Australian History: Joseph Benedict Chifley

Joseph (Ben) ChifleyBen Chifley was seen as the archetypal 'Aussie battler’.  Chifley was the first son of an Irish Catholic blacksmith of Bathurst, NSW, where he was born in 1885. As a boy, he spent nine years on his grandfather's small farm at Limekilns where his education suffered because the local school opened only two or three days a week. But Chifley became an avid reader, even poring over a book while waiting to bat in cricket matches.

When he returned to Bathurst, he spent some time in a Catholic high school then worked at various jobs before joining the railways. He became a locomotive cleaner at 18 and, for 15 years, continued his education at night school while he climbed steadily toward the position of first-class driver and instructor.

Chifley grew up during the years of Labor's emergence as a political power and the rapid growth of the union movement. He was a loyal, though not militant, union man and his reading and experience made him 'a devout socialist'. He participated in the anti-conscription movement and in the 1917 railway strike which, he said, "left a legacy of bitterness and trail of hate". His part in it brought him demotion for eight years.

After an unsuccessful attempt to win a parliamentary seat, he won Macquarie in 1928 and, as Minister for Defence and Assistant Treasurer in Scullin's government, he was soon flung into the great Depression-years battles between the right and left wings of the party. Chifley was one of the casualties, losing his seat to a left-winger in 1931. He did not regain it until 1940, when he became Curtin's firmest friend and sturdiest supporter.

Between 1941-45 he was Treasurer and Minister for Post-War Reconstruction in Curtin's government and was the architect of Labor's post-war policies. Curtin's death, Chifley's defeat of Forde in the election for Prime Minister and the abrupt conclusion of the war by the atom bombs meant that Chifley could start to put these policies in place late in 1945.
His 'welfare state' policies included some of the most notable reforms and initiatives in Australian history. The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority doubled the nation's output of electricity. The immigration programs opened the way for a huge influx of British and European immigrants. Support of the motor industry enabled 'Australia's own car', the Holden, to roll off the assembly line on 29 November 1948. The introduction of civilian widows' pensions and unemployment, sickness and hospital benefits aided countless families. The establishment of Trans-Australia Airlines and the nationalisation of QANTAS launched Australian aviation into a new era. Other schemes included the regulation of coal marketing and waterside labour and Commonwealth support of state housing finance.

Chifley's aims included nationalisation of the banks, which he had advocated since the mid-1930s. But the private banks defeated this move with an appeal to the High Court. This setback intensified the Liberal-Country Party assault on Labor. The LCP more than hinted that Chifley was leading Australia toward Communism.

In the turbulent election campaign of December 1949, Chifley enunciated sensible, humanitarian and progressive policies. Probably Menzies' most potent weapon was a promise to end petrol rationing. In any case, he won the election.

Chifley suffered a heart attack in 1950. But in 1951 he returned to the fray when Menzies called a double dissolution of Parliament. Often staggering with exhaustion, Chifley led the Labor campaign but Menzies won again.

It was almost the end of the road for the blacksmith's son who had become Prime Minister. On the evening of 13 June 1951, while working at his desk in Canberra, he suffered another heart attack and died.