House of Representatives
19 June 1951

20th Parliament · 1st Session

Mr. Speaker (Hon. Archie Cameron) took the chair at 2.30 p.m., and read prayers.

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Prime Minister · Kooyong · LP

– Since the House last met a very great public and private sorrow has come, not only upon honorable members of this House, but also upon the people of Australia. I move -

I hut this House expresses its deep regret at the death of the Right Honorable Joseph Benedict Chifley, member of the House of Representatives for the Division of Macquarie, for more than four years Prime Minister of Australia, and for more than eight years Commonwealth Treasurer; places on record its appreciation of his distinguished public service; and tenders to his widow and all relatives its profound sympathy in their hereavement

The record of the late right honorable member is so well known that, perhaps, it does not need to be restated in this place, brit I think that I may appropriately mention his public, national record of service. He was the .member for Macquarie from 1928 to 1931 and from 1940 to 1951. He was Prime Minister from 1945 to 1949 and Treasurer from 1941 to 1949. From 1942 to 1945 he was Minister for Post-war Reconstruction. Earlier, from 1931 to 1932, he had been Minister for Defence. More recently, in 1950 and 1951 he was Leader of the Opposition. Apart from those very high offices which he filled with such distinction, he was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Public Accounts in 1929 and 1930. He was a member of the Royal Commission on Monetary and Banking Systems in 1935 and 1936. I remember with great pleasure that he was the Director of Labour Supply in the Department of Munitions in 1940, and, as I look back, it seems remarkable that it was then that 1 met Mr. Chifley for the first time. He was a member of the Capital Issues Advisory Board in 1940 and a member of the War Workers’ Housing Trust in the same year. He was a member of the Board of Inquiry into the Hire Purchase and Cash Order Systems in 1941. From 1948 to 1949 he was a governor of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a governor of the International Monetary Fund.

Most of us, in these past few days, have tried to put into words our sorrow at this melancholy event and our feelings about the man himself. It is important that I should not stale those words by mere repetition. But I do want to say one thing, which, properly considered, has a great deal of consolation in it. Ben Chifley died as he would have liked to die, suddenly, in the full stream of his public activities in an active place of honour, the undisputed leader of a great movement to which he had given the full measure of his own devotion. I shall not attempt the task of appraising his work; indeed no such presumption occurs to me. It is sufficient at this solemn time to leave cold analysis for the future when the heat of political differences shall have died down, and to concentrate our thoughts upon Joseph Benedict Chifley, the parliamentary colleague, the good friend, the honorable opponent, the whimsical philosopher, the man who, not only by great ability, but also by those simple human qualities which enrich and direct great ability, rose, without favour or patronage, to the Prime Ministership, to an assured place in our history and to a warm corner in the affectionate memories of ail of us.

Acting Leader of the Opposition · Barton

– I second the motion. As the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) has said, all the people of Australia, during the past few days, have rendered homage to the work and the service of our lost leader. But here in the Parliament itself the sense of loss and of bereavement is even more poignant because of the absence of our beloved friend. His last speech was made in this House last week and the last toast that he proposed was at the great State banquet, and was the toast of “ The Parliament “. He was essentially a parliament man, a believer in practical democracy. This Parliament to him represented the centre of the democratic way of life in this country. He believed in everything that went to make the Parliament. He believed in freedom of expression, not as an abstract doctrine, but as a living philosophy of freedom to speak, with tolerance for those who differed from him. I recall, and many will recall on both sides of this House, his kindness to new members of the Parliament.

He was, after all, the Leader of the House practically from the early days of the Curtin Ministry in 1941, because the r.hen Prime Minister delegated so much of the conduct of the business of the House to him, until December, 1949. Mr. Curtin called him “ General Officer Commanding the House All the business of the House during those years was conducted by Ben Chifley. The Prime Minister referred to the great executive offices that he had held, the greatest in the Commonwealth among them. The narration was impressive, but the facts behind the narration are even more impressive. During the critical years of the war he was the chief lieutenant of John Curtin. During the period of office of the Curtin Government, and subsequently of his own Government, he was the director of the complex problems of war finance. He worked with unflagging zeal and industry. 1 do not suppose that there has ever been a man in public life who has worked harder. During the tremendously difficult years of the war and post-war periods, night after night the last light to be extinguished in this building was that of Ben Chifley, the Treasurer, and later the Prime Minister. He worked unceasingly for that very important arrangement with the United States of America, known as the lend-lease and reverse lend-lease, from which flowed, when the final settlement was made with the Government of the United States of America in 1945 - and it was made by Mr. Chifley - the magnificent scheme known as the Fulbright scheme under which Australia and the United States of America will make permanent reciprocal contributions in the field of education. In the immediate post-war years Mr. Chifley directed very largely the rehabilitation of the servicemen and munition workers of this country, his object being to do so without causing unemployment or other disturbances which could possibly have occurred.

