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John Passant

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September 2010



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The myth of Labor’s ‘Light on the Hill’

We have a great objective — the light on the hill — which we aim to reach by working for the benefit of mankind.

Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley in 1949.

Now Julia Gillard, in the annual Ben Chifley Light on the Hill speech, has echoed those words. 

‘We can strengthen opportunity for all Australians, and build an enduring legacy for future generations. That is how we will honour Ben Chifley and keep the Light on the Hill burning bright,’ she said.

For many Chifley’s words define the ALP. The “light on the hill” encapsulates the idea that Labor stands for a better world. Chifley’s eloquent phrase reinforces the fairy tale that Labor in power is a “caring” government.

The myth-making continues today, whether it be about Gough Whitlam or Bob Hawke, or even Paul Keating. And now we can add Julia Gillard, the woman in charge of a vicious anti-worker Government worshipping at the altar of profit and washing the feet of big business.

Like Gillard, the swing against Chifley at his last election was huge. Workers rejected him and his anti-worker policies in 1949, like they rejected Gillard and her anti-union policies in 2010, in their millions.

It is the dead Chifley, the reality of his government unknown to most, who dominates the pantheon of labor ‘heroes’ and the myth of a golden age of Labor rule.

Looking at what Chifley did in practice shows then, as now, that what the ALP is really about is managing capitalism, at the expense of workers if necessary.

So what was the “light on the hill” comment really about?

Chifley’s speech was an apologia for ALP social democracy at a time when the Communist Party of Australia had some influence in the trade unions and among elements of the Australian working class. The CPA was a critic of Labor’s idea that capitalism could be reformed for the ongoing benefit of working people.

Capitalism at the end of the second world war could not meet the high expectations of workers who had fought for a better world.

This contradiction reflected itself in the ALP talking about a better society while suppressing workers taking industrial action to try and improve their lives. Thus while Chifley was talking about the “light on the hill”, he was also warning workers that Labor was not about putting “an extra sixpence” in their pockets.

Chifley could talk about a better world; he just couldn’t deliver.

Just weeks after Chifley’s light on the hill speech, 23,000 miners struck for better wages and conditions.

In 1947 Chifley had set up the Coal Industrial Tribunal. This body had arbitration power in the coal industry. The miners’ unions lodged claims with the tribunal for a 35-hour week and a 30 shilling increase in wages. They also asked for long service leave as a normal work condition.

These demands were not outrageous. The ALP’s platform had supported a 30-hour week for miners in recognition of the nature of their work. The wage claim was actually less than that lodged by the ACTU for all workers.

The tribunal stalled for two years. As a consequence the communist leadership in the unions agitated for direct action, rather than tribunal arbitration.

The communists found a ready audience among miners. They voted to strike. Negotiations with the employers fell through and the unionists walked out.

How did the party of the “light on the hill” respond to working class action for better wages and conditions?

It immediately passed legislation to make it illegal to support the strikers financially. It arrested union officials for not handing over union funds to the industrial registrar. Eight were later given jail terms of between six and 12 months. Police invaded union and CPA premises. The unions were fined.

The government and employers portrayed the strike as inspired by the communists. The CPA was certainly strong in the mining unions. Workers voted for communists in their unions and followed their lead — because they did a good job fighting for better wages and conditions and defending workers against employer attacks.

Chifley took on the miners, not because they were communist-led, but because they dared to step outside arbitration. If they won better wages and conditions by direct action, other workers might follow. Hawke attacked the Builders Labourers Federation and the pilots for the same reason.

Ark Tribe is on trial under Gillard’s industrial relations laws and threatened with six months jail for the crime of being a unionist and attending a lunchtime safety meeting.

Historically the ALP has been about utilising arbitration to limit wage increases. Chifley, like Hawke and now Gillard, uses the state to try and defeat any union that might dare step outside those boundaries.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission, a Howard bully boy which Gillard will not abolish, is aimed at destroying the building unions. They are the main group of unions which still attempts occasionally to defend jobs and improve wages and conditions and fight for a safe workplace through the one effective means, industrial action.

In the grand tradition of Labor such unions must be destroyed, or at least hamstrung, to make the world safe for the profit bludgers.

In 1949 Chifley needed to prove again his pro-capitalist credentials to employers in a bidding war with Liberal Party leader Robert Menzies in the run-up to the elections. Bloodying the nose of the miners would serve that purpose and contain the strike disease, or so Chifley hoped.

The media went into a frenzy, screaming about a communist strike to destroy democracy. The ALP and right-wing unions joined in the orgy of lies. Yet despite the propaganda and the repression, two weeks into the strike the miners voted to keep it going.

The ACTU played a double game. It supported the miners’ claims with words, but condemned them for “provoking” the Labor government. Other unions took the hint and began to scab, operating open-cut mines and transporting coal.

This is not a surprise. Right-wing union leaders (and some who proclaim themselves to be left-wing) have time and again shown solidarity with the employing class against other workers. Their class collaborationist politics drives them relentlessly down this path.

Four weeks into the strike Chifley’s armed troops began to run the mines. Chifley could have relied on more scab union labour to do this. However, he wanted a grand gesture to prove his credentials to run capitalism and to demoralise union militants throughout the country.

It worked. The strike ended two weeks after the troops went in.

Arrests, fines, untruths, armed troops. So much for the light on the hill. It was a lie in 1949; it is  a lie now.



Comment from Mervyn Jacobi
Time September 19, 2010 at 4:20 pm

I have yet to see some action of the labor party – or any party, to act with decency and respect towards our working class and small business. Harold Holt has been the only person – as treasurer to bring into action a tax system that controlled the greedy rich, and made the costs of goods and services to be controlled at a reasonable price. Both the Labor and Liberal have acted almost as if as de facto partners in driving our economy down to recession. They have no valid excuse for their actions since 1971, we are paying an expensive price in costs and destruction of our manufacturing industries since the export of our coal and other resources. I can only hope that they have a good think, and review their actions before going into any more of those stupid corrupt decisions of destruction of our economy and wellfare for our workers.

Comment from Arjay
Time September 20, 2010 at 7:53 pm

At least the Liberals are honest and pander to the elites.Labor are sleazy and deceptive pretending to represent the worker and let large corporates screw them over.

Look at the carry trade of the RBA.Always pumping interest rates up and down under the pretence of curbing inflation.It is the banking system via tghe fractional reserve system which creates inflation thus the depreciation of the value of our work.

The fractional reserve system of banking must be taken form the hands of private banks.It is about time they earned an honest living like most businesses.

Comment from Nick Nack
Time September 21, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Ha Arjay – Liberals honest? What, like pretending to look after the ‘battlers’? lol

Comment from Arjay
Time September 22, 2010 at 6:41 pm

Nick Nack,though I’d get a bite.You are right. They are all dishonest lying bastards.It is all a matter of degree.

Time for a political party, or have no parties ,just honest independants if you can find one.

Comment from Nick Nack
Time September 22, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Arjay, at least you seem to recognise there is more than just a binary yes/no, black/white to every scenario. SAlt seem incapable of seeing outside of their extremely narrow views to understand that not everyone agrees with them, not everyone ever will and you cant just dismiss all opposing views without ending up with egg on your face (as SAlt so often does)

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