Ben Chifley: the true believer


John Hawkins2

Chifley1 was a 'true believer' in the Labor Party and in the role that government could play in stabilising the economy and keeping unemployment low. He was an active treasurer, initially working well with Prime Minister Curtin and then serving as both Prime Minister and Treasurer himself. He managed the war economy competently and achieved a smooth transition to a peacetime economy, although he allowed inflationary pressures to build up in the post-war years. Among his economic reforms were increased welfare payments, uniform income taxation and developing central banking powers (through direct controls rather than market mechanisms) for the Commonwealth Bank.

Portrait of Prime Minister Ben Chifley, 18 May 1948 [picture].

Source: National Library of Australia.3


The Right Honorable Joseph Benedict Chifley was a 'true believer' in the Labor cause.4 While an idealist, remembered for coining the term 'light on the hill' to capture Labor's aspirations for a better world, he was pragmatic enough to have also coined the expression 'hip pocket nerve' to denote what motivates many voters.5 He had both a 'deep-rooted passion to improve the lives of his fellow Australians' and 'a practical appreciation of the political compromises and ruses that were sometimes necessary for success'.6

One time colleague and later opponent, and fellow Treasurer, Joe Lyons described him 'as one of the finest fellows I have ever met', while Lyons' wife Enid remembered Chifley's 'rugged good looks, immense personal dignity and his friendly but always slightly reserved bearing'.7 Other colleagues recalled how Chifley 'was gracious with everyone, lived simply, and continually went out of his way to help people. He was wholly devoid of arrogance and never indulged in wounding political repartee'.8 At the time it was noted that Chifley 'regards himself as a pretty average bloke'.9

He was respected as well as liked, being recalled as 'a prodigious worker'10; 'an administrator of rare quality'11 and 'one of the soundest members of the new House'.12 Never a great orator, his voice became increasingly raspy over the years as addressing many outdoor public meetings in poor weather took its toll.

Chifley was 'endowed with a clear, hard, practical mind with an unusual capacity for simplifying the intricacies of finance and economics and taking swift and firm political decisions with a keen insight into their practical effects'.13 He was assisted by his 'remarkable ability and memory for figures'.14 A contemporary recalled 'Mr Chifley had the most powerful mind in the politics of his day and he was able to learn more quickly than most parliamentarians … '15 While known as a reader of crime novels for relaxation, he was also a keen attendee at meetings of the Commonwealth Literary Fund where he surprised those present with his knowledge of Australian writers.16

Chifley was 'deeply interested in economic matters'.17 Indeed his wife recalled that it was a frequent topic of conversation when they were courting.18 A contemporary journalist said 'Chifley's interests were economic and financial. They were almost exclusively economic and financial.'19 Menzies recalled Chifley 'mastered the techniques of public finance'.20 Nugget Coombs, who worked closely with him, refers to Chifley's 'considerable mental aptitude for financial and economic matters'.21 More recent writers also refer to Chifley's 'quite remarkable grasp of finance'.22

Some regard Ben Chifley as Australia's greatest Treasurer.23 Chifley once said that he would be remembered as Treasurer and not as Prime Minister.24

Chifley's life before politics

Chifley was born in Bathurst on 22 September 1885, the son of a blacksmith. He was largely raised on his grandfather's farm at Limekilns 18 kilometres away, where he lived from the age of five to fourteen.25 He received only rudimentary schooling two to three days a week.26 There are two ways this period in his life may have influenced Chifley as a Treasurer. Firstly it instilled in him a love of reading27 and, secondly, observing the effect on his grandfather and their neighbours of the bank collapses of the 1890s meant banking reform was always a priority for Chifley.28

Returning to Bathurst, he had some full-time schooling and then started work in a retail store but soon moved to the railway workshop and over a decade quickly rose to driving locomotives (although he was demoted for a time due to his role in a 1917 strike). He attended evening classes four times a week for fifteeen years and read voraciously, as well as playing rugby29 and cricket. He taught at the Railway Institute on Sunday mornings.

A Catholic, he married Elizabeth McKenzie, the daughter of another driver, and a Presbyterian, in 1914, thereby placing himself outside the mainstream of his church.30 They shared the Bathurst cottage provided by her parents for the rest of their lives. Elizabeth miscarried in 1915 and was thereafter in poor health. They had no children.

Chifley worked his way up in the trade union movement and the Labor Party. In 1922 and 1924 he unsuccessfully contested ALP preselection for the NSW parliament.

His early years in parliament

Chifley was elected for the then Bathurst-centred seat of Macquarie, at his second attempt, in 1928, and sat next to fellow newcomer and future Prime Minister John Curtin, to whom he became very close. In one of his first parliamentary speeches Chifley (like Curtin) opposed Bruce's plan for an Economic Research Bureau as duplicating work done by other organisations and questioned whether economists with 'academic ideas gathered in the rarified atmosphere of some university' offered better advice than 'someone with a wider and more practical experience'.31 Chifley served on the busy Joint Committee of Public Accounts and in the course of its inquiries seemed to have formed a more favourable view of economists.32

In March 1931 he became minister for defence in Scullin's government and assisted Theodore on some economic matters, such as being delegated responsibility for implementing some spending cuts required under the Premiers' Plan.33 Some accounts suggest Chifley had some misgivings about Theodore's approach, but others say he was a 'strong supporter of the Theodore plan'.34 On a personal level he got on well with Theodore. They had long conversations walking the gardens of Parliament House and they fished together.

The Scullin Government fell, however, within a year of Chifley's appointment when Lyons defected and rebels backing NSW premier Jack Lang turned on it too. In the ensuing election, Chifley lost his seat and was out of parliament for nearly a decade.

The wilderness years

Joseph Lyons had offered Chifley the Treasurership if he also left Labor but Chifley declined.35 His biographer says 'he rebuffed it immediately' but according to Lyons' wife, Chifley 'had been briefly tempted to go with Joe'.36

While out of parliament Chifley fought the Lang forces, being elected as NSW president of the federal version of the Labor Party in 1934. He was elected to Abercrombie Shire Council in 1933 and stayed on it until 1947 (even while Prime Minister and Treasurer), serving as shire president for a few years. Chifley's involvement with many community organisations in Bathurst was not enough for him to win back Macquarie when he contested it again in 1934. In 1935 he stood unsuccessfully against Lang in the state seat of Auburn. By one account he made a trip to Indonesia.37

Chifley continued his study of finance and economics and continued to meet with Theodore.38

Royal Commission on Banking

In 1935 Lyons and Casey appointed Chifley to the Royal Commission on the Monetary and Banking Systems. 'Both his knowledge of finance and the analytical habit of his mind fitted him admirably for such a task'.39 Over nine months the Commission took evidence in every capital. A biographer comments that Chifley 'added to his knowledge of economics and finance by his searching interrogations of the leading economists who came before the commission, as well as by the many months of discussion, both formal and informal, with his fellow commission members … '.40

Chifley questioned the Commonwealth Bank about their reluctance to compete with the private banks41, in part due to a perceived incompatibility with the Bank's role as a central bank,42 and their lack of control over the exchange rate.43 He asked the private banks about funds they placed with the Bank and referred to the compulsory deposits banks were required to place with the central banks in New Zealand, America and Africa.44 He referred to evidence from Professor Gregory to the Canadian banking inquiry about the need for such required reserves to supplement open market operations and similar suggestions by the Macmillan Committee.45 He also asked about controls on interest rates and about open market operations.46 Chifley asked whether the Treasurer rather than the treasury secretary should be on the board given confidentiality would inhibit the secretary reporting back to the Treasurer.47 Chifley was concerned that bank mergers were reducing competition and that this was further impeded by gentlemen's agreements between the banks.48 He repeatedly questioned the banks about their ability to check booms or recessions or to affect the demand for imports.49 He was also concerned about the lack of finance, particularly longer-term finance, for small business.50

The Commission's economist recalled Chifley was 'vitally important in the drafting process' and the 'Commission's major impact was the education of Ben Chifley'.51

The Commission concluded that 'no action by the monetary and banking system of Australia could have avoided some depression, although the system together with the governments, and, indeed, the community as a whole, must share some responsibility for the extent of the depression … the proper policy for the Commonwealth Bank, as the depression developed, was one of expansion … '.52 They recommended some, relatively mild, strengthening of the central banking powers of the Commonwealth Bank, such as requiring trading banks to place a deposit representing a set proportion of their liabilities with the Bank. But in his dissenting comments, Chifley argued the report did not go far enough and that desirable economic outcomes were incompatible with privately-owned, profit-oriented banks.53 It may be that Chifley felt obliged to put forward nationalisation as Labor policy, even if his personal preference was for central bank control over private banks.54 The Commission also thought the Government should explore establishing a market for treasury bills and should introduce decimal currency.

Other work

The Menzies Government appointed Chifley to the Capital Issues Advisory Board soon after the outbreak of the war.55 He was also briefly Director of Labour at the Department of Munitions, before resigning and winning back the seat of Macquarie at the 1940 election. Chifley was immediately restored to the frontbench and in 1941 served on the Board of Inquiry into Hire Purchase and Cash Order Systems.

