Ben Chifley

Ben Chifley
The Right Honourable
Ben Chifley
16th Prime Minister of Australia
Elections: 1946, 1949, 1951
In office
13 July 1945 – 19 December 1949
Monarch George VI
Governor General Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester
William McKell
Preceded by Frank Forde
Succeeded by Robert Menzies
Constituency Macquarie (New South Wales)
Personal details
Born 22 September 1885(1885-09-22)
Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia
Died 13 June 1951(1951-06-13) (aged 65)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
Political party Labor
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Chifley
Religion Roman Catholicism[1]

Joseph Benedict Chifley (English pronunciation: /ˈtʃɪfli/; 1885–1951), Australian politician, was the 16th Prime Minister of Australia. He took over the Australian Labor Party leadership and Prime Ministership after the death of John Curtin in 1945, and went on to retain government at the 1946 election, before being defeated at the 1949 election.

Amongst the Chifley Labor Government's legislation was the post-war immigration scheme, the establishment of Australian citizenship, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, over-viewing the foundation of airlines Qantas and TAA, improvements in social services,[2] the creation of the Commonwealth Employment Service,[3] the introduction of federal funds to the States for public housing construction,[4] the establishment of a Universities Commission for the expansion of university education,[5] the introduction of a Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and free hospital ward treatment,[3] the reorganisation and enlargement of the CSIRO, the establishment of a civilian rehabilitation service,[6] the founding of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), and the establishment of the Australian National University.[7]

One of the few successful referendums to modify the Australian Constitution, the 1946 Social Services referendum, took place during Chifley's term.[8][9][10]


Early life

Born in Bathurst, New South Wales,[8] Chifley was the son of a blacksmith of Irish Roman Catholic descent. He was one of four brothers and between the ages of five and 14 was raised mostly by his grandfather, who lost all his savings in the bank crash of 1892: Chifley acquired his lifelong dislike of the private banks early. He was educated at Roman Catholic schools in Bathurst, and joined the New South Wales Railways at 15.

Ben Chifley became an engine driver. He was one of the founders of the AFULE (the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen)[11] and an active member of the Labor Party. In 1914 he married Elizabeth Mackenzie. Mackenzie was a staunch Presbyterian, and the couple exchanged wedding vows in a Presbyterian church. Chifley remained a practising Catholic, but his marriage with a non-Catholic ignited criticisms among Catholic circles.[1] In 1917 he was one of the leaders of a prolonged strike, which resulted in his being dismissed. He was reinstated by the Jack Lang New South Wales Labor government in 1920. He represented his union before industrial tribunals and taught himself industrial law.


Chifley in the 1930s

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 James Scullin government's economic policies, and in 1931 he became Minister for Defence. At the 1931 general election, the Scullin government fell and Chifley lost his seat. During the Depression he survived on his wife's family's money and his part-ownership of the Bathurst newspaper the 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 won his seat back in 1940, and the following year he became Treasurer (finance minister) in John Curtin's Labor government. Although Frank Forde was 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.

Prime minister

Chifley (middle) and Bert Evatt (left) with Clement Attlee (right) at the Dominion and British Leaders Conference, London, 1946

When Curtin died in July 1945, Forde became Prime Minister, but Chifley defeated him in the leadership ballot and replaced him only six days later. Once the war ended, normal political life resumed, and Chifley faced Robert Menzies and his new Liberal Party in the 1946 election, which Chifley comfortably won. 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.

Chifley (left) meets with Premier of South Australia Tom Playford (centre) and Governor of South Australia Sir Willoughby Norrie (right) in 1946

Feeling secure in power, Chifley decided it was time to advance towards Labor's objective of democratic socialism. According to a biographer of Ben Chifley’s, 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'.[3] Amongst other measures, Chifley passed legislation to establish a free formulary of essential medicines.[12] This was successfully opposed in the Australian High Court by the British Medical Association (precursor of the Australian Medical Association)[13] Chifley then organised one of the few successful constitutional referenda to insert a new section 51xxiiiA which permitted federal legislation over pharmaceutical benefits.[14] together with family allowances, benefits to students and hospital benefits, child endowment, widows’ pensions, unemployment benefits, and maternity allowances.[15] The subsequent federal legislation was deemed constitutional by the High Court.[16] This paved the way for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.[17]

Chifley was also successful in transforming the wartime economy into a peacetime economy, and undertook a number of social welfare initiatives,[18] 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.[19] 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[20] were also brought together under the Social Services Consolidation Act of 1947,[15] which consolidated the various social services benefits, liberalised some existing social security provisions, and increased the rates of various benefits.[6] In addition, tertiary education was also expanded through the funding of Commonwealth scholarships and the establishment of the Australian National University and the Commonwealth Education Office.[21] The Mental Institutions Benefits Act (1948) paid the states a benefit equal to the charges upon the relatives of mental hospital patients, in return for free treatment. This legislation marked the entry of the Commonwealth into mental health funding.[22] The radical reforming nature of Chifley's Prime-ministership was such that between 1946 and 1949, the Australian Parliament enacted 299 bills, a record up until then.[15]

Mrs Elizabeth Chifley, wife of Ben Chifley.

Chifley and his ministers were also able to ensure that Australia’s wartime economy was managed effectively and that post-war debts were minimised. In addition, ex-service personnel were eased back into civilian life (avoiding the hardship and dislocation that had occurred after the end of the First World War), while a series of liberal measures were carried out which bore fruit during the economic boom of the Fifties and Sixties.[21] 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.“[7]

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 eventually found Chifley's legislation to be unconstitutional. Chifley's government did, however, 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.[7]

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. While Labor picked up four seats in a House of Representatives that had been expanded to 121 seats, Menzies and the Coalition picked up 48. The net 44-seat swing to the Coalition is still the largest defeat of a sitting government in Australia.

