Brett Gale
Thursday, 20 June 2019

A new history of Ben Chifley

Chifley Research Centre is proud to promote the publication of a new scholarly work on our namesake Ben Chifley.  Deakin University Academic Julie Suares has recently published a fascinating look at Ben Chifley’s international policies and his role on the world stage.  Here’s Julie’s summary below.

JB Chifley: An ardent internationalist by Julie Suares

JB Chifley: An ardent internationalist provides the first comprehensive study of the evolution of former locomotive engine driver, Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley – Prime Minister of Australia from 1945 to 1949 and Treasurer from 1941 to 1949 – as an internationalist. This is an aspect of Chifley that has received little attention from historians, many of whom have preferred to situate him within the realm of domestic politics. It explores how Chifley’s personal life experiences played a major role in the development of his internationalism. These lived experiences, which included two economic depressions and two world wars, his rural background and his commitment to the labour movement, generated Chifley’s belief that the only way to avoid war and economic depression was through the establishment of international rules-based economic and collective security institutions. These were beliefs he had held since the early 1930s.

The inter-war years are a crucial period in any study of Chifley’s political life and the development of his ideas on economic and social policy. This is the first time that Chifley’s ongoing interest in international affairs and the international economic and monetary system has been traced in the speeches he delivered in parliament, to local Bathurst groups and at political meetings. In January 1932, after losing the seat of Macquarie in the 1931 election, Chifley acknowledged the mistakes the Scullin government had made in its attempts to address the problems caused by the Great Depression. He argued, however, that the problem was ‘world-wide’ and could not be fixed ‘unless the majority of the nations act in concert’. There could be no economic recovery until, as he said, there was ‘a very great change in the monetary and financial policy of the world’.

This book also looks at Chifley’s role as a commissioner on the Royal Commission into the Monetary and Banking System (1935-1937). In June 1938, in a speech to the Bathurst Rotary Club, reported in the National Advocate – one of two daily newspapers in Bathurst – Chifley declared that the role the banking system played in the community was much too important to be limited solely to profit-making. He argued that: ‘So important is it in the economic functions of our system, that it represents to civilization what the heart represents to the human body … The operation of the monetary system is reflected right throughout every section of the community. I hold that, as a thing influencing the lives of millions of people who do not understand what it does or how it does it, it is too important to be devoted to any other purpose than purely for the good of the whole of the community in which it operates’.

During the inter-war years, it is clear that Chifley developed a coherent form of internationalism. This book considers how Chifley’s economic internationalism translated into policy implemented when Chifley was treasurer and prime minister in the Labor governments of 1941 – 1949. Against fierce opposition from his own party, many of whom did not share his internationalism, Chifley played a pivotal role in persuading his party to agree to the ratification of the Bretton Woods Agreement, through which Australia became part of the new international financial and economic system. This is the first time attention has been paid to a document distributed by Chifley – which is available in the National Archives of Australia in the Dr HC Coombs collection – to support his argument to the Labor caucus, in March 1947, that Australia should ratify the Bretton Woods Agreement.

This book also reveals a prime minister who had a keen interest in post-war Asia, who understood that the old colonial order was ending. Chifley was a great admirer of the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. This book reveals the remarkable convergence of worldviews of two fellow internationalists, Chifley and Nehru. This convergence can be seen in their views on the need to adjust to a changing post-colonial world; their internationalism; their support for the United Nations; their opposition to Western colonialism; their support for the Indonesian republicans in their struggle against the Dutch;  their anti-war attitudes and their rejection of the American and British Cold War framework through which the post-war world was viewed. It demonstrates that Chifley played a much more significant and influential role in Australia’s foreign policy towards Asia than previously assumed.

Dr Julie Suares
Visiting Fellow – Contemporary Histories Research Group, Deakin University
Honorary Fellow – Australian Prime Ministers Centre, 2015-2016

About Brett Gale:

Brett Gale is the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre.