19 June 1951

20th Parliament · 1st Session

The President (Senator the Hon. - Edward Mattner) took the chair at 3 p.m., and read prayers.

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for Trade and Customs · QueenslandMinister · LP

by leave - I move -

That the Senate expresses its deep regret at the death of the Right Honorable Joseph Benedict Chifley, F.C., member of the House o; Representatives for the Division of Macquarie, former Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia, and Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives, places on record its appreciation of his long and distinguished public service, and tenders to his widow its profound sympathy in her bereavement.

The sudden death of the Right Honorable Joseph Benedict Chifley, Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives, has cast a gloom not only over this Parliament, but. also over the whole of Australia. The tragedy of his passing was all the more poignant, occurring as it did at the height of the Commonwealth Jubilee celebrations. Mr. Chifley had a long and distinguished, parliamentary career. He was first elected to the House of Representatives for Macquarie, New South Wales, at the general election in 1928. He was again elected for that division in 1929. Hewas a member of the Public Accounts Committee from 1929 to 1931, and was Minister for Defence from 1931 to 1932. In 1935 he was a member of the Royal Commission on Monetary and BankingSystems.

Mr. Chifley re entered the House of Representatives in 1940, again as the representative of Macquarie, and retained that seat until his death. In October r 1941, he was appointed Treasurer and, from 1942 to 1945, he was also Ministerfor Post-war Reconstruction.’ In July,. 1945, he became. Prime Minister as well as Treasurer and occupied both offices until December, 1949. From February, 1950, he was Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives.

Mr. Chifley was a member of the War Cabinet from October .1941, of the Production Executive of Cabinet from 1942. and of the Food Executive from 1943. In 1944 he was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee which considered the payment of taxation on current income. In 1942 and 1943, he was a member of the Advisory War Council. In 1945 he had conferred on him the honour of appointment to the Privy Council.

The sad ‘ occasion of hi? death might well serve as a pointed though poignant reminder to the people of Australia of the heavy stress and strain that press upon the shoulders of our national leaders. Mr. Chifley is the third casualty in ‘ recent years among men who, regardless of personal comfort or consideration, have occupied and discharged the onerous and exalted office of Prime Minister of Australia. Each of these three, the late Mr. J. A. Lyons, the late Mr. John Curtin, and Mr. Chifley himself, was the victim pf the cares, worries and responsibilities of his office, and each in turn went to an all too early grave. We are reminded also of a fact in which we, more or less his contemporaries, may take pride, and from which Australians of a younger generation may derive inspiration and encouragement. Mr. Chifley^ life and record of endeavour and achievement, as does also that of many of his noble predecessors in office, such as Mr. Andrew Fisher and Sir Joseph Cook, to mention only two, emphasizes better than could any precept that we live in a land under a system whereby the highest position of power, dignity and authority is within the reach of any Australian child no matter how modest and humble his origin.

The place that Mr. Chifley, the politician and statesman, will occupy in our national history we his contemporaries are, perhaps, not well qualified to assess accurately and impartially. He was undoubtedly a strong, determined and fearless leader. Around him were waged some of the most acute and acrimonious controversies of recent years. In some matters my political differences with him were .profound and vital. Posterity in its own time and in a calmer and less turbulent atmosphere will record its judgment. Of Mr. Chifley the parliamentarian it can well be said that at all times he conducted himself with dignity and decorum and extended to supporter and opponent alike courtesy and respect. His standard of parliamentary conduct is well worthy of emulation. Of Mr. Chifley the man I am not’ qualified to speak in intimate terms. It was not my lot to experience any close association with him. Over the past few years, however, I have seen ample and eloquent evidence of the deep affection and high respect with which he was regarded by those closely associated with him. Those who knew him best loved him most. He must have had human and personal qualities both rich and rare to have inspired and retained that wealth and warmth of friendship. I am sure that he will hold a place of abiding affection in the hearts and memories of those who knew him well. May he rest in peace.

