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Ben Chifley

Ben Chifley

Joseph Benedict Chifley (September 22 1885 - June 13 1951), Australian politician and 16th Prime Minister of Australia, was one of Australia's most influential Prime Ministers. Among his govenment's accomplishments were the post-war immigration scheme under Arthur Calwell, the establishment of Australian citizenship in 1949, the Snowy Mountains scheme, the national airline TAA, a social security scheme for the unemployed, and the founding of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO). One of the few successful referendums to modify the Australian Constitution took place during his term.

Born in Bathurst, New South Wales, Chifley was the son of a blacksmith of Irish Catholic descent. He was largely raised by his grandfather, who lost all his savings in the bank crash of 1892: Chifley acquired his lifelong hatred of the private banks early. He was educated at Catholic schools in Bathurst, and joined the New South Wales Railways at 15.

Ben Chifley became an engine driver, which was a skilled and responsible position. He was one of the founders of the AFULE, the engine drivers' union, and an active member of the Labor Party. In 1914 he married Elizabeth Mackenzie. She was a Presbyterian: Chifley left the Catholic Church to marry her and never returned. In 1917 he was one of the leaders of a prolonged strike which resulted in his being dismissed. He was reinstated by a New South Wales Labor government in 1920. He represented his union before industrial tribunals and taught himself industrial law.

In 1928, at his second try, Chifley won the Bathurst-based seat of Macquarie in the House of Representatives. He was in general a supporter of the Scullin government's economic policies, and in 1931 he became Minister for Defence. When the Scullin government fell later in the same year, he lost his seat. During the Depression he survived on his wife's family's money and his part-ownership of the Bathurst National Advocate. In 1935 the Lyons government appointed him a member of the Royal Commission on Banking, a subject on which he had become an expert. He submitted a minority report advocating that the private banks be nationalised.

Chifley finally win his seat back in 1940, and the following year he became Treasurer (finance minister) in John Curtin's Labor government. Although Frank Forde was officially Curtin's deputy, Chifley became the minister Curtin most relied on, and he controlled most domestic policy while Curtin was preoccupied with the war effort. He presided over the massive increases in government expenditure and taxation that accompanied the war, and imposed a regime of economic regulation that made him very unpopular with business and the press.

When Curtin died in July 1945, Chifley defeated Forde in the leadership ballot and became Prime Minister. Once the war ended, normal political life resumed, and Chifley faced Robert Menzies and his new Liberal Party in 1946 elections, which Chifley comfortably won. In the postwar years Chifley maintained wartime economic controls including the highly unpopular petrol rationing. He did this partly to help Britain in its postwar economic difficulties.

Feeling secure in power, Chifley decided it was time to advance towards Labor's objective of democratic socialism. In 1947 he announced the government's intention to nationalise the banks. This provoked massive opposition from the press, and middle-class opinion turned against Labor. The High Court of Australia eventually found Chifley's legislation to be unconstututional.

In the winter of 1949 a prolonged and bitter strike in the coal industry caused unemployment and hardship. Chifley saw the strike as a move by the Communist Party to challenge Labor's place as the party of the working class, and he sent in the army to break the strike. Despite this, Menzies exploited the rising Cold War hysteria to portray Labor as soft on Communism.

These events, together with a perception that Chifley and Labor had grown increasingly arrogant in office, led to the sweeping Liberal election victory of December 1949. Chifley, at 64 and in poor health (like Curtin he was a lifelong smoker), refused to retire. Labor had retained control of the Senate and Chifley intended frustrating the Menzies government and returning to power. But in 1951 Menzies introduced his bill to ban the Communist Party, which Chifley opposed on civil liberties grounds.

Menzies exploited this issue to call a double dissolution election in April 1951, and succeeded in winning control of both Houses. A few weeks later Chifley died of a heart attack in his hotel room in Canberra. Chifley had lived apart from his wife for many years: his secretary, Phyllis Donnelly, was with him when he died. Long-held suspicions that she had been his lover were confirmed in David Day's 2001 biography.

Chifley, like Curtin, has been made a secular saint by the labour movement, but the basis of the "Chifley legend" is somewhat different. Curtin is remembered mainly for his wartime leadership and forging the US Alliance. Chifley is remembered by the left as the only Labor Prime Minister who tried to implement the party's socialist objective. The fact that this led to electoral defeat and 23 years in opposition has not detracted from this esteem.

More than 30 years after his death, Chifley's name still aroused partisan passions. In 1987 the New South Wales Labor government decided to name the planned new university in Sydney's western suburbs Chifley University. In 1989 a new Liberal government renamed it the University of Western Sydney.

There is an Australian hotel chain, a Sydney building called Chifley Tower, and two suburbs (in Canberra and Sydney), named after him. Many of his reforms also remain in place.

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Preceded by:
Frank Forde
Prime Ministers of Australia Followed by:
Robert Menzies

Preceded by:
John Curtin
Leaders of the
Australian Labor Party
Followed by:
Dr H V Evatt