Ben Chifley—Internationalist, with Dr Julie Suares


What kind of person was Ben Chifley? Tell us about the people and circumstances that shaped his personality and his political career.

Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley was born in Bathurst in regional New South Wales. A locomotive engine driver and unionist, he became Australia’s prime minister on 13 July 1945 and remained in office until December 1949. He was Treasurer from October 1941 until December 1949 and Minister for Post-war Reconstruction from December 1942 to February 1945. His press secretary, Don Rodgers, said that Chifley was a ‘gregarious man, he liked nothing better than good company. He was always looking for brains and the products of good brains’. In addition, ‘he was the best listener’ that Rodgers ‘ever watched in Federal politics’.[1] According to Frederic Eggleston, intellectual and long-term advisor on international relations for the Curtin and Chifley governments, Chifley had ‘the most powerful mind in the politics of his day’, He ‘was able to learn more quickly than most parliamentarians, but it was one of his virtues that he was true to his mates and his class’.[2] Eggleston was not from ‘Labor ranks’,[3] but he was a great admirer of John Curtin and Ben Chifley, who, in his opinion, were ‘great leaders and they died under the strain’.[4]

A newspaper article written the day after Chifley’s death on 13 June 1951, noted that the former prime minister was ‘one of the strongest figures’ the Australian labour movement had known, who ‘dominated the Federal Parliamentary Party’. He also:

displayed a charm of manner which attracted all those who knew him. He had a natural courtesy and unruffled calm which never left him. He was thoughtful and considerate to his subordinates in many of whom he created a sense of deep loyalty. Although he could be ruthless, he was also understanding in the personal problems of his staff, who remember him for many acts of kindness.[5]

Harold Breen was a public servant who worked closely with Chifley in the department of Post-war Reconstruction and also when he was prime minister. According to Breen, Chifley worked tirelessly, ‘toiling from early morning until midnight and after’. He noted:

There was not an activity in Australia in those post-war years in which he was not interested or was not the driving force or the initiator; and often it was all three. Nor was his interest confined to Australia; it roamed over the world: Asia, Europe, America. He received from these places a steady stream of information—official and otherwise—which he absorbed and pondered upon and used’.[6]

Chifley was a very well-read man with a ‘fantastic memory’.[7] He was also one of the ‘shrewdest’ politicians in his understanding of finance. Treasury officials Fred Wheeler and Roland Wilson told journalist Alan Reid that ‘his grasp of detail was far superior to any politician they’d ever met … he could match them in their own specialised areas’. Reid also observed that one of Chifley’s most perceptive sayings was: ‘if you make a decision on moral grounds, the details usually fall into place’.[8]

Chifley gathered networks of bright, intelligent people around him to discuss ideas on policy. He wrote that it was imperative that the Commonwealth public service should have the ‘best young brains’ available in the country.[9] According to HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs, Chifley was an exciting person to discuss ideas with, working with his officials rather than his officials working for him. They felt they were participants in the process. He ‘always read what you wrote’; he possessed the ‘gift of picking the guts out of a document and concentrating on the issues’. Plus, he always welcomed disagreement.[10] He was also proud of assembling such a ‘group of outstandingly able officers’ in the Treasury, chosen not because of partisan convictions but because of their competence. He wanted the ‘highest order of ability’ in the public service.[11]

Your forthcoming book is focussed on Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s achievements in foreign affairs. Why do you think Chifley is better known for his interest in domestic policies than in foreign affairs?

My book provides the first comprehensive study of the evolution of JB Chifley 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. One of the problems in researching Chifley is that he was reluctant to leave traces. When his biographer LF Crisp suggested that he write his memoirs, Crisp wrote that Chifley’s response was ‘Ah, boy, when I go no one will care a damn about me!’[12]

However, evidence of his interest in international relations during the inter-war period can be found in articles in the National Advocate, one of two daily newspapers published in Bathurst. During the 1930s, many international conferences were held in attempts to revive the world economy and to resolve the issues of disarmament, war debts and reparation payments. Chifley was considered an expert on international finance and world problems in his Bathurst community and he was in great demand to speak on these issues to local community groups. So, you’ll find Chifley delivering a sophisticated analysis of the World Disarmament Conference held in February 1932 to the Advance Bathurst League. He spoke about the Reparations Conference held in Lausanne in June 1932 and the Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa in July and August 1932 to the Bathurst Rotarians. He lectured on the 1932 League of Nations Gold Delegations’ Report to the Advance Bathurst League and the World Monetary and Economic Conference of June 1933 to the Bathurst Rotarians. He delivered a speech about ‘The Roosevelt Plan and What it Aims to Achieve’ to the Bathurst Methodist Men’s Brotherhood in September 1933. He was also in great demand to speak about his experience as a commissioner on the Royal Commission into the Monetary and Banking Systems in Australia (1935-1937). But you need to delve into the National Advocate to find these important and significant early speeches.