Senator MCKENNA:
. Leader of the Opposition · Tasmania

– I second the motion which the Minister for Trade and Customs (Senator O’sullivan) has been good enough to move. I express to the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) and to his colleagues in .the Ministry the sincere thanks of the Opposition for the generous gestures of the Government on the occasion of the passing of our leader. I thank them, too, for their kindly and sympathetic consideration of the Opposition in its loss, the extent and the depth of which there are no words to express. The finest and truest tribute that has been, or ever will be, paid to Joseph Benedict Chifley was uttered only last week by the lady who was his wife and is now his widow. “ He loved everything and every one” she said. That might well be his epitaph, but it is more, far more than that. I would say that no advocate before the judgment seat of the Creator could make a more powerful plea for Ben Chifley than is contained in those simple words, “ He loved everything and every one “. The angels themselves could give no better testimonial, nor could they give any better justification of his life. I suggest that when -we pray for the repose of the soul of Ben Chifley we say just that : “ He loved everything and every one “. The hearts of the widowed, the deserted, the unemployed, the disabled and the sick of Australia will join with us in that prayer. He it “was, more than any one in all Australia, -who strove and legislated to relieve their plight. I do not propose to speak of Joseph Benedict Chifley, the trade union leader, the Australian Labour party leader, the Federal Treasurer, the Prime Minister of Australia, or the statesman with the international outlook. I leave those aspects to popular, if inadequate, knowledge, and as rich fields to be explored by the historian in due course.

I propose to speak of Ben Chifley, the man whom we of the Australian Labour party, and many others besides, knew and loved. The key to the character of Ben Chifley was his true, great and abiding interior simplicity. From that interior simplicity stemmed his gentleness and his great strength, his love of everything and every one, . his honesty, uprightness, singlemindedness of purpose and steadfastness, his high sense of duty, his courage, his loyalty, his vast tolerance, his unselfishness, his modesty, his tranquility, Iiia all-pervading sense of humour, his love of country and, indeed, of all humanity. That, too, led him to choose austerity rather than soft-living. It accounted for the absence of vice in him and for his scorn of anything dishonorable. It led him on in a never-ending search for knowledge and truth, a search that made him equally at home in subjects as diverse as literature, religion, the arts, sport, finance and history. It accounted for his great wisdom and for the fact that every member of his party looked on him as father, brother and mate all at the one time. He never entertained a thought or did a thing that was mean, paltry or vindictive. He was not capable of it. He always defended those criticized in his presence. His favourite remark on such occasions was, “ To know all is to forgive all “. The Canberra newspaperman who, as the opening sentence of the feature a rticle he wrote last week, said : “ There was no need for Ben Chifley to be trained as a gentleman; he was a gentleman by instinct “, penetrated to the very core of the man and said in one sentence all that truly needs to be said of him.

Ben Chifley was deeply interested in those whom he met and knew. He shared with them their little joys and sorrows and interests. He was, I suppose, the repository of more personal confidences than were ever entrusted to any man in public life. That explains why each of thousands of people throughout Australia, on learning of his death, felt that he had lost his best friend. As the Leader of the Government has said, to know Ben Chifley was to love him, and the extent of one’s regard for him was the measure of one’s knowledge of him.

By virtue only of the patent qualities inherent in him, Ben Chifley effortlessly won the loyalty of and extracted the best, from all those who were near him in his work. Lightly, even casually, he imposed responsibilities on them. Their knowledge that without a word being spoken he trusted them to discharge that responsibility faithfully, led them to superhuman efforts so that they would not fail him. That, Mr. President, is the mark of the true leader. There were some who, in the heat of public controversy, vilified him. In sorrow, I leave them to their remorse and to the stirrings of their consciences. I offer them the consolation that their barbs did him no hurt; he rode, serene, above them. All that Mr. Chifley accomplished for Australians and Australia would never have been done if his sacrifice of himself had not been accompanied by the sacrifice of Mrs. Chifley. For many long years she bore the loss of his cheerful presence and society. The Opposition would be wanting indeed, if. on its behalf, I did not say to her, “ Thank you for giving Ben Chifley to his party, to the Parliament, to the people, and to Australia “.

This Parliament is now in process of saying “ Goodbye and thank you “ to Ben Chifley. It will be the richer for his presence amongst us. Nobody obeyed the Standing Orders of the Parliament more meticulously than he did; his true instinct told him that their observance was of the essence of good manners. His spirit and his example will live on amongst us and must lead to greater tolerance and better standards of behaviour on this high platform from which so much scandal can so easily be given to the nation. Tears - many tears - have been shed on the occasion of the passing of Ben Chifley. To those who mourn, I say, “Weep! Weep freely if, fortunately, you can, but do not weep for him. Let your tears flow in sympathy for the sorrow of his wife and those who were near and dear to him. Shed them for yourselves because you have lost your friend. Shed them, if needs be, for the things you might have done to make his path easier. Shed them if you have wronged him ; but shed them not for him. There is no need of tears for Ben Chifley “.

