Voting against the nationalisation of everyday life

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, September 10, 2013

SAY what you like about those 21 minutes and 14 seconds of our lives that we will never get back, but Saturday’s concession speech was authentic Kevin. The tender glances from Therese told us this was the Kevin she knew, the Kevin who meanders dreamily past the fixtures and fastenings, wondering what the heck he had been sent to Bunnings for in the first place.

“The marvellous tapestry of modern Australia,” the departing prime minister mused.

“The mosaic of our multicultural nation fashions such unity out of diversity.”

It’s a speech, all right, but doesn’t it need something to hold it up? “Hearts are heavy across the nation … unswerving courage … strength in Labor sinews … new ideas for the future.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Rudd spots what he’s looking for. “Ben Chifley’s light on the hill still burns bright across Australia … Ben Chifley’s light on the hill will continue forever.”

When Kevin gets lost in the superstore of aphorisms, he heads instinctively for the light on the hill, that rousing catch-all invocation that adds purpose to whatever barmy, statist progressive idea happens to come into his head. Chifley coined the phrase in the 1940s, about the time he hit on the idea that a great way to improve the wellbeing of the toiling masses would be to nationalise the banks.

“This action of the government springs from one thing only within the Labor Party, and it is a fundamental thing: the love of humanity itself,” he told parliament during debate on the Banking Act. “Honourable members opposite may sneer at that remark … but let it not be forgotten that there is a light on the hill which guides the movement of which we are members.”

The invitation to sneer was seized with relish. “The Prime Minister spoke of ‘a light on the hill’ as if the only light in the world is the particular beacon which he has set up and lighted,” mocked the Country Party’s Hubert Anthony. “That is the kind of statement generally attributed to a fanatic who would slaughter every one who does not accept his pet dogma.”

The Liberals’ Percy Spender said that for Chifley to speak of the light on the hill “is something like the devil quoting scripture”. His colleague Eric Harrison demanded: “Let us forget all this airy nonsense and get down to facts.”

Joe Abbott said people were “sick to death of the foul and vile administration of the government … ‘the light on the hill’, the ‘golden age’ and the workers’ ‘honeymoon’ “.

Those who insist they are on the right side of history have generally got things horribly wrong. Chifley’s ascent to the light on the hill led the Labor Party off a cliff, a fall from which it did not recover for another 23 years.

An imaginary beacon, like an imaginary friend, may be a source of private comfort, but it is a dangerous guide to public policy. The opposition ridiculed Chifley mercilessly, through debates on the shipping bill and wheat stabilisation right up to 1949 when, just as they did on Saturday, the people voted to stamp the damn thing out.

Some commentators have described Saturday’s election as a Seinfeld moment, a plebiscite about nothing. It was a choice, as they put it, between failed vision on the one hand and lack of vision on the other.

If vision was what you were after, it’s a fair point.

If, on the other hand, you were over vision, growing weary of Rudd and his plans for the industries of the future, to train apprentices and help families under pressure, because you think these are things people should be encouraged to do for themselves, then the result of Saturday’s election was a matter of some consequence.

In 1949, the country made a historical choice in favour of Robert Menzies’s practical liberalism and against the nationalisation of industry.

On Saturday, Australians decided in favour of Tony Abbott’s evocation of the Menzies spirit and against the nationalisation of everyday life.

Abbott’s cultural critics struggle to see anything coherent, let alone virtuous, in his philosophy of life. Yet rarely has a conservative leader presented a manifesto with such grounded philosophical underpinnings.

His constant reference to a state that favours lifters over leaners should surely have struck a chord by now. It is a phrase from the Forgotten People radio talk, delivered in 1942, in which Menzies contrasts the socialist dystopia of Chifley and John Curtin with his classical liberal ideals.

“Many of my friends will retort, ‘Ah, that’s all very well, but when this war is over the levellers will have won the day’,” Menzies said. “But I do not believe that we shall come out into the overlordship of an all-powerful state on whose benevolence we shall live, spineless and effortless; a state which will dole out bread and ideas with neatly regulated accuracy; where we shall all have our dividend without subscribing our capital.

“If the new world is to be a world of men, we must be not pallid and bloodless ghosts, but a community of people whose motto shall be: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ Individual enterprise must drive us forward.” As Menzies put it, “leaners grow flabby; lifters grow muscles”.

Abbott’s rhetoric is less ornate, but its message is unmistakably Menzian: “Government doesn’t create wealth, people do; no country has ever taxed its way to prosperity; we’ll cut red tape; a hand-up not a handout.”

The performance of the Coalition will ultimately decide how soon Labor will return to play around with the machinery of state in pursuit of its technocratic dreams, assuming Labor does not switch, as it should, to a more practical course of action in the meantime.

At his campaign launch speech, Abbott described the election as “the most important in a generation”, and he may yet be right, but it will depend entirely on his ability to win the battle of ideas and resist the temptation to meddle in places where governments have no right to intrude.

As Abbott says himself, “Our country will best flourish when all of our citizens, individually and collectively, have the best chance to be their best selves.”


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