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Chifley, Joseph Benedict (Ben) (1885–1951)

by K. J. Kavanagh

from Courier-Mail (Brisbane)

Joseph Benedict Chifley, who died last night aged 65 was a great Labour leader and Prime Minister of Australia for four years, 1945 to 1949.

The glitter of the Jubilee celebrations has been dimmed by the tragedy of his death.

He led Australia over a difficult period — taking over after the death of John Curtin in July 4, 1945, and heading the nation through the post war period to the election of December 10, 1949.

He was a man respected by his opponents; almost worshipped by his followers.

The present Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) greatly admired Chifley the Man, no matter how they differed as politicians.

Often they could be seen during a hectic debate chatting amicably across the table of the House of Representatives, or sometimes chatting behind the Speaker's chair.

And both, at their respective Press conferences, always spoke most highly of the other.

Ben had a natural charm which won him friends from among his enemies.

Once, a delegation of hostile women came to Canberra to protest about his bank nationalisation plans.

They told reporters (including myself) how they would tell "This Chifley" all their complaints.

They saw him, and emerged subdued. "Isn't he a lovely man," said one. "He offered us a cup of tea and asked would we mind whether he smoked his pipe." That pipe, of course, was famous.

Joseph Benedict Chifley goes down in Australian political history as the Bathurst engine-driver whom the people entrusted with the post-war leadership of the nation. Labour's triumph on a "no-promise" policy at the general election in September, 1946, vindicated his political judgment and was as much a personal victory for him as for his party.

"Chif," as his intimates knew him, had the reputation of saying less than any other front-bencher in the Federal Parliament, but what he said he said well — in an unaffected, drawling voice that made no concessions to either tone or oratory. He never pretended to be more than an ordinary speaker.

And that was made worse by a bad throat trouble, which caused his voice almost to fade out at times, particularly on the last election campaign.

Though confirmed in his Labour views he never bore the militant tag. With people of all parties the tall, grey, woolly-haired "Ben" acquired a reputation for fair and tolerant dealing.

He was born on September 22, 1885, at Bathurst, N.S.W., where his father was a blacksmith.

He lived for 13 years on his grandfather's farm at Limekilns, 21 miles from Bathurst, and received his early education at a tiny bush school.

When he returned to his parents' home he attended the Patrician Brothers High School for two years, leaving at 15.

His first job was as a cashier's assistant in a general store at Bathurst. At 17 he joined the N.S.W. Railways Department.

In the railways he was cleaner, fireman, locomotive driver and relief man at the Bathurst Depot and then cleaner again. This reverse came about when he was penalised for his part in the 1917 general strike.

He showed his first definite Labour interest when he represented the Locomen's Association in the State Arbitration Court in 1912.

In 1925 he stood for the Macquarie electorate, was defeated by 903 votes, and went back to his trains.

Three years later he stood again and won by 3578 votes.

In 1929 he was re-elected by 12,708 votes. In the 1931 election Chifley, who had been Defence Minister for a year, was defeated by 456 votes, and was put out of Parliament for nine years.

This time he did not go back to the railways, but his time was filled with his private interests and out-of-Parliament public service. He was also part-owner of the Advocate newspaper in Bathurst.

In 1935-36 the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) used his services as a member of the Royal Commission on monetary and banking systems. On that commission Mr. Chifley in a minority report recommended the outright nationalisation of banks.

Those years outside Parliament in the '30's were profitably spent for the Labour Party by the future Prime Minister in upholding the Federal A.L.P. in its fight against the Lang Group in N.S.W.

Mr. Chifley was thrice expelled by those controlling the State machine, but in the end he succeeded in welding the main elements of the party. His stocks in the Labour movement soared after that.

In 1939 Mr. Menzies, as Prime Minister, appointed him an industrial arbitrator. Later he became Director of Labour Supply and Regulation in the Ministry of Munitions.

Resigning that post to re-contest Macquarie in 1940, he con-ducted his successful campaign-from a sick bed in a Sydney hospital.

The A.L.P. failed to shift the Menzies Government at that election, but one of the first administrative acts of the new Labour Minister (Mr. Holt) was to co-opt Mr. Chifley, M.H.R., as adviser on labour matters and liaison officer between the department and trade unions.

A year later the Menzies and Fadden Governments had fallen, and Mr. Chifley was Federal Treasurer.

The first task of presenting a budget to replace that of Mr. Fadden was difficult, but a still harder one lay ahead in financing the accelerated war that Japan was about to bring to the Pacific. Mr. Chifley did that creditably.

He was Mr. Curtin's close friend and mentor in those days.

When Curtin died he became Prime Minister on July 13, 1945. He married Elizabeth MacKenzie on June 6, 1914, and bought a semi-detached cottage in Bathurst for £200.

After he became Prime Minister he and Mrs. Chifley lived on there when Parliament was not in session (even in session Mrs. Chifley remained there). They had no children.

A look at the policy of "Chif," whom many (even Treasury officials) regarded as a financial wizard, brought this admission of his way of dealing with the stream of people looking for some relaxation of controls.

"I start off," he once said, "on the assumption that the matter is 90 per cent. racket. But if after a superficial examination it looks as if it might not be more than 50 per cent. racket — then I have a really good look at it."

All his life, Chifley had studied the theory of money. And ardent Socialist that he was, he came to the conclusion that the only way to control the country was to control the banks.

"Chif" sometimes gave a glimpse of the reason for his hatred of banks when he talked of his grandfather having been dispossessed of his farm.

A fateful 19-word statement on a Saturday morning that his Government intended to nationalise the banks shocked Australia and led to Australia's bitterest election campaign— and the downfall of his Government.

Since the Government change in December, 1949, "Chif" has carried on, despite a serious break through ill-health, as Opposition Leader. His calm leadership has cemented the turbulent Caucus factions and his departure now will pose a real leadership problem.

Chifley's main hobby was gardening; his main relaxation reading, in which his tastes ranged from "whodunits" to economics.

He read through the Bible nine times. He read all worthwhile Australian Literature, particularly works produced by the Commonwealth Literary Fund of which he was one time, chairman.

While Prime Minister he had a bedside radio and used to have a morning cup of tea at 6 a.m.

Little known is the fact that Chifley was a Rugby Union footballer of near-international class when a youth. He played for Bathurst and Combined Western Districts and when 23 took part in the trial matches from which were drawn the players who comprised the Australian team which toured Britain in 1908.

He regarded Larry Dwyer as the greatest Rugby full-back produced by Australia.

"Chif"' will be missed by all in Canberra — from messenger to Minister.

Typists and clerks will miss that cheery "Good morning" from the tall, overcoated, pipe smoking gentleman as he walked the near-mile from the Hotel Kurrajong to Parliament House.

"Chif" always walked to and from work, and, after lunch, often strolled on the vast lawns in front of Parliament House, where House employees sat beneath trees having their lunch of sandwiches. 

Paradoxically, his taste for long trips was a big, fast, American car.

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Citation details

K. J. Kavanagh, 'Chifley, Joseph Benedict (Ben) (1885–1951)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/chifley-joseph-benedict-ben-9738/text35513, accessed 15 September 2019.

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