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Bill Shorten: Light On The Hill Address

Bill Shorten has delivered the annual ‘Light on the Hill’ Address in honour of Ben Chifley.

ShortenChifley was Labor Prime Minister from 1945 until 1949. Prior to that, he was Treasurer in the Curtin government from 1941. Amongst other things, Chifley is remembered for his ‘Light on the Hill’ speech to an ALP conference in 1949.

Shorten, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations in the Gillard government, was elected to the Melbourne electorate of Maribyrnong in 2007. He was previously National Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union.

The Ben Chifley Memorial Lecture is given each year in Bathurst, Chifley’s birthplace.

Text of Bill Shorten’s ‘Light on the Hill’ Address in Bathurst.

If things are right, they will come your way.

Those words aren’t mine.

They belong to:

  • a boy who grew up sleeping on a chaff bag in a bush shack with a dirt floor;
  • a young man who started out as a cashier’s assistant in a general store;
  • a unionist who was the youngest first-class locomotive driver in New South Wales;
  • and a politician who never took his eye off the ball – or the horizon.

Of course, I’m talking about Australia’s 16th prime minister and our 19th Treasurer – Bathurst’s own Ben Chifley.

It’s worth remembering when Chifley said those words.

It was 1917.

World War One was raging, … the Labor Party had split over conscription … and Chifley’s union had lost a bitter battle to protect their members’ working conditions.

Times were tough, (sound familiar?) but Chifley said time didn’t matter if you were right – because, sooner or later, events would go your way.

It’s classic Chifley.

Have the courage of your convictions and let the political cards fall as they may.

Don’t “live for the hour”.

Be “concerned about the future … and present prosperity of Australia.”

That’s Chifley. That’s Labor, too.

And that’s why it’s a privilege to be with you in Bathurst on the 127th birthday of Joseph Benedict Chifley

Chifley was born on September 22, 1885. He was born in another century – and another country.

There wasn’t a Labor Party.

There wasn’t a Federation.

There wasn’t even the vote for women and indigenous Australians.

Three generations before the great man’s birth, the expansive ambitions of Governor Macquarie had pushed the struggling colony of New South Wales over the Blue Mountains and onto the Bathurst Plains.

Macquarie handpicked 60 convicts, whom he deemed least likely to attempt escape, and offered them pardon if they finished the road – all 126 miles of it – in six months.

Duly motivated, they cut 1,200 yards of road a day from the steep, dense, rocky landscape and constructed more than a dozen wooden bridges.

For their labours they arrived in Bathurst and won their freedom.

It is perhaps serendipitous that the birthplace of our first great nation builder was the destination of Australia’s first great infrastructure project

So, why is a man who was born in the 19th century – and died in the middle of the 20th century – relevant to the Australia of the 21st century?

Let me tell you why.

Chifley is relevant because he advanced Australia – because he helped make modern Australia.

It was Chifley and John Curtin who housed a nation battered by Depression and war, and planned and instigated the post-War transformation.

A transformation that created a prosperity neither Curtin nor Chifley lived to see – a transformation that put thousands of demobilised servicemen into work a year after V-J Day.

It was Chifley and Curtin who drew up the plans for a post-War industrialization of the Australian economy … delivering everything from the Snowy Mountain Scheme to the first all-Australian car – the Holden 48/215 FX.

It was Chifley and Arthur Calwell who threw open the doors to the post-War migration boom that was the beginning of the end of the White Australia policy … creating one of the world’s most successful multicultural nations.

It was Chifley who – through astute management of finances and creation of a Treasury Department that was all about policy ideas – ensured Australia had the intellectual brains and fiscal brawn to jump start itself in the decades after World War 2.

It was Labor … and it was Chifley.

Now, Chifley wasn’t perfect. None of us are.

His handling of the 1949 coal strike was controversial.

And Chifley himself said he moved too fast on the nationalization of banking.

When you stand back and look at the big picture, though, it’s hard not to be impressed by a man who changed his country for the better.

Tonight, we have gathered to revere Chifley for a speech delivered to a Labor conference a few months before he lost the 1949 election to Bob Menzies.

Tonight I want to do two things:

  • focus on one of the ideas of his speech – that the Australian story is all about protecting and promoting the interests of working men and women;
  • and explain why I believe the future for Australia is all about a good job – about giving people the support and opportunity they need to get the job they deserve.

Chifley’s speech wasn’t just about his vision for the future.

