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Ben Chifley came from a humble background and had only a basic school education. He was employed for 25 years on the New South Wales railways, working his way up to become an engine-driver and a leading member of the union.
Chifley was briefly in the federal parliament from 1928 to 1931. He then returned to State politics and plunged into the battle against New South Wales Labor leader, Jack Lang, who set up a splinter ‘Lang Labor’ Party. Re-elected to federal parliament in 1940, Chifley became Treasurer in the Curtin Labor government in 1941, during World War II.
Chifley was largely responsible for the economic organisation of the war effort. The federal government’s takeover of the income taxing function in 1942 and Australia’s PAYE (pay as you earn) income tax system were Chifley initiatives. Chifley was also responsible for postwar reconstruction and the transition to a peacetime economy.
Ben Chifley came from a strong Irish Catholic background. His grandfather had left his impoverished Tipperary home in the wake of the Irish Famine and migrated to New South Wales. When Chifley was born in Bathurst, New South Wales, on 22 September 1885, his father was working as a blacksmith. His grandfather was then living on a small farm at Limekilns, about 26 kilometres from Bathurst.
When he was five years old, Chifley was taken to live on the Limekilns farm to help his grandfather and aunt, and went to the small local school. In January 1899, when Chifley was just thirteen years old, his grandfather died and Chifley returned to his parents’ home. For a year he went to a local Catholic school and then went to work – first at a local store and then at a tannery. Chifley’s third job was at the Bathurst railway yards, just across the road from his parents’ house.
Chifley began railway work as a shop boy in Bathurst’s extensive steam shed in September 1903. Six years later he was a fireman, shovelling coal into the engine’s firebox to maintain an even head of steam to drive the train. A keen reader and a regular at evening classes, Chifley’s education continued at his own direction and by his own determination. He was an active member of the Federated Engine-drivers and Firemen’s Association of Australasia, and also of the Labor Party. In July 1913, at the relatively young age of twenty-seven, he became an engine-driver.
A year later, on 6 June 1914, Ben Chifley and Elizabeth McKenzie were married in the Presbyterian church in the Sydney suburb of Glebe. Both were Bathurst born and bred, but Chifley was a Roman Catholic and Elizabeth McKenzie a Presbyterian. Neither their families nor their churches approved of the ‘mixed marriage’. When a Catholic friend of Chifley’s tried to dissuade him from the marriage, Chifley explained he ‘could not overcome his devotion to Elizabeth. He had tried to break away from it, but was powerless’.
Elizabeth’s family provided the couple with their home, a small four-roomed stone house at No.10 Busby Street in Bathurst. The house was set on the high side of the street overlooking the railway yards and the closely settled community of south Bathurst. It was also directly in front of Elizabeth’s family home, which looked out over their backyard.
When war was declared in 1914, Chifley did not enlist. He might, like many Irish Catholics, have had reservations about the war itself. He was totally opposed to conscription. In 1916, Chifley took a leading part in Bathurst’s anti-conscription movement when Labor Prime Minister WM Hughes moved to introduce conscription to boost flagging enlistments for the war in Europe.
Chifley preferred an appeal to reason. At a pro-conscription meeting in the Bathurst Town Hall, Chifley told the audience that they had received a great deal of sentiment but also ‘a great lack of facts’. He proceeded patiently to set out the facts of the anti-conscription case, then moved an amendment opposing conscription as being ‘unnecessary in Australia’. In a 1916 plebiscite, the conscription proposal was only narrowly defeated. But in Bathurst, three of four votes were against the proposal.
In August 1917, Chifley and his fellow engine-drivers went out on strike to protect their working conditions against the introduction of new American time-and-motion methods of working. The strike spread quickly, involving coal miners and other workers. The Commonwealth and State governments enlisted the help of volunteers to take the strikers’ jobs and break their resolve. It became a bitter struggle, particularly in Sydney. Chifley helped to keep order in Bathurst. Among other projects, he brought strikers together to build a memorial avenue to commemorate the war casualties.
