|16th Prime Minister of Australia|
13 July 1945 - 19 December 1949
|Governor-General||The Duke of Gloucester|
Sir William McKell
H. V. Evatt
|Leader of the Labor Party|
13 July 1945 - 13 June 1951
H. V. Evatt
|H. V. Evatt|
|Treasurer of Australia|
7 October 1941 - 18 December 1949
|Leader of the Opposition|
19 December 1949 - 13 June 1951
|Deputy||H. V. Evatt|
|H. V. Evatt|
|Minister for Postwar Reconstruction|
22 December 1942 - 2 February 1945
|Minister for Defence|
3 March 1931 - 6 January 1932
|Member of the Australian Parliament|
21 September 1940 - 13 June 1951
17 November 1928 - 19 December 1931
Joseph Benedict Chifley
22 September 1885
Bathurst, Colony of New South Wales, Australia
|Died||13 June 1951 (aged 65)|
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
|Industrial Labor (1938-1939)|
|Education||Limekilns Public School|
Patrician Brothers' School, Bathurst
(New South Wales Railways)
Joseph Benedict Chifley (; 22 September 1885 - 13 June 1951) was an Australian politician who served as the 16th Prime Minister of Australia, in office from 1945 to 1949. He was leader of the Labor Party from 1945 until his death.
Chifley was born in Bathurst, New South Wales. He joined the state railways after leaving school, eventually qualifying as an engine driver. He was prominent in the trade union movement before entering politics, and was also a director of The National Advocate. After several previous unsuccessful candidacies, Chifley was elected to parliament in 1928. In 1931, he was appointed Minister for Defence in the government of James Scullin. He served in cabinet for less than a year before losing his seat at the 1931 election, which saw the government suffer a landslide defeat.
After his electoral defeat, Chifley remained involved in politics as a party official, siding with the federal Labor leadership against the Lang Labor faction. He served on a royal commission into the banking system in 1935, and in 1940 became a senior public servant in the Department of Munitions. Chifley was re-elected to parliament later that year, on his third attempt since 1931. He was appointed Treasurer in the new Curtin Government in 1941, as one of the few Labor MPs with previous ministerial experience. The following year Chifley was additionally made Minister for Postwar Reconstruction, making him one of the most powerful members of the government. He became prime minister following Curtin's death in office in 1945, defeating caretaker prime minister Frank Forde in a leadership ballot.
At the 1946 election, Chifley was re-elected with a slightly reduced majority - the first time that an incumbent Labor government had won re-election. The war had ended a month after he took office, and over the following four years his government embarked on an ambitious program of social reforms and nation-building schemes. These included the expansion of the welfare state, a large-scale immigration program, and the establishment of the Australian National University, ASIO, and the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Some of the new legislation was successfully challenged in the High Court, and as a result the constitution was amended to give the federal government extended powers over social services.
Some of Chifley's more interventionist economic policies were poorly received by Australian business, particularly an attempt to nationalise banks. His government was defeated at the 1949 election, which brought Robert Menzies' Liberal Party to power for the first time. He stayed on as Leader of the Opposition until his death, which came a few months after the 1951 election; Labor did not return to government until 1972. For his contributions to post-war prosperity, Chifley is often regarded as one of Australia's greatest prime ministers. He is held in particularly high regard by the Labor Party, with in his "light on the hill" speech seen as seminal in both the history of the party and the broader Australian labour movement.
Joseph Benedict Chifley was born at 29 Havannah Street, Bathurst, New South Wales, on 22 September 1885. He was the first of three sons born to Mary Anne (née Corrigan) and Patrick Chifley II. His father - a blacksmith - was born in Bathurst to Irish immigrants from County Tipperary, while his mother was born in County Fermanagh, in present-day Northern Ireland.
