Jim Chalmers Labor light on the hill
Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Pity the poor Laborista assigned to do the Light on the Hill address in 2019.

Jim Chalmers wanted to use it to tell Labor to abandon its nostalgia regarding old-left socialism. But of course he also had to recite Ben Chifley’s accomplishments. Here’s how he handled the engine driver’s greatest passion: “His membership of the banking royal commission from 1935 to 1937 showed him what did and didn’t work about banking and finance”.

When you’re telling the party to move to the centre, and the lecture is named after someone who wanted to nationalise the whole banking system, probably best to simply leave out the greatest fight of his life altogether.

Look, Chalmers seems to be a decent guy, but his Chifley oration is heartbreakingly self-parodic — an effective demonstration of the terrible situation Labor is in.

Bill Shorten’s Labor came to the 2019 election with a grab-bag of policies, some of which — renewables, childcare, tax — were mildly leftish but had no overarching narrative, common grounding, or much passion from the right-faction figures selling them. The campaign marked the final point of Labor’s long leaching-away of any form of social-political analysis that had been cross-fusing the party since the 1920s, and which had all but run dry after 1996.

Having become immersed in neoliberal economics, choice theory and focus groups, the sort of atomised individualistic thinking that underpins such processes deluded the party into thinking that that’s how society actually is. So they offered nothing but isolated bids; a policy auction.

Because some of these offers were leftish, Chalmers asserts that Labor was perceived to be against mobility. “Mobility” is Chalmers’ mantra, the idea that Labor should be realised by assisting people and families to go about their individual and differing self-advancement.

That’s tricky if you’re delivering the Chifley, because the obvious content of the “light on the hill” — from the Sermon on the Mount by way of John Winthrop — is that we are going towards it collectively, that it’s the only direction to go in. Winthrop, a Puritan settler of Massachusetts spoke of the “city on the hill” that would serve as a beacon to the dissident — and fiercely ethical — puritans of Europe. That worked for Chifley, for Whitlam and even for Hawke, because they presided over societies in which the mode of life of Labor’s base retained a residual collectivism, a fact which relied on an absence of mobility. Similar schools, jobs, neighbourhoods — we were moving towards the light together.

Chalmers thus has to combine these contradictory notions and the result is rich in absurdity. Here’s my favourite: “A forward-looking society, an outward-facing country, powered by an upward-climbing economy”.

Also known as: nose-down, arse-up, going round in circles.

Chalmers’ hope as expressed in the oration is that 2019 is like 1980; the disappointment before the triumph. That is presumably a gin-up for the troops because, without some real rethinking, 2019 will be more like 2001 for Labor — or 1951 — the first of a string of losses.

The simple point to make is that Chalmers (and much of Labor) has entirely misunderstood how Morrison eked out his 2019 win. They appear to have latched on to the idea that Morrison sold aspirational individualism better than they did, while Labor’s various statist offers smacked of collectivism. That is exactly the opposite of what occurred. Morrison didn’t advocate an individualistic and competitive society — he assumed that it existed, and offered, via political sloganeering, some partial compensations for it. Morrison supplied a collective of atomised individuals — “the quiet Australians” — who lived up to the “promise of Australia”.

This latter phrase was mocked by Labor insiders, as was “if you have a go, you’ll get a go”. Some suggested this was an invitation to selfishness; actually it was an invitation to reciprocity, to feel part of a larger national enterprise — even if, day by day, your family’s life is actually isolated, struggling and precarious. There was no policy offered to “achieve” this; that occurred simply by saying it, politics as a granting of recognition.

How did Morrison and his team hit on this in a way that Labor couldn’t? The obvious answer is that Morrison’s genuine religious faith gives him an insight into a population’s hunger for something beyond individual (including family) existence, in a way that Labor’s technocratic and unimpassioned elite have lost. Having kept a lid on explicit religiosity (after a few early missteps) Morrison had, in Christianity, a way of “theorising” social life. Pretty crude, but since Labor had none, Morrison won.

Morrison’s vague memes supplied the heart to the heartless world of neoliberalism. By so doing, the Liberal Party became the custodian of Chifley’s vision, regressing to its literal religious roots. After all, what is the Hillsong megachurch when lit up for service? Literally a shining city on a hill.

Labor, which once offered a society that would be better than the one we had, now proposes to replace the idea of leading us somewhere with mobility — which is going nowhere, but at greater acceleration. If Labor runs that line — and quite aside from the possible global recession coming down the tracks — then Morrison will go twice as pseudo-collective in 2022, and win 2022 and 2025 at the same time.

Before going to the hill, maybe Labor should lie down in the valley for a while and think hard about what it is, what society is, and why it actually wants to rule the shining city.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey