Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ben Chifley: Lights, camera and action on the Hill

One of the more endearing local products of the recent Brisbane International Film Festival was the documentary “The Chifleys of Busby Street”. The documentary was about wartime Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley. In a review in The Australian last week, film director Andrew Pike told Michael Bodey that despite being a recognised figure, Australians don’t relate to Chifley because there are so few moving images of him. He said Menzies is better remembered as a statesman because of the accumulation of footage of him. “Consequently, Chifley has always been a bit of a misty figure for me personally and for others,” said Pike.

But Joseph Benedict Chifley had plenty of statesman-like qualities of his own. It was he who coined the phrase “the light on the hill” which for him, was the objective of the betterment of mankind. His Irish Catholic working class background informed his views. Chifley was an engine driver before he went into politics. He was a founder of the engine drivers’ union before teaching himself industrial law.

In 1928, he was elected to parliament at the second attempt, for the seat of Macquarie, in his home town of Bathurst, NSW. Though he lost the seat three years later, he won the seat back for Labor in 1940. While he was out of parliament the UAP Lyons government appointed him to a royal commission on banking. The commission did not act on his minority report that the banks be nationalised.

But because of his financial experience, he became Treasurer in the new Labor wartime Government under John Curtin. And while Curtin was preoccupied with the war and the defence of Australia, Chifley got on with the job of running the country. As Australia's equivalent of Speer, it was his responsibility to gear the economy to wartime production. Chifley also served as Minister for Post-war Reconstruction from 1942 to 1945 even though he never saw out the war in the role. When Curtin died suddenly in 1945, Chifley was the obvious choice to succeed. Chifley also retained the job of Treasurer so he could be fully responsible for accelerating post-war reconstruction.

Ever a modest man, he refused to live in the Lodge. Even as Prime Minister, his home in Canberra remained room 205 at the Kurrajong Hotel, with toilet and bath down the corridor. Phillip Knightley recounts how Chifley would take his home-grown onions down to the local café to be fried for his dinner. If there was no time to eat out, Chifley would make do with a meat pie at his desk. And the new Prime Minister had a lot of time for meat pie. With the war over and a shiver raised across the world, Chifley told Australia it would have to “populate or perish”. But with few candidates available from the traditional source of Britain, Australia had to tap into the waves of destitute and homeless European war refugees to get to its target of twenty million people.

With the aid of these New Australians, the energetic Chifley remodelled Australia and accelerated post-war reconstruction. His War Service Land Settlement scheme for returned soldiers won over potential enemies and created a new land class. In 1948, the first Australian car, the FX Holden, rolled off the production line, reaping a whirlwind Australia still struggles to contain. Chifley created Canberra's Australian National University (setting up a lifetime of experts for Australian media) and in 1949, set up the Snowy Mountains Authority to oversee the monumental hydro-electric scheme which would take 25 years to build.

But his impressive domestic record was not matched by his foreign relations. Chifley wasn’t trusted by the Americans. As the Western powers beefed up their security apparatus at the start of the Cold War, Chifley resisted the idea of a counter-espionage bureau. To him, it smacked too much of the Gestapo. But when Washington cut back on sharing intelligence information claiming Australia was a security risk, Chifley began to relent. The breaking point was the US refusal to support the British-Australian missile project at Woomera which depended on classified American technical information. In March 1949, Chifley gave the go-ahead to set up the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). Chifley’s reservations were well-founded; ASIO would go on to become the bane of Labor under Menzies with a massive database of "dangerous lefties".

It was to be the patrician Menzies who would finally end the reign of the proletarian Prime Minister. Chifley’s government was swept from office in an electoral landslide in December 1949. His achievements weren't enough to save him. The electorate had enough of wartime controls, and four years out from the end of the year wanted to be free of rationing, regulation and the problems caused by the Government’s nationalisation plans. Menzies was elected on a platform to “stop the socialising process”, ban the Communist Party and reduce taxation.

Ben Chifley would serve another two years as Opposition Leader. According to Manning Clark, Chifley was a much-loved Prime Minister who managed to put on the statute book, much of what Labor preached but had been unable to practice. Clark said he gave capitalism a human face, encouraged excellence in all things Australian and was faithful to the Labor belief that “creature comforts are the sine qua non of human wellbeing and happiness”. In 1949 Chifley summed up his own political ideas in his “light on the hill” speech:“I try to think of the Labor movement as…bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people". Within two years, he was dead. The lifelong smoker had died of a heart attack at his beloved Kurrajong hotel. The light had gone out. It would be another 21 years before another Labor Prime Minister could climb the hill and set it aflame again.

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