At the age of five, Chifley was sent to live with his widowed grandfather, Patrick Chifley I, who had a small farm at Limekilns. An aunt, Mary Bridget Chifley, kept house for them. Chifley began his education at the local state school, which was known as a "half-time school" due to it being too small to offer daily classes; it shared a single teacher with a neighbouring community. He moved back to his parents' home at the age of 13, following his grandfather's death in January 1899, and attended a Patrician Brothers school for about two years. He was a voracious reader from a young age, and would later supplement his limited formal education by attending classes at night schools or mechanics' institutes.
After leaving school, Chifley's first job was as a cashier's assistant at a local department store. He later worked at a tannery for a period, and then in September 1903 joined the New South Wales Government Railways as a "shop boy" at the Bathurst locomotive shed. Over the following decade, he was promoted through the ranks to engine-cleaner and fireman, and then finally in March 1914 to engine-driver. The position of driver was considered relatively prestigious, and Chifley had to sit various examinations before being certified. He developed an intimate technical understanding of his locomotives, and became a lecturer and instructor at the Bathurst Railway Institute. Chifley drove both goods trains and passenger trains. He was based in Bathurst and worked on the Main Western line, except for a few months in 1914 when he drove on the Main Southern line and worked out of Harden.
Chifley became involved with the labour movement as a member of the Locomotive Enginemen's Association.[a] He never held executive office, preferring to work as an organiser, but did serve as a divisional delegate to state and federal conferences. He developed a reputation for compromise, maintaining good relations with both the railway management and the more militant sections of the union. However, Chifley was one of the local leaders of the 1917 general strike, and as a result was dismissed from the railway. He and most of the other strikers were eventually reinstated, but lost seniority and related privileges; Chifley was demoted from engine-driver to fireman. Despite repeated lobbying, their pre-1917 benefits were not restored until 1925. After the strike, the state government of William Holman also de-registered their union, placing it at a severe disadvantage against other railway unions. Chifley worked to secure its re-registration, which occurred in 1921, and was also involved in the formation of a national union - the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen - in 1920. He appeared as an expert witness before the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in 1924, which subsequently implemented a new federal award for the enginemen.
Chifley joined the Labor Party at a young age, and was involved in state and federal election campaigns as an organiser. In 1921, he replaced his father on the board of The National Advocate, a local newspaper that functioned as the mouthpiece of the labour movement. In 1922 and 1924, Chifley unsuccessfully contested Labor preselection for the state seat of Bathurst. He was eventually chosen as the Labor candidate for the Division of Macquarie at the 1925 federal election. Macquarie was a large and diverse electorate, covering an area from Bathurst east across the Blue Mountains to Penrith, on the outskirts of Sydney; it included industrial, agricultural, and mining districts in virtually equal measure. It was one of the most marginal seats in the country, and had last been won by Labor in 1919. Lacking name recognition, Chifley lost the election to the incumbent Nationalist MP, Arthur Manning. However, he reprised his candidacy in 1928, mounting a campaign that focused on the Bruce Government's unpopular labour policies. He accused the government of endangering the White Australia policy by allowing Southern European migrant workers into the country, claiming it had "allowed so many dagoes and aliens in Australia that today they are all over the country taking work which rightly belongs to all Australians". The Labor Party recorded a 6.2-point swing in Macquarie, with Chifley becoming one of three candidates in New South Wales to win seats from the government.
At the 1929 election, Chifley was re-elected on a 10.7-point swing as Labor won a landslide victory. James Scullin became the new prime minister, the fourth member of his party to hold the office. As a backbencher with little parliamentary experience, Chifley did not stand for election to the new ministry, but did join the Public Accounts Committee. As the Great Depression worsened, he defended the government's economic response against criticism from two factions within his own party - economic conservatives led by Joseph Lyons and left-wing populists led by Jack Lang. His loyalty paid off in March 1931, when the Labor caucus chose him to fill one of the vacancies in cabinet caused by the resignations of Lyons and James Fenton. Scullin appointed him Minister for Defence, a portfolio that had been disregarded somewhat in the face of more pressing concerns. There was little appetite for policy development, and Chifley instead concentrated on finding savings in his department that could be redirected to unemployment relief. He opened up unused military camps to the homeless, and also distributed surplus military clothing.
Chifley was somewhat reluctant in his support of the Premiers' Plan of June 1931, but believed there was no better alternative and felt bound by the principle of cabinet solidarity. His endorsement of the plan, which required cuts to wages and pensions, was received poorly in his own constituency. Many in the local labour movement defected to the Lang Labor faction, which opposed the plan, and his own union expelled him in August 1931. Joseph Lyons reportedly offered Chifley the treasurership as an inducement to join the United Australia Party (UAP), the new party he had created; Chifley declined and remained a member of the Labor Party. At the 1931 election, Chifley suffered a negative swing of 16.2 points in Macquarie, losing his seat to John Lawson, the UAP candidate, by just 456 votes on the final count. The Labor Party was reduced to 14 seats out of 75 in the House of Representatives, with five other ministers (including Treasurer Ted Theodore) and future prime minister John Curtin also losing their seats.
During the Great Depression, with no parliamentary salary and no chance of returning to the railway, Chifley survived on his wife's family's money and his part-ownership of the Bathurst newspaper The National Advocate.
In 1938, Chifley and most other Labor supporters in Bathurst joined the Industrial Labor Party (ILP), a breakaway organisation formed by Bob Heffron and dedicated to thwarting the Lang Labor faction that controlled the ALP in New South Wales. He was a delegate to the party's annual conference in Sydney in April 1939. After a unity conference in August 1939, the ILP members rejoined the ALP and ended Jack Lang's dominance. Chifley was subsequently elected to the ALP state executive.
In 1935 the Lyons government appointed Chifley as 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. After an unsuccessful effort to win back Macquarie at the 1934 election, Chifley finally won his seat back at the 1940 election on a swing of 10 percent.
Although deputy Labor leader Frank Forde was nominally the number-two-man in the government, Chifley became the minister Curtin most relied on, controlling most domestic policy while Curtin was preoccupied with World War II. Of highest importance was war funding, followed by the strong desire 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.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography claims 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.
When Curtin died in July 1945, Forde became Prime Minister for eight days. Chifley defeated him in the leadership ballot, replacing him as Prime Minister and Curtin as Labor leader. Once the war ended a month later, normal political life resumed, and Chifley faced Robert Menzies and his new Liberal Party in the 1946 election, which Chifley won with 54 percent of the two-party-preferred vote. It marked the first time that an incumbent full-term federal Labor government was re-elected. In the post-war years, Chifley maintained wartime economic controls, including the highly unpopular petrol rationing. He did this partly to help Britain in its postwar economic difficulties.
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Feeling secure in an unprecedented second term of office, post-WW2 Labor under Chifley looked toward incremental policies friendly to the Labor platform objective of democratic socialism. According to a biographer of Chifley, his government embarked upon greater "general intervention and planning in economic and social affairs", with its policies directed towards better conditions in the workplace, full employment, and an improvement in the "equalisation of wealth, income and opportunity". Chifley was successful in transforming the wartime economy into a peacetime economy, and undertook a number of social welfare initiatives, as characterised by fairer pensions and unemployment and sickness benefits, the construction of new universities and technical colleges, and the building of 200,000 houses between 1945 and 1949.
The radical reforming nature of the Chifley Government was such that, between 1946-49, the Australian Parliament passed 299 Acts, a record up until then, and well beyond the previous record of the Labor Government of Andrew Fisher, which passed 113 Acts from 1910-13. Among other measures, the Chifley government passed legislation to establish universal health care modelled on the British National Health Service, including a free formulary of essential medicines. This was successfully opposed as unconstitutional in the High Court of Australia by the British Medical Association (precursor of the Australian Medical Association) in the First Pharmaceutical Benefits case.
Chifley then organised one of the few successful constitutional referenda to insert a new section 51xxiiiA which permitted federal legislation over pharmaceutical benefits. It authorised federal legislation over medical and dental services (but not so as to authorise any form of civil conscription), together with family allowances, benefits to students and hospital benefits, child endowment, widows' pensions, unemployment benefits, and maternity allowances. The subsequent federal legislation in relation to pharmaceutical benefits was deemed constitutional by the High Court. This paved the way for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), an important component of Australia's modern public health system.
