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Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley (1885–1951)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley (1885-1951), prime minister and locomotive engine driver, was born on 22 September 1885 at Bathurst, New South Wales, eldest of three sons of Patrick Chifley (1862-1921), a native-born blacksmith, and his wife Mary Anne, née Corrigan (1856?-1929), from Ireland. Ben owed his name to a suggestion by the Mother Superior of St Benedict's Convent, Queanbeyan, where Mary had worked as a domestic servant for the Good Samaritan Sisters. His paternal forebears were also from Ireland and belonged to the class of 'literate small farmers and cottiers . . . people of some self-esteem and position'. Chifley's origins seldom troubled or influenced him, though an outburst in 1950 was to reveal his smouldering fires and feelings: 'I am the descendant of a race that fought a long and bitter fight against perjurers and pimps and liars'.

At the age of 5 Ben went to live on his grandfather's farm at Limekilns, near Bathurst. Although his father visited him occasionally, he rarely saw his mother or brothers over the next nine years. The boy slept on a chaff-bag bed in a four-roomed, wattle-and-daub shack with whitewashed walls and an earthen floor. Cowherd, potato-bagger and general 'dogsbody', he attended a bush school which opened two days one week and three days the next. He was a 'boy alone' in a prolific Catholic community. It is probable that his isolation produced a craving for friendship and affection, but also a certain inability to display deep emotion. Chifley was fond of saying that the events of the 1890s, 1917 and the Depression 'forced the iron into [his] soul', yet his lonely existence in the formative years of childhood and adolescence were ironbark times, only relieved by his thirst for reading and knowledge.

Returning to Bathurst in 1899, he spent two years at the Patrician Brothers' High School where he acquired some further knowledge of English, mathematics and technical subjects. Chifley's reading was a combination of the classical and the practical. He was familiar with Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Plutarch's Lives, and with a swag of familiar and obscure post-1890s Australian literature. Later, he read the work of George Bernard Shaw and corresponded with J. M. (Baron) Keynes, though towards the end of his life he read detective novels and westerns for relaxation. His fellow members of the Commonwealth Literary Fund committee, including (Sir) Robert Menzies, were often astonished at his acquaintance with lesser-known Australian literary artisans.

The 1890s depression had moderated the financial expectations and social mobility of Chifley's father and grandfather. On leaving school, Ben found work as a cashier's assistant at John Meagher & Co.'s general store, Bathurst. Aware of the disparity between his employer's profits and the wages received by juniors, he felt exploited and dissatisfied. In 1902 he became a shop-boy and subsequently a cleaner and then a fireman in the New South Wales Government Railways and Tramways. Studying four nights a week, he attended classes run by the Workers' Educational Association and the Bathurst branch technical school. By 1914 he was a first-class locomotive engine driver—the youngest in the State—and part of the 'labour aristocracy'. An instructor at the Bathurst Railway Institute, a renowned country Rugby Union footballer, and a competent boxer and cricketer, he could look forward to a settled and improving life.

In 1912 he had met his future wife Elizabeth Gibson McKenzie (1886-1962), daughter of another driver. The Chifleys had fewer financial resources than the staunch Calvinist McKenzies who had travelled to the 'old country' in 1899 and owned a De Dion-Bouton motorcar. Their wedding present to their daughter was tenancy (gifted in 1920) of the modest house at 10 Busby Street, Bathurst, which Elizabeth and Ben retained for the rest of their lives. Chifley took the brave and unusual step of defying the Papal decree, ne temere (effective from 1908), which forbade Catholics from marrying outside the Church. As he explained in his laconic fashion, 'One of us has to take the knock. It had better be me'. On 6 June 1914 the couple were married in the Presbyterian Church, Glebe, Sydney. Thereafter, Ben and Elizabeth worshipped in their separate churches.

While he attended Mass regularly, after 1914 Chifley believed that he was no longer a full member of the Church, nor, in his own words, could he be 'one of its model children'. His Catholicism was strictly private and there is no evidence of religious zeal. Although he never took the agnostic position of John Curtin, he probably came close to a humanist view in which the Australian Labor Party had a quasi-religious role; as he once said: 'I try to regard the labour movement in the same light as the leaders of the great religious faiths regard their organizations. We are social evangelists who are charged with a great responsibility'.

Chifley's marriage was one of dedication and affection. Perhaps it was the bungled aftermath of a serious miscarriage in 1915 that prevented Elizabeth from bearing children. She suffered from an arthritic or rheumatic condition and was to become a semi-invalid. While Ben was prime minister, she stayed at Bathurst, making only a few excursions to Canberra to act as hostess at The Lodge. Apart from a visit to New Zealand in 1947, she seldom travelled with him. A woman of grace, gentle nature and loyalty, she concealed her deeper feelings by 'austere self-control'. Even during the most pressing times, Ben was a devoted husband who returned to Bathurst every weekend he could manage.

