April 21, 2015

Horse 1880 - Australia's Prime Ministers - No 16 - Ben Chifley

XVI - Ben Chifley

Joseph Benedict "Ben" Chifley took over the leadership of the Labor Party and with it the premiership, on the 13th of July 1945. Within three weeks of his appointment as Prime Minister, the Second World War came to a close and the business of rebuilding and demoblising the country had begun; and it begun with rapidity.

Famously, Chifley had left school at the age of 15 to become a railway locomotive driver and as a result, joined the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen and the Labor Party. Chifley was probably one of the only Prime Ministers to have a genuinely working class job before entering politics and in the course of representing his union, he learned industrial law from the inside.

Perhaps what Chifley is most remembered for was a government policy which had been floating around since the mid-1930s, an Australian mass produced car. General Motors-Holden's Limited had been in war production making field guns, aircraft, and marine engines. In 1947, the Chifley Government sent an envoy to Detroit and the idea of an Australian car was born.
On 29th Nov 1948, the first Holden 48/215 rolled off the production line and 18,000 people had pre-ordered one, despite never seeing the vehicle before and it costing 94 weeks' wages or £733.

More importantly though, during Chifley's only term as Prime Minister, his government created the Commonwealth Employment Service, the CSIRO, ASIO, founded the Australian National University, introduced the pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, set up funds for public housing, nationalised QANTAS and TAA, started the Snowy Mountains Scheme, set up the Coal Boards and Dairy Boards, expanded the central banking powers of the Commonwealth Bank and set up repatriation funds for returned servicepeople.

Chifley also was able via referendum to extend the Section 51 Constitutional powers of the Commonwealth to legislate for "maternity allowances, widows' pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, medical and dental services".
In just three years, Chifley's government passed 299 Acts, which was a then parliamentary record.

Chifley's government was able to pass legislation which made it illegal to give striking workers financial support and this was seen by the miners' federation and the largely dormant Communist Party of Australia as an attack on them. As a result, 23,000 coal miners went on strike 27 June 1949 to 15 August 1949 and in some mines near Newcastle, 2500 Australian Army soldiers were sent in to break the strike.
Even despite this, in the run up to the December election of 1949, Opposition Leader Robert Menzies was able to exploit this as a Communist "red scare" and in the expansion of the  House of Representatives from 74 seats to 121 seats, Menzies won all 47 extra seats as well as taking away one from Labor (Labor did steal away four seats from minor parties); thus Menzies held 74 of 121 in the new look house.

Chifley would remain as Opposition Leader from 1949 through the double dissolution election in April 1951 but died of a heart attack not long after the election.

No comments: