It’s often said that the greatest speech ever delivered was Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In less than 300 words, Lincoln’s tribute to the sacrifices of those who died in the cause of freedom drilled deep into the heart of the American spirit. It was a landmark in human expression not just for its lyrical beauty but because it spoke directly to Americans about their national identity.
Ben Chifley’s 'Light on the Hill' speech was 484 words long.
But Chifley’s thoughts on the nature of the Australian labor movement are in many ways our equivalent of the Gettysburg Address. When Chifley spoke of ‘bringing something better to the people’ and praised those who gave freely of themselves to advance the circumstances of others, he was outlining the Labor Party’s mission statement. But the Light on the Hill is not only about the ALP. It’s a mission statement of the entire Australian people.
Ben Chifley’s ‘Light on the Hill’ speech was delivered on 12 June 1949 to the NSW Branch of the Australian Labor Party. It was not 484 words long. It was around 3,300 words long.
I have the full text in front of me in Things Worth Fighting For: the collected speeches of Ben Chifley, Melbourne University Press, 1952. The 484 words Albanese refers to as the entire speech are in fact just its final paragraphs.
Is it possible that Albo got the speech off Wikipedia? Because the same mistake is made on Wikipedia too. I tried to get an online copy of the full transcript for you from the Museum of Australian Democracy, but an official politely and promptly replied to my email and said they didn’t have it, and referred me to the australianpolitics.com website from which Wikipedia drew its wrong version.
Does it matter if a man aspiring to be the next Labor Prime Minister gets it wrong about a speech Ben Chifley delivered 60 years ago? Yes. Because an aspiring Labor Prime Minister has just written eighty percent of an important Labor speech out of history.
The context of Chifley’s speech is that he is a leader under siege, doing the hard work of post-War reconstruction against enormous internal and external odds to lay the foundations for Australia to become the successful, moderate, prosperous multicultural society it is today.
Here’s what Chifley does. He calmly downplays the odds of a new world war against Russia. He argues against the merits of communism which was a threat within his own Party and a scourge in the unions. He outlines the enormous economic problems facing the world, and especially Europe, with massive shortages of all kinds of basic resources. He speaks about the want and deprivation in Asia, concurrent with a population explosion. He explains the currency and trade crisis – with the US dollar so strong against the British sterling–area economies that trade imbalances were inhibiting recovery. He argues the humanitarian and self-interest need for Australia to keep exporting wool, wheat, butter and meat to the UK, despite the poor economic returns. He talks about the huge opportunities for Australia, and his Government’s program of growth, investment and expansion. He chides the private sector for its continued complaints when his Government is doing so much to support it. He emphasizes the duty and national self-interest in bringing to Australia displaced peoples from Europe to build our post-war nation. He tells the unions they must accept his immigration program and that he will continue to support existing labor conditions. He heavies the miners’ union which is threatening to strike (and soon does, in fact), stressing the concessions that have already been made and the vital need for energy to fuel the post-war reconstruction program.
Chifley’s speech grapples truthfully and in detail with immensely difficult real world problems. And then come Chifley’s final words, the words Albo so admires. Here they are as printed in my book (including the spelling of ‘Labour’).
I have had the privilege of leading the Labour Party for nearly four years. They have not been easy times and it has not been an easy job. It is a man-killing job and would be impossible if were not for the help of my colleagues and members of the movement.
No Labour Minister or leader ever has an easy job. The urgency that rests behind the Labour movement, pushing it on to do things, to create new conditions, to reorganize the economy of the country, always means that the people who work within the Labour movement, people who lead, can never have an easy job. The job of the evangelist is never easy. Because of the turn of fortune’s wheel your Premier (Mr McGirr) and I have gained some prominence in the Labour movement. But the strength of the movement cannot come from us. We may make plans and pass legislation to help and direct the economy of the country. But the job of getting the things the people of the country want comes from the roots of the Labour movement – the people who support it.
When I sat a a Labour meeting in the country with only ten or fifteen men there, I found a man sitting beside me who had been working in the Labour movement for fifty-four years. I have no doubt that many of you have been doing the same, not hoping for any advantage from the movement, not hoping for personal gain, but because you believe in a movement that has been built up to bring better conditions to the people. Therefore the success of the Labour Party at the next election depends entirely, as it always has done, on the people who work.
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 someone 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. It does not matter about persons like me who have our limitations. I only hope that the generosity, kindliness and friendliness shown to me by thousands of my colleagues in the Labour movement will continue to be given to the movement and add zest to its work.
You can hear the weariness behind Chifley’s closing words. And the loneliness. The trials of leadership during the war had already killed his predecessor and friend John Curtin. Chifley himself was to die exactly two years after giving this speech, in June 1951, having lost an election.
Have these words been improved by ignoring the preceding paragraphs? Of course not. The words accumulate power precisely because of their place in the totality of Chifley’s speech with all its intelligence, grit, detail, determination and sincerity.
In full or in part, it isn’t the great Australian speech. That’s yet to happen. Perhaps when we become a Republic. But it’s a very important speech and one for the Labor movement and Australia to be proud of.
My tip to Albo and Labor in the meantime? Focus less on word counts and emotional flourish. Focus more on explaining the world around us, what your plans are, how you will deliver them, how you will overcome the obstacles that await you, and how you will ensure that all Australians share the struggle and the success.
Because that’s how great speeches – or great sections of speeches - come about, out of the hard fire of political will and action. (And, by the way, Lincoln knew that too.)