Ben Chifley

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Ben Chifley
16th Prime Minister of Australia
In office
13 July 1945 19 December 1949
Monarch George VI
Governor-General The Duke of Gloucester
Sir William McKell
Deputy Frank Forde
H. V. Evatt
Preceded byFrank Forde
Succeeded by Robert Menzies
Leader of the Labor Party
In office
13 July 1945 13 June 1951
DeputyFrank Forde
H. V. Evatt
Preceded by John Curtin
Succeeded byH. V. Evatt
Treasurer of Australia
In office
7 October 1941 18 December 1949
Prime MinisterJohn Curtin
Frank Forde
Preceded by Arthur Fadden
Succeeded byArthur Fadden
Leader of the Opposition
In office
19 December 1949 13 June 1951
Prime Minister Robert Menzies
DeputyH. V. Evatt
Preceded byRobert Menzies
Succeeded byH. V. Evatt
Minister for Postwar Reconstruction
In office
22 December 1942 2 February 1945
Prime MinisterJohn Curtin
Preceded byOffice Created
Succeeded by John Dedman
Minister for Defence
In office
3 March 1931 6 January 1932
Prime Minister James Scullin
Preceded by John Daly
Succeeded by George Pearce
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Macquarie
In office
21 September 1940 13 June 1951
Preceded by John Lawson
Succeeded by Tony Luchetti
In office
17 November 1928 19 December 1931
Preceded by Arthur Manning
Succeeded by John Lawson
Personal details
Joseph Benedict Chifley

(1885-09-22)22 September 1885
Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia
Died13 June 1951(1951-06-13) (aged 65)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
Political party Labor
Other political
Industrial Labor (1938–1939)
Elizabeth McKenzie (m. 1917)
Education Limekilns Public School
Patrician Brothers' School, Bathurst
Occupation Engine driver
(New South Wales Railways)

Joseph Benedict Chifley ( /ˈɪfli/ ; 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.

Prime Minister of Australia executive head of the Government of Australia

The prime minister of Australia is the head of government of Australia. The individual who holds the office is the most senior minister of state, the leader of the federal Cabinet. The prime minister also has the responsibility of administering the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and is the chair of the National Security Committee and the Council of Australian Governments. The office of prime minister is not mentioned in the Constitution of Australia but exists through Westminster political convention. The individual who holds the office is commissioned by the governor-general of Australia and at the governor-general's pleasure subject to the Constitution of Australia and constitutional conventions.

Australian Labor Party Political party in Australia

The Australian Labor Party is a major centre-left political party in Australia. The party has been in opposition at the federal level since the 2013 election. The party is a federal party with branches in each state and territory. Labor is in government in the states of Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, and in both the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory. The party competes against the Liberal/National Coalition for political office at the federal and state levels. It is the oldest political party in Australia.


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.

Bathurst, New South Wales City in New South Wales, Australia

Bathurst is a city in the Central Tablelands of New South Wales, Australia. It is about 200 kilometres (120 mi) west-northwest of Sydney and is the seat of the Bathurst Regional Council. Bathurst is the oldest inland settlement in Australia and had a population of 36,801 at June 2018.

The New South Wales Government Railways (NSWGR) was the agency of the Government of New South Wales that administered rail transport in New South Wales, Australia, between 1855 and 1932.

<i>The National Advocate</i>

The National Advocate was a daily newspaper published in Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia, between 1889 and 1963.

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.

Lang Labor

Lang Labor was a faction of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) consisting of the supporters of Jack Lang, who served two terms as Premier of New South Wales and was the party's state leader from 1923 to 1939.

A royal commission is a major ad-hoc formal public inquiry into a defined issue in some monarchies. They have been held in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia. A royal commission is similar in function to a commission of inquiry found in other countries such as Ireland, South Africa, and regions such as Hong Kong. It has considerable powers, generally greater even than those of a judge but restricted to the terms of reference of the commission. The commission is created by the head of state on the advice of the government and formally appointed by letters patent. In practice—unlike lesser forms of inquiry—once a commission has started the government cannot stop it. Consequently, governments are usually very careful about framing the terms of reference and generally include in them a date by which the commission must finish.

The Department of Munitions was an Australian government department that existed between June 1940 and April 1948.

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.

1946 Australian federal election

The 1946 Australian federal election was held in Australia on 28 September 1946. All 74 seats in the House of Representatives and 19 of the 36 seats in the Senate were up for election. The incumbent Labor Party led by Prime Minister Ben Chifley defeated the opposition Liberal–Country coalition, led by Robert Menzies. It was the Liberal Party's first federal election since its creation. This was the first time the Labor party had won a second consecutive election. This was also the last time the Labor party would win a federal election until the 1972 election.