Chifley also spoke about his commitment to internationalism in his speeches in parliament. On 20 March 1947, when he introduced the bill that ratified Australia’s accession to the Bretton Woods Agreement, he declared:

I have been an ardent advocate of all international organizations, because I believe that through them, we are engaging in a great human experiment, which is designed to prevent the catastrophes that result from wars and financial and economic depressions.[13]

Can you describe the essence of Chifley’s views about international affairs? What experiences and circumstances shaped his views?

My book explores how Chifley’s personal life experiences played a major role in the development of his internationalism. The former locomotive engine driver lived through two economic depressions and two world wars. This, combined with his rural background and commitment to the labour movement, played a major role in the development of his internationalist perspective. Growing up and living in a rural area like Bathurst, Chifley was well aware that Australia was dependent on world trade. Because of this, he viewed the Australian economy within the context of the world economic system. He understood the interdependence of the countries of the world. In his words: ‘Of all the dangers that beset international relationships the greatest is the illusion that any country, least of all a small country, can stand apart in isolation’.[14]

Chifley believed 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, when, in the depths of the Great Depression, he declared there could be no economic recovery until there was ‘a very great change in the monetary and financial policy of the world’.[15] Although not a pacifist, Chifley believed that war was to be avoided at all cost. He had consistently condemned the massive expenditure on World War I, in which ‘a great reserve of wealth had been used up almost entirely for destruc­tive purposes’.[16] In parliament, he argued that any future war would be too terrible to contemplate with the new forms of weaponry available. His government had worked hard in the councils of the world to bring nations together to encourage peace, not for the sake of politicians ‘who merely make speeches’, but ‘for the boys who have to go out and die for their country’. Chifley believed there was ‘too much talk by people who themselves are not likely to be killed which encourages warfare and killing’. It was imperative that ‘every human being who had any love of the human race should try to achieve unity and understanding among the nations of the world’.[17]

Chifley was one of those outstanding individuals who re-made Australia in the post-war reconstruction era. But Chifley not only believed in the importance of post-war reconstruction in Australia, he also believed that reconstruction—rather than retribution—was vital to restore the economies of ex-enemy countries such as Germany and Japan. Chifley maintained that the world’s nations should provide economic security not only for allies, but for ‘the people of ex-enemy countries’ as well. If this did not occur, Chifley declared that ‘another fever spot’ would be allowed ‘to breed war in the future’.[18] This was a sentiment that Chifley had expressed many times. The economic recovery of ex-enemy countries was vital to ensure post-war peace and prosperity. As an economic internationalist, Chifley believed that economic interdependence would encourage and support peaceful relations between nations. As he said in parliament, when speaking about the need for economic reconstruction of former enemy states such as Germany:

I know the deep feelings of revenge and of sorrow that come to all of those who lost sons and husbands in the fight to quell the Nazis. It is therefore very difficult to advo­cate—although I have always advocated it myself—that the victorious nations should immediately commence the task of building up the economic strength of Germany so that it can make its due contribution to the economic strength of the other nations of Europe.[19]

Chifley was influenced by the tragic consequences of the Versailles peace treaty after the First World War, when a punitive economic peace settlement was imposed on former enemies. He argued that the ‘outstanding need of reconstruction was to remove from the minds of the people the fear of want and insecurity’.[20] According to Chifley, it was important that the German people accept ‘full responsibility for the havoc they had caused in Europe’, but a policy of retribution was not the way to reconstruct the European economy. If this path was chosen, it was inevitable that further conflicts would arise in the future.[21]

In addition, Chifley believed that unless Japan was assisted back to economic prosperity, there would be another war in a generation’s time. He regretted, however, that feelings were so strong on this issue that, ‘this is something I cannot discuss even with my colleagues’.[22] There were earlier occasions when Chifley had spoken about the need to ensure the economic recovery of ex-enemy countries. During the inter-war years Chifley had argued many times for the ‘scaling down’ of war debts which were a burden upon the ‘stricken nations of Europe … unable to meet the commitments imposed upon them by previous agree­ments’.[23] He expressed similar opinions after World War II.