One of the few successful referendums to modify the Australian Constitution, the 1946 Social Services referendum, took place during Chifley's term. The 1946 referendum made possible many of the Chifley Labor government's other legislative initiatives in social welfare and social provision, including the following:
That same year, eligibility for a Class D pension was extended to women whose husbands were imprisoned for six months or more and were over 50 years old;
The achievements of both Chifley's government and those of the previous Curtin Government in expanding Australia's social welfare services (as characterised by a tenfold increase in commonwealth expenditure on social provision between 1941 and 1949) were brought together under the Social Services Consolidation Act of 1947, which consolidated the various social services benefits, liberalised some existing social security provisions, and increased the rates of various benefits.
Among the government's other legislative achievements were:
Among the Chifley Labor Government's legislation was the post-war immigration scheme, the establishment of Australian citizenship, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the nationalisation of airlines Qantas and Trans Australia Airlines, improvements in social services, the creation of the Commonwealth Employment Service, the introduction of federal funds to the States for public housing construction, the establishment of a Universities Commission for the expansion of university education, the introduction of a Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and free hospital ward treatment, the reorganisation and enlargement of the CSIRO, and the establishment of a civilian rehabilitation service.
As noted by one historian, Chifley's government "balanced economic development and welfare support with restraint and regulation and provided the framework for Australia's post-war economic prosperity."
In 1947, Chifley 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 found Chifley's legislation to be unconstitutional. The government appealed the decision in the Privy Council, but it upheld the High Court's decision.
However, Chifley's government did succeed in passing the Banking and Commonwealth Bank Acts of 1945 which gave the government control over monetary policy and established the Commonwealth Bank as Australia's national bank.
During the 1948 Queensland railway strike, Chifley barred striking workers from being eligible for unemployment benefits. A prolonged and bitter strike in the coal industry began in June 1949 and 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 13,000 army troops to break the strike. Early on in the strike, Chifley and H. V. Evatt froze Miner's Federation funds and "introduced legislation aimed at starving the workers back to work".
In 1949 in the House of Representatives, Chifley stated that the Labor Party was a "bulwark against communism", and that the most effective way of weakening the strength of the Communist Party was "improving the conditions of the people". 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 Liberal election victory at the 1949 election. While Labor won an additional four seats in a House of Representatives that had been expanded from 74 seats to 121 seats, Menzies and the Coalition won an additional 48. Labor retained a Senate majority however.
Chifley was now aged 64 and in poor health (like Curtin, he was a lifelong smoker), but he refused to retire from politics. Though out of government, having retained a Senate majority, Chifley continued as Labor leader and became Leader of the Opposition. The opposition Senate majority would frequently ensure the passing of Labor amendments, or outright blocking, of Menzies Government legislation.
Menzies responded by introducing a bill to ban the Communist Party of Australia in 1950. He expected Chifley to reject it and give him an excuse to call a double dissolution election. Menzies apparently hoped to repeat his "soft-on-Communism" theme to win a majority in both chambers.
However, Chifley let the bill pass after a redraft (it was ultimately thrown out by the High Court). However, when Chifley rejected Menzies' Commonwealth Banking Bill a few months later, Menzies called a double dissolution election for April 1951. Although Chifley managed to lead Labor to a five-seat swing in the House, Labor lost six seats in the Senate, giving the Coalition control of both chambers.
Chifley at first made light of the sudden chest pains and attempted to dissuade his secretary and confidante, Phyllis Donnelly, who was making him a cup of tea, from calling a doctor. As his condition deteriorated, however, Donnelly called Dr. John Holt, who ordered Chifley's immediate removal to hospital. Chifley died in an ambulance on the way to the Canberra Community Hospital. He was pronounced dead at 10:45 pm.