Six weeks later the strike ended when the railway men were faced with an ultimatum – return to work or accept dismissal. Three thousand union men were denied re-employment, while many were demoted. Chifley was first denied re-employment, then admitted, but demoted to fireman. This demotion was a crushing blow for him, as was the State government’s de-registration of the engine-drivers union. Chifley regained his position as a driver, but the experience put him on a track that led to parliamentary politics.
Working to rebuild the de-registered union in Bathurst and across New South Wales, Chifley’s influence grew with the increasing union membership. He was content to support paid officials and did not seek power or position for himself. Even in the Bathurst branch of the union, he chaired meetings but let others have the influential positions of branch secretary and president. In 1921 Chifley took a seat on the board of the National Advocate, the Labor-leaning Bathurst newspaper.
Chifley made his first attempt to enter parliament when he stood for Labor pre-selection for the New South Wales parliament in 1922, at the age of 36. His platform was direct: to right the wrongs that had been done to railwaymen at the end of the strike five years before. But the State Labor executive stepped in and selected the candidates. Chifley was not one of them. When some disappointed candidates wanted to stand as Independents, Chifley argued against the idea, declaring that it was ‘better to fight the dirt from within the movement than to fight it from without’. He stood again for Labor pre-selection for the 1924 State election, but was again unsuccessful.
This experience gave him practice at public speaking and gained him political contacts throughout the electorate. In 1925 he won pre-selection for the federal seat of Macquarie, which stretched over the Blue Mountains and almost to the outskirts of Sydney. Macquarie had been held by Labor, and the party looked likely to do well at the 1925 federal election. Chifley ran a strong campaign, and was praised by the Lithgow Mercury for being ‘devoid of the claptrap of the professional politician’. But the Bruce government’s law and order campaign, and the introduction of compulsory voting, were handicaps to Labor and Chifley was unsuccessful.
Member for Macquarie 1928–31
In 1928 Chifley again stood for the Macquarie seat and was successful. This time, Labor ran a scare campaign of its own, arguing the Bruce government’s immigration policy was undermining the White Australia policy. Chifley critised the government for admitting ‘so many Dagoes and Aliens into Australia’. The National Advocate called on electors to vote for Chifley to protect White Australia. And this time they did, although the Bruce government was returned.
In one of Chifley’s few speeches in the short term of the 11th parliament, he came out strongly in defence of coal miners whose wages and conditions were being reduced by mine owners. Chifley was a strong opponent of the Bruce government’s approach to Commonwealth–State powers. SM Bruce and his coalition partner, deputy Prime Minister Earle Page, saw the States as the proper holders of contested powers. Chifley was an avowed centralist. He not only wanted to make the Constitution easier to alter, he proposed to abolish the States altogether. To Chifley, only then would the ‘seeds of national unity have at last come into flower’.
During 1929, dissension within the Nationalist Party, fomented by WM Hughes, forced Prime Minister SM Bruce to call another federal election. In October 1929, voters swept Labor into office under James Scullin. Chifley was returned with a massive majority in his seat of Macquarie.
The world was teetering on the verge of economic depression and Labor’s hopes of beginning a program of reform were quickly dashed. The Scullin government was forced by the private banks and the Bank of England to administer policies based on austerity economic theories to drag Australia from the slump and repay debts.
From the back benches of the parliament, Ben Chifley was unhappy with the government’s methods, but was unable to offer a credible alternative. He expressed frustration over the government’s inability to exercise full control over the economy due to the power of the banks. He became absorbed by economics, reading avidly and developing an ongoing interest in economic theory.
Minister for Defence 1931
The Scullin government began to fall apart under external economic pressures and internal dissension. The federal parliamentary Labor Party was shaken on one side by the formation of a ‘Lang Labor’ faction led by New South Wales Labor leader Jack Lang. On the other, JA Lyons, a senior member of the Scullin Cabinet, resigned from Cabinet in January 1931, and set about forming the conservative United Australia Party. In the resulting Cabinet shuffle, Chifley became Minister for Defence. As a member of Cabinet, Chifley had to defend economic policies he fiercely opposed. These included salary and pension reductions forced on the Scullin government by the banks and the State Premiers.
