Spin, Circumstances And Possibility: The Chifley Legacy In 2005

Author: Peter Garrett MP is the Federal Member for Kingsford-Smith. This address was the 2005 Chifley Memorial Lecture

Thank you for the invitation to give the 2005 Chifley Lecture to the Australian Fabian Society (Victoria) and student Labor Clubs from Victorian Universities.

It is a real honour for someone who has only recently come into the Parliament for the Australian Labor Party to be invited to speak about this great Australian figure. Although his story is well known I will recount a number of aspects of his life for those are not so familiar with Ben Chifley.

I said recently that I came into the Parliament with a strong belief that Governments have a strong role to play in the life of the modern nation.

I believe that the health of communities, not the wealth of individuals, but communities comprising diverse individuals existing within a social, political and environmental frame, tremendously important.

I contend that individuals should be able to exercise what we broadly understand as their democratic freedoms without arbitrary restraint but that the poet was right "...no man is an island." (John Donne) essentially we live in community.

I also believe that economic growth must be sustainable. That however much argument there may be about that term, that the health of our society in the future will be determined by the way in which we manage the economy so as to preserve the health and productivity of the environment.

It may seem like a cliché but because I have always cared about the country. I simply started by speaking out about things that were happening that I didn't agree with.

I guess this outspokenness stems from the fact that along with a heap of other people the state of Australia's culture is important to me. As is its community fabric, its indigenous heritage, its extraordinary environment and its prospects for the future.

And I joined the Labor Party because from my perspective Labor has always cared too. My own view based on what I understand of our history is that Labor has essentially been the primary party of reform since Federation.

Notwithstanding the highs and lows of the historical record, it has mainly been through Labor that the momentum for the big and necessary changes has come.

More often than not, it has been Labor governments that have brought on the laws and policies which improved the lives of Australians. It has been Labor governments that valued the practice of social justice and the building of, what is described in a very Australian phrase as "A fair go".

What better example of Labor's political impulse can you think of than the establishment of a universal health care scheme originally known as Medibank. There are numerous others.

Like many people immersed in politics I've viewed the modern historical passage of the Australian nation with interest. I'm beguiled by the forces and personalities that have shaped that passage thus far.

Of those personalities the figure of Ben Chifley, Labor leader, and Prime Minister from 1945-1949, looms large. Chifley's accomplishments were many but he seems by all accounts to have been able to diligently undertake an exacting profession whist remaining down to earth.

The record shows that he was on first name terms with staff around the Parliament, that he had few personal enemies although his political engagement was robust. These snapshots give some insight to the character of Chifley.

His solitary walk each morning from the Hotel Kurrajong to 12 hour days (including a 20 minute kip at lunch) in his office in the Parliament, without the minders and media gaggle that would accompany any party leader in the current times, has become the stuff of legend.

Incidentally I wasn't the first, and I'm sure I won't be the last, new Member of Parliament to lodge at the 'old Kurrajong' on my first formal stay in the national capital. In one of the most poignant episodes in the Chifley narrative he in fact died suddenly there eschewing the celebration of fifty years of federation taking place at Parliament House.

Chifley entered politics to fight for peoples' rights -particularly unionists' rights. He grew up in country NSW and was a union representative and train driver who was self-taught in economics. And Chifley too had some interesting preselection days! He attempted without success to gain preselection for state seats, at one stage standing - unsuccessfully - against his nemesis, the incendiary NSW Premier Jack Lang.

He was nothing if not persistent and stood for, and on the second occasion won, the Federal seat of Macquarie in 1929. He subsequently lost it in '31, regained it 1940 and held it through four elections until his death in 1951.

He was a senior minister in the Scullin government and Treasurer in the Curtin Government before becoming Prime Minister himself when John Curtin died in office in 1945. His biographer David Day described Chifley's achievements in many ways as defining modern Australia. They were certainly considerable. He drove trains, and steered a nation.

