26 March, 2009

Ben Chifley

Joseph Benedict Chifley Australian politician and 16th Prime Minister of Australia, was one of Australia's most influential Prime Ministers. Among his government's accomplishments were the post-war immigration scheme under Arthur Calwell, the establishment of Australian citizenship in 1949, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the national airline TAA, a social security scheme for the unemployed, and the founding of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). One of the few successful referenda to modify the Australian Constitution took place during his term.

Born in Bathurst, New South Wales, 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) and an active member of the Labor Party. In 1914 he married Elizabeth Mackenzie. She was a Presbyterian; Chifley left the Roman Catholic Church to marry her and never returned. 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.

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.

When Curtin died in July 1945, Forde became (very briefly) Prime Minister, but Chifley defeated him in the leadership ballot and replaced him 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.

Feeling secure in power, Chifley decided it was time to advance towards Labor's objective of democratic socialism. In 1947 he 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 of Australia eventually found Chifley's legislation to be unconstitutional.

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. Chifley suffered a 48-seat swing--still the worst defeat of an incumbent government at the federal level in Australia. Chifley was now aged 64 and in poor health (like Curtin he was a lifelong smoker), but he refused to retire. Labor had retained control of the Senate, and Chifley 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. He succeeded in winning control of both Houses at the election.

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).

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