In 1916 and 1917 Chifley had opposed conscription. With fellow members of the Locomotive Engine-drivers', Firemen's and Cleaners' Association, he took part in the railway strike of August-September 1917, though he counselled moderation. While expressing solidarity with the urban working class, he was never convinced of the utility or wisdom of the resulting general strike and led local negotiations for a return to work. His action did not save him from dismissal then subsequent reinstatement in the lower rank of fireman. Chifley found himself working for former subordinates (some of whom he had trained) who had been given advancement for scabbing. He later commented, 'The instructor has been fireman to his pupil' and added an oft-repeated phrase that the strike had left 'a legacy of bitterness and a trail of hate'. Premier Jack Lang restored the strikers' privileges and seniorities in 1925.

From 1912 Chifley had been a useful witness and advocate for his union in industrial tribunals. He developed a mastery of complex issues concerning wages and conditions, and dealt with evidence in a cool and reasoned manner. Usually receptive to sound advice, he modelled his approach on guidance from an old lawyer who had observed his first day in court. Chifley had gone in 'boots and all' (a favourite expression) and won the case against the employers. The old lawyer remarked, 'Son, you went very well today, but always remember that you don't start to make love to a girl by kicking her in the shins'. A man with a splendid memory for people, facts and idiosyncrasies, Chifley thenceforward built up a store of such anecdotes which he used to good effect.

After the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen was formed in 1920, Chifley was a member of its State general committee and a delegate to federal conferences. From the 1920s he was a confirmed centralist and a determined opponent of the rights and powers of the States. In 1922 and 1924 he unsuccessfully sought Australian Labor Party pre-selection for the Legislative Assembly seat of Bathurst and in 1925 contested Macquarie for the House of Representatives. He was defeated by 903 votes, but, in 1928, at the age of 43, and with the assistance of James Scullin who was to become a lifelong adviser, friend and patron, he won the seat with a majority of 3578.

In Federal parliament Chifley attacked the coal-owners of New South Wales for their handling of industrial disputes. He asserted that punitive measures against strikers had only produced martyrs and politicians, and he deplored circumstances which had always created 'one law for the nobodies and another law for the somebodies'. An admirer of Henry Bournes Higgins's approach to the settlement of disputes, Chifley supported the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, and advocated the introduction of specialized arbitrators rather than judges. Echoing the early days of Federal liberalism, he believed that arbitration strengthened the social and industrial bonds that held people together. He was opposed to industrial violence and acknowledged that union leaders could be truculent—'Christ himself was able to choose only twelve good men out of thirteen', he observed—but he recognized that extenuating circumstances for strike action sometimes prevailed. To Chifley, sustained research into the economy was needed to limit industrial discontent, 'the most important problem in the economic life of Australia'.

As the Scullin government disintegrated under the pressures of the Depression and attacks from the left and right, Chifley was appointed minister for defence on 3 March 1931. He proved a competent minister, cutting expenditure, distributing surplus military clothing to the unemployed, gaining valuable experience of the Commonwealth bureaucracy and making contacts with public servants, among them (Sir) John Jensen. Chifley instructed the Military Board to ensure that personnel were not associated with organizations such as the New Guard, and categorically stated that 'Military Forces shall not be used in an industrial dispute' and could only be used in instances of civil disturbance if the Commonwealth agreed to a request by the States for help.

He supported the Premiers' Plan to combat the Depression. While the treasurer Edward Theodore was his fishing mate during the bleak Canberra days of 1929-31, Chif was neither as game as Curtin nor influential enough to command internal respect and back 'Red Ted's' alternative. Nor did he favour Lang's plan, a decision which cost him his membership of the A.F.U.L.E. in 1931. His cautious and conservative financial streak and his loyalty to official Labor were paramount.

In the conservative landslide of 1931 he lost Macquarie, partly as a result of the appearance of a 'Lang Labor' candidate A. S. Luchetti. Chifley resisted Joe Lyons's attempt to seduce him with an offer of the treasurership in a United Australia Party government. Back at Bathurst, he busied himself with membership of the district hospital committee (chairman 1937-44) and the Abercrombie Shire Council (1933-47). He became a director of one of the city's newspapers, the National Advocate, and laid the foundations for his reputation as a shrewd and effective primer of parish pumps from Oberon to Orange. For all that, at the 1934 Federal elections he polled only 10,114 votes, half those for the U.A.P. candidate John Lawson and 4500 fewer than Luchetti.

As president (from 1934) Chifley administered the fragments of federal Labor in New South Wales, a party with only one representative from the State in Federal parliament and a handful of affiliated unions. In May 1935 he embarked on the most torrid and bitter campaign of his life, contesting Lang's personal fiefdom, the State seat of Auburn. Although beaten by 2400 votes, Chifley was in part responsible for the resurrection of the federal A.L.P. in the State—a prerequisite for government in both spheres. He had worked harder and more effectively than anyone to depose Lang and restore the unity which ensured Labor's electoral triumph in New South Wales in 1941. Here at last was his power base.

The rigours of the Auburn campaign had affected Chifley's health. His throat was reduced to 'the hopeless condition of worn-out boot leather', and his nasal Australian 'sand and gravel' drawl coarsened to resemble 'a lot of rusty old chains knocking together'. Lang, the unrelenting hater—'anxious to wound but too cowardly to strike'—was to pursue him to the end of his life. Between 1946 and 1949 the lonely black figure of the 'Big Fella', exercising 'his excessive indulgence in malevolence' in Federal parliament, was one of Menzies' best weapons against Chifley.

In 1935 Chifley had received his greatest opportunity: Federal treasurer Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey arranged his appointment to the royal commission on monetary and banking systems. The commission educated and advantaged Chifley. He mastered the intricacies of government finance, and grasped that there could and should be specific remedies for economic depression, massive unemployment, stagnation and human misery. For the first time he came into contact with academic economists and other experts who, he realized, could not only put him in touch with new, Keynesian theoretical approaches, but also provide mechanical ways of solving the problems of capitalism without fundamentally changing that system.

Chifley signed the commission's report. It recommended the maintenance of a strong central bank to regulate credit, the appointment of an independent governor of a restructured Commonwealth Bank of Australia, selection of its board-members for their 'capacity and diversity of experience and contact, and not as representatives of special interests', and the cementing of ties between the government and the central bank.

Nevertheless, in a powerful declaration of dissent, reservation and addenda, Chifley parted company with his colleagues on the fundamental issue of bank nationalization. He concluded that: 'There is no possibility of . . . well-ordered progress being made in the community, under a system in which there are privately-owned trading banks which have been established for the purposes of making profit', and that 'the best service to the community can be given only by a banking system . . . entirely under national control'. Thus he was 'of the opinion that the trading section of the Commonwealth Bank should be extended, with the ultimate aim of providing the whole of the services now rendered by private trading banks'. Meantime, the profits of the trading banks should be controlled by legislation.

He became firm friends with a fellow commissioner Richard Mills, whose sense of history and faith in humanity's virtues were values that Chifley, an unusually assiduous reader of the New Testament, could share. After the royal commission, Chifley's beliefs had theoretical underpinning and political potential. The comment that he 'was motivated by a personal obsession rather than deep-seated idealism' has a grain of truth in it, but his drive to make sense of adversity and, through political action, to make Australia a more humane society, raised him above this shallow judgement.

In June 1940 Jensen used his influence to have Chifley appointed director of labour supply and regulation in the Ministry of Munitions. He performed this task with ability and energy. But there was a more important evolution. A relationship of mutual respect and personal sympathy grew between Jensen, Chifley and 'the steel-master' Essington Lewis. The latter were both men of iron, driven loners and outsiders, patriotically joined in wartime by a strong work ethic and dreams of a powerful, industrialized Australia. Before long, however, Chifley resigned to seek pre-selection for Macquarie in the Federal elections to be held on 21 September. After 'vigorously beat[ing] off the vultures', including Bert Evatt—Chifley's 'Ivan the Terrible'—he was endorsed for and won the seat while recovering from a serious bout of double pneumonia.

When Labor gained office on 7 October 1941, Chifley had established a solid reputation for intelligence, administrative ability, dependability and durability among a small group of politicians, public servants and advisers. Outsiders were surprised that Curtin gave him the second most important portfolio, that of the Treasury, along with membership of the War Cabinet and of the production executive of cabinet. He ranked third in cabinet after Curtin and the deputy prime minister Frank Forde. Accepting (Sir) Arthur Fadden's budget with few amendments, Chifley quickly made the Treasury 'one of the creative forces in the Australian war effort'. 'His quiet and obdurate strength and sound sense' rapidly became apparent as Australia, under Curtin's dynamic, sacrificial leadership, mobilized for total war.