Curtin's Treasurer

Chifley was unexpectedly appointed Treasurer56 in October 1941 when the two independents holding the balance of power withdrew their support from the conservative coalition led by Fadden and backed John Curtin's Labor Party. He ranked behind only Curtin and deputy leader Forde in cabinet precedence.

As well as his advisers within Treasury, during his first fortnight in the portfolio Chifley solicited briefings from leading economists such as 'Nugget' Coombs, Copland, Giblin and Melville. While Chifley was generally popular with colleagues, he felt the usual pressures of the job: 'As Treasurer I have to do a lot of hard things. Nobody likes being unpopular. Treasurers are notoriously unpopular. They are loved by nobody, not even their own colleagues. The hand of every man is against them. Nobody wants to give them anything, but everybody wants to get something from them'.57

As well as Treasurer, from December 1942 to February 1945 Chifley was Minister for Post-war Reconstruction, a new department headed by Coombs and including a number of progressives.58

Budgets and taxation

Fadden had just presented a budget when Chifley became Treasurer and in the time available Chifley could make only relatively minor changes to it, increasing pensions and raising pay for the armed forces. He removed the provisions for compulsory loans and raised company taxes and shifted the impact of higher income tax from middle to high income earners.

Soon after Chifley assumed the Treasurer's job, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the bombing of Darwin
in February 1942 brought the war much closer to Australia and greatly increased public support for a 'total war economy'. War expenditure almost doubled between 1940-41 and 1941-42 and the 1942-43 budget expanded it further, necessitating further increases in personal income, company and sales taxes.

Curtin established a Production Executive, a cabinet committee similar to Menzies' Economic Cabinet, to which he appointed Chifley.59

The Government very quickly adopted responsibility for income taxation. In February 1942 an advisory committee60 was established to examine whether the federal government should take over as the sole imposer of income tax. Following its report in March, the Government moved to take over the powers in May. The High Court rejected a challenge by four states in July 1942. The income tax system was also placed on a 'pay-as-you-earn' basis.

In his 1943 Budget speech Chifley said 'a well-balanced system of taxation is the most efficient and equitable method of meeting the cost of the war. It makes a direct reduction of the volume of civilian spending'.61 He foreshadowed that taxes would need to be maintained: 'after the war, to save ourselves from inflated costs and prices, and to distribute equitably the additional wealth which full employment brings, we must expect fairly heavy tax rates ... higher than before the war.'62 By 1944, however, he was warning 'taxation is so high that it is impracticable to obtain any further contribution from this source'.63

Banking and monetary policy

Curtin was keen to avoid the problems faced by Scullin and so supported Chifley in taking control of the Commonwealth Bank.64 By early 1942, much of the recommendations of the 1937 report of the Royal Commission on Banking had been implemented under wartime National Security Regulations, such as supplementing the Bank's ability to conduct market operations by the private banks being obliged to lodge funds in special accounts with the Commonwealth Bank and comply with its policy on advances. The Commonwealth Bank was also empowered to set maximum interest rates on bank deposits and advances.

A mortgage bank was established in 1942 as a department within the Commonwealth Bank, implementing another recommendation of the Royal Commission. While its operations were restricted at the time, Chifley saw it as 'a powerful instrument in post-war reconstruction'.65 An Industrial Finance Department was established later for long-term lending.

In March 1945 Chifley introduced legislation to continue the wartime controls on the private banks, consolidate the Commonwealth Bank's role as a central bank and replace the Bank's board with a single governor and an advisory board of officials. The Banking Act 1945 and the Commonwealth Bank Act 1945 have been described as 'substantially the work of JB Chifley'.66 As Chifley explained, the legislation was 'based on the conviction that the Government must accept responsibility for the economic condition of the nation ... the Government has decided to assume the powers which are necessary over banking policy to assist it in maintaining national economic health and prosperity.67

This required the Commonwealth Bank to act as a central bank and 'to control the issue of bank credit by all the banks in such a manner as to avoid expansion of credit in times of boom and contraction of credit in times of depression'.68

The Act introduced the three goals of the Bank which are still in place as the goals of the Reserve Bank today and remain inscribed in gold letters on the Bank's headquarters:

  • The stability of the currency of Australia.
  • The maintenance of full employment.
  • The economic prosperity and welfare of the people.


