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The light on the hill is our line in the sand

By Loz Lawrey

In the Australian political sphere, clear, well-defined and distinct philosophical approaches have always informed policymaking on both sides of the political divide.

Right-wing pundits see themselves as living in the “real world”, dismissing dissenting views as those of “leftist dreamers”. Labor voters tend to draw inspiration from our shared vision of the “light on the hill”.

In 1949, at a Labor party conference just like the one happening this very weekend, former Prime Minister Ben Chifley defined the light on the hill as Labor’s “great objective, 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”, he said, “the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for”.

It is that principled and uncompromising worldview which has brought so much good to our Australian social democracy and held fast against the greedy and selfish assaults of powerful vested interests which have always pursued the enrichment of an elite few at the expense of the many.

Thus was drawn the line in the sand – the line behind which we unite, the line that so many of us see as differentiating left from right, empaths from sociopaths, progressives from conservatives.

In his workingman’s anthem “The Union Forever”, Billy Bragg sings of trade unions offering “comfort to the widow, a light to the child”. To me, this line has always encapsulated the inclusive values of the left-hand side: the caring, sharing, giving, helping lens through which the labour movement and its now confused and troubled child, the ALP, has always viewed the world.

I know such language is easily brushed aside as “leftist” and “loony”. The conservative neoliberal take on things always dismisses empathy as impractical, an unrealistic aspiration which policymakers in the “real world” must not allow to taint their considerations.

In the right-wing worldview the only factors on the table are the economic “bottom line” and the politics of vote-winning. The right defines sustainability not as that which is “ongoing for the common good” but as “what we can afford, what we are prepared to pay for and will keep us in power”.

Two sides of politics. Two worldviews, separated by a clearly-drawn line. This is our line in the sand. This is the line true Labor supporters cannot cross, because if we do we abandon principle in the pursuit of power.

This is what differentiates our position from that of those more concerned with their own self-interest than the common good. Because the pursuit of self-interest at any price is likely to require the abandonment of principle.

Thus do we snuff out the light on the hill, all in the name of “pragmatism”. Ah …
”pragmatism”. In the arsenal of weasel words deployed by those seeking to justify unfairness, austerity, cruelty, or warmongering, this is one of the most insidious.

“It’s a difficult issue”, they’ll say. “We’re not jettisoning our values or principles, we’re just being pragmatic. After all, this real world is a harsh, cruel and unfair place”. The fact that the “real world” is actually shaped and organised by humankind ourselves is conveniently overlooked. If the world is indeed cruel, then it is we who make it so.

This is exactly the way false and twisted depictions of social realities are foisted upon us. This is how the Greek public, after voting comprehensively against austerity measures now find themselves swallowing large servings of … you guessed it, austerity.

This is the way Australians are seduced by the “be very afraid, but don’t worry, we’ll keep you safe” rhetoric from the Abbott government.

And this is the way Labor leader Bill Shorten has shoved an unacceptable policy, straight out of the LNP songbook, down the throats of the Labor faithful. By adopting the Abbott government’s “boat turnback” policy, Shorten wants us to effectively slam the door in the face of desperate refugees, sending them off to even greater danger on so-called “leaky boats”. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s a cowardly, lazy, “let the navy deal with it” approach.

Under the banner of pragmatism in the “real world”, we have been sold a pup.

With a concession or two designed to appease us by implying a slightly more humane approach to border policy, apparently this policy dog will drag Labor over the electoral finish line in a winning position.

This mutt of a policy assumes too much, however. Though Abbott and his henchmen may tell us their boat turnback policy is effective, could they ever be believed? The ongoing secrecy, lies and complete lack of transparency around “on-water-matters” suggests not.

Will we ever know the numbers who have drowned and how many will in future because of this sociopathic approach? Will history define this policy as enabling the genocide, not of a particular race or nationality, but of the most desperate people on our planet?

This “turnback” policy mongrel is targeted squarely as an appeal to the most selfish, racist and xenophobic members of the Australian community. It kowtows to the regime of fear of the “other” with which Tony Abbott, and before him John Howard, have infected our society. All for a few lousy votes.

The evidence points to the fact that our democracy is broken. It has been subverted by its perennial enemy, corporate neoliberalism. Surely, rather than accepting and bowing down to a distorted conservative worldview, Labor should be working to dismantle it and return social justice to its rightful and iconic place as the figurehead of the Australian ship of state?

Once Labor cements inhumanity into its policy framework there will be no going back.

Masquerading as a pragmatic approach which will neuter strident government posturing, Shorten’s endorsement of Abbott’s cruel and inhumane turnback policy is proof-positive that Labor is irrevocably compromised. The line in the sand has now been crossed.

Now where can a Labor voter turn for leadership consistent with our “light on the hill” values? I constantly hear the cry from some that Labor is the “lesser evil” and therefore still worthy of our vote. “At least they’re better in general”, people say. Perhaps until now Labor was slightly better, but now the line has been crossed.

The same weasel-words and spin so effectively employed in service of the neoliberal agenda are now used by our own leaders to hoodwink us. They portray a cruel and inhumane plan of refoulement as “saving lives at sea”. We know it is not. Labor voters are not stupid. We are being forced by the party we love to espouse values we don’t. It’s time to walk away. The stench of uncaring cynicism is unbearable.

Will the votes Labor gains by this choice compensate for those it loses? Will an exodus to the Greens, minor parties and independents leave Bill Shorten and Richard Marles alone in an empty room talking to each other? Probably not, sadly. Time will tell.

One thing we can be sure of though: the real winners are likely to be the Greens. They certainly won’t be refugee asylum seekers.



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  1. keerti

    “Will the votes Labor gains by this choice compensate for those it loses? Will an exodus to the Greens, minor parties and independents leave Bill Shorten and Richard Marles alone in an empty room talking to each other? Probably not, sadly. Time will tell.

    One thing we can be sure of though: the real winners are likely to be the Greens. They certainly won’t be refugee asylum seekers.”

    I’ve been a labour voter all my life ( 60+ years), until the back stabbing of Julia Guillard. Even though I leaned toward the Greens, I voted labour in order to keep the liberals out. At the last election I decided that the time had come. I will now be most likely to vote Greens as they have more of labours values than labour.

  2. stephentardrew

    How to pull them back from the brink that is the question.

    Support the left and try to move on Shorten and the right.

    This is the game of politics and you either play when the heat is on or get out of the kitchen.

    Never give up, never say no.

  3. Andreas Bimba

    A very well written article. I think the Labor Party would be wise to change its leadership and policy direction now or it will die a lingering death and much more importantly so will Australia until a real opposition centred on the Greens can form.

  4. David

    Loz,.. interesting name. But I digress. Why didn’t you simply write ‘Vote Greens’. Would have eliminated all that typing. Have a nice evening

  5. Phil

    I accept much but not all of what you argue Lez.

    I agree on the foulness of the turn back policy, but I accept the Shorten pragmatic line that you argue so vehemently against.

    I take the pragmatic line because I know that as long as the ALP is not in power it has no means by which to change the policy that you and I find so utterly repugnant.

    Abbott is a ruthless authoritarian. He has no internal moral compass. Essentially he is a pschopath. Nothing is beyond his ken. Nothing is too low for his reach. Like it or not the ALP must use whatever tactics are required, within the law, to defeat Abbott and thus rid the nation of it’s most dangerous and stultifying prime minister, even if this means adopting Abbott’s heinous policies so as to avoid the wedge.

    If this labels me as a selfish, racist and xenophobic member of the Australian community – well too bad – names mean nothing in this game.

    Sun Tzu’s Art of War makes no case for decency and morality, rather, he adopts necessary means to achieve necessary ends. Abbott has embraced this art and thus he will only be defeated by the intelligent application of pragmatism, strategy and tactics.

    Idealism, morality and decency are not game changers when exercised from opposition. Progressives must learn the art of fighting, then, when the battle is won they will have the power to bring about the changes that they know are right.

  6. mmc1949

    Empathy is only impractical in the real world because we choose to make it so.

  7. Carol Taylor

    David, why not say Vote For Humanity. Take away the scare campaign and there are many right wingers concerned about the incarceration of children and wish for better treatment of some of the World’s most vulnerable. Humanitarian issues are not just “Green”.

  8. Rosemary (@RosemaryJ36)

    I am beginning to be persuaded that the most important thing at the moment is to make sure that Abbott’s is a one term government.
    If endorsing repugnant policies makes that possible, then so be it. But if that fails then Labor is in the wilderness for a long time.
    Because we do have preferential voting, the only thing that will matter is placing LNP candidates at the very bottom of the list.
    A hung parliament is not necessarily a bad thing. as was proved under Gillard.