What was Chifley’s attitude to the nationalist movements emerging in the former European colonies in Asia? How did his attitude compare with those of the British and Americans as the Cold War began to shape geo-politics?

Chifley was a prime minister with a keen interest in post-war Asia, who understood that the old colonial order was ending. He was an internationalist with a special interest in India and its leaders, Nehru and Gandhi, and acknowledged and accepted Australia’s geographic identity as belonging to the Indian-Pacific region. Chifley refused to accept the Anglo-American Cold War view of world affairs. Instead, he accepted that Asian nationalist aspirations were real and deep-seated – based on a desire for independence from European colonial rule and improved living standards. These aspirations could not be ignored. Chifley refused to conflate Asian nationalism with communist agitation. As he told the federal conference of the Australian Labor Party, in Canberra, in March 1951, the West had to confront the fact that ‘the people of Asia no longer want white government’.[24]

Chifley himself was fiercely anti-communist . On 2 September, 1948, in a significant speech to parliament, he stated that communism was another ‘brand of Fascism’; Russia was a ‘dictatorship in which the people have no rights, and no voice in the appointment of their leaders’.[25] However, Chifley believed that nationalism, not communism, was the driving force of the unrest in post-war Asia. He argued that the western democracies were making a tragic error in supporting corrupt Asian regimes because they were anti-communist. He was deeply disturbed at the West’s support of ‘outmoded, reactionary and feudal forms of government’, in their crusade against communism. [26] He thought it was a ‘grave mistake’ to say that the disturbances caused by Asian peoples’ efforts to free themselves from colonial rule was due to communism. The great surge of nationalism in Asia went much deeper than just communist agitation.

In contrast, it was assumed by the United States and Britain that Soviet imperialism was behind all nationalist movements in Asia. Both the United States and Britain were intent on advancing an anti-Soviet policy in this region. However, intelligence received by Australia’s Department of External Affairs from the 1947 Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi, indicated a deep ‘distrust of Russia’ by Asian nations,[27] which, together with the United States, was one of the ‘nascent Imperialisms’ to be avoided.[28] This intelligence would have confirmed Chifley’s belief that nationalist aspirations throughout Asia were real and entrenched and could not be ignored. It seems that the United States and Britain preferred to rely on ideology and their own self-interest.

Tell us about Chifley’s relationship with the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Chifley was a great admirer of the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and quoted him many times in parliament. There was a remarkable convergence of world views of these two leaders on the many issues that challenged their nations in the post-war period. Both Chifley and Nehru were staunch supporters of the new global organisation, the United Nations, that they believed would deliver international peace and security. Both saw the need for international cooperation to ensure global prosperity and security. For Chifley, the role of the United Nations was to deliver a form of ‘international arbitration’.[29] It was a forum in which grievances could be discussed and vexatious matters could be ‘brought out into the open’. It provided the opportunity for ‘mediation and conciliation in the settlement of disputes’.[30]

Both leaders argued that to counter the spread of communism in Asia, political reform and improved living standards, rather than a military response, was required. Both rejected the United States and Britain’s Cold War framework through which the post-war world was viewed. Although both leaders opposed communism, they refused to conflate the rise of Asian nationalism with communist agitation. Chifley appreciated India’s non-aligned position in its approach to international relations—a policy that later Australian leaders were either unable or refused to comprehend.[31] In Nehru—who ‘exercised a deep influence on him’[32]—Chifley received inspiration and a validation of his own beliefs.

The Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell was notoriously hard-line in expelling non-white war brides and promoting White Australia in the second half of the 1940s. Are there any signs of how Chifley squared his personal relationships with people like Nehru and the Indonesian independence leaders Sukarno and Hatta with his party’s strict adherence to the White Australia policy?