Despite the pressure of war, Chifley increased old age and invalid pensions and introduced widows' pensions, additional maternity allowances, funeral benefits, unemployment and sickness benefits. He foreshadowed further measures once the war was over.69 This was sometimes portrayed as a trade-off for extending income tax onto lower income earners.70 This was implemented through a National Welfare Fund into which was paid the lower of £30 million or one-quarter of personal income tax collections. This had the additional advantage of being an economic stabiliser.71 Chifley rejected viewing welfare as a form of insurance, believing it was more equitable for it to be paid out of progressive taxation.72

Rise of Keynesianism and the 1945 White Paper

The Government was concerned that 'employment and aggregate incomes are constantly increasing whilst the goods and services available for civilian spending are continually becoming less' and 'it may force a strong and continuous rise in prices'.73 Taxation increases were used to soak up much of this spending power.

In addition price controls were introduced 'to prevent profiteering and minimise the rise in prices' and rationing by coupons (initially of clothing, tea and sugar, later extended to meat, butter and drapery) were imposed under wartime powers. Subsidies were paid to stabilise the prices of tea, potatoes and milk. Measures were also taken for the control of rents and land sales. Under the National Economic Plan announced in February 1942 real wages were to be frozen. Rents were also frozen from end-1941 to mid-1945.

In resorting to rationing and price controls Chifley rejected advice from his most Keynesian advisors that macroeconomic measures alone could prevent inflation.74 As the end of World War II came into view Chifley was pondering the risk that with deferred spending unleashed 'and a short supply of goods, inflation can very easily be caused'.75 He viewed this as grounds for retention of controls, especially as the inflationary boom could be followed by a slump, as occurred after World War I.76

Chifley's first biographer may have been gilding the lily calling him a 'Keynesian-of-the-first-hour'.77 Treasury itself became more Keynesian as economists joined the department. The most talented of these could rise quickly as a large proportion of the staff were World War I veterans reaching retirement.78

Curtin was inspired by the UK Government's May 1944 White Paper on Employment Policy and on his return from there in July initiated production of an Australian equivalent.79 Coombs was in charge of drafting it and Chifley was the only minister to be given an early draft. Apparently initially very supportive of Coomb's draft, Chifley was later influenced by Treasury to be more restrained. Cabinet referred a revised draft to a subcommittee of Chifley, Dedman, Holloway and Calwell. There had been a tension throughout the drafting about whether the paper was an 'economic' or 'political' document, and by the end it was a far more cautious poli
tical document than it had started out.80

Australia's representatives were strong advocates at international fora of other countries also adopting the full employment objective and Keynesian policies.81 Indeed, it has been suggested that 'Keynes found the Australians more Keynesian than he was himself'.82

Chifley and Curtin

'Curtin was very loyal to Chifley and Chifley was very loyal to Curtin. Curtin told Chifley that if he would not become Treasurer … Curtin himself would not become Prime Minister'.83 It was said that Curtin discussed all important decisions with him.84

Hasluck comments '… when one turns to economic policy … it would seem that Chifley was a more significant wartime figure than the Prime Minister'.85 Curtin's first biographer suggested 'Curtin accepted unhesitatingly Chifley's views on financial issues'.86 A latter biographer challenges this, arguing that Curtin was 'the ultimate source of authority in economic affairs' even if he delegated details of finance to Chifley.87

As Curtin's health deteriorated, with Forde overseas, Chifley became acting Prime Minister in April 1945.

Prime Minister and Treasurer

After Curtin's death in July 1945, Chifley reluctantly became the new Prime Minister; he would have preferred to have stayed a powerful Treasurer.88 Chifley remained Treasurer while Prime Minister, a workload no future leader shouldered for more than a few days.89 Chifley groomed John Dedman as a future Treasurer, but lost office before this transition could be made.90

Chifley was 'highly thought of in the Treasury in the years he presided over that conservative department'.91 He worked well with Treasury secretaries ('Misery Mac') McFarlane and Watt and also dealt with more junior officers. In 1950 he referred to having assembled 'a group of outstandingly able officers'.92

While Chifley's frugality may have commended him to Treasury, it sometimes frustrated his ministers. Evatt is claimed to have said exasperatedly 'It's almost impossible to get money out of Ben. You'd think it was his own'.93

Chifley supported a mixed economy. As he put it, 'nationalisation of hamburger stands or ice-cream shops or permanent wave establishments is not our business'.94

Macroeconomic policy and the expansion of Keynesianism

Chifley continued to seek economic advice as Prime Minister. He chaired the Investment and Employment Committee from its establishment in late 1946 to its last meeting in November 1949. It brought together leading economic advisers from a number of economic departments and agencies. While it provided useful analysis it was not influential.95 Chifley planned to include an Economic Policy Division in the Prime Minister's Department.96 His industrial relations legislation provided for an economic bureau to assist the arbitration commissioners.97