For me, Chifley’s address is about first principles.

The great man went to great lengths to point out the source of strength of our Labor movement, of our ship in ever-turbulent times.

The success of the Labor Party,” he said, “… depends entirely, as it always has done, on the people who work.

Chifley understood strength and success doesn’t come from messianic leadership…

…doesn’t come from the writings and the theories and Jerusalem dreaming …

…doesn’t come from polling.

For the Australian Labor Party, our strength comes from people who have worked, do work and want to work.

Of course, workplaces have much changed since 1949.

In 1949, working people were felling timber … and shearing on the boards of a wool shed … and casting ammunition … and building big ships and manually loading them on wharves … and driving locomotives through the night to Parkes and Cairns and Mildura.

Today, working people are not only blue collar.

Today, working people are more likely to be middle class – with Year 12 and post school qualifications in nursing or policing or computer electronics or a trade.

They are just as likely to be techies as tradies – working across a diversity of new industries.

What I’m saying is this:

We are not the Australia that we once were.

We are more than a farm … or a factory … or a mine … or a beach. We are all these things and much more.

We live in a world changed forever.

We cannot go back to the past, however much some wish it.

Gough Whitlam, then Bob Hawke and Paul Keating – together with Bill Kelty – created a working middle class, an achievement that does not always keep Labor votes, as priorities expand and family numbers shrink… and bread winners move to other jobs in other towns… and kids go overseas.

And – thanks to Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan – it remains a triumph, even now with the aftershocks of European crisis and a high dollar.

There are fewer tiles on the global economic roof than there have been for the last 20 years.

This is another world.

Nonetheless, on the Rudd-Gillard watch, 800,000 jobs have been created, while the rest of the developed world has stalled.

The numbers tell the story.

The latest labour force figures – released less than a fortnight ago – tell a compelling tale about this success and about our 21st century economy and how it has changed since Chifley’s time.

264,000 health care and social assistance jobs created between November 2007 and August 2012.

142,600 in professional, scientific and technical services.

105,500 in education and training.

69,100 jobs in accommodation and food services.

45,100 in administrative services.

20,000 in financial services.

We have become a remarkable services economy.

We are a marvelous, diverse, modern, skilled, outward looking economy.

It’s a broader employment base than even Ben was planning for, in the years after the war in which hope was high and anything seemed possible, but here it is, and we are in it, and prosper from it, prosper within it, providing for our grandchildren from it.

Chifley, the realist, would know this and with his adding machine at midnight, plan for it. He never took his eye off the ball, or the horizon.

Because of the Hawke-Keating-Kelty settlement, and the sometimes terrifying adjustments they made for the real world beyond our shore, and within our Commonwealth and our altering society… many of us have more than our grandparents could have imagined.

Where average household incomes were less than $50,000 in 1986, in 2012 it is nearly $140,000.

In fact Australia’s standard of living has climbed spectacularly over the past generations. Sixfold within four generations.

The proportion of us in unions, oh yes, went down quite a bit.

Now, there is a school of thought that all this – particularly the drop in union numbers – means the Labor Party is no longer necessary.

The naysayers, the vested interests, the conservative media, cry out that the work of Labor is done.

That unions are no longer relevant, that working people have nothing to worry about.

That we have done our great things… that our operations should be wound up.

But this is like saying superannuation should have stayed at 3 percent …not moved to 12%.

… or that because women have the vote meant there was no need for the Equal Pay case…

… or that the 1967 referendum meant the Apology to the Stolen Generations was not needed …

… or that the campaign against asbestos stops at James Hardie.

To those who say that the cause of Labor has run its course I challenge.

Who will act on new complications in an ageing workforce? – with Baby Boomers rolling into retirement at a rate faster than new working taxpayers are being minted.

Who indeed but our Labor movement.

I challenge who will act on climate change altering forever the way we live? – from the houses we build to the communities we live in.

Who but our Labor movement.

I challenge who will act on the rise of the digital economy and global competition?

Who will build a prosperity that survives beyond the last day of the mining boom?

Who but our Labor movement.

Who will – instead of cutting wages and conditions – stand up for high performance, productive, well remunerated, collaborative workplaces?

Who but our Labor movement …

… because – as Chifley said – our concern is the present and future prosperity of working Australians.

We’re not like our opponents – the wait-and-see brigade.

We are not like our opponents, who say the future is too hard.

We don’t sit back and ask, why change today?