Chifley’s commitment to the labour movement worked against a total acceptance of internationalism and it is difficult to reconcile Chifley’s embrace of internationalism with his firm commitment to the White Australia policy. Based on the labour movement’s fear of competition for jobs from the ‘threat of immigrants who may work for lower wages’,[33] Chifley argued that the reasons for Australia’s immigration policy were ‘economic not racial’ and the ‘Australian nation did not and does not feel superior to nations of non-European people’.[34] Although Chifley’s interests were varied and in many cases progressive, there were some ‘significant omissions’ such as the White Australia policy. In this instance, Chifley revealed himself as a ‘man of his time’.[35] This was a policy that Australian diplomats and departmental officials had ‘warned again and again of the resentment and hostility’ it caused.[36] However, in his personal and professional relations with Asian leaders such as Nehru, Chifley demonstrated no racial prejudice. It was very apparent that he did understand that the old colonial order was ending in Asia and that Australia needed to adjust government policy to this new post-war, post-colonial world.

Chifley sent the political scientist and broadcaster William Macmahon Ball to Batavia in 1945. In 1948, Ball led the Australian government’s Goodwill Mission to Southeast Asia and East Asia. How did Ball’s reports differ from the intelligence being provided by the British Foreign Office and the Americans? Does this episode echo more recent flaws in intelligence gathering, and might we learn something from Chifley’s use of academic experts?

 According to his press secretary, Don Rodgers, Chifley was a ‘firm believer’ in obtaining expert opinion on significant matters. As a result, he gathered a network of brilliant intellectuals and advisers around him. Rodgers called this Chifley’s ‘brain harvesting’.[37] Political scientist, academic, journalist and author William Macmahon Ball was one of those experts chosen by Chifley to provide intelligence about Australia’s Asian neighbours. Ball had been a popular radio commentator on Asia and international relations with the Australian Broadcasting Commission since 1934.[38] Chifley was one of his most enthusiastic listeners.[39] Chifley thought it essential that government policy was based on detailed expert knowledge of the specific situation on the ground, rather than policy based on mere slogans.  In post-war Australia, there was an urgent need for information about its region and the people who lived there.  Australia had previously relied on the British Foreign Office to provide intelligence and guidance on policy. This was no longer acceptable to the Australian government.[40]

In November 1945, William Macmahon Ball was appointed Australia’s political representative in Batavia, to gain ‘an independent assessment’ of the Indonesian-Dutch conflict.[41] In his reports from Batavia, Ball dismissed British intelligence because it was reliant on Dutch information, which was mere ‘propaganda’. [42] Ball believed that if the Dutch returned to re-occupy Java under the protection of the British military, ‘unlimited trouble’ would result; Indonesian nationalist opposition to Dutch re-occupation was extensive.[43] On his return from Batavia, in December 1945, Ball was asked to meet personally with Chifley,[44] where he provided the prime minister with his views on the situation in Indonesia. These views corresponded with Chifley’s own. Ball would recall later, that this meeting was the ‘beginning of a long period of mutual trust between him and Chifley’.[45]

Ball’s intelligence was in stark contrast to the views of the United States Department of State, which in June 1945, argued in a policy paper on post-war Indonesia, that the ‘great mass of the natives will welcome the expulsion of the Japanese and the return of the Dutch to control’.[46] This was a serious failure of intelligence by American policy-makers, who were more concerned to ensure that their European allies – Great Britain, France and the Netherlands – regained their cohesion and strength to meet the Soviet threat in Europe.[47]

Further information, previously not available in Australia, was also received from the 1947 Asian Relations Conference. The Chifley government provided financial and diplomatic support to observers from the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Australian Institute of Political Science to attend the conference, which was initiated by Nehru.  The conference was, as Nehru stated, a landmark event, in which ‘Asia, after a long period of quiescence, has suddenly become important again in world affairs’.[48] Reports from various discussion groups, drawn up by Asian experts in their fields provided the Australian government with a ‘representative section of “Asian informed opinion upon Asian problems”’.[49]  They indicated the ‘direction that policy in Asia would take if the major nationalist Southeast Asian movements were to attain power’.[50]

At the conference, imperialism was condemned, together with a demand for the ‘total withdrawal’ of the old European colonial powers from Asia. [51] In addition, throughout the 1947 conference, the Australian observers had also detected an ‘undercurrent of distrust of Russia’,[52] which, together with the United States, was one of the ‘nascent Imperialisms’ to be avoided.[53] This mistrust ‘challenged the view that Russian influence and communist agitation were the driving forces behind Asian nationalist movements’. These reports would undoubtedly have ‘informed and supported’ Chifley in his resolve to back the Indonesian nationalists in their struggle against the Dutch.[54]

As a result of the attendance of observers from the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Australian Institute of Political Science at the Asian Relations Conference, the Department of External Affairs received a ‘steady bombardment of cables, Rapporteurs’Reports and newspaper articles’ from the office of the Australian High Commissioner in New Delhi.[55] These rapporteurs’ reports, which were drawn up by  Asian experts, provided expert opinion on Asian problems.[56] The observers’ report and the reports received from the conference provided invaluable intelligence about Australia’s region.

