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Thursday, 21 June 2001
Page: 28370

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (6:07 PM) —In speaking in the adjournment debate this evening, I want to take the opportunity to make some remarks about the 50th anniversary of the death of Ben Chifley. In doing so, I note the increasing tendency for Australians to express a deeply ingrained mistrust of the political processes and their politicians. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. With every government backflip and broken promise, the prevailing cynicism toward the political process is more entrenched. Australians have always been at the very least suspicious about politics and their politicians. It is something that Ben Chifley noted more than half a century ago, when he said:

There is a cynical belief in many sections of the community that politicians will promise anything in order to gain power. Unfortunately, some politicians will do so ...

I suggest that Chifley, who died more than 50 years ago, on 13 June 1952—that is what we commemorate this week—was not one to hold back when speaking his mind. He was without doubt one of this country's greatest leaders, particularly because he had the strength and the character to match his principles and his beliefs. In the same speech, he said:

I have never been able to bring myself in politics or elsewhere ... to make rosy promises which in my own heart I knew were not true or could not be given effect to.

Indeed, his refusal to waver from this principle was seen by some of his contemporaries as a political weakness. But I say this trait showed his great force of personality. I sometimes wonder whether, if more people in this place were prepared to stick to what they believed in, politicians would be more respectable and more respected in the eyes of Australians. Maybe the political process would be healthier and more robust, too.

I personally believe that there is a lot that we can learn from Ben Chifley about honesty, integrity and loyalty in politics. It was on 11 June 1949 that Ben Chifley made the `light on the hill' speech where he defined Labor's objective: better living standards and greater happiness to `the mass of people'. In this and other speeches, Chifley gave many examples of the things he thought were worth fighting for. In his view—and the labour movement should never forget this— the aim of the labour movement was not in `putting an extra sixpence in somebody's pocket or making somebody prime minister or premier, but bringing something better to the people'. Ben Chifley was said to be a reluctant public speaker. Reluctance aside, the simplicity of his words should not be underestimated, nor their power to deliver a clear message of what he believed in.

Given that many people and communities are currently suffering under a government that is both out of touch and out of vision, the objectives of Ben Chifley are as relevant now as they were back then. There is a lot to be said about being clear, direct and honest in politics—and in all walks of life, for that matter. From my own experience travelling throughout regional and rural communities in the last 18 months, I have found that people are much more responsive if you are honest about what you can do and equally honest about what you cannot do. That is why I was particularly displeased with a speech by the Leader of the National Party, the Deputy Prime Minister, at last weekend's National Party conference in New South Wales. Mr Anderson said on no less than six occasions that his mission was to create policies that `bridge the divide between urban and non-urban Australia'. He then waxed lyrical about the achievements of his government for regional Australia, but not once did he recognise that his government's policies have actually caused a great deal of harm for people in regional Australia.

The Deputy Prime Minister could learn from Ben Chifley about honesty and integrity in politics. Ben Chifley was an uncomplicated man who asked no favours and was prepared to argue his position on merit. He understood that governments are vital to achieving both economic growth and a fairer distribution of wealth and opportunity. Ben Chifley's legacy is not just about the many reforms achieved by the governments he led in health, education, welfare, immigration, banking, postwar reconstruction and in taking Australia out into the world. We pay a tribute to Ben Chifley. (Time expired)

Question resolved in the affirmative.