And leading the huge task of rebuilding a country weakened by war, he achieved major reforms; initiation of a free universal health scheme, increasing planned immigration, ensuring greater access to university education and the successful implementation of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme.

I should say that in the current times we might not take on a scheme which diverted so much water from a river to the detriment of its health in the way the Snowy Scheme did. But that does not lessen the importance of the scheme in its time.

It demonstrated a vision, solved a number of difficult problems including meeting the energy needs of the nascent economy and it harnessed Australian labour and engineering resources on a large scale.

The span of Chifley's career included the depression years which saw a schism emerge between federal and NSW State Labor under Lang over the best means of countering high levels of unemployment and treating foreign debt. Amongst other things Lang wanted to cancel the debt owed to foreign banks, his federal colleagues didn't agree and the conflict between them damaged relations in the party.

Chifley knew first-hand the trauma the nation had experienced through the Second World War and how urgent it was to begin a program of major post war reconstruction. This was a process Chifley was intimately involved with being Minister for Post War Reconstruction from 1942-1945.

It is something of an understatement then to say Chifley's career took place during a period of enormous challenge and change, reflected in the often-turbulent politics of the era.

And it fell on national Governments which had the authority and, following Curtin's uniform commonwealth taxation legislation introduced in the middle of the war, additionally the means, to manage the extraordinary dislocation of the economy and society that had taken place.

Chifley, like his contemporaries, saw that the role of government was central and crucial. Indeed at one stage in 1949 he attempted, unsuccessfully, to nationalise the banking system. He was bedevilled in office by a long running coal miners strike and the continuation of unpopular petrol rationing added to his political woes. He lost the 1949 election to Menzies partly for these reasons.

The challenges of leadership in the period during which Chifley served the country were leavened by the general acceptance which has been emphatically asserted by those on the Labor side ever since, that Governments, especially the Federal government, have a major role to play in addressing pressing and critical national problems.

That the national government has to take up the national issues that are bubbling and approaching boiling point and demand attention seems unexceptional but it is by no means automatic in our history.

It was only after the interregnum of the long years of Menzies and his Liberal successors, that this role was again taken up with vigour.

The record of the Whitlam government, bringing Australia up to date, with more than 500 pieces of legislation, and the subsequent reformation of the financial system in Hawke - Keating period provide vivid illustration of the reformist character of Labor government's.

Now that understanding and that legacy are no longer with us.

We have seen under John Howard's Prime Ministership the narrowing of Liberal philosophy to the extent that it hangs off the de facto privatisation of many of the functions of government. And with that the constant denial of responsibility for any shortcomings in those functions.

The Liberals fixation with reducing the size of government has the flow on effect of shrinking the spirit of participatory democracy. One notable result of out-sourcing policy and service delivery is to mute those organisations that would likely make critical comment on the government's policies.

Those who do speak out are cowed into silence. If they receive any funding at all it is withdrawn or at least threatened with withdrawal.

We might characterise the Howard era as one where government has attempted atomisation. It is diminishing collective power by de-constructing the community into tiny units of self-interest. It is playing divide and conquer politics. It's offering blame as a philosophy and it institutionalises the old Rayndian idea of 'survival of the fittest.'

It is withdrawing community services, the safety net, the care and compassion from those less well off. It is telling people these services are a privilege, not a right; splitting the community between those who can pay, and those who can't: the political equivalent of Ted Whitten's line that winners are grinners, losers can please themselves.

This government is, instead of nation building, community busting. It seems to fear collective power - the force which comes from individuals working together, joining forces, to stick up for themselves, to fight for something, to have a voice, to protect their rights. It uses fear to mask its own for hostility (and what is hostility but another form of fear?), to organised labour.

I worry that much of the community is now not directly aware enough of the great benefits, the positive standard of living outcomes, that the union movement in Australia has achieved and the fact that this protection it has provided is now under real threat once the government takes control of the Senate later this year.

As Carmen Lawrence observed in last year's Chifley Lecture: "The Howard-Costello government has been amongst the most enthusiastic and uncritical proponents of the ideology which insists on the necessity of reducing government expenditure and removing government from key areas of policy."