He was devoted to the ideal of the physical development of Australia. His name will always be associated with some of the great projects of this country, including, for instance, the great Snowy Mountains hydro-electric project. He was intent upon the development of Australian industry. Again, I recall the detailed attention that he paid to every

Dr. Evatt. suggestion that related to the establishment in Australia of a new industry from overseas. He knew that that was the fundamental basis of his ideal of full employment for all the people. Similarly, he took an active part in the great scheme of immigration after the war. During the last two years of his life, particularly, he devoted increasing attention to the world situation and the great problems of international affairs. Mr. Chifley’s direction, because it was practically that, to his Cabinet in relation to those matters was. in effect, that with regard to Great Britain everything had to be subordinated to the needs of its people after their tremendous suffering in World War II.,. a suffering that was not terminated after the victory had been gained. He was a great British Commonwealth man, and. as honorable members have been pleased to note, the messages that have come in from all quarters of the British Commonwealth indicate that he was known as such ‘ at great conferences. I attended some of the conferences at which he was present and Australia and this House, particularly, would be proud of the impression that he cheated at them, evidence of which has been supplied by the messages that we. are now receiving. Mr. Chifley was particularly sympathetic to the Asiatic member? of the British Commonwealth. He played an important part in the process by which India has remained a member of the British Commonwealth and, to-day, his name is honoured and his death is mourned in India, Pakistan and Ceylon as much as here or overseas in London.

What principle can be said to have governed this great man ? I have tried to think of it. I agree with the Prime Minister that it is impossible to sum it up at this time. However, I think that it was the pursuit of justice, not in the sense that .justice is described by the operations of the courts of law, but, first of all, economic justice for all the people. That brought him into the movement of which lie became the great and honoured leader. He was a great trade unionist. He believed in trade unionism as an instrument of economic and social justice for all people. He was a very prominent member of the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen, of which some of the present and several former members of the Parliament were members with him. The financial and economic depression had a tremendous effect upon him, and he was determined to try, to the best of his ability, in cooperation with his colleagues, to prevent a repetition of it. The concept of economic justice was extended in his mind to social justice, with the institution of social services, not as a mere political policy but as a basic feature of our lives. During the latter years of his life, that concept was extended to international justice. After all, in these matters, although the objective cannot be defined, the ordinary man and woman know whether what has been done is just. It is the same among nations as among individuals. So he thought, and so he gave great support to the United Nations, and believed that it was possible to prevent a third world war.

His personal ideal, explaining his great career of public service, may be expressed in these words -

We are not born for ourselves but for our kind, for our neighbours, for our country.

That being his public service, the loss suffered by his colleagues through his death will be immeasurable over the years. People know and now acclaim his great ability, his vigour, his understanding, his courage in public affairs, and his unconquerable will; but we who knew him best think of his patience - the Prime Minister has already referred to that quality - his kindness, his calmness, his consideration, his humanity and his tolerance. Our thoughts to-day go to Mrs. Chifley most of all. In the words of the great poet, Sir Walter Scott -

Now is the stately column broke,

The beacon-light is quench’d in smoke,

The trumpet’s silver sound is still,

The warder silent on the hill !

I believe that every Australian, especially the young men and women of Australia, will draw inspiration from the life of our departed colleague, Joseph Benedict Chifley. He devoted himself to the welfare of Australia and to all humanity. His association with the late Mr. John Curtin was so close that I should like the Government to consider, at an early date, whether it will be possible to pay to the memory of Mr.

Chifley the same kind of respect that was shown to the memory of Mr. Curtin, and that is to associate with the name of Chifley a school at the great Australian National University in Canberra, which Mr. Chifley did so much to establish.

Treasurer · McPhersonTreasurer · CP

– I desire to associate myself and the Australian Country party with the sentiments that havebeen so appropriately expressed this afternoon about the late right honorable member for Macquarie, Mr. Ben Chifley. I can truthfully say that every member of this House, regardless of the political party to which he belongs, feels much poorer for the passing of the man to whose memory we are now paying our respects. The record of his service to this country makes a most distinguished catalogue, and his work was carried out consistent with deep seated convictions from which he never deviated. He knew his objective, and he endeavoured to reach it honorably and, if need be, with tenacity. Ben Chifley was a big man in every sense of the term. He was firm, he was fair. We always knew where we stood with him. He was straightforward, and his word was his bond. If he disagreed with anybody, he did so with true courtesy and the maximum amount of tolerance. Australia has lost a great native son; this Parliament has lost an inspiration; the Labour party and the Labour cause generally have lost a great, conscientious, determined and resolute leader; and Ben Chifley’s comrades and associates have lost a philosopher and a dear friend.


– As the Australian president of the trade union to which the late Ben Chifley was attached, I should like to speak on behalf of those who watched him grow politically, the men who saw him develop from the man on the footplate to the Prime Minister of this nation. Throughout Australia to-day he is mourned by every member of the great union to which he belonged, the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen, and by trade unionists generally. Before he became known to his country as a great leader, he was known to his union as the most capable advocate that it had ever been able to produce. Sometimes I have thought, as the years have gone by, that the training that he received as the advocate for his union, when his unswerving integrity earned ready acceptance of his word -by the industrial courts, laid the foundations of the great political figure into which he developed. He witnessed during World War I. a demonstration of unity and loyalty amongst the locomotive engine men in his union that was scarcely equalled by any other section of the community. The enlistments in the fighting forces from the ranks of that union were so numerous as to cause embarrassment to both the union and the governments of the period. Those who were associated with him in the union in those days, guided by his advice, realized that they had to bear a great hurden because of the wish of their mates to serve Australia and their mother country, as they did from 1914 until the end of the war.