The Scullin government was defeated in the polls in December 1931. In Macquarie, Labor vote split between Chifley and a Lang Labor candidate, allowing the conservative candidate to win. Even in Bathurst, Chifley supporters flocked to the populist banner of the Langites. And no less distressing to Chifley was his expulsion in 1931 from the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen, to which he had devoted so much of his life.
Back to Bathurst 1931–41
Without a parliamentary seat and unable to return to his former occupation, Chifley turned to other means of getting enough money to survive the depression years. His earnings at the National Advocate were supplemented by an inheritance Elizabeth Chifley received on her father’s death in 1931. As well as providing an income, the inheritance enabled the Chifleys to make some improvements to their Busby Street home. The kitchen was at last connected to the house, and gas heating installed in the dining room. The bathroom and toilet remained outside, but the chip bathwater heater was replaced with a gas heater. With these modest comforts, Elizabeth’s widowed mother, and Elizabeth and Ben Chifley lived a frugal but not precarious existence, as Chifley managed the considerable McKenzie estate.
Despite being out of parliament and expelled from the union, Chifley remained politically involved. But he was at home more often, and Elizabeth proudly showed off the concrete Chifley laid in the backyard. Suffering from a degenerative spinal condition and sciatica, Elizabeth Chifley was increasingly unable to maintain the garden.
Chifley attempted unsuccessfully to regain his seat at the 1934 federal election. In 1937 he failed to gain even the party pre-selection to stand for the seat. Throughout these years he took a leading part in the struggle to remove the hold that Lang and his supporters had on the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party. Chifley became president of a federally backed Labor branch in June 1934, and stood unsuccessfully against Lang in the seat of Auburn at the 1935 State election. Despite the bitterness of the battle, Chifley generally managed a civil attitude towards even the most trenchant opponent. To him, the struggle to drive the ‘sinister influence’ of Langism from the labour movement was a fight for right.
Chifley had more success on the local level. He won a seat on the largely rural Abercrombie Shire Council in 1933 and became president of the council in 1937. Chifley gained not only an income, but invaluable experience and contacts. In 1935, RG Casey, Treasurer in the Lyons government, appointed him to the Royal Commission into the banking system. Chifley disagreed with the commission’s findings and submitted a minority report calling for nationalisation of the banks as the only way to ensure the system was run in the interests of the whole community.
When war was declared in September 1939, the Menzies government acknowledged Chifley’s economic expertise by appointing him to the Capital Issues Advisory Board. Then in July 1940 he was made director of labour supply and regulation in the Department of Munitions. He spent most of the first year of the war either in Sydney or Melbourne. But when the federal election was called just weeks later, he resigned from both positions to stand again for the seat of Macquarie. In hospital suffering from pneumonia after a minor operation, Chifley was unable to campaign as vigorously as he had in his unsuccessful bids in the 1931 and 1934 federal elections. To his amusement, he was nonetheless voted back to his former seat in parliament.
The new parliament was finely balanced and in May 1941 Menzies lost the prime ministership to Arthur Fadden. Fadden was no more successful in holding a government together. In October 1941, Labor leader John Curtin became the third prime minister of the fifteenth parliament. Chifley was elected by Caucus to the Cabinet and, to the surprise of some, was appointed by Curtin as Treasurer. Chifley was among the few in Curtin’s Cabinet who had ministerial experience. Another was deputy leader Frank Forde who had made a strong claim on the portfolio. Always a voracious reader and largely self-taught, Chifley had used his time out of parliament to develop his knowledge of economics. He had become one of the few parliamentarians familiar with the subject, and with economists.
Immediately faced with the task of introducing the new government’s budget, Chifley did so in his characteristically ‘Australian’ voice. Its distinctive gravelly tones had developed over thirty years of addressing political meetings large and small.