Menzies heard of Chifley's demise while attending a parliamentary ball at King's Hall in Parliament House to celebrate the 50th Jubilee of Federation (Chifley was invited but had declined to attend). Menzies was deeply distressed and abandoned his normally impassive demeanour to announce in a halting subdued voice:
It is my very sorrowful duty during this celebration tonight to tell you that Mr Chifley has died. I don't want to try to talk about him now because, although we were political opponents, he was a friend of mine and yours, and a fine Australian. You will all agree that in the circumstances the festivities should end. It doesn't matter about party politics on an occasion such as this. Oddly enough, in Parliament we get on very well. We sometimes find we have the warmest friendships among people whose politics are not ours. Mr Chifley served this country magnificently for years.
Chifley married Elizabeth McKenzie (known as "Lizzie") on 6 June 1914. She was the daughter of a more senior railways employee, George McKenzie. The couple began courting in 1912, but had known each other since childhood. The McKenzies were Presbyterian, and Elizabeth did not want to convert to Chifley's Catholic faith. Due to the Catholic Church's opposition to mixed marriages, the couple chose to marry in a Presbyterian church in Glebe, Sydney. Their parents opposed the union and did not attend the ceremony, but they and their families were eventually reconciled. The McKenzies were relatively wealthy, and Chifley was seen as "marrying into money, or as much money as he could hope to marry into in the context of the relatively class-bound society of Bathurst".
After their marriage, Chifley's father-in-law gave the couple a house on Busby Street, Bathurst, which they would occupy for the rest of their respective lives. It is now listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register as "Ben Chifley's House", and has operated as a house museum since 1973. Chifley and his wife had no children. She suffered a "serious health problem", probably a miscarriage, in about 1915, and later developed chronic back pain that restricted her mobility. The couple lived mostly separate lives, initially because of her husband's work on the railways and later because of his political career. She rarely travelled outside Bathurst and never lived in Canberra, even while her husband was prime minister. She usually visited the city for only special occasions. Her health prevented from campaigning for her husband, and she was known to have little interest in politics. Nonetheless, the couple "seemingly enjoyed a close and caring relationship throughout his life". She survived her husband by 11 years, dying in 1962.
According to his biographer David Day, Chifley engaged in an long-running extramarital affair with his private secretary Phyllis Donnelly. Day believed that their relationship began shortly after Chifley was elected in parliament in 1928, and continued more or less uninterrupted until his death in 1951; she was present in his room at the Hotel Kurrajong when he suffered his final heart attack. She stayed at the same hotel, and they were known to spend their free time with each other while in Canberra. She also accompanied him on many of his travels. According to Frank Slavin, Chifley's campaign manager at the 1940 election, his wife was aware of the relationship and tolerated it. Day also speculated that Chifley may have had a similar relationship with Phyllis's older sister Nell. He assisted her financially in the 1930s, including buying her a house in Bathurst. Day based his conclusions on interviews conducted with the Donnelly family and other Bathurst residents who had known Chifley. His claims have been disputed by members of the Chifley family, and some reviewers of his book felt there was insufficient evidence to conclude that Chifley's relationship with either of the Donnelly sisters was sexual in nature.[b]
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. When, in 1989, a new Liberal government renamed it the University of Western Sydney, controversy broke out. According to a debate on the topic, held in 1997 after the Labor Party had regained government, the decision to rename Chifley University reflected a desire to attach the name of Western Sydney to institutions of lasting significance, and that idea ultimately received the support of Bob Carr, later the Premier of New South Wales.
Places and institutions that have been named after Chifley include:
One of the locomotives driven by Chifley, 5112, is preserved on a plinth at the eastern end of Bathurst railway station. In 1971 Commonwealth Railways named diesel locomotive NJ1 that was assembled at the Clyde Engineering factory in Kelso, Ben Chifley.
| Minister for Defence
Sir Arthur Fadden
| Treasurer of Australia
Sir Arthur Fadden
| Prime Minister of Australia
| Leader of the Opposition
|Parliament of Australia|
| Member for Macquarie
| Member for Macquarie
|Party political offices|
| Leader of the Australian Labor Party