And then came 1917. I think that I may be excused for referring to these facts. This man saw the great trade union that he loved smashed almost beyond recognition. It was deregistered and a government trade union was formed so that, to all intents and purposes, the organization that he loved was shattered beyond redemption. I believe that this great philosopher and friend of trade unionists generally and the Australian public as a whole profited by the experience that he acquired as the result of that conflict. He never became discouraged. He believed in the expression that he so often used, “ Time does not matter. If things are right, they will come your way “. In the darkest days of 1917 and in the years that followed he continued to have faith in the beacon light of trade unionism. He believed that he and his mates were in the right and that, in the final analysis, right would prevail. So it proved. With other good members of the trade union movement, he rebuilt the great Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen, which has played such a magnificent part in the expansion of this great country through the years. What attracted most of us to him was the fact that, despite the scars of 1917, he had learned to be tolerant of the other man’s point of view. Although he suffered for years because he fought for the things in which he believed, he did not become embittered. Is it any wonder that, finally, this man, born of the trade union movement and associated with Australians always prepared, if need be, to make sacrifices for their country, developed into that great Australian, as we now know him, the late Ben Chifley? There was no bitterness in his heart. He gathered his friends around him and said, “ Right will prevail “.

When he entered the Parliament, he did not lose touch with those with whom he had been associated. His union conferred upon him the great honour of life membership of the organization. That honour is conferred upon very few persons. Indeed, the men who have received it during the last 60 years can be counted upon one’s fingers. His union honoured him in that way because it recognized that, even when he was Prime Minister of Australia, he never forgot the humble man and never forgot that the trade union movement will always play a tremendously important part in the progress of this country.

He was Australia-minded. He played a tremendous part in the creation of a great Australian trade union. Those who were privileged to listen to the last address that he delivered to members of the trade union movement will never forget the words that he used then. He said, “ Always remember to stand shoulder to shoulder. Do not go outside your industrial arbitration tribunals until your case has been fully heard “. When he was Prime Minister, he and his Government introduced into this country a type of industrial machine for the preservation of peace in industry that will forever stand as a monument to the qualities of our great friend, Ben Chifley. I admired him on the day when he made that statement, less than a month ago. Although a government with political views’ opposite to his own was in power, he made the same appeal to trade unionists to observe the industrial law and to use the industrial arbitration machine as he would have done had he then been Prime Minister.

He believed in the progress of this country, and he believed that the medium through which great progress could be achieved was the trade union movement.

He set a standard that will and must be emulated not only by trade unionists but also by . all Australians if this great country is to reach the heights that it is capable of reaching. He believed in leadership and in understanding. Believing in those things, he also believed that in this democratic country there was no need for force of any form. We of the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen will always honour his memory as a great Australian leader, born of the trade union movement, scarred and seared, but never at any time other than tolerant. We hope that our younger members will follow the high standard that he set.


– I wish to associate myself, very briefly, with the sentiments that have been expressed to-day upon the death of my leader, colleague and friend, Ben Chifley. He lived and died for the Labour movement of this country and for the people who were without wealth, power, or influence.

I believe, as doubtless do all other honorable members, that the example that he set in his public life is one that might well be followed by all people who aspire to high office in this country. In pnblic life, he stood for all that was good and decent. He was humble and at all times prepared to fight for Ms principles and the things in which he believed. His loyalty, his honesty, and his integrity made his conduct a shining example to all men in this Parliament. My brief parliamentary career has been enriched by having had the privilege of serving under the leadership of a man who stood for such high ideals. I feel that we should remember to-day, that Ben Chifley, as other honorable members have said, rose to great heights without any influence and with very little assistance but his own abilities. Although he mingled with kings and the mighty of many lands, to all members of this House and to the people of this great country he always remained plain Ben Chifley. As he would say, dignity with humility are the qualities appropriate to public life in success as well as in defeat.

I join in the sentiments which have been expressed in the House and I mourn his passing, not only as a leader and colleague, but as a close friend and one almost as dear to me as a parent. I place on record my sorrow for his wife and I pray that God may bless him and reward him for the service that he rendered to the people of this country and to his fellow men.

Question resolved in the affirmative, honorable members standing in their places.

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Mr. MENZIES (Kooyong- Prime

Minister) [3.1]. - As a mark of respect to the late Bight Honorable Joseph Benedict Chifley, I move -

That the House do now adjourn.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

House adjourned at 3.2 p.m.

Cite as: Australia, House of Representatives, Debates, 19 June 1951, viewed 22 October 2017, <>.