Ben Chifley’s legacy
While taking my young son on yet another visit to Canberra’s Questacon last year, I decided to walk him past a pair of statues of John Curtin and Ben Chifley.
I wanted to explain how one of the men in those statues inspired the naming of the federal seat that I’m proud to represent, when my son patted Chifley’s forearm: “Joseph Benedict Chifley.”
I asked how he knew so quickly that it was Chifley. “The pipe,” he answered, matter-of-factly, confirming a job well done by the ABC’s Behind the News.
Watching the winter sun warm Chifley’s bronze face, I wondered, momentarily, what he would have thought of me representing the seat named after him.
After all, I am the son of migrants from the former Yugoslavia, the same migrants who had been fair game politically in the late 1920s when Chifley first entered politics, painted as foreign labour undermining the conditions of local workers. And Chifley was caught up in this politicking as much as anyone else, with biographer David Day reflecting on the way Chifley would “concentrate increasingly on appeals to the racism and insecurities of his audience” during his 1928 election campaign.
Monday will mark 75 years since his elevation to the prime ministership, which in part helped earn Ben Chifley a fond place in Labor Party history. Not only by virtue of his time as a prime minister, and what he achieved, but also by virtue of the person he was.
From his early days, Chifley won praise for his decency and respect of others. “It was a very noticeable characteristic with him that he would listen to the views of other people,” another Chifley biographer, L. F. Crisp, observed. Fellow parliamentarians, such as Labor MP Eddie Ward, would vouch for Chifley, emphatically: “If he gives his word, that’s the end of it. You don’t need it in writing. You needn’t worry about it anymore.”
Through the years, as I learnt more about Chifley, it wasn’t hard to detect the way Australia’s 16th prime minister indirectly shaped the fortunes of my family and our current lived experience.
My dad, for instance, made it to Australia from the former Yugoslavia in the late 1960s, responding to our nation’s call for skilled blue-collar workers. Mum joined him a few years later. One of their first homes was in Blacktown, within what was then the newly created seat of Chifley.
The need for large-scale immigration emerged with the sketching out of post-World War II reconstruction plans, conceived by the Curtin government and driven largely by Chifley. And as my dad was trained as a welder, one of the first projects he worked on in the late 1960s was the Chifley-initiated Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme.
Those reflections – and the differences between Chifley’s heritage and my own – emerged as I recalled some of his nailbiting electoral experiences.
Chifley’s formative years in politics provided many hard knocks. It would’ve been understandable if his virtuosity had dimmed somewhat as a result of this ample quota of political failure experienced in early adulthood, or if he had been embittered by participation in – and the unfair aftermath of – “the Great Strike” of 1917.
Instead, he continued to fight for nomination and election, despite repeated failure. He wasn’t the “insider’s insider”; success wasn’t gifted. He couldn’t secure party preselection in 1922 or 1924, and in 1925 as a Labor candidate in a federal seat he fell short in his first attempt.
In 1928, as he chased the expansive seat of Macquarie, which stretched 160 kilometres from Bathurst in the New South Wales tablelands to St Marys in Sydney’s west, he and fellow Labor candidates had to again confront conservative scaremongering around communism, spiced with industrial relations reforms provoking the unions.
But “there was another issue working in Labor’s favour”, observed David Day. Opponents of immigration were claiming foreign labour was being used deliberately to undermine job security and conditions.
While L. F. Crisp makes light mention of soon-to-be prime minister James Scullin’s “heavy attacks on … its [the Bruce Nationalist government’s] sustained pouring of southern European migrants on the saturated Australian labour market”, Day details how both Scullin and Chifley made this a theme of Labor’s campaign.
Chifley would tell rallies about the need to clamp down on those foreign workers “being used to break down the wages and conditions of Australian workmen”. He specifically “cited the case of ‘Jugo-Slovakians (sic)’ in the Bathurst district who had displaced Australian workers by agreeing to work longer hours at lower rates of pay”.
