jobs, better wages, more opportunities, greater spending power, expanding businesses and better returns to people who work hard, take risks and invest.

Growth also creates the capacity for public and private investment in the economic and social infrastructure needed for a prosperous and fair society.

It’s easy in Australia today to take the economic benefits of growth for granted.

That’s because Australia has had 23 years, a generation, without recession – an outstanding record by international standards.

We are the only advanced economy which has not experienced a year of negative growth since the early 1990s.

Over that period, most other advanced economies have experienced not just one but two significant downturns.

The costs of recessions fall most heavily on low and middle income earners, because their jobs are often the first to go and the last to come back, and they do not have buffers of wealth and resources to fall back on in hard times.

This is why Labor was so determined to keep Australia’s economy growing in the face of the Global Financial Crisis.

As financial markets seized up in late 2008, it was clear that advanced economies around the world faced the biggest downturn since the Great Depression.

Labor acted to preserve confidence in the Australian financial system by guaranteeing deposits and wholesale funding for Australia’s banks.

And we acted to keep the economy growing by adopting fiscal stimulus packages.

These measures kept Australia growing while advanced economies around the world fell into deep recessions – recessions which have blighted people’s lives, destroyed businesses, exacerbated inequality, and created social upheaval and political tension.

During Labor’s six years in office, Australia’s GDP grew by 15.2 per cent and employment grew by 8.6 per cent – an extra 907,000 jobs.

Steering Australia through the biggest global economic crisis since the Depression is one of the greatest achievements in Labor’s history.

It reflects our commitment to responsible macro-economic policies to support economic activity and jobs.

Labor’s approach put growth first by using expansionary fiscal policy settings, consistent with prudent and sustainable public finances, at a time when private sector activity fell away sharply.

By contrast, the Liberal Party has a knee-jerk preference for austerity measures and restrictionist macro-economic policies, regardless of the impact on ordinary people.

They opposed Labor’s stimulus package in 2009.

Now they are undermining confidence and economic activity with cuts that target low and middle income earners and their spurious claims of a Budget emergency.

This reflects starkly different views about the role of government and the values we draw upon in carrying out the responsibilities of government.

FAIRNESS

Australia has a strong egalitarian ethos.

Yet during the colonial era, before the formation of the Labor Party, notions like equality and the fair go received short shrift.

In purely free market systems, with laissez faire economic and legal doctrines, great disparities in wealth, income and opportunity can emerge.

The men – and women – who set about creating a new political party more than twelve decades ago knew there was a better way.

They knew that the role of government is to reform the market to deliver fairer outcomes – to get the balance right between retaining the economic incentives needed to reward effort, while protecting the disadvantaged and creating opportunities.

They knew that the only way the laws and policies of the government would serve that end was if they were the government and they made those laws and policies.

In Australia’s modern history, it has been Labor Governments which have made the great equalising reforms: from introducing the age pension and minimum wage regulation, to opening up the universities, to delivering universal healthcare and superannuation.

The light on the hill can be understood as a call to redress inequality, a call which remains as relevant today as when Chifley articulated it.

The recent book Battlers and Billionaires by my Parliamentary colleague Andrew Leigh sets out the story of inequality in Australia.

From settlement to the early 20th century, a growing gap opened up between those in the upper echelons of society and those at the bottom of the pile.

By 1921, the top 1 per cent of income earners in Australia took home nearly 12 per cent of our national income.

Over the next six decades the distribution of incomes and wealth became more equal.

By 1980, the top 1 per cent of income earners were taking home five per cent of the national pay packet – down from their 12 per cent share in 1921.

Andrew Leigh sees the decline in inequality over this period as reflecting a shift in Australia’s social compact during the Second World War.

Curtin and Chifley were determined there should be a fairer society after the war.

And that is what occurred – economic expansion, a return to full employment, and the role of unions in securing wage rises all built a more equal society.

Since the 1980s, however, inequality has been rising again.

In 2010, Australia’s top 1 per cent – people on annual incomes of $210,000 or more – took home more than 9 per cent of all incomes.

The gender pay gap has also begun to widen again.

The main drivers of rising inequality have been globalisation and technology, declining union representation and changes in taxation policy.

There have been signs that the trend of widening inequality in Australia has slowed in the last few years.

Policies of the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments have played a role here.

By keeping the economy growing during the global financial crisis, Labor avoided the mass job losses which have exacerbated inequality in other advanced economies.