Why worry about tomorrow?

Why not stay as we are?

Why not just wait and see?

The trouble with the wait-and-see school of non-thought – as Ben Chifley and Gough Whitlam, and Bob Hawke, and Paul Keating, and Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard knew – is that the one thing that won’t wait is tomorrow.

Change is coming.

The real question is how we manage change.

Do we work together to ensure it benefits the nation as a whole – or just a lucky few?

Do we wait and hope for the best? – hoping we don’t go backwards economically, socially and environmentally – or do we take action?

Do we wait, and let slip the gains, and let our children and their children pay the price?

I believe we can’t wait and see. We have to think and do.

Now, I said earlier that – for Australia in the 21st century – the future is a good job.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

All the challenges Australia faces – whether it’s globalization, the skills race, empowerment of workers and consumers – all of them come back to the brains and ability of our people.

We can prevail beyond the commodities boom – and build a flexible, productive, competitive society that has a global brand for innovation and creativity.

To grow sustainably in the 21st century, our homeland needs a healthy, highly educated, creative workforce.

  • Students and apprentices;
  • Men and women encouraged to work – whether they are parents returning from maternal or paternal leave, whether they are people with a disability, whether they are unemployed;
  • Older workers wishing to blur the line between work and retirement.

For me, Australia’s future is not about abstracts – it’s about rights.

  • The right to a great education – something the Prime Minister has made her magnum opus.
  • The right to a secure retirement.
  • The right to a good job – no matter your postcode or what disability you might have, or what your country of birth.
  • And the right for women to continue their onward march through the institutions of power.

That’s what the light on the hill means to me – equal opportunity – a truly fair go.

And that’s why, for me, the light on the hill is the future – yours and mine.

Your family and mine … your nation and mine.

It’s economic justice – good jobs for working people … co-operation over conflict … on-the-job safety and constant re-skilling … a secure retirement as a just reward for a lifetime of hard work.

It’s social justice – an educated and healthy and scientific nation where no one is shut out by disability or gender or disadvantage … where no one is left behind.

It’s multicultural – where everyone’s a local … no matter whether they are first or fifteenth generation Australian.

It’s a place where we, of Labor, keep our promises to the past by leaving our nation a better place than we inherited …

My light on the hill is personal, too.

It’s people like Garth Bonney – who drilled inside a 900 centimetre diameter tunnel for 6 hours every 18 hours for 8 days to rescue Todd Russell and Brant Webb at Beaconsfield.

People like Neville “Nifty” Wilson – a farmer and president of the Victorian Jockeys’ Association who’s just retired after 50 years of racing, including 20,000 rides and countless battles for jockeys.

People like Graham Baker – my friend and a mechanic needlessly crushed to death by a bobcat at a factory in 1994 – or Owen Telford – a construction worker whose legs were amputated when a trench collapsed.

People like Milly Parker – who acquired a brain injury in a car accident 20 years ago, but is now a charismatic and successful small businesswoman.

People like my Geordie father – who left school to be apprenticed and go to sea, but could have run a shipping company.

People like my clever, brilliant, loving mother – who, if given different opportunities, could have become a High Court justice.

And people like my friend Michael Kirby – who was a High Court justice and who should, in my view, be able to marry his lifelong partner.

Remarkable Australians such as these – and many more I am privileged to know – keep the fire burning.

They are my light on the hill – each and every one of them are an incandescent beacon.

Friends, the light on the hill is not history.

It is still there. Still guiding us.

It is today and tomorrow – the past, present and future – our parents, our wives and husbands, our children and ourselves.

The light on the hill is about being part of something bigger than yourself – something that won’t ever be extinguished.

The light on the hill demands the display in public life of the same forensic passion about the nation’s future that parents now apply the future of their children in the next 20 years.

Friends, that’s what it means to be a Labor person, a Labor Party, a Labor Government.

So, when somebody asks you what Labor stands for, you say “the light on the hill”.

And when they ask you – “What’s that?” – you tell them this story.

…The light on the hill is a National Disability Insurance Scheme – to make our nation more inclusive to the 1.5 million Australians with a disability and their carers, who have been shut out of schools, jobs and communities.

The light on the hill is making our schools the best in the world – to ensure the next generation of Australian workers have the skills and to be part of the global digital economy.

The light on the hill is promoting immigration and tolerance.

The light on the hill is the creation of national wealth and fair distribution of national income.