  9. Marilyn

    And out trot the racist pragmatists. I bet you would not like such pragmatism if it was your life on the line.

  10. mars08

    Oh… those persuasive pragmatists. Because getting rid of Abbott is the highest priority. By hook or by crook…

    “And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.

    Whatever it takes, right?

  11. John Kelly

    Yes, some will vote for the Greens, I will too, but at least in the lower house, I am still going to second preference Labor. Keeping the Greens in the senate in maybe even larger numbers is the price Labor pays. But their lower house vote will still be much the same.

  12. xiaoecho

    As I said on another thread, the Aussie public have been CONDITIONED since Tampa/children overboard to fear and loathe refugees seeking asylum via boat. For at least 15 years we have been told that those doing so are sub human and do not deserve any compassion because they are ‘jumping the queue’ and thus depriving the ”real’ refugees of an aussie home. The fact that there is no queue, or that it is not illegal to seek asylum has been completely ignored by a complicit press.
    The appalling Abbott hiked up the rhetoric when he became LOTO. Asylum seekers were now illegals. Nobody in the press ever bothered to tell Aussies that it was the boats that were illegal not the passengers.
    Australians have been lied to by the despicable Liberals (aided and abetted by a complicit press) who have systematically groomed them over the last five years to fear and loathe asylum seekers – even to the point of murdering them with impunity, sexually abusing their children and denying those locked up in the tropical gulags basic medical care and criminalising anyone who attempts to defend them
    Asylum seekers have to be re-humanised to the Aussie people (I refer to the dis-engaged majority, not the aware minority) This will not happen overnight. Abbott (a psychopath heading a psychopathic government) has used these wretched peoples lives as a political tool. Their lives mean nothing to him and while the Abbott junta remain in power their fate is hopeless.
    Australians, because they have been conditioned to fear and loathe refugees will not accept a pro boat refugee policy. The end. Shorten and the ALP are on a hiding to nothing trying to implement one.
    As another commenter said, nothing is beyond Abbotts ken. He will stoop to any low – as has been demonstrated. He must be defeated. If he is not those Asylum seekers locked up in the Gulags will be infinately worse off under the Liberals than they would be under Labor. In power, the ALP have a chance to claw back humanity into Asylum seeker policy.

  13. Harquebus

    This problem of left of politics betraying its ideals and supporters is not unique to Australia.

    “Increasingly, the electorate views the leftist rulers as traitors, who betrayed their supporters at the beck and call of their most egregious class enemies: the bankers, the capitalists and the neo-liberal ideologues.
    The self-destruction of the Left is an unanticipated victory for the most retrograde neo-liberal political forces. These forces have sought to destroy the welfare system, impose their rule via non-elected officials, widen and deepen inequalities, undermine labor rights and privatize and denationalize the most lucrative sectors of the economy.”
    In the end the people will re-pay them turning their backs and rejecting their pleas to re-elect them ‘for another chance’.
    “There will not be another chance. This ‘Left’ will be discredited in the eyes of those whose trust they betrayed.”

  14. mars08

    Oh spare me, xiaoecho. Please!

    As I recall, the last time Labor was in power they had no problem using “these wretched peoples lives as a political tool”. They did exactly zilch to “to claw back humanity into Asylum seeker policy”. They didn’t even ATTEMPT to educate the public not to “fear and loathe refugees”. In fact they were quite determined to keep the asylum seekers “locked up in the tropical gulags”

    Yes, Australians have been “systematically groomed” to see the asylum seekers as subhuman. But it wasn’t just the Coalition doing the grooming.

  15. eli nes

    well may you say ‘nose’, mars because if it is cut off to spite labor’s face we might end up like chifley’s labor 2013-2036.
    As for the ‘lord such clone’ greens, they destroyed the ets in 2009 and in 2013(soon after the election) the greens made a joke of debt by voting with the Rabbutt to add billions to his government and nobody knows where the money has already gone or will go.
    If you listen to examples of the greens, at any level, you will find enough evidence to confirm they are still essentially associated with the moon.
    I hope that the people here are not giving their ‘dollar a vote’ to the greens? Far better give it to an independent or to some candidate you have talked too or at least done some research to check their credentials. But don’t be an abbuttian twit and vote without thought.

  16. Douglas Evans

    mars 08
    I suspect you and xiaoecho are in furious agreement. Read what he/she said again more carefully.

    eli nes
    It’s getting late. Time to take the pills and toddle off to bed.

    ‘This problem of the left of politics betraying its ideals and supporters is not unique to Australia.’ Equating Labor and ‘left’ is problematic. As a firm believer in the virtues of social democracy some time ago I felt sufficiently enraged by what I saw as Labor’s betrayal of its social democratic reason-to-exist that I abandoned them. I joined the Greens, a genuinely middle of the road social democratic party with a policy platform that consistently reflects those views. For me the penny finally dropped when I saw a TV news grab of then leader Simon Crean emerging from the National Conference to scoff to the cameras ‘Some people in there think the ALP is a social democratic Party. It isn’t.’ I thought ‘well if it isn’t that what is it?’ In retrospect I now see that it was naive of me to have ever regarded Labor as Australia’s social democratic party. Labor has since its inception as the political arm of the union movement always embodied a strong streak of conservatism. This was by no means removed with the DLP split. Since Hawke at least (probably much earlier but I’m not a Labor historian) the right has controlled the Party. Despite its admirable record of progressive achievement in health education and welfare Labor has never had an unambiguously social democratic program. It has always embodied a contradictory mix of social democratic and conservative values. The latter, bit by bit, is eroding the former. Labor’s current program would have been most acceptable to Bob Menzies (no progressive) who incidentally would be appalled by what has happened to the Party he founded.

    Now off to bed.

  17. lindsayms

    “The end justifies the means.” Perhaps this latest betrayal of Labor principles exemplifies this maxim. But to me a moral end can never be arrived at through an immoral means, the means contaminates the end.
    As with keerti I have voted Labor all my life but was forced to re-examine my stand after Julia’s stumble. This latest fall has ensured that the ALP will never get any higher on my ballot paper than number 2

  18. Hotspringer

    Labor will always get my preference over the toxic LNP but will not be my first choice until it returns to centre left of politics.

  19. Harquebus

    Could it be the religious influence that is Labor’s conservative side?
    I don’t know. Jus’ askin’.

  20. townsvilleblog

    The labour movement is always worth fighting for, our fellow Australians who get out of bed each day to toil for what are sometimes wicked employers who treat employees badly which happened way back in Chiffley’s time and still occur today. Federal ALP and for that matter Qld ALP seem to be more West Wing politicians who are so far removed from the ordinary worker that they would not know or realize the trials and tribulations of the ordinary lowly paid worker, which makes defending such people impossible. Luckily we have a former ambulance administrator as our local State representative, but federally we have a tory, a former auctioneer who was on $90,000 p.a. before he got into the federal parliament, he is not interested in helping the poor of course but he is a supporter of marriage equality. If other lefties are unhappy with Labor’s right wing policies, they need to work towards making Labor democratic for Labor members, 1/2 of a vote is not good enough, the gerrymander has to come tumbling down, one vote, one value with every union being allotted perhaps 5 votes and the ordinary member having one vote, this would be closer to democracy.

  21. townsvilleblog

    Harquebus possibly a little, but the main thing is that right wing unions sell out their members best interests to their employer, which is precisely what $3 bill was dragged through the Royal Commission for, selling out cleaners in 2004 that should have been paid $50.17 an hour but instead thanks to the employer paying the AWU $25,000 the poor buggers had to work for $18.15 an hour due to the agreement Shorten had struck with the company Cleanevent as I said the right wing unions sell out their members, it’s appalling but these conmen like Shorten get away with it because it is not against the law, only moral law, the right of the ALP is purely interested in money, look at Edddie Obeid and that scandal in NSW they are all charlatans who are only in it for what they can get for themselves, at least that’s my humble opinion.

  22. mars08

    How odd. I certainly don’t feel like a stranger in the land of my birth. Not when we go to the supermarket anyway. But I DO feel quite uncomfortable on Anzac Day and Australia Day… when surrounded by knuckle-dragging, drunk, flag-wearing yobs.

  23. Sarah Gowans

    Well said Loz, totally agree.
    (Ive missed you since I got banned from the haiku site for talking about women. Cheers xx)

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