Ben Chifley, in giving so unstintingly of himself, in asking nothing for himself, got everything worthwhile in return. He had the respect of all Australians, and the affection of most of them, as he has their prayers to-day. We, of the Federal Parliamentary Labour party, can now say what we could never say to him during his life, “ We loved him “. There was no need to tell him that; he knew it, and the knowledge made life sweet and rich for him. His delight was his unceasing, undeviating march along the road that duty pointed out. That brought him the richest rewards of spirit. That was true -even of the last few days he spent amongst us when every step and every word cost him a supreme effort. He walked and talked till tortured flesh rebelled, and he could walk and talk no more.

Ben Chifley, if he could speak to us to-day, would tell us that he got all that he desired from life, and that death was merely the door opening to that which, above all, he sought - knowledge and truth. He has now met the Source of all Knowledge and all Truth. He would not return if he could. It is my belief that Ben Chifley, the man -who loved his neighbour better than he loved himself, was never far from God. There is no need of tears for Ben Chifley. The poet might well have been thinking of him when he penned these lines -

T/ho’ Duty’s face be stern, her path is best.

They sweetly sleep who die upon her breast.

And so, for my Labour colleagues - Ben Chifley’s friends and colleagues - I say from this Parliament: “Goodbye, Ben Chifley. May God grant to your soul eternal rest and happiness

Senator COOPER:
Minister for Hepatization · Queensland · CP

– The members of the Australian Country party desire to bc associated with the motion before the Chair. For a good many years I was privileged to be personally acquainted with the late Mr. Chifley. When wc were in Canberra we lived in the same hotel, and although I was his political opponent, a very warm personal friendship grew up between us. He was a man of simple tastes, but with great ideals for which he was prepared to fight. Towards his fellow & ustralians he was a man of sympathy and understanding, and his death is a great loss, not only to the Labour party, with which he was associated for manyyears, but also to the people of Australia as a whole. The death of Mr. Chifley has brought home to members of the Parliament and also, I hope, to the people of Australia generally, the tremendous strain placed upon political leaders in the Commonwealth sphere at the present time, and indeed, ever since the outbreak of the last war. It has been pointed out that during the last eleven years we have lost by death three of our great political leaders. Those men died in the service of their country. From my knowledge of Mr. Chifley I feel that his death took place in the manner that he would have wished; that is to say, he passed away while he was still in harness. A similar remark applies to the other two national leaders who died in recent years, Mr. Lyons and Mr. Curtin, who were still . actively working for their country at the time of their death. I conclude by saying that the passing of Mr. Chifley is a great loss to the parliamentary institutions of Australia and to the people of Australia. We have lost a great Australian, and I extend our sympathy to his widow in her tragic loss.

New South Wales

– I associate myself wholeheartedly with the motion moved by the Minister for Trade and Customs (Senator O’sullivan). I take this opportunity to thank him, the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies), and all members of the Government for the wonderful kindness and consideration that they have shown to members of the Opposition during the last week, when we have had to bear the tremendous burden that has been thrown upon us by the death of our former leader. Because I have experienced the kindness of the Government in this matter, I feel it incumbent upon me to say how greatly the Opposition, and, indeed, the whole nation, appreciates the Government’s attitude in this unhappy time-.

I do not intend to deal with Mr. Chifley’s political career, because the Leader of the . Government has already done so. In any event, I find myself quite incapable of expressing the thoughts and emotions that have been stirred in me by this sad event. .However, I can express quite clearly one of the thoughts that well up within me, and that is that Mr. Chifley was the greatest democrat I have ever met. In these days of mixed idealism and confused thinking, I feel that that is one of the greatest tributes that could be paid to any man. Only last Monday, members of the Australian Labour party re-elected Mr. Chifley to the leadership of their party. In expressing his acceptance of that high honour, he told us that if we thought that there was amongst us even a small group, or a handful of members, who believed. - that some one else could better discharge the duties of leadership, we should let him know. He pointed out that the existence of a desire for a change in the party leadership would not precipitate another election in the party because, as he said,. “I will stand down readily and allow another leader to assume the responsibility”. Unfortunately, sections of the press have pictured Mr. Chifley as a ruthless autocrat who drove- his followers with a bludgeon or a whip. T was particularly pleased, therefore, when the Leader of the Opposition (Senator McKenna) mentioned the rich personal qualities that endeared Mr. Chifley to all those who came in contact with him. And those were essentially his basic qualities. I refer to his simplicity, tolerance, kindliness, loyalty and absolute honesty* Those were the concrete foundations of the character that made him such an outstanding Australian Labour leader. To me, he was the exemplification of kindness in another’s trouble, and of courage in his own. Like John Curtin he was warned of the precarious state of his health by the severe heart attack that he suffered last Christmas. He knew quite well the probable consequences of continuing in public life; but, like Mr Curtin, he did not hesitate to follow the path of duty, regardless of the price that he might be called upon to pay. On his death, I realized, for the first time in my life, the significance of the poet’s words -

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; lt tolls for thee.