Chifley faced internal party opposition to Australia joining the World Bank and the IMF but patiently and adroitly gained approval from cabinet, federal executive and caucus.98

With the war finally over, Chifley was concerned in his 1945 Budget that the 'existence of excess spending power will be a dominant feature of the whole transition period'.99 In the 1946 Budget, while pleased 'the first stage of the post-war transition has been completed successfully', Chifley warned 'the danger of inflation is still present ... [reflecting] the increased demand which has arisen from higher employment'.100 He warned 'I do not know of a greater menace than inflation and I know who suffers the most … and those are the people that I represent in Parliament'.101

Chifley was successful in maintaining low unemployment, even during the period of demobilising the large defence forces. He established the Commonwealth Employment Service to help the unemployed find work. By 1948 he said 'for the first time in my life, the country has almost achieved full employment'.102 He also succeeded in stabilising prices in the immediate post-war period. But to do this he retained some wartime rationing, which became increasingly unpopular. Also highly controversial was Chifley's deployment of troops to mine coal during a strike by miners.

In September 1949 Australia followed the rest of the sterling area by depreciating the Australian pound by 30 per cent against the US dollar.103 With fiscal policy also still expansionary, this added inflationary pressures to the economy.104 By this time inflation was up to 9 per cent, a 'serious concern', and was likely to rise further as the inflationary pressures that had been supressed by controls manifested.105 Chifley rejected advice to tighten policy, due to the impending election and possibly some concern about the risk of recession.106

Chifley cut taxes in his post-war budgets, but also repaid debt. He explained, however, that 'war costs do not end when fighting ceases. Some of these items, such as debt charges and war pensions, will continue for many years'.107 Yet by 1949 Chifley was able to say that 'the majority of taxpayers now pay considerably less than half the tax which would have been payable at war-time rates'.108


The air of 'tremendous optimism' was manifest in nation-building projects such as the Snowy Mountains scheme.109 Menzies later generously described the Snowy Mountains Scheme as a 'living memorial to the courage, enterprise and drive of Mr Chifley'.110 Chifley founded the Australian National University111 in 1946, introduced direct grants to other universities, and a university scholarship scheme. The Chifley Government initiated the post-war immigration programme and established a large scale Australian car industry in 1948 by encouraging General Motors in the production of the Holden.


Chifley attempted to increase federal powers through referenda, but with limited success. In August 1944 a referendum proposing to grant 14 additional federal powers (including over employment and for the curbing of monopolies) for five years after the end of the war was rejected.112 Three separate questions were put concurrently with the 1946 electio
n, proposing federal power over social services, marketing of primary produce and conditions of employment. Despite Labor being comfortably returned at the election, and a national majority for all three questions, only the first proposition was approved.113 In May 1948 a referendum to give the federal government power over prices and rents was rejected overwhelmingly.

Bank nationalisation

On 16 August 1947 Chifley announced his plan to nationalise the banks.114 The direct trigger was the High Court ruling three days earlier that Section 48 of the Banking Act, which allowed the government to direct local governments to conduct their banking with the Commonwealth Bank, was invalid.115 Chifley believed the banks would next challenge the special accounts provisions and so remove the ability to use monetary policy to guide the economy.116

Chifley informally approached the banks and said he would not resist the Court's decision if the banks assured him that they would not go on to challenge the special accounts provisions but the banks would give no such assurance.117

A bill was brought before the House in October 1947. Chifley argued that 'since private banks are conducted primarily for profit and therefore follow policies which in important respects run counter to the public interest, their business should be transferred to public ownership'.118 The legislation did not take effect, however, as the High Court, and on appeal the Privy Council119, ruled that nationalisation was unconstitutional.


Chifley introduced the National Welfare Act 1945 to place the Welfare Fund (see above) on a permanent basis and finance it from payroll tax and a specified component of personal income tax. Recalling the difficulties he had seen poor families face when a child was born or a father fell sick, Chifley explained 'we aim to compel those who can well afford to do so to surrender some of their income to those who do the hard and tedious work ... '.120 He also introduced the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Opposition leader

Labor lost the 1949 elections, with petrol rationing121, bank nationalisation and inflation among the main reasons. Labor retained control of the Senate and Chifley served as opposition leader.122 He was given the freedom of the City of Bathurst.123

Chifley attempted to make rising inflation the subject of the 1951 double dissolution election but it became dominated by communism, an issue that divided the Labor Party and their trade union supporters. Menzies won majorities in both houses.

Chifley was still opposition leader on 13 June 1951, when Menzies halted the ball commemorating fifty years of federal parliament to announce the passing of his great rival, who had suffered a heart attack in his modest room at the Hotel Kurrajong.


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