H. C. Coombs wrote that the relationship between Chifley and his officials, even the flinty secretary Stuart ('Misery Mac') McFarlane, was 'more effective than that achieved by any other minister [he had] known'. Chifley often sought consensus—successfully—in caucus, cabinet and the public service, and extended consultation (further than some Laborites thought desirable) to the Opposition. Yet when the arguments were delivered, he gave prompt and decisive judgement. 'A good memo', he said, 'must end with a recommendation . . . You must get off the fence'. Increasingly, as his command of issues grew, his native obduracy stiffened. The amalgam was both a political asset and, paradoxically, a liability.

Chifley's first duty was to finance the war effort. His second objective was to control inflation. In February 1942 he announced the pegging of wages and profits, the introduction of controls on production, trade and consumption to reduce private spending, and the transfer of surplus personal income to savings and war loans. On 15 April 1942 more price controls were introduced. On 23 July a uniform income tax, giving the Commonwealth a monopoly in this vital field, was attained when the States were defeated in the High Court of Australia.

In the national crisis Chifley proved himself to be his country's greatest treasurer—fiscally responsible, able to transmit the necessity for a reasonable equality of sacrifice, and capable of managing a wartime economy of complexity and difficulty. Financing the war by increased taxation, loans from the Australian public, and central bank credit, he ensured that the nation did not become burdened with overseas debt, as it had been after World War I. Every budget was accompanied by his strictures on 'vigorous self-denial', labour discipline and restriction of consumer demand with the aim of controlling a huge accumulation of purchasing power.

A cogent example of Chifley's negotiating skills was evident on 9 May 1946 when he and the American under-secretary of state Dean Acheson agreed to settle Australia's $US 27 million debt to the United States under the Lend-Lease scheme, without tariff concessions which the Americans had wanted. Chifley's speed and decisiveness produced a first-rate result for his country. So successful was his economic management that, from 1941 to 1949, government debts abroad were reduced by £117 million, and substantial external and internal reserves were created.

On 22 December 1942 Chifley had taken the additional post of minister for postwar reconstruction. His department was to lay the foundations for a new social order. In January 1943 he appointed the Rural Reconstruction Commission to rehabilitate and improve the agricultural sector. That month he selected Coombs as director-general of his new department which was staffed largely by recruitment outside the public service. Chifley's 'long-haired men and short-skirted women' quickly produced a stream of suggestions, proposals and policies, thereby setting Labor's agenda for the next seven years. His central aim was to inaugurate a policy of full employment. Through state action and controls, he hoped that Australians would achieve higher standards of living, while the disadvantaged would be provided with sufficient benefits to enable them to avoid the worst features of poverty and misfortune.

Memories of the Depression continued to gnaw at Chifley. He delivered one of his most powerful and emotional speeches in support of the referendum in 1944 which (unsuccessfully) sought to grant the Federal government fourteen new powers. In response to the claim that the proposed constitutional changes put individual liberty at risk, he observed:

'In my electorate, I witnessed the freedom that was enjoyed by 2,000 men outside a factory in an attempt to secure the one job that was offering . . . the freedom to starve and to live on the dole of 8s. 9d. a week—a single man on 5s. 6d. . . . [This is] the freedom of the economic individualists whose only God was Mammon and profit . . . I would prefer regimentation to economic individualism'.

By 1944 Chifley rather than Curtin was managing the parliamentary and industrial organs of the A.L.P. Chifley had emerged from the 'industrial wing' (Curtin's phrase) of the party and Curtin from the political. As 'G.O.C. House Strategy', Chifley controlled caucus and the federal executive, using time and techniques which Curtin found onerous and debilitating. Although their backgrounds were similar, the two were temperamentally poles apart and the qualities of one complemented those of the other. The sensitive, tired leader once said, 'Come over . . . I'm spiritually bankrupt'. Chifley refreshed him. Their private relationship and political fraternalism deepened in wartime, and Evatt's absences overseas during the critical months from March to June 1942 and again from April to September 1943 allowed them to consolidate their affection. Chifley served as Evatt's replacement on the Advisory War Council and also stood in for Curtin on the council during April-July 1944. Curtin welcomed Chifley's friendship, common sense and sound advice. 'I would not like to think how I could carry on this job without what I get from old Ben', he had remarked in 1943, 'When I move on from it he is going to take my place'.

Although Chifley did well as acting prime minister from 30 April to 2 July 1945, primitive opinion polls had indicated that he was scarcely worthy of consideration for the prime ministership. Yet, after Curtin's death on 5 July, and following a brief interregnum under Forde, Chifley was sworn in as prime minister of Australia on 13 July. He had polled three times as many votes in caucus as Forde; support for the other contenders N. J. O. Makin and Evatt had been insignificant. Chifley was at first reluctant to nominate, but Scullin persuaded him to stand rather than attend Curtin's funeral in Perth. 'I couldn't go, I simply couldn't go', said Chifley, his complex honesty displaying both grief and a concern for the numbers and power.

