The Labor Party’s iconic “light on the hill” flared briefly when ACTU president Ged Kearney slipped quietly into Wollongong last week to launch a friend’s book.
Perhaps it is a sign of the times – both locally and nationally - that the visit by the leader of the Australian trade union movement to what was once a trade union bastion should pass virtually unreported.
That’s a pity. Ms Kearney, a former nurse, is a quiet, thoughtful person who talks a lot of sense. She has an important job, charged with the responsibility of ensuring the union movement remains relevant in the face of unrelenting pressure, both internal and external.
The Health Services Union debacle and the arrest of its former national secretary Michael Williamson gave trade unions a bad name, ironically for greed and exploitation of the very people the union was meant to protect.
Having one of the leaders of a large trade union, who was also the one-time national president of the Australian Labor Party, embroiled in corruption charges gave those on the other side – big business and conservative politicians – a massive free kick.
Ms Kearney acknowledged as much when she was in Wollongong on personal business, to launch Expressions of a Labour Movement Activist, a book by prominent Illawarra trade unionist Chris Christodoulou.
Chris’s book is a fascinating collection of reminiscences and observations of a life dedicated to the labour movement.
It takes readers on a journey through Chris’s life as the child of Greek-Cypriot immigrants, his parents’ influence on his emerging social conscience as a teenager, his gravitation towards trade unions and the ALP, and his career as a senior NSW trade union leader.
The book is embellished with Chris’s songs and poems about social justice issues.
One poem pays homage to Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s famous speech in 1949, when Chifley spoke of the ALP’s role as a beacon of hope for people not born into wealth and privilege.
Chifley spoke of “a great objective – the light on the hill – 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, the labour movement would not be worth fighting for”.
There are many who feel that the modern ALP has completely lost sight of that light on the hill, and that most of its politicians at state and federal level have seemingly become captives of poll-driven policies that bear little resemblance to the party’s traditional values.
But at the book launch Ms Kearney and Christodoulou gave the other perspective, talking about the “true believers” who had not lost the faith in the face of negatives like the HSU scandal and the electoral destruction of the state Labor governments around Australia in recent years.
In his Light On The Hill poem, Christodoulou wrote:
“Many on the journey were about to turn away
When they couldn’t see the light through the darkness and decay.
But as they despaired in blindness some heard Ben’s helping cry
Don’t give up! Keep searching! The darkness is a lie!”
Time will tell whether the darkness is a lie, or the new reality.
Nick Hartgerink is a former Mercury editor who now runs his own media consultancy.