As our sorrow dies - and die it will, for time is nature’s salve - it will be replaced by an inspiration which will continue to grow. It is satisfying to know that, although Ben Chifley is dead, the fruits of his labour will grow more substantial as the years go by. At the last conference of the Australian Labour party two years ago, he concluded his address with the following words, which, I believe, aptly describe the man who uttered them : -

When you see any sign of dishonesty, stamp . on it with both feet. The Australian Labour party, in defeat or in victory, must fight for what it believes to be right. Whether that brings electoral success or not, it must fight for the humanitarian principles which are fundamental to the Labour movement. If you believe a thing is right, fight for it no matter what the odds are against you. Truth and justice will always finally triumph.

I extend to that gracious lady, Mrs. Chifley, our sincere sympathy in her great loss. I know that she, too, is comforted by the memory of a very great man.

Senate ASHLEY (New South Wales). - I wish to associate myself with the motion now before the Senate and also to express to the Government my appreciation of the kindness and consideration that it has shown to members of the Australian Labour party since the death of our leader. I had a long personal and political association with Mr. Chifley, and, like many of my colleagues in both the political and industrial branches of the Labour movement, I often availed myself of his wise counsel and admired the standard of statesmanship that he. set. It was during Australia’s most difficult years, when the stress of war was ‘ at its height, that, his sterling qualities were most clearly revealed. In those years particularly, he rendered national service of immense value. At all times and in all circumstances he discharged his duties modestly, and with a sense of justice that should have the approbation of every section of the community.

Ben Chifley was liberally endowed with qualities of friendship and mateship that are somewhat unusual in the hurly-burly of the political life of this country. I have never known any one who had greater honesty of purpose, tolerance, or readiness to sacrifice himself in the interests of social justice. The social services of this country to-day stand as a monument to his foresight and humanity. They are striking evidence of his concern for the welfare of the under-privileged sections of the community. He laboured faithfully and long and, perhaps, unwisely for his health’s sake. Nevertheless, had there been any choice in his passing, he died as he would have wished, in the service of Australia. I, too, offer my deepest sympathy to his widow and other relatives. His labours having concluded, may Providence ensure tohim lasting peace in his eternal rest.

Senator SHEEHAN:

– May I, as one of the rank and file of the Parliament, associate myself with the motion that has been moved by the Minister for Trade and Customs (Senator O’Sullivan) and seconded by the Leader of the Opposition (Senator McKenna). In the last few days, the people of Australia have paid a remarkable tribute to the memory of a man who, from a humble beginning,’ became one of the outstanding figures in this country. Recalling his splendid work over a long period of years, I realize that Australia’s turn has come to suffer as other nations have suffered in recent years through the death of a great leader. Ben Chifley’s life’s work is an unfinished symphony. Knowing what we do of his high ideals, we all realize that the task he set himself is not yet complete. As he rose from humble circumstances, every step that he took was for the betterment, not only of the people of Australia but also of humanity in general. He had a deep understanding of the lot of the common man and clearly his aim was that, during his lifetime, something should be done tomake the world of the future better than that into which he had been born. Now he has gone, and we all know in our hearts that although much is left to be done the worldis a better place for Ben Chifley having passed this way. His death is a severe blow to the Labour movement. In our younger days, he and I were engaged in the same industry, and I watched his career closely. We both served for a long period in the industrial movement of this country, and I had an opportunity to see the splendid manner inwhich he used the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him to improve the conditions of his fellow men. Ben Chifley did a splendid job for the Australian people and for mankind as a whole, and his passing is to me a matter of deep personal sorrow. The Labour party and the people of this country are the poorer for the death of this great man whose inspiration was of such immeasurable value to us in our most eventful years. It is with deep regret that I stand in my place in this chamber and pay tribute to the man who has gone. It will be many years before Australia will again see his like.

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

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Motion (by Senator O’Sullivan) agreed to - “ That, as a mark of respect to the memory of the late Joseph Benedict Chifley, the Senate do now adjourn.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Senate adjourned at 3.42 p.m.

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