For Chifley's generation the assumption that government could do good was unquestioned. This holds no longer.

And where the current Government has wanted to retain direct influence over policy it has engaged in shameless politicisation, intimidation or spinning of the bureaucracy: a trend that began with the Prime Minister's dismissal of six departmental heads within days of first taking office in 1993 and continues apace.

There is no evidence I'm aware of in the historical record to suggest that as Prime Minister Ben Chifley acted in this way.

The period during which Chifley worked, and we can confidently say the way in which he particularly campaigned, was more or less "spin- free".

That isn't to claim that political parties didn't use all the means at their disposal to convince voters of the rightness of their policies. Nor that the timeless rhetorical devices of persuasion weren't in play - of course they were.

Chifley had consistently adopted the attitude that the best form of campaigning was to inform people of what he had achieved and to tell them what to expect in the future. This was of some concern to his advisers and colleagues and there are those who believe it cost him victory in that 1949 election against Menzies.

Nonetheless, it was Chifley's ability to campaign at a grass roots level, his earthiness and common touch, without minders or advisers, that gives us some insight into his ability to be able to sell a message without having to rely on spin for it to resonate.

He often campaigned with the local candidate when he was Prime Minister, wandering into public meetings or stopping by the side of the road to heat a billy and have a 'cuppa' to discuss the issues that affected his constituents.

In 2005 nothing and no one is immune from spin. Chifley's legacy itself is now contested and spun by those with differing goals than to merely record his accomplishments and note his failures.

The recent suggestions that Chifley wouldn't be preselected into the modern day Labor Party doesn't bear much scrutiny.

Chifley was, after all, a long time senior figure in Labor and Government circles who had impeccable credentials for pre-selection. He'd worked as a union advocate, a local councillor, and served on various community and government boards, including in 1935 on the Royal Commission on Monetary and Banking Systems.

Still I don't think there is any doubt that the lessening of party loyalty and the increase in public cynicism we experience today is in part due to the massive rise of spin; the presence of advisers and staffers to manage the far more intense all day everyday media cycle of today's politics; and the consequential distance the public perceives is between the community and its elected representatives.

Yes, the modern day political party needs highly skilled staff: their job is essential in an environment where the media, especially television, plays such a crucial role particularly in election campaigns.

But people no longer see the political exchange, the relationship between people, in this instance between citizen and representative - which is, after all, the basis of politics - as authentic or even believable.

As a consequence the public have a low opinion, ironically of both the media who should be holding the spinners to account, and the politicians.

Now a large degree of responsibility for providing a check on the excesses of spin and its language lies with the media itself. After all it is the various arms of the fourth estate with its insatiable appetite for "new" news that the spinners are addressing in the first instance. Not to mention media often adding to the spin, preparing the pitch.

And there is a larger debate we need to have concerning media diversity and ownership especially in light of the Government's incursions into the national broadcaster, our ABC.

But responsibility for this state of affairs also rests on politicians, and especially on John Howard's shoulders. Of all the major political figures of our time has there been anyone so adept and shameless at both spinning and rendering his words mere ornament? I can't think of any Australian leader since Billy Hughes with such a record.

The Prime Minister started his career with something of a reputation for being a plain speaker. But that changed, and the term "Honest John" was in fact first coined in irony. And he will finish his career - who knows when - as the acknowledged master of manipulating his message with lashings of deception and deceit. The list is long: GST, Tampa, Children overboard, weapons of mass destruction, Anzac Cove, the Medicare rebate and of course, now, the Liberal leadership.

John Howard's engagement, as Labor leader Kim Beazley noted recently, has been as much about settling cultural scores as it has been about building an economically sustainable Australia.

The Prime Minister's success at getting out of tight corners and his election record is self-evident. But ultimately he's damaging the very institution he professes to care most about - parliamentary democracy.