Victory over Japan Day day on which Japan surrendered, effectively ending World War II

Victory over Japan Day is the day on which Imperial Japan surrendered in World War II, in effect bringing the war to an end. The term has been applied to both of the days on which the initial announcement of Japan's surrender was made – to the afternoon of August 15, 1945, in Japan, and because of time zone differences, to August 14, 1945 – as well as to September 2, 1945, when the signing of the surrender document occurred, officially ending World War II.

The welfare state is a form of government in which the state protects and promotes the economic and social well-being of the citizens, based upon the principles of equal opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for citizens unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life. Sociologist T. H. Marshall described the modern welfare state as a distinctive combination of democracy, welfare, and capitalism.

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.

1949 Australian federal election

The 1949 Australian federal election was held in Australia on 10 December 1949. All 121 seats in the House of Representatives and 42 of the 60 seats in the Senate were up for election. The incumbent Labor Party, led by Prime Minister Ben Chifley, was defeated by the opposition Liberal–Country coalition under Robert Menzies. Menzies became prime minister for a second time, his first term having ended in 1941. This election marked the end of the 8 year Curtin-Chifley Labor Government that had been in power since 1941 and started the 23 year Liberal/Country Coalition Government. This was the first time the Liberal party won government at the federal level.

Robert Menzies Australian politician, 12th Prime Minister of Australia

Sir Robert Gordon Menzies,, was an Australian politician who twice served as Prime Minister of Australia, in office from 1939 to 1941 and again from 1949 to 1966. He played a central role in the creation of the Liberal Party of Australia, defining its policies and its broad outreach. He is Australia's longest-serving prime minister, serving over 18 years in total.

Liberal Party of Australia Australian political party

The Liberal Party of Australia is a major centre-right political party in Australia, one of the two major parties in Australian politics, along with the centre-left Australian Labor Party (ALP). It was founded in 1944 as the successor to the United Australia Party (UAP).

Early life

Birth and family background

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. [1]

County Tipperary County in the Republic of Ireland

County Tipperary is a county in Ireland. It is located in the province of Munster. The county is named after the town of Tipperary, and was established in the early thirteenth century, shortly after the Norman invasion of Ireland. The population of the county was 159,553 at the 2016 census. The largest towns are Clonmel, Nenagh and Thurles.

County Fermanagh Place in Northern Ireland, United Kingdom

County Fermanagh is one of the thirty-two counties of Ireland and one of the six counties of Northern Ireland. The county covers an area of 1,691 km² and has a population of 61,805 as of 2011. Enniskillen is the county town and largest in both size and population.

Northern Ireland Part of the United Kingdom lying in the north-east of the island of Ireland, created 1921

Northern Ireland is variously described as a country, province or region which is part of the United Kingdom. Located in the northeast of the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland shares a border to the south and west with the Republic of Ireland. In 2011, its population was 1,810,863, constituting about 30% of the island's total population and about 3% of the UK's population. Established by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as part of the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly holds responsibility for a range of devolved policy matters, while other areas are reserved for the British government. Northern Ireland co-operates with the Republic of Ireland in several areas, and the Agreement granted the Republic the ability to "put forward views and proposals" with "determined efforts to resolve disagreements between the two governments".


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. [2] 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. [3] 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. [4]


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. [5] Over the following decade, he was promoted through the ranks to engine-cleaner and fireman, and then finally in March 1914 to engine-driver. [6] 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. [7] 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. [6]

Trade unionist

Chifley became involved with the labour movement as a member of the Locomotive Enginemen's Association. [lower-alpha 1] 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. [8] 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. [9] Despite repeated lobbying, their pre-1917 benefits were not restored until 1925. [10] 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. [11] He appeared as an expert witness before the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in 1924, which subsequently implemented a new federal award for the enginemen. [12]

Early political involvement

Chifley joined the Labor Party at a young age, and was involved in state and federal election campaigns as an organiser. [13] 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. [14] In 1922 and 1924, Chifley unsuccessfully contested Labor preselection for the state seat of Bathurst. [15] 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. [16] 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. [17] 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. [18]

Scullin 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. [19] 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. [20] 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. [21] 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. [22]

Chifley in the 1930s BenChifley2.jpg
Chifley in the 1930s

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. [23] 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. [24] 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. [25]

Wilderness years

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 . [20] [26]

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. [27] 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. [28]

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. [20] [26]

Curtin Government

Chifley was appointed Treasurer of Australia (finance minister) when Labor leader John Curtin formed a mid-term Labor government in 1941 following the collapse of the first Menzies government. [20] [26]

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. [20]

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. [20]