The entry of Japan into the war meant the new Treasurer was faced with the problem of financing a much greater war effort. With Australia expecting invasion, rapid expansion of the armed forces and of defence production had to be coordinated. Chifley was determined this effort would not leave Australia burdened with war debt as in the first world war.
Chifley and his colleagues were also determined that the economic benefits of Australia’s wartime expansion should flow to the workers who made defence production possible, and who had been denied so much through the pre-war depression years. Chifley’s major achievement was taking from the States the power to levy income taxes. In pressing this as a wartime measure Chifley declared ‘National rights must take precedence over all state rights’. It was an historic achievement for, as Chifley intended, this essential power was never returned to State governments.
Minister for Postwar Reconstruction 1942–45
Late in 1942, the Curtin government established a new Department of Postwar Reconstruction, with Chifley the responsible minister. He also remained the Treasurer. Although Frank Forde was deputy Prime Minister, the added portfolio made Chifley the most powerful minister after Curtin.
The Curtin government’s management of the war effort had provided a model of a centrally directed economy producing conditions of full employment. British economist JM Keynes had shown how those conditions could be maintained in peacetime. Curtin chose HC Coombs to head Chifley’s new department. A young economist who had joined the Commonwealth Bank in 1935, Coombs had been seconded to the Treasury in 1939, then appointed director of rationing in April 1942.
The strong Curtin–Chifley political partnership helped gain a massive victory for Labor at the federal election in August 1943. The government had gained clear support from voters to implement the nation-building measures introduced in their platform. Chifley was the chief architect of this design for a smooth transition to a progressive peacetime economy. One of the most important measures was a banking bill that went some way towards bringing the banks and the supply of credit under Commonwealth control.
While living at the Hotel Kurrajong in Canberra, Chifley usually phoned his Bathurst home each evening to talk with Elizabeth Chifley. His usual practice was to make the long drive from Canberra to Bathurst every second weekend. His time there was shared between visiting friends and relatives, seeing constituents, and attending to business at the National Advocate office.
Chifley’s responsibilities increased in November 1944, when Curtin was hospitalised with a heart attack. Though Curtin returned to The Lodge in January and attended parliament, he was far less able to attend to his prime ministerial workload. In May 1945, it fell to Chifley to announce the end of the war in Europe, and on 30 May Chifley presented to parliament the white paper on one of Curtin’s key postwar goals – the policy of full employment.
Despite Curtin’s reliance on him at this time, Chifley’s public profile and party standing were not as high as those of colleagues like Army Minister and deputy Prime Minister Frank Forde. Curtin’s Minister for External Affairs and former High Court judge, HV Evatt, was also a strong contender to succeed Curtin. When Curtin died on 5 July 1945, Evatt was returning from the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations. With his ship in a radio blackout as it negotiated the Pacific, Evatt apparently received the news of Curtin’s death in an aircraft drop. Only on his return could he discuss the pressing issue of leadership with Caucus members.
The day after Curtin’s death, the new Governor-General, the Duke of Gloucester, swore in Frank Forde as interim Prime Minister. Chifley could not bring himself to attend Curtin’s funeral in Perth, and remained in Canberra. He was evidently the best-prepared candidate for the Caucus election for a new party leader the following week. He won the position comfortably from both Frank Forde and HV Evatt, and became the sixteenth Prime Minister in the Commonwealth’s 44 years.
Day, David, Chifley, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2001.
McMullin, Ross, ‘Joseph Benedict Chifley’ in Michelle Grattan (ed.), Australia’s Prime Ministers, New Holland Press, Sydney, 2001.
Rowse, Tim, Nugget Coombs: A Reforming Life, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2002.
From the National Archives of Australia collection
Report of the Royal Commission on monetary and banking systems in Australia, 1937, NAA: A1203, 332/4/AUS
Report of the Joint Committee on Taxation – Pay as You Earn, 1944, NAA: A5954, 654/24