The public's confidence in the democratic process, notwithstanding the large doses of cynicism around, is increasingly weakened by the parade of lies and broken promises both in and after election campaigns. For that crippling of civic confidence John Howard bears much blame.

But so too some of the responsibility for bringing back a degree of genuine engagement, a connection that is authentic, lies in the hands of all parliamentarians and those working in the political sphere.

Mark Latham in the period of his leadership was onto something when he conducted town hall meetings. Old fashioned, yes, from the Chifley era perhaps, but real at least, and at the time a "breath of fresh air...' and a genuine point of contact for people.

There is much important debate about how political parties need to reach people. In whatever form this interaction occurs, whether around a 'Chifleyesque' billy, which is a pleasant but unlikely thought, or though web conferencing, it will need to be a clear and real and two way exchange.

Democracy deserves nothing less.

It isn't easy to clearly understand all the circumstances that pertained to the Chifley era, even though it's not that long ago.

As I've noted the primary task for Chifley was to get the country back on its feet after the rigours of the war years. Rationing, whilst accepted as a necessary wartime measure, was deeply unpopular.

Soldiers were returning to start new lives and there was an urgent need to develop new industries and create conditions for stable employment.

Those Australians living under Chifley and Curtin did not enjoy anything like the standard of living most people experience nowadays. Indeed, one of the most common mantras of the war years was the need to be thrifty, to embrace the 'season of austerity' as Curtin described it.

The access to easy credit and the availability of a wide range of consumer goods available to people nowadays was unimaginable back then. As was the provision of social welfare that, rightly, became 'core business' of government.

But in another sense the circumstances of today are not significantly different from Chifley's time.

Notwithstanding a period of relatively buoyant economic conditions over the past ten years, buoyancy made possible by the signal reforms of the Hawke-Keating era, we now face significant economic, skills and infrastructure challenges.

Australia's current account deficit is at an all time high, as is private debt. Housing prices too are at record levels and the only infrastructure that seems to be funded is located in National Party electorates.

But there is an additional circumstance that is impossible to ignore that I want to address, one that does distinguish the Chifley era from today and is of such scale it is already impacting widely on Australia.

I am referring of course to the marked overall decline in the health of the natural environment now manifesting itself in the threat of human-induced climate change.

Australia faced two immense challenges during the time Chifley served the Labor Party; depression and war.

In our times one of the biggest challenges we face will be ordering our affairs and organising our economy so as not to further damage the environment of the planet each one of us relies on to live: To live and, yes, earn a living.

The manner and speed of our response will have a great bearing on the quality of life for Australians well into the future. And of these challenges the most confronting is without doubt climate change's palpable by product, global warming. South Australian Premier Mike Rann expressed it as: "The metabolism of the world's economy colliding with the metabolism of the planet."

The Greenhouse Effect and the spectre of possible changes to climate are not new - but since 1992 and the Rio Earth Summit when nations agreed to look at ways of minimising the impact of human activities on the world's climate and subsequently began meetings which led to the Kyoto Protocol, now Treaty - the issue has commanded increased attention.

Australia was a party to those meetings, and succeeded in weakening the Protocol, getting a generous clause added which would allow us to factor our reduction of land clearing into the calculations on what reductions in greenhouse emissions we would be obliged to meet. Our figure was, consequently, 108% of 1990 levels.

As the years of negotiations continued and one of the largest group of scientists ever assembled to consider an issue confirmed that the likelihood that global warming was inevitable, Australia apparently had a change of heart, if not mind. And even when the Russian Federation finally came on board late last year, enabling the enactment of the Treaty, the Australian government, along with the US, didn't sign it.

Kyoto is a modest step in the daunting task of addressing climate change, but it represents the first opportunity for the global community to literally start taking concrete steps to face up to the biggest environmental problem we have. And it is a market-based system, so beloved - normally - of the neo conservative side of politics. We are told it will significantly hurt our economy, but that it is weak. And we are told by the Prime Minister that we will meet the targets set but we won't sign. This is a nonsense.