In the final days leading into that federal election, Chifley excoriated the government for giving “preference to Dagoes – not heroes”, emphasising how they had “allowed so many Dagoes and Aliens into Australia that to-day they were all over the country taking work which rightly belonged to Australians”.
It’s hard to read those comments, particularly as the child of “Jugo-Slovakians”.
It’s no doubt also jarring to the many Labor Party members who feel genuine, well-placed admiration for Chifley: someone who had risen from a humble start in country NSW and suffered loss and hardship as a result of persistently fighting for the rights of workers and average Australians, and who eschewed the trappings of office and power, preferring to stay closely aligned to the humility associated with his beginnings.
How do we interpret Chifley’s words today? I’d argue we should remember, not airbrush, them. As much as he made great and important decisions, we can also be brave enough to call out the choices he didn’t get right.
Importantly, too, while he was a man of his times, we should be able to recognise how Chifley shifted with them, moving beyond simple objections to “foreign labour”.
While Curtin and Chifley’s daily preoccupations centred on preventing invasion, they were prodded by federal party conferences to think about how to rebuild postwar Australia.
In 1942, Curtin appointed Chifley to the newly created position of “minister for Post-War Reconstruction”, and Chifley began charting the shape of reconstruction, focused on full employment, social security and Australia’s international economic policy.
The pair developed a white paper to promote full employment in Australia. They revealed plans for the National Welfare Fund, which was financed from progressive taxation, bringing a broad sweep of new payments banded together into a comprehensive postwar safety net.
They realised Australia’s future living standards would rely on satisfying high international demand via exports, trade opportunities the nation would need to prepare for. In time, our automotive manufacturing capabilities were established, our wool industry positioned for postwar trade.
Then, importantly, came Curtin’s 1943 declaration as prime minister: “Australia cannot expect to hold indefinitely this large continent with the small population it now possesses” – a statement that no doubt prompted Chifley to suddenly become a “keen exponent” of large-scale migration as early as 1944, according to Crisp.
The moment demanded an evolution in thinking. Circumstance prompted new approaches that played a pivotal role in shaping the foundations for Australia’s postwar prosperity.
By the time a shattered and grieving Chifley was talked into the leadership, following the death of his friend and prime minister John Curtin, much of the government’s future trajectory had been set.
In thinking about Chifley, though, I am drawn back to the place of race in those early campaigns, relating it back to my own campaigning experiences that had to contend with a deliberate and subterranean negative focus on my faith and ethnicity.
Should Chifley’s statements stand in the way of us recognising and respecting what he was able to achieve? To be fair to past generations, who’s to say that the decisions I made and am making with a generation of politicians today will not be challenged by the next?
But I don’t think I’m being too tough in bringing this focus on Chifley: because the early years of our nation were scarred by painful instances where intemperate words about race led to sticks and stones being used to break bones. Witness the bloody treatment of our First Nations people or Chinese migrants on our goldfields.
Our party confronted past realities, the tensions with race that gripped us in our infancy. Chifley was a generational product of that. Yet in his typically pragmatic way – by advocating for large-scale migration – he walked beyond his sharp words uttered decades earlier.
In time, Labor recharted its direction. We took bolder, firmer steps to tackle discrimination, ended the White Australia Policy, championed multiculturalism, advanced land rights reform and reconciliation with First Nations people. This now means that any attempt by a contemporary Labor figure to lean on fears of “foreign labour” will generally prove to be particularly perilous.
As we admire those statues of Chifley and Curtin, we see the light and the shade that is cast. In good faith, we admit few of us are in a position to pick out the imperfections of others, without first acknowledging our own – but we understand that an unvarnished view of the performance and behaviour of our own leaders can help play a part in righting those wrongs through contemporary action.
This piece is based on a chapter written for a Chifley Research Centre book commemorating the 75th anniversary of Ben Chifley’s appointment as prime minister.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2020 as "Looking back to see forward".
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