- First published in The Australian on 6 December 2011

The “light on the hill” got a good run at the weekend’s Labor conference. At least four speakers employed the phrase: Prime Minister Julia Gillard in her opening address; Left Spokesman on Everything Senator Doug Cameron against the sale of uranium to India; and Labor for Refugees’ Linda Scott and backbencher Ed Husic on offshore processing of asylum seekers (against and for respectively).

There’s an annual Light on the Hill Dinner and a Light on the Hill Oration. The phrase is embedded in the Labor Party’s psyche and purports to encapsulate its reason for being.

It comes from Ben Chifley, Labor Prime Minister from 1945 to 1949, and is usually referenced to his speech to the 1949 national conference (read it at Australian Politics) months before the election that sent them to opposition for 23 years.

Chifley was the first Labor leader to take the party to a second consecutive win (in 1946 following John Curtin’s 1943 victory). He was and remains revered in the ALP, and just after his death in 1951 the party published a book The Light on the Hill. His famous phrase has endured for more than sixty years.

What does it conjure? Perhaps: you’re poor and powerless, it’s dark and lonely and cold, there’s no one to help you, all seems lost until you see … a light on a hill.

A search through newspaper archives actually reveals “light on the hill” was a favoured phrase of Chifley’s before 1949, particularly in defence of his plan to nationalise the banks which many see as greatly contributing to that 1949 defeat.

He explained to Parliament in November 1947 that the Bank Bill “sprang from one thing only within the Labor Party … the love of humanity itself” and that “there is a light on the hill which guides the movement of which we are members”. In that same month he described a “shining light on the hill” and “shining light of idealism for humanity on the hill”.

Opposition leader Robert Menzies inevitably responded that Chifley’s beloved light was coloured red.

There is a 1947 newspaper recollection of him using the phrase when sitting on a Royal Commission into Banking in 1937, but the only reference I found to Chifley and the Commission back then was:

“… all of the Commissioners but one expressed uncompromising opposition to the nationalisation of banking. Mr. Ben Chifley, who was Minister for Defence in the Scullin Government, dissented … ”

(Bank nationalisation was longstanding Labor policy.)

Chifley is also credited with the phrase “hip-pocket nerve”—a much better one I reckon. The first instance of this I could find was in 1949, about the upcoming election. It is not clear whether the Prime Minister was being quoted or paraphrased:

“I’m ready if the people want me to continue, but the cabbage patch is always waiting. I know the hip pocket nerve is sensitive, but I will not touch it.”

“The cabbage patch is always waiting” had potential as a routine quip for politicians contemplating political mortality but it didn’t take off. (As it turned out Chifley remained Labor leader until his death so the cabbages remained untended.)

The other famous piece of 1940s political memorabilia is Menzies’ “Forgotten People”. It was the title of a radio talk, one of a series he gave in 1942. The Australians he spoke of were neither the wealthy and powerful, nor the unskilled, unionised labourers, but those in the middle:

“… salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on. These are, in the political and economic sense, the middle class. They are for the most part unorganised and unself-conscious.”

You can read the talk here.

That was a year after his first prime ministership had ended so disastrously and Labor’s Curtin had become Prime Minister on the floor of the house.

It was barely reported at the time, but in 1943 he published a collection of these radio talks and named the book after that particular one. The Cairns Post began a May 1943 article like this:

‘Some time, ago Mr. R. G. Menzies, MP., delivered a series of broadcast addresses as a voluntary contribution to the solution of contemporary problems. They have now been published in book form. All royalties from the sale of the book are being donated to war funds. The book bears the title “The Forgotten People,” …’

(Full title: The forgotten people, and other studies in democracy.)

Five months later the conservative parties suffered their worst flogging ever, with the largest one, the United Australia Party, winning just 12 of 74 seats.

Menzies, one of the lucky 12, formed the new Liberal Party the next year.

For the rest of the decade the only newspaper mentions of “Forgotten People” I could find were parliamentary reports of Labor Minister Arthur Calwell selectively quoting from it to amuse the government backbench and ridicule the Opposition Leader.

You could say Menzies laughed last in 1949, except in 1955 Calwell was still bringing The Forgotten People out for a parliamentary chortle.

In 1987, in a speech at the launch of the Dame Pattie Menzies Liberal Foundation, Opposition Leader John Howard included this:

“What sort of society is the Hawke Government creating in Australia which places extra burdens on families with children? The Liberal Party has never and will never reduce families with children to the status of being forgotten Australians.”

(It is not clear whether the link to Menzies’ forgotten people was directly made by Howard or by journalist Mike Steketee in his report.)

The words were given a lease of life in Judith Brett’s 1992 book Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People and they haven’t looked back since, with Tony Abbott borrowing them year for his “forgotten families”.

My general scepticism about political cause-and-effect applies to this phrase as I wrote earlier this year. I doubt Menzies really discovered a new demographic or was even the first politician to try to win them over, and it’s a bit of a stretch to link a 1942 talk to a 1949 victory.

But we all need our stories. Not least the ALP and the “light on the hill”.