Australia is one of the largest per capita producers of greenhouse gases in the world, producing in total an emission tonnage equal to that of countries with populations many times ours; our actual emissions are set to rise dramatically over the coming two decades; and our appetite for energy is undiminished.

And critically there is no coherent plan for dealing with this issue on offer from the Federal government. Indeed Resources Minister McFarlane is still not sure that climate change is happening at all.

Climate change science is not exact. Yet already scientists are beginning to scope the impacts of global warming and they are many. These impacts will fall on farming communities, on fish stocks, on ice shelfs, on low lying island nations, on bird migration patterns, city water supplies... the list goes on.

Despite the seriousness of this issue, I think the significance and universality of the climate change threat has not been communicated effectively enough. Perhaps because it has not been put in plain, simple terms, and those oncoming effects are often hidden in clouds of technical jargon.

In the Southern Hemisphere, areas of South West Western Australia where species extinction rates are heading ever upwards have been identified as global warming hot spots. And the long drought we are currently experiencing in much of Southern Australia has exposed our vulnerability to water shortages, especially in the cities.

Recent plans by the WA and NSW Governments to commission, or at least consider, desalination plants at great expense is a precursor of things to come.

The circumstance that Australia's rural industries find themselves is extreme. Dr Graham Harris, the chief of CSIRO land and water has estimated the price of restoring Australia's degraded land and water is close to the $3.7 billion annual value of agricultural production.

That is getting close to a zero sum game with the threat of managing hotter, drier seasons bearing down on farmers and city dwellers alike.

It is an axiom of environmental economics that the longer an environment is allowed to decline the more it will cost to repair. The health of the Australian people is ultimately linked to the health of the Australia's natural landscape, we cannot afford any more delay.

I've spoken at some length about Kyoto not only because I consider it of pressing urgency but also because the Howard Government response - or lack of response - so counters the legacy of Chifley and the approach of Labor.

The Howard Government has been seemingly indifferent to the long term impact on our national interest, and to international communities aspirations with its obduracy on climate change.

It speaks volumes that John Howard has not suggested any other means of reaching the modest goals of the one international instrument we have, to begin to address this, the "father" of all environment issues.

Labor won't ignore the challenge. Kim Beazley, speaking in Caucus earlier in the year identified the environment as one of the key issues Labor will address in the coming term. Shadow Environment Minister Anthony Albanese has forcefully reminded the parliament and the public that Labor would not only ratify Kyoto but would also increase Mandatory Renewable Energy Targets - and establish a national greenhouse gas trading framework.

During the Chifley era, through the endeavours of former Labor leader Doc Evatt, Australia played a central and constructive role in the establishment of the United Nations.

Under the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments the Labor international record continued. It featured the accession and adherence to important international conventions such as World Heritage; protection of Antarctica; pressure on the apartheid regime of South Africa; creation of the South Pacific nuclear-free zone; APEC; and the formation of the group on nuclear disarmament - that was the "Canberra Commission on the elimination of Nuclear Weapons".

So Labor has a tradition and a track record for working constructively and in co-operation with others on the international as well as the domestic front.

There are other challenges as well as climate change that Australians will need to square up to in our lifetime. Each one adds weight to the claim that the role of the national government will be increasingly important.

If we are to specifically address climate change we will need to devise and implement a pathway to future economic growth based on reducing greenhouse emissions. We'll need to reconfigure our cities and transport systems so as to provide habitable, cost-effective and clean living spaces. And we'll need to repair and protect our natural landscapes.

This is a huge task, a kind of rebuilding of a sustainable nation that is within our grasp if only we recognise the circumstances we are in and determine to exercise national leadership and to act.

The confidence that we can still aim high for the common good and will persist till we reach the better place for the nation comes in part from the Chifley legacy.

Chifley enunciated the "great objective" of the labor movement -"the light on the hill" - which, he went on to say, "we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand."

This confidence that we can aim high for the common good should inform our actions and enervate our involvement in Labor politics from this day forward.

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