Opposition again

Chifley was now aged 64 and in poor health (like Curtin he was a lifelong smoker), but he refused to retire from politics. Labor had retained control of the Senate, and Chifley, now Leader of the Opposition, took advantage of this to bring misery to the Menzies government at every turn. Menzies responded by introducing a bill to ban the Communist Party of Australia. He expected Chifley to reject it and give him an excuse to call 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 (it was ultimately thrown out by the High Court)

However, when Chifley rejected Menzies' banking bill a few months later, Menzies called a double dissolution election in 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.

Death and legacy

Chifley's casket Lay in state in Old Parliament House, June 1951.

A few weeks later Chifley died of a heart attack in his room at the Kurrajong Hotel in Canberra (he had lived there throughout his prime ministership, having refused to reside at The Lodge). Menzies heard of Chifley's demise while attending an official event at the Albert Hall in Canberra, to mark fifty years of Australian Federation. Normally impassive, "Ming the Merciless" (as his foes called him) had difficulty on this occasion in fighting back tears; and he ordered that the function be brought to an end, in homage to his predecessor and adversary, whom he had always respected personally.

Chifley in the 1940s

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.[23]

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.

Bust of sixteenth Prime Minister of Australia Ben Chifley by sculptor Ken Palmer located in the Prime Minister's Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens


Places and institutions that have been named after Chifley include:

In 1975 he was honoured on a postage stamp bearing his portrait issued by Australia Post.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Duncan (2001), p. 163
  2. ^ Inter-Basin Water Transfer: Case Studies from Australia, United States, Canada, China, and India by Fereidoun Ghassemi and Ian White
  3. ^ a b c The death of social democracy: political consequences in the 21st century by Ashley Lavelle
  4. ^ Environmental and Planning Law in New South Wales by Rosemary Lyster, Zada Lipman, and Nicola Franklin
  5. ^ "National Museum of Australia - Ben Chifley". Retrieved 2011-11-04. 
  6. ^ a b "social security in australia - Dept. of Social Security, Australia - Google Books". Retrieved 2011-11-04. 
  7. ^ a b c
  8. ^ a b "The Rt Hon Ben Chifley". Australian Labor Party. Archived from the original on 2007-08-31. Retrieved 2007-12-11. 
  9. ^ "Significant Events in ASIO's History". Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Retrieved 2007-12-11. 
  10. ^ "Chifley, Joseph Benedict (Ben) (1885 - 1951)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 2007-06-30. 
  11. ^ "A.F.U.L.E. History". Archived from the original on 30 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-03. 
  12. ^ Sloan C. A History of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme 1947-1992. Canberra AGPS 1995) p12
  13. ^ AG Vic (ex rel Dale and ors) v Cth (the Pharmaceutical Benefits Case) (1945) 71 CLR 237.
  14. ^ David Day. Chifley Harper Collins Sydney 2001 pp443-444. It also authorised federal legislation over medical and dental services (but not so as to authorise any form of civil conscription),
  15. ^ a b c "Social Services and Immigration". Retrieved 2011-11-04. 
  16. ^ Federal Council of the British Medical Association in Australia v Cth (1949) 79 CLR 201.
  17. ^ National Health Act 1953(Cth).
  18. ^ "Background Note-Chronology" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-04. 
  19. ^ "Speeches - 25th Ben Chifley Light On the Hill Oration, Bathurst [19/09/2009]". 2009-09-19. Retrieved 2011-11-04. 
  20. ^ Foundations of the Welfare State by Pat Thane
  21. ^ a b by D. B. Waterson. "Biography - Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley - Australian Dictionary of Biography". Retrieved 2011-11-04. 
  22. ^ "Australian Academy of Medicine and Surgery". AAMS. Retrieved 2011-11-04. 
  23. ^ "University of Western Sydney Bill - 19 November 1997 - 2R - NSW Parliament". 1997-11-19. Retrieved 2010-04-18. 


  • Duncan, Bruce, Crusade or conspiracy?: Catholics and the anti-communist struggle in Australia, UNSW Press, 2001, ISBN 0868407313

Further reading

  • Chifley, Ben (1952), Things Worth Fighting For (collected speeches), Melbourne University Press, Parkville, Victoria.
  • Crisp, L.F. (1961), Ben Chifley: A Political Biography, Longman, Green and Co, Melbourne, Victoria.
  • Day, David (2001), Chifley, HarperCollins, 2001
  • Hughes, Colin A (1976), Mr Prime Minister. Australian Prime Ministers 1901-1972, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, Ch.17. ISBN 0-19-550471-2
  • Makin, Norman (1961), Federal Labour Leaders, Union Printing, Sydney, New South Wales, Pages 122-131.
  • Waterson, Duncan (1993), Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol. 13 A-D pp. 412–420, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria.

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
John Daly
Minister for Defence
Succeeded by
George Pearce
Preceded by
Sir Arthur Fadden
Treasurer of Australia
Succeeded by
Sir Arthur Fadden
Preceded by
Frank Forde
Prime Minister of Australia
Succeeded by
Robert Menzies
Preceded by
Robert Menzies
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
H.V. Evatt
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
Arthur Manning
Member for Macquarie
Succeeded by
John Lawson
Preceded by
John Lawson
Member for Macquarie
Succeeded by
Anthony Luchetti
Party political offices
Preceded by
John Curtin
Leader of the Australian Labor Party
Succeeded by
H.V. Evatt

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