The Rudd and Gillard Governments also tackled inequality through tax cuts and improvements in the social safety net.

Tackling inequality is a cause as relevant today as when the ALP was formed.

We live in a society which still has considerable disparities – it’s a society where the 50 richest people have more wealth than the poorest two million Australians.

This is why the Rudd and Gillard Governments invested in increasing schools funding and basing it on need – so children get the best possible education regardless of where they live or the incomes of their parents.

The alternative approach has been on display with the Abbott Government’s first Budget – a blueprint for recasting Australia as a less egalitarian, less caring and more divided society.

The Budget cuts pensions.

It cuts Family Tax Benefits for those on low and middle incomes.

It makes people pay new taxes when they take a sick child to the doctor or go to the chemist for a prescription.

It increases the cost of living and rips thousands of dollars a year out of the pockets of low and middle income families.

It will also cut Commonwealth funding for schools and hospitals by $80 billion by 2025 – massive cuts to institutions fundamental to opportunity, health and social mobility.

The Budget confirms the difference between the two major political parties in Australia.

Labor pursues a more just society for all.

The Liberal Party is preoccupied with shoring up the privileges of the few at the expense of the many.

It shows that fighting for a fair society and a strong economy remains as central to the Labor mission today as it was in Chifley’s era.

It remains, indeed, our light on the hill.

A GUIDING LIGHT

When Chifley spoke those words at the annual conference of the New South Wales branch of the ALP on 12 June 1949, he was still one of Australia’s most loved political leaders – but the clock was running down on his Prime Ministership.

Labor had been hurt by the ferocious campaign against his plan to nationalise the banks; the public was restive over the retention of war-time restrictions; and industrial confrontation was looming with the coal miners’ union.

It was a chilly day in Sydney but the 500 or so conference delegates at Sydney Trades Hall gave the Labor Prime Minister a vigorous ovation.

A press photograph shows Chifley standing at the side of a wooden stage, hands in pockets, speaking into a microphone connected to an outsize metal speaker.

Party officials sit at a table at the front of the meeting room, one puffing on a pipe, another resting his feet on his suitcase.

On the conference floor, a crowd of Anglo-Celtic men mills about, all suits and ties, short backs and sides.

A few are listening to Chifley, others are distracted; some stare back at the camera, and at least one is apparently preoccupied with some papers – filling out a ballot paper, perhaps, or just studying the form guide.

For those of you used to attending State conferences today, it might seem that only the demographics and the dress sense have changed!

So history is made – intermingled with the day to day activities of the present.

The speech traverses a lot of ground: the risk of war with Russia; poverty, population growth and nationalism in Asia; global economic imbalances; post-war reconstruction; and rising industrial tensions in the coal mining industry.

Then it concludes with the famous passage:

“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 for 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.”

The light on the hill has resonated down the years is because it has so many layers of meaning.

It is at once a simple injunction to practical action and a complex idea which unfolds to yield a set of values, a sense of vocation, and an ethos which defines Australian Labor.

It embraces practical concerns with lifting people up and improving their day to day lives.

At the same time, it calls us to a lofty ideal, a cause and a goal which flickers in the distance, lighting a path in the dark.

Whether by accident or design, Chifley’s phrase has a Biblical quality, perhaps an allusion to Christ’s injunction to his disciples: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Labor people have spent a great deal of time over the years debating and parsing words and phrases in the ALP platform which seek to encapsulate our party’s objective.

These debates should not become a distraction.

We know who we are and what we stand for.

After all, Chifley enunciated our fundamental objective 65 years ago in a way that every Labor person understands and in a way that is unlikely to be improved upon by any amount of factional haggling or drafting by committee.

His concept captures the work of social democratic parties like the ALP.

The practical work of the here and now – improving the living standards of ordinary people, giving them economic security, and warding off the risks of economic downturns.

And the transformative work of tomorrow – striving for the betterment of humanity, reconstructing and rebuilding the societies of today to forge a new future, a future of prosperity, opportunity and fairness.

That has been the goal of all the Labor Governments which followed Chifley’s.

Whitlam opened university education to all, created universal healthcare, and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Hawke and Keating opened Australia’s economy to the world by floating the dollar and dismantling protectionist barriers.

The Rudd and Gillard Governments kept the economy growing, invested in education, and accepted the challenge of tackling climate change.