A 'six-footer' (183 cm) with a spare, large-boned frame, Chifley had a strong, rough-hewn countenance which often presented a poker face. As he aged and his black hair greyed, his features increasingly resembled those of his mother. To Dame Enid Lyons, Chifley seemed like 'a Great Dane, with his rugged good looks, his immense personal dignity, and his friendly, but always slightly reserved, bearing'. He had twinkling, grey-blue eyes and great charm, was attractive to women and had an eye for a pretty girl, though he declined to take advantage of this characteristic. A long upper lip masked his teeth, the lower being invariably attached to a pipe. Like (Sir) Winston Churchill's cigars, the pipe became an invaluable political trademark and negotiating tool, consuming more matches than it did tobacco. Chifley ate sparingly, walked for exercise and was frugal with his own and the country's money. Once he and his nephew stayed at a bush hotel. Chifley had no luggage, but produced a silk pyjama coat from one pocket of his overcoat and pyjama pants from the other.

Chifley concluded Labor's wartime administration by announcing the end of the war with Japan on 15 August 1945. He favoured a soft peace treaty, arguing that, 'Unless we help Japan, we will have another war in a generation. But this is something I cannot discuss even with my colleagues'. His first trip abroad as prime minister was an unostentatious one over Christmas 1945 to Australian troops still in the South-West Pacific Area. He travelled to London in 1948, attended Commonwealth prime ministers' conferences there in 1946 and 1949, and went to Washington and Tokyo in May 1946, and to Wellington in December 1947. His visits were short, productive and inexpensive.

On 28 September 1946 Chifley's party was returned at the polls with a reduced majority, but with a mandate for social reconstruction and a further extension of the functions of the Commonwealth government. Although referenda that year on marketing and employment were defeated, one on social services was approved. This administration was among the most creative of all Australian governments. The initiatives were not socialist, or particularly radical, being constrained by Chifley's deep concern for the existing fabric of society, and by his fear of postwar inflation and unemployment. His government tightened control over the States, extended welfare services, eased ex-service personnel into civilian life (without the dislocation and suffering that had occurred after 1918), and initiated a host of liberal measures which bore fruit during the 'long boom' of the 1950s and 1960s.

Once convinced of their merits, Chifley gave such initiatives his wholehearted support. L. F. Crisp has claimed that his retention of the treasurership while prime minister was a necessary duty, and a burden that was valuable and sustainable. After 1947, however, his tenure of the two most important posts in the ministry caused physical stress and gradually became a handicap.

By his control of the Treasury he could act promptly and decisively at critical times. The best example was his personal sponsorship of (Sir) Laurence Hartnett's General Motors-Holden's Ltd plan to manufacture a completely Australian-made motorcar. Through this project, Chifley envisaged that Australia's defence industry would be built up, ancillary manufacturing would be expanded, and a firm base for further corporate development, using both native and overseas capital, would be established. Private industry benefited a great deal from his support, through plant, finance and other resources allocated to it at cheap rates, and he became the political father of the local Holden car. His commitment to nationalization embraced only banking and public utilities.

Social security was extended by the Social Services Consolidation and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Acts of 1947, though the government's attempt to introduce a Commonwealth health scheme foundered on the intransigence of the British Medical Association in Australia. The National Welfare Fund, based on progressive taxation, was augmented to avoid contributory social security programmes and to offset Chifley's hard-nosed retention of relatively heavy taxation on lower income earners. There was a modest expansion into tertiary education with the funding of Commonwealth scholarships, the establishment of the Commonwealth Education Office and the setting up of the Australian National University. Nevertheless, when Chifley was asked to involve the Commonwealth in financing primary and secondary schooling, he declared that education was tied up with state aid to religion and was a State function. Advised of Commonwealth subsidies for pre-school and university education, he retorted, 'That's different—they're for kids before they've got souls and after they've lost 'em'.

The Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1947 embodied many of Chifley's ideas on how industrial relations should be regulated. By then, militant unions, particularly those involving the waterside workers, seamen, coalminers and metal workers, were chafing at the government's tight controls on wages and consumption, and at its slowness in dealing with working-class grievances which had festered since the Depression and which were exacerbated by mild inflation.

Chifley often said, 'I hate bloody injustice', and, while sections of the organized working class might feel that his government was not adequately representing their aspirations, he did take pains to remedy individual problems that were brought to his attention. The former Lang supporter Eddie Ward had the benefit of Chifley's presence in the witness box during the royal commission into timber rights in the Territory of Papua-New Guinea (1949), and Chifley personally revived Lieutenant General (Sir) Sydney Rowell's career. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Australian Broadcasting Commission both enjoyed Chifley's protection.

