Ben Chifley (Prime Minister of Australia 1945-1949)
"It’s no good crying over spilt milk; all we can do is bail up another cow. "
"One man and a dozen fools would govern better than one man alone."
"The only things I hate are want, misery and insecurity of any people in any country"
If you happen to read any guide books on the Jenolan Caves written before 1952, you will come across mention of the Left Imperial Cave, which has now vanished from the daily cave schedule. It did not collapse, with catastrophic consequences for those inside, but was simply renamed to honour Joseph Benedict Chifley, who was for many years the local Member for the Caves, and Jenolan's good friend in the Federal Parliament.
Train Driver to Prime Minister of Australia
‘Ben’ Chifley, as he is more popularly known, was once a train driver. One of the locomotives he drove can be seen today, fully restored, outside Bathurst railway station. His rise through the ranks of the railway workers union, to Federal Parliament, then Prime Minister, remains an inspiration and proof that humble beginnings are no bar to attaining high office in Australia.
For 14 years, ‘Chif’, as he was popularly known, represented the Australian Labor Party seat of Macquarie, in which Jenolan Caves is situated. He was first elected in February 1929, becoming Minister for Defence, in Prime Minister Scullin’s administration. He lost his seat in the 1931 election, tried without success to regain it in 1934, but was re elected in November 1940. His victorious campaign was conducted from a hospital bed, where he was recovering from double pneumonia. He remained MP for Macquarie until his death.
In 1941, Bob Menzies resigned as Prime Minister, and his successor, Country Party leader Artie Fadden, lost the support of the two independent MP’s who kept him in power. Lord Gowrie, the Governor General, commissioned John Curtin, leader of the Labor Party to form a Government, Ben Chifley becoming treasurer.
When Curtin died in office in1945, an overwhelming majority of the labor caucus, impressed by his quiet competence as treasurer and his outstanding performances on the floor of the wartime Parliament, voted for Chifley to become leader.
- Snowy Mountain Hydro Electric Scheme, which would deliver electricity to new industries
- assistance to General Motors Holden, to build a car specifically designed for Australian conditions – the iconic ‘Australia’s own car the Holden’
- an overseas airline – QANTAS
- a domestic carrier – Trans Australian Airline
- establishment of the CSIRO
- establishment of the Australian National University, with an emphasis on science. (These scientific and academic pillars to support a modern economy with its own secure industrial base.)
- migrants were resettled from war torn Europe or offered assisted passages to come to Australia.
- a comprehensive progressive social welfare program, including the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and federal funds for housing.
His appeal was for all Australians to "Join together in the march of our nation to future progress". His government created the building blocks that sustained a long period of unparalleled economic prosperity throughout the 50’s and 60’s, long after the Chifley government left office in 1949.
What was Ben Chifley like as a person?
Unlike his great opponent, the patrician Menzies, he placed great emphasis on his ordinariness, both in his appearance and speech. An American observer said of him, “Chifley has the same deceptive mildness, the same utter inability to dramatise himself and his utterances, the same steadfastness and the same mental “guts” as Cordell Hull”.1
Ben and his wife, Elizabeth, lived in in Bathurst, in a very modest terrace house, which is now open as a tiny museum. Ben and Elizabeth spent their whole married life there, even while Ben was Prime Minister. The Chifley Home is a 'time capsule' - a testiment to the austerity of Ben and Elizabeth Chifley.
Robert Menzies, who defeated Chifley in 1949 and went on to be Prime Minister for an unprecedented period described their relationship in a radio broadcast as ‘continuous and close’ and ‘It would have been hard to have a personal quarrel with him, for he had in abundance those human qualities of easy informality, of deep conviction, of quiet humour, and of engaging frankness which made him, in the old phrase, a ‘man’s man’’ 2
As Member for Macquarie, he was highly visible and imminently approachable. His neighbours would not hesitate to seek a reference from him on behalf of a young family member who was looking for employment. They would receive a letter written in Chifley’s own hand on official Prime Ministerial letter-head.
Setting up a microphone and a primitive public address system, he would speak at street corners, whatever the weather. When there was no electricity, he would stand on a soap box to speak, which, aggravated by his smoking, left his voice box like ‘a piece of worn out leather’.
For Ben Chifley, there were no opinion polls and focus groups. He would engineer conversations to “take the pulse of the people” to see how they felt about the issues of the day. On occasion, this level of access, almost unthinkable with a Prime Minister today, would sometimes result in Chifley being personally confronted by disgruntled constituents. However, he was usually able to defuse the situation by his down to earth manner.
He could be extremely determined, when he felt the national welfare was at stake. In 1949 the coal miners went on strike. Troops were ordered into the open cut mines. The leaders of the miner’s union were sent to jail, and their union benefit funds, which would support the striking miners’ families, were frozen.
In Katoomba, a Labor stronghold, supporters of the striking miners denounced him as a strike breaker. At a demonstration outside the Soldiers Memorial Hall (now the Katoomba RSL), 22 year old Len Leffley confronted Ben Chifley with, “ Why have you frozen the miners funds Ben. We’ve got children starving.”
Len recalled that Chifley stared him right in the face and said “Son, whatever you do don’t get me excited” 3
Defeated in a general election in 1949, he stayed on as opposition leader, despite his failing health, dying two years later from a heart attack.
Jenolan Named a Cave in Chifley's Honour
After Ben Chifley died in 1951, the esteem in which he had been held continued. At Jenolan Caves – which he had visited the week before he died - it was decided to change the name of the Left Imperial Cave to the Chifley Cave in his honour. As he was from the left of politics, the Left Imperial was an ideal choice!
Those attending the ceremony, on an Easter weekend of appalling weather, read like a 'who’s who' of the Australian Labour Party at the time. There was Herbert Vere ‘Doc’ Evatt, his successor as leader of the ALP and many other luminaries. A poignant moment came when Mrs. Elizabeth Chifley, who had maintained a low profile during her late husband’s long political career, was presented with a bunch of flowers by Alison Richardson, the young daughter of Reg Richardson, the Number One Cave Guide at Jenolan.
“As a tribute to the memory of The Rt. Hon. J.B. Chifley who represented this electorate in the Federal Parliament this cave was named the Chifley Cave by the Hon. Clive Evatt QC MLA Chief Secretary of NEW South Wales.”
A fitting tribute to Ben Chifley’s vision of a modern Australia is that the cave named after him was the first cave anywhere in the world to be lit with electric light, a scientific advance that would appeal to him.
In his own words, delivered to the annual conference of the New South Wales branch of the ALP in June 1949, let him return to the theme of light,
“We have a great objective –the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that the labor movement would not be worth fighting for.” 4
- Crisp L.F. Ben Chifley A Political Biography. Cordell hull was President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State before and during WW2.
- Radio Broadcast made by Menzies after Chifley’s death 14 June 1951 SP 369/1, AAS quoted in Day D Chifley.
- ABC Open - Posts - 'Don't Get Me Excited Son'
- Chifley to the annual conference of the NSW Labor Party, June 1949. Stargardt [ed] Things Worth fighting for quoted in Day D Chifley