Joseph Benedict Chifley

(1885—1951) prime minister of Australia

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(b. 22 Sept. 1885, d. 13 June 1951).

Prime Minister of Australia 1945–9 Born in Bathurst (New South Wales), he became a railway engine driver and in 1920 joined the state general committee of the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen. After three unsuccessful attempts he was finally elected to the House of Representatives in 1928. He briefly became Minister for Defence in 1931 until he lost his seat that year, returning to Bathurst local politics. In 1935, Casey's advocacy ensured Chifley's appointment to the Royal Commission on Monetary and Banking Systems. This made him familiar with the intricate system of government finance, and convinced him of the need to nationalize all banking, which he advocated in a minority report. Chifley also used his time outside parliament to rebuild Labor support at the grass roots in New South Wales. His efforts were rewarded by Labor's landslide victory there in 1941, when he returned to parliament. Despite the high cost of World War II, as Secretary to the Treasury (1941–9) he actually managed to reduce Australia's foreign debt significantly. He also became Minister for Postwar Reconstruction in 1942, when he devised many social policies that became law in the postwar period.

Succeeding his friend Curtin as Prime Minister in 1945, Chifley supported Calwell's immigration policies, and introduced the Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1947 to regulate industrial arbitration. Although he encouraged, for example, the building of public housing, his social policies were relatively careful. Having been deeply influenced by the Great Depression, to him the stability of the economy was paramount over social welfare schemes. The latter became particularly difficult to introduce, as buoyant domestic demand and high wage claims were already fuelling inflationary pressures. He tried to establish control over the Australian financial system, principally through the establishment of a central bank. When aspects of this measure were successfully challenged in the High Court, he responded by introducing legislation to nationalize all banks. In a two‐year battle, this was also rejected by Australian and London High Courts. Unsuccessful in the introduction of a national health service in the face of doctors' resistance, and unpopular through his stern economic policies (such as the maintenance of petrol rationing), he lost the 1949 elections to Menzies.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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