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Joseph Benedict Chifley

Joseph Benedict Chifley

Joseph Benedict Chifley (1885-1951), prime minister of Australia, was one of the ablest and most successful leaders of the Australian Labour party.

Joseph Benedict Chifley was born of Irish-Australian parentage at Bathurst, New South Wales, on Sept. 22, 1885. He lived and worked on his grandfather's farm until he was 13 and then attended the Patrician Brothers' School at Bathurst for 2 years. In 1903 he joined the New South Wales Railways as a shop boy, rising to be the youngest first-class locomotive driver in the service.

Tall, rangy, and a convinced labor man, Chifley soon became an active spokesman for his union. During the 1917 railway and general strike he was discharged but reinstated on appeal. In 1920 he confounded the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen. Well known as a union official, advocate, and expert witness before arbitration authorities, he won, in 1928, the federal seat of Macquarie in Parliament and was reelected in 1929 in a Labour landslide. Two years later Chifley became minister for defense and assistant to the federal treasurer in the Labour government of James Scullin.

Internecine party dissension and the political impact of the Great Depression led in December 1931 to Chifley's loss of his seat in the House of Representatives, and he did not return until 1940. During his absence from federal government Chifley was active in local government and prominent in the politics of divided Labour, which maintained a branch of the Federal party in opposition to the New South Wales State Labour group of Premier J. T. Lang. In 1936 Chifley was appointed member of the Royal Commission on Banking and Monetary Reform, and when World War II began, his recognized capacity, integrity, and experience made him a valuable director of labor regulation and supply in the Department of Munitions.

By 1941 Chifley was treasurer in the wartime government of John Curtin and a member of the War Cabinet. The following year he took over the additional portfolio of post-war reconstruction. He made such an effective mark that, after Curtin's death in 1945, he succeeded to the leadership of the party and the position of prime minister. He retained the Treasury post, having gained a reputation for financial judgment and high administrative ability.

After Labour's postwar victory in the general election of 1946, Chifley moved to expand the foundations of an Australian welfare state. Despite much positive legislation in this direction, his attempts to introduce a free medicine scheme, as in Britain and New Zealand, were frustrated by the opposition of the medical profession. At the same time his campaign to nationalize the banks came to legal and political grief. His government was defeated in December 1949, though Labour controlled the Senate until 1951. Chifley remained leader of the opposition until his death from a heart attack in Canberra on June 13, 1951.

Further Reading

A full-length study of Chifley is L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley. General works which discuss Chifley are S. Encel, Cabinet Government in Australia (1962); Donald W. Rawson, Labor in Vain? A Survey of the Australian Labor Party (1966); Fred Alexander, Australia since Federation: A Narrative and Critical Analysis (1967); and Alan George Lewers Shaw and H. D. Nicolson, Australia in the Twentieth Century: An Introduction to Modern Society (1967). □

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