The light on the hill is economic growth supported by a Parliament of moderation and reform.

The light on the hill is science and innovation – to make Australia as famous for ideas as we are for sport.

Friends, Australia is a big country, but ours is not a big nation.

We can’t easily compete with China or India or the United States on scale – but we can compete on smarts.

Our future prosperity and sustainability depends on the creativity, egalitarian ethos, and passion of working men and women – and our Labor Party has a responsibility to make that future a reality.

This future can’t be built overnight.

Labor knows it will take 13 years to finish the reforms necessary to put our schools in the world’s top 5.

Labor knows the Snowy Scheme was conceived in the 1940s – but not completed until the 1970s.

And the productivity benefits of the Hawke-Keating economic reforms – achieved, I might add, with the strong support and consensus of union and business leaders – were not fully realised until the Howard years.

After all, it takes longer to build a school than to close a school.

It takes longer to build an NBN than sell off Telstra.

It takes longer to create a high-skilled job than one that pays $2 a day.

It takes longer to hire than fire.

It takes longer to be sensible than extreme.

It takes no time to go backwards. It’s going forward that takes effort.

That’s why we cannot sell the future short.

That’s why we must not stop striving for progress.

Labor must ensure every Australian has the best education to access the job they deserve, experience a fulfilling working life, and enjoy a secure retirement.

So that’s what I mean when I say the future is a good job – and that’s why only Labor can make that future a reality.

Labor should always be the voice for groups who are ignored by conservative elements in our society.

This includes public sector workers, new migrants, people with a disability and their carers, and small business – the micro start up entrepreneurs.

Labor should always be authentic.

Labor should be storytellers … interpreting and explaining the forces of change in the world around us to the people we represent – telling them change is not an experience alone, but an experience together.

Our story is that future prosperity in this great country is for all, not the few.

I know Labor’s best days are ahead of us as we look to our light on the hill.

In coming here, I must say that I’ve wondered what Ben Chifley would think of this 21st century Australia that he helped make possible.

What would he make of our cultural diversity?

What would he make of our relative wealth?

What would he make of the Asian century, … the rise of women, … our greater life expectancy, … our digital and diverse economy?

It’s hard to say.

This much is certain… the man who once said he’d rather have Bob Menzies’s education than a million pounds would understand that the future is all about the people who work.

People who are studying to work, trying to find work, return to work, or leaving fulltime work for a full retirement.

Chifley would understand that the future is a good job.

After all, working for a living is the Australian – and Labor – thing to do.

Chifley would understand our nation’s prospects depend on our equity as a people – from pre-school to post-work; from those with a disability to those without; from those of us who are Australian by birth to those who are Australian by choice.

We are a migrant country.

We are a working country.

Ours is not a federation made by and for vested interests, or the privileges of inherited wealth and power.

This place – Australia – our home – Australia -was made for self-made men and women.

People who work. People like Ben Chifley.

The Labor Party and the labour movement – we are ambitious for our nation.

We are doing better than we read about.

We hope where others doubt.

We dream where others deny.

We progress where others stand still.

We look forward where others look back.

We respect people regardless of wealth, where others ignore.

And that’s why Labor can and must win the next election.

We can win. And we must win.

All we need is courage.

On the 13th of July, 1945, the Courier Mail’s political correspondent E W Waterman identified courage as a defining feature of Australia’s new Prime Minister.

He wrote of Chifley’s philosophy:

“In making a decision, do the thing you know instinctively to be right. That usually turns out to be the best thing to do. Once you’ve made your decision don’t worry about it.”

It was Chifley who in his lifetime; grew up on a farm, was apprenticed on the railways, was demoted on the railways, studied 17 years of night school, provided money lent at interest to the needy, put food on the front porches of poor neighbours too proud to ask for it.

Through life as a Bathurst ombudsman and councillor, and local member and Federal Minister, turning wartime factories into peacetime industries to keep workers in a job, then administering a war economy and building a post-war nation and a multi culture, with infrastructure as large as the Snowy, and the Holden, and the Housing Commission scheme.

And bequeathed to us, in this new millennium, a birthright and a social gift, that we as Labor men and women should embrace with thanks and defend with vigour and expand and enjoy in the years ahead, that never-fading light on the hill to which our eyes are ever turned and our dreams are ever striving.

A Labor vision

A Labor goal, a fair-go nation we are still to realise in its fullness, a way of the future we must vigilantly seek and hold.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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