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Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley PC

Portrait of Ben Chifley by Archibald Colquhoun, 1953, Historic Memorials Collection

Archibald Douglas Colquhoun (1894-1983), Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley (detail), Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection. View full image

Prime Minister, 13 July 1945 to 19 December 1949
Australian Labor Party

Ben Chifley (1885-1951) became Prime Minister after the death of his close friend John Curtin.1 Having together steered the nation through the tumult of World War II, to Chifley fell the task of Australia’s post-war reconstruction, a labour he took to with vision and commitment.2

Chifley was born in Bathurst, NSW, and spent much of his childhood at his grandfather’s farm. Starting work on the railways in 1902, he rose through the ranks to become the state’s youngest engine-driver by 1914. He married Elizabeth McKenzie the same year; they had no children.3

An active unionist and ALP member, Chifley won the federal seat of Macquarie in 1928. In January 1931 he was appointed Minister for Defence but lost his seat in the December election. Returning to Bathurst, he worked for the town newspaper and joined the local council. He served on the Royal Commission on the Banking System (1935), the Capital Issues Advisory Board (1939) and was a director in the Department of Munitions (1940). Chifley regained the seat of Macquarie in 1940 and became Treasurer in 1941 with the challenge of ‘gearing the economy to wartime production’.4 He established a National Welfare Fund, interventionist banking controls, and most notably, the Commonwealth income tax system. Chifley remained as Treasurer until 1949, and between 1942 and 1945 was also Minister for Post-War Reconstruction. He felt the pressures of his position, lamenting that ‘Treasurers are notoriously unpopular. They are loved by nobody ... The hand of every man is against them’.5

On becoming Prime Minister, Chifley called for Australians to ‘join together in the march of our nation to future greatness’.6 His Government initiated the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme, an assisted immigration program, and supported domestic car manufacturing. Internationally, Chifley supported Indian and Indonesian independence, and the establishment of global organisations such as the International Monetary Fund. However, his interventionist economic policies grew increasingly unpopular as workers lamented wage constraints and continued rationing, while business criticised his centralised financial controls. In making his case to the state party conference in 1949, Chifley famously contended:

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 Labour movement would not be worth fighting for.7

After Labor lost the following election, Chifley continued as Leader of the Opposition. Re-elected in April 1951, he died less than two months later, the second Leader of the Opposition to die in office.8 Labor leader HV Evatt paid tribute to his great ability, humanity and tolerance.9 He lay in state in (now Old) Parliament House’s King’s Hall and received a state funeral.

Archibald Douglas Colquhoun
Melbourne-born artist and teacher, Archibald Colquhoun (1894-1983) attended the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, where he studied drawing under Frederick McCubbin before becoming a staff artist for the Herald. He continued to train under Charles Richardson before meeting Max Meldrum, who would become his mentor and have a major influence on his work. Between 1924 and 1926, Colquhoun travelled across England and Europe, exhibiting at the Société des Artistes Français (Paris) and the Royal Institute of Painters (London). On his return to Melbourne in 1926, he established a studio and art school with his wife and fellow artist, Amalie Feild. Noted as a dedicated teacher and a prominent painter, Colquhoun was an influential figure in the Australian art scene. His students included William Dargie, Harley Griffiths and Rex Bramleigh. He won various art prizes throughout the 1930s including the Crouch Prize and the Newman Prize for Australian Historical Painting and was a regular entrant and finalist in the Archibald Prize. His work is represented in a number of state and regional galleries across Australia.10
Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley
by Archibald Douglas Colquhoun
Oil on canvas
90 x 75 cm
Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection
1. Between Curtin’s death on 5 July 1945 and Chifley’s appointment on 13 July, Francis Forde briefly served as caretaker Prime Minister.
2. Information used in this biography is taken from: D Waterson, ‘Chifley, Joseph Benedict (Ben) (1885–1951)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1993; ‘Australia’s prime ministers: Ben Chifley’, National Archives of Australia; ‘Australian Prime Ministers: Ben Chifley’ Museum of Australian Democracy; J Hawkins, ‘Ben Chifley: the true believer’, Economic Roundup, issue 3, 2011, pp. 103–25. Websites accessed 24 August 2021.
3. ‘Ben Chifley’s partner: Elizabeth Chifley’, National Archives of Australia, accessed 25 August 2021.
4. ‘Prime Ministers of Australia: Ben Chifley’, National Museum of Australia, accessed 25 August 2021.
5. Hawkins, op. cit.
6. ‘Australia’s prime ministers: Ben Chifley’, op. cit.
7. Cited in B Gale, Chifley Research Centre, ‘The Light on the Hill: Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Ben Chifley’s Prime Ministership’’, 10 July 2020, p. 3, accessed 19 August 2021.
8. Frank Tudor was the first; he was Leader of the Opposition from 1917 until his death in 1922.
9. H Evatt, ‘Death of the Right Honourable Joseph Benedict Chifley, MP’, House of Representatives, Debates, 19 June 1951, p. 69.
10. PW Perry, ‘Colquhoun, Archibald Douglas (Archie) (1894–1983)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed 25 March 2021.

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