Running through these policies is a common thread which defines Labor: we have always worked to shape Australia’s future.

And, for Labor, that future can never be as isolationists.

It is a future framed by a sense of Australia’s place in the world.

Chifley understood that if we want to ensure that working people have better lives, then Australia has to engage with the world.

We have to trade with other countries; produce goods and services for world markets; take advantage of the skills and enthusiasm of migrants; attract foreign investment; and play our part in shaping the international economic, security and foreign policy architecture.

Chifley was remarkably prescient on these issues – and on the importance of Asia.

He supported the development of a more export-oriented manufacturing sector that would look towards new markets in Asia.
He encouraged foreign investment to finance Australia’s economic expansion.

And his Government supported independence for India and Indonesia, despite opposition from the conservative side of politics.

Chifley regarded the emergence of a post-colonial order in Asia not as an external threat but as an opportunity for assuring Australia’s future in the region.

For Chifley, post-war economic reconstruction would require a new Australia – an outward looking nation more deeply engaged in trade and diplomacy.

That is why he pushed the Labor caucus to agree to Australia ratifying the Bretton Woods International Monetary Agreements, which created a new global economic architecture.

Internationalism, engagement with Asia and the world, and expanding Australia’s trading relationships – these are all fundamental to Labor’s identity.

And they remain critical for Australia today.

The centre of global economic gravity is shifting from Europe and North America to Asia as nations like China and India emerge as the next economic heavyweights.

This gives Australia the chance to replace the tyranny of distance with the advantages of proximity.

This is not just a matter of increasing exports of Australian commodities to Asia.

It also provides opportunities to integrate our manufacturing operations into global supply chains, to deliver sophisticated services to the region, and to foster freer flows of capital, ideas and people between Australia and Asia’s economies.

Realising these opportunities will require us to get a raft of policies right – policies on trade and investment, industry and innovation, education and science, and productivity and competitiveness.

It will also require a change in our psyche, comparable to the change in attitudes forged by Chifley’s Government when it embarked on the post-war immigration program.

The Gillard Government’s Asian Century White Paper identified long-term strategies and policy goals to enable Australia to benefit from the shift in economic activity to Asia.

Yet one of the first acts of the Abbott Government was to take the White Paper down from government websites and despatch it to the National Library’s archives.

Tony Abbott’s idea of planning for the future is to airbrush away one of the most important challenges the nation faces.

It’s symptomatic of a Prime Minister who took it upon himself to restore Knights and Dames to our society; a Prime Minister more interested in medieval chivalry, the monarchy and the “mother country” than in a modern, confident, independent Australia which builds its own future in Asia.

CONCLUSION

Labor honours our history, but we look to the future.

We have a consistent and enduring set of values to guide us in changing circumstances.

Some of the challenges are new; many have remained constant over the years – improving living standards, fostering economic growth, striving for a fair society and shaping Australia’s future.

Labor’s record of opening Australia’s economy to the world has been one of the most important ways of achieving these goals – from Chifley’s support for Bretton Woods, to Whitlam’s across the board tariff cut, to Hawke and Keating’s dismantling of protectionism, to Rudd and Gillard’s pursuit of trade agreements and a place for Australia in the Asian Century.

In today’s world, the forces of globalisation drive economic, technological and social change.

Labor knows we won’t improve living standards by pulling down the shutters.

On the contrary, to create a modern, productive and innovative Australia, to create new jobs and new opportunities, we must deepen, not reverse, our engagement with global markets.

Labor recognises that while globalisation brings tremendous benefits, it can also drive rapid, unpredictable and sometimes unsettling change.

That is why we see a role for government in implementing policies which empower our citizens to participate in the globalised economy.

Policies that will allow more Australians to prosper and benefit from economic change, rather than being discarded and left behind.

Policies which give people a quality education, advanced workplace skills, an understanding of technology and an ability to adapt to change.

Labor stands for fairness, growth and building the future.

For a fair society – because it is the right thing to do and because it is good for our economy.

For a growing economy – because growth delivers decent jobs and living standards.

And for building a strong future – so all Australians can reach their potential, looking ahead with optimism and anticipation, not with apprehension and anxiety.

The policies Labor Governments use to achieve these goals may change – but the goals and the underlying values remain constant.

We may not be able to see all that lies ahead, but the tracks beneath the train take us in a sure and certain direction.

They take us, indeed, toward the light on the hill.

Print Friendly