Prime minister

Chifley (middle) and Bert Evatt (left) with Clement Attlee (right) at the Dominion and British Leaders Conference, London, 1946 ChifleyEvatt.jpg
Chifley (middle) and Bert Evatt (left) with Clement Attlee (right) at the Dominion and British Leaders Conference, London, 1946
Chifley (left) meets with Premier of South Australia Tom Playford (centre) and Governor of South Australia Sir Willoughby Norrie (right) in 1946 Norrie Chifley Playford.jpg
Chifley (left) meets with Premier of South Australia Tom Playford (centre) and Governor of South Australia Sir Willoughby Norrie (right) in 1946

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 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. [20] [29]

Legislative achievements

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". [30] Chifley was successful in transforming the wartime economy into a peacetime economy, and undertook a number of social welfare initiatives, [31] [32] [33] 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. [34]

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. [35] 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. [36] 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. [37]

Chifley then organised one of the few successful constitutional referenda to insert a new section 51xxiiiA which permitted federal legislation over pharmaceutical benefits. [38] 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. [39] The subsequent federal legislation in relation to pharmaceutical benefits was deemed constitutional by the High Court. [40] This paved the way for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), an important component of Australia's modern public health system. [41]

One of the few successful referendums to modify the Australian Constitution, the 1946 Social Services referendum, took place during Chifley's term. [42] [43] [20] 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; [45]

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) [55] were brought together under the Social Services Consolidation Act of 1947, [39] which consolidated the various social services benefits, liberalised some existing social security provisions, and increased the rates of various benefits. [56]

Among the government's other legislative achievements were:

Chifley in the 1940s BenChifley3.jpg
Chifley in the 1940s

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, [57] the creation of the Commonwealth Employment Service, [30] the introduction of federal funds to the States for public housing construction, [51] the establishment of a Universities Commission for the expansion of university education, [63] the introduction of a Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and free hospital ward treatment, [30] the reorganisation and enlargement of the CSIRO, and the establishment of a civilian rehabilitation service. [56]

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." [59]

Bank nationalisation and 1949 coal strike

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. [20] [29]

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. [59] [20]

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 the army to break the strike. [20] [29]

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. [64]


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. [20] [65]

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. [20] [65] [66]

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. [20] [65] [64]


Chifley's coffin lay in state in Old Parliament House, June 1951. BenChifely lyinginstate 1951.jpg
Chifley's coffin lay in state in Old Parliament House, June 1951.

A few weeks later on 13 June 1951, Chifley suffered a heart attack in his room at the Hotel Kurrajong in Canberra. [20] [65]

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. [67]

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. [68]

Personal life

Ben Chifley's House at 10 Busby Street, Bathurst, now a heritage site and house museum Chifley House, Bathurst.jpg
Ben Chifley's House at 10 Busby Street, Bathurst, now a heritage site and house museum

Chifley married Elizabeth McKenzie (known as "Lizzie") on 6 June 1914. [69] 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. [70] 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. [71] 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". [72]

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. [73] 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, [74] 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. [75] She rarely travelled outside Bathurst and never lived in Canberra, even while her husband was prime minister. [76] She usually only visited the city for special occasions. [77] 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". [78] She survived her husband by 11 years, dying in 1962. [79]

According to his biographer David Day, Chifley engaged in an long-running extramarital affair with his private secretary Phyllis Donnelly. [80] Day believed that their relationship began shortly after Chifley was elected in parliament in 1928, [81] 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. [82] She stayed at the same hotel, and they were known to spend their free time with each other while in Canberra. [83] 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. [84] Day also speculated that Chifley may have had a similar relationship with Phyllis's older sister Nell. [85] He assisted her financially in the 1930s, including buying her a house in Bathurst. [86] 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, [85] 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. [lower-alpha 2]


Mrs Elizabeth Chifley, wife of Ben Chifley Elizabeth Chifley.jpg
Mrs Elizabeth Chifley, wife of Ben Chifley

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. [90]


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 Ben Chifley bust.jpg
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. [94]

One of the locomotives driven by Chifley, 5112, is preserved on a plinth at the eastern end of Bathurst railway station. [95]

Chifley was portrayed by Bill Hunter in the 1984 TV miniseries The Last Bastion , by Ed Devereaux in the 1988 miniseries The True Believers , and Geoff Morrell in the 2007 film Curtin .

See also


  1. Officially titled the New South Wales Locomotive Enginedrivers', Firemen's and Cleaners' Association, and affiliated with the Federated Railway Locomotive Enginemen's Association of Australasia at a national level.
  2. Those who have expressed doubts about Day's conclusions include Geoffrey Bolton, [87] Bob Ellis, [88] and Gerard Henderson. [89]

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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
Tony Luchetti
Party political offices
Preceded by
John Curtin
Leader of the Australian Labor Party
Succeeded by
H.V. Evatt