Through Arthur Calwell's efforts as minister for immigration, Australia embarked on its greatest immigration endeavour. The programme was intended to preserve the Anglo-Celtic character of the population, but ultimately transformed the composition of the nation. Chifley's government inaugurated the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme. Qantas Empire Airways Ltd was converted to a successful, state-owned overseas airline. Trans-Australia Airlines was established as a viable competitor to the private carriers when nationalization of the industry proved legally impossible.

The centrepiece of the government's voluminous legislation (parallelled by fraternal Labour parties in New Zealand and Britain) was, in Chifley's mind, the Banking and the Commonwealth Bank Acts of 1945. These statutes gave the government ultimate control over monetary policy, and formally recognized the Commonwealth Bank as the nation's central bank, empowered to regulate the activities of the private trading banks.

In 1947 the Melbourne City Council challenged the validity of section 48 of the Banking Act which directed all government instrumentalities to bank solely with the Commonwealth. The High Court declared that the section was invalid. Chifley believed that attacks on more important provisions would follow and that the core of his political life's work was at risk. After securing the assent of cabinet, caucus and the federal executive, on 16 August he announced his intention to have legislation prepared for the nationalization of banking. His critics characterized the decision as sudden pique—a view which Calwell called 'the greatest piffle' he had ever heard. The need to nationalize the banks was questionable: Coombs argued that the central banking mechanism was not jeopardized, and it was to remain in place as a monument to Chifley. What is clear is that Chifley was consistent in implementing a fundamental policy of the party and standing by principles which he had held since 1935. He 'took the holy ikon of Socialism off the walls of Caucus and marched with it into the House'.

Assisted by newspapers increasingly vitriolic towards Chifley, the private banks mobilized grassroots middle-class opinion in a way that conservatives had not managed since 1932. A High Court decision (1948) to disallow the nationalization legislation, the Banking Act of 1947, was confirmed by the Privy Council in 1949. Chifley admitted to Frank Green that he had moved too fast on banking: 'It is a mistake to show the rooster the axe when you are going to take his head off; you should show him a bit of corn first'.

Another serious problem for Chifley had been Australia's ratification of the Bretton Woods agreement (1944) which set up the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Resolution of the issue was delayed by the A.L.P.'s distrust of international finance, by its populist tendencies and its Depression memories. Chifley was well aware of Australia's need of capital, the weakness of sterling, problems with the dollar balance and the advantages of liberalizing world trade which would eventually benefit Australia as a commodity-exporting country. In November 1946 cabinet recommended ratification to caucus, but on 4 December caucus decided to refer the issue to the party's federal conference. The rebuff was a blow to Chifley's prestige. He managed to prevent the matter from reaching conference, and finally got his way in March 1947.

In public he always asserted that the policy of the A.L.P. was the total preserve of its federal conference. 'I have fought for that principle and because I did so I lost my seat in this Parliament when the executive of the N.S.W. Labor Party resolved that each State should make its own decisions'. Yet the evidence discloses that in caucus, cabinet and conference Chifley was able to manipulate policies and personalities to a far greater extent than this profession of rectitude suggests.

With the end of World War II, international issues had demanded Chifley's attention. On many key questions he left policy to Evatt. 'Leave it to the Doc', he would say, although in November 1945 he overruled Evatt's proposal that Australia should 'play an active diplomatic role in the Netherlands East Indies' and station additional troops there. He was more sympathetic to the Indonesian nationalists than Evatt was, and tacitly supported the shipping and arms embargoes against the Dutch. He was also reluctant to involve Australia in Britain's difficulties in Malaya.

Chifley was equivocal about the new relationship between Australia and the United States of America. Sceptical of the motives behind the Americans' advocacy of trade liberalization and the demolition of Imperial preference, he was also concerned by their reluctance to tie global trade agreements to full-employment objectives. He was unwilling to facilitate American business expansion in Australia, although he was responsive to corporate investment by that country. As a counterbalance to the American connexion, he attempted to strengthen ties with Britain through defence co-operation, financial arrangements and economic agreements. He made gifts of £45 million to Britain, and agreed to keep £150 million of Australia's funds there. These measures also reflected Chifley's growing Empire loyalty.

Evatt's abrasiveness antagonized the American government, but the issue which led to a cooling of relations between the U.S.A. and Australia was growing American suspicion of the Chifley government as too radical and not entirely trustworthy. In June 1948 the U.S.A. ceased passing some categories of classified information to Australia, and the British put pressure on Chifley to create a new, federal counter-intelligence body. The establishment in 1949 of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization was the outcome.

In the 1920s Chifley had worked his return passage to the Netherlands East Indies and India. As prime minister, he took a leading part in keeping India in the British Commonwealth as a republic. Convinced that the European colonial empires were finished, he supported independence movements in South East Asia. He often argued that economic assistance rather than military action would contain the growth of communism in the region. Weakly, he delayed recognizing Communist China when Britain had already done so. His excuse was that it was ethically wrong to recognize China just before an Australian general election. The real reason was his fear that the A.L.P. would be linked with 'Yellow Communism'.

By 1948 international tensions and the emergence of the Cold War were impinging dramatically on Australia to the disadvantage of the Chifley government. At the behest of their communist leaders, the coalminers struck on 27 June 1949. The New South Wales Labor government, the Joint Coal Board (Chifley's own creation), public opinion and a growing right-wing faction in his own party led (with cabinet's concurrence) to the most drastic solution possible for a Labor leader: a virulent 'boots and all' gaoling of militant miners' leaders, the smashing of the strike by state action and, above all, the use of troops to cut coal. The strike was broken by 15 August, but popular approval of the government's firm action soon dissipated and sections of the Labor Party were alienated and demoralized.

Although tired, Chifley was undaunted. He and his team ran a complacent campaign for the 1949 general elections, never believing that the 'discredited old gang of Menzies, Fadden and Casey' would be accepted. Chifley's memories were longer than those of the swinging voter. A cartoon by Edward Scorfield in the Bulletin (30 November), titled 'Going my way—on a full petrol tank?', depicted Chifley in an old model 'Marx II' car being relieved of his passenger, an elegant female voter, by the confident Menzies driving a free-enterprise Holden.

The resumption of petrol rationing on 15 November—the day after Chifley's flat policy speech lacking 'glittering promises' and predicting more tight economic controls—had been a mistake. Another was his rejection of child endowment payments for the first child: here the prudence of the lonely boy from the bush, the childless Australian male, overcame electoral realities. Despite Calwell's confidence, Labor gained no advantage from the 1948 electoral redistribution which increased from 74 to 121 the number of seats to be contested in the House of Representatives.

In a national radio broadcast on 6 December Lang accused Ben and Elizabeth Chifley of making mortgage advances at interest rates of up to 9 per cent. The allegation hurt Chifley deeply. He had gained little personal profit from the transactions, had usually acted as a trustee and had helped borrowers who lacked security. In hindsight, however, he was politically vulnerable on the issue.

The Chifley government was destroyed on 10 December 1949. A loss of 3.7 per cent of the total vote reduced the A.L.P. to 47 voting members in the House compared with the Liberal-Country Party coalition's 74. Chifley's social faith had been rejected in favour of other priorities. On 14 November, he had said: 'It is the duty and the responsibility of the community, and particularly those more fortunately placed, to see that our less fortunate fellow citizens are protected from those shafts of fate which leave them helpless and without hope . . . That is the objective for which we are striving. It is . . . the beacon, the light on the hill, to which our eyes are always turned and to which our efforts are always directed'.

Chifley was not a successful leader of the Opposition. He had 'had responsibility far too long ever to be a destructive oppositionist'. While he managed to hold the party together, there were indications that even his grip on the A.L.P. was loosening. The election produced a new group of right-wing Catholic ideologues in parliament. 'Those new Melbourne fellows', he claimed, 'have a bug . . . that's what's wrong with them . . . the religious fanatic is worse than the political fanatic'. When the federal executive instructed the federal parliamentary party to let the Communist Party dissolution bill (1950) through the Senate, without pressing for the civil liberties safeguards that Chifley had advocated, he suffered a major defeat. 'Accept your humiliation and we can go forward; recriminate and we shall split', he said.

Nor was Chifley happy that Evatt chose to appear before the High Court to contest the validity of the Act. 'You've got to remember what Bert did for the Union after 1917. And we've got to remember that he has a brilliant mind. That's the trouble with brilliant minds. They make hellish awful mistakes'. In Chifley's last major speech on 10 June 1951 he appealed to the A.L.P. to preserve civil liberties and to contain rightist ideology. 'You cannot afford to be in the middle of the road', he declaimed. That was where he had been throughout his life in Labor politics, but, as society shifted to the right, he moved, it seemed, to the left.

On 19 March 1951 the governor-general (Sir) William McKell granted Menzies' request for a double dissolution on the grounds of parliament's failure to pass the Commonwealth Bank bill (1950). Chifley had fought the measure tooth and nail, and was surprised by the decision of McKell, whom he had appointed. The elections on 28 April were a disaster for Labor, which made a few gains in the House of Representatives but lost control of the Senate.

Chifley was physically failing. On 26 November 1950 he had suffered a coronary occlusion while driving his personal indulgence, a powerful American Buick. His convalescence was lengthy. From then on he spent more time on the couch in his office and in his bed at Canberra's Hotel Kurrajong. Towards the end of his life he lay in bed for much of the weekends, sipping tea, his favourite drink, and munching toast.

As was his custom, he refused to 'trip the light fantastic' or put on a dinner-suit (he never had one and saw no need for it) and attend the state ball on 13 June 1951 at Parliament House. That night at 7 o'clock Phyllis Donnelly, his personal secretary, confidante and affectionate companion since 1928, joined him at the Hotel Kurrajong. After listening to the A.B.C. news, he telephoned Elizabeth in Bathurst. He ate a light supper, provided as usual by Phyllis Donnelly, then at about 9.20 p.m. complained of chest pains. In the throes of a massive coronary occlusion, Chifley was moved to Canberra Community Hospital. Attempts to revive him failed.

Menzies announced Chifley's death to the parliamentary merry-makers who abandoned the gathering. Chifley was given a simple and short state funeral, without eulogies, at Bathurst in the Catholic Cathedral of St Michael and St John, and was buried in the local cemetery. On his coffin lay one wreath, inscribed 'Ben, from Elizabeth'. Musical honours were provided by his favourite cultural organization, the Bathurst District Band, and 30,000 citizens watched the funeral. He had valued the freedom of the city of Bathurst (conferred on him in 1949) higher than his membership (1945) of the Privy Council. In June 1952 Evatt unveiled a grey marble obelisk over Chifley's grave, paid for by the A.L.P. federal executive and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. On the monument are words from his speech of 10 June 1951:

If an idea is worth fighting for, no matter the penalty, fight for the right, and truth and justice will prevail.

Chifley left a modest £13,400, including his half-share in 10 Busby Street which was opened by Prime Minister E. G. Whitlam in 1973 as a memorial to him. In his last three years Ben had secretly given away over £3000 to friends and relations. A posthumous portrait (1953) of Chifley by A. D. Colquhoun is held by Parliament House, Canberra.

Although he was much more than the successful, folksy, unflustered leader of popular legend, Chifley lacked Curtin's intellect, passion and deftness. Yet Jawaharlal Nehru's tribute was not exaggerated: 'Mr Chifley struck me as an outstanding personality and I was greatly attracted to him . . . Simple and straightforward . . . whatever he said . . . made an impression'. Oliver Hogue gauged his intrinsic quality when he said, 'Chifley . . . had a logical mind but he humanized all his thinking, even on politics . . . He understood the human heart, the ideals, the ambitions, the follies and the passions of men and women. Chifley put tolerance amongst the highest virtues, and he had it in large measure himself'. In Chif's own words, 'We may make mistakes because we are only human, and no political party can remake human nature. The most that we can do is to help the masses of the people and give to them some sense of security and some degree of human happiness'. This he did.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Labor Party. New South Wales Branch, The Light on the Hill (Syd, 1951)
  • L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley (Melb, 1961)
  • N. J. O. Makin, Federal Labor Leaders (Syd, 1961)
  • L. Haylen, Twenty Years' Hard Labor (Melb, 1969)
  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945 (Canb, 1970)
  • S. J. Butlin and C. B. Schedvin, War Economy 1942-1945 (Canb, 1977)
  • F. Daly, From Curtin to Kerr (Melb, 1977)
  • H. C. Coombs, Trial Balance (Melb, 1981)
  • D. Langmore, Prime Ministers' Wives (Melb, 1992)
  • Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Monetary and Banking Systems . . . in Australia, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1934-37, 5 (74)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 19 June 1951, p 61
  • Twentieth Century, 28, Autumn 1974, p 226
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 June 1951
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14-18 June 1951
  • C. Johnson, Social Harmony and Australian Labor: The Ideology of the Curtin, Chifley and Whitlam Labor Governments (Ph.D. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1986)
  • Chifley papers (National Library of Australia and Bathurst District Historical Society)
  • Chifley correspondence (National Archives of Australia)
  • J. J. Dedman papers (National Library of Australia)
  • D. K. Rodgers papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'Chifley, Joseph Benedict (Ben) (1885–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Ben Chifley, c.1948

Ben Chifley, c.1948

National Library of Australia, 23302770

Life Summary [details]


22 September, 1885
Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia


13 June, 1951 (aged 65)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Events
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