In 1948, the Chifley government again asked Macmahon Ball to lead a Goodwill Mission to Southeast Asia. Ball’s report confirmed many of the observations from the previous 1947 Asian Relations Conference, recording a ‘deep-rooted and passionate nationalism’ that was ‘the main driving force in every country he visited’.[57] Prime Minister Chifley’s response to this report was that he was ‘particularly interested in the conclusions [Ball had] reached, as they appeared to confirm his more casual observations when he passed through the area’.[58] The intelligence gathered by the missions to Batavia and to Southeast Asia, and from the Asian Relations Conference, would have confirmed Chifley’s view that nationalism was the driving force of the unrest in Asia. Chifley’s understanding of the new conditions existing in Asia was a direct consequence of the significant intelligence gained through his government’s use of non-partisan experts such as William Macmahon Ball and the observers sent to the Asian Relations Conference by the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Australian Institute of Political Science.

What is the broader legacy of Chifley’s prescience in relation to Indonesia and other former Asian colonies? How might events have played out in Indonesia, for example, if Robert Menzies, leader of the newly formed Liberal Party, had been prime minister?

Chifley’s early views on the situation in Indonesia and the possibility of conflict between the Dutch and the Indonesian nationalists were revealed in an off-the-record conversation with journalists in October 1945, when he accused the Dutch of ‘opportunistic realism’, in their campaign to regain their Netherlands East Indies colony following the end of World War II. He stated bluntly that their policy ‘evidently was to allow’ the allies ‘to do the reconquest and then step in and resume possession’. Chifley told the journalists that information the Commonwealth had gained regarding Indonesia, indicated that the spirit of revolt against the Dutch was deep seated and enthusiastic. It was a real independence movement but so far as he was aware there was no communist inspiration behind it. He declared that, ‘Australia would not send troops to participate in a civil war in the Indies’. Furthermore, ‘public opinion would not be likely to tolerate such a project if it were mooted’.[59]

In September 1945, very early in his prime ministership, Chifley rejected a Netherlands request to accommodate, maintain and train 30,000 Dutch troops in Western Australia. These troops would have been deployed to the Netherlands East Indies against the Indonesian republicans.[60] In the words of the Netherlands Minister to Australia, Baron Van Aerssen, the Australian government’s rejection of the proposal would ‘completely upset’ the Netherlands’ ‘military preparations’.[61] Chifley’s decision was vehemently opposed by Robert Menzies, leader of the Opposition.[62] Menzies claimed there would be many ‘positive advantages’ if Dutch troops were stationed in Western Australia. ‘The warm reception of these troops would promote close mutual goodwill with the N.E.I. which was of first importance’, he said.[63] The Australian media, also accused the government of ‘Cold Shouldering An Ally’.[64] The prime minister, however, withstood pressure from both the media and the Opposition to reverse his decision.

The next year, in August 1946, Chifley also rejected the Royal Netherlands Navy’s request that Australia supply ‘munitions and base facilities to support naval operations in the NEI’. As Chifley noted in a letter to Evatt—who was overseas at the time—that, in essence, the government was being asked for permission to base a small Dutch fleet in Australia. The request was denied on the basis that ‘the Dutch were not making a bone fide effort to negotiate a peaceful settlement and that if Australia facilitated the building up of Dutch military strength under these conditions we might well stir up lasting resentment amongst the Indonesians’. [65]

In July 1947 and December 1948, the Dutch launched military attacks against the Indonesian Republic. Australia, together with India, supported the republicans by referring the conflict to the United Nations Security Council in 1947. This was the start of a combined effort ‘by two smaller powers, Australia and India’, to rally the United Nations in support of the ‘beleaguered Indonesian Republic’.[66] The Chifley government’s actions were opposed, however, by Britain and the United States,[67] and again criticised by Menzies as the ‘very ecstasy of suicide’, that Australia, ‘a country isolated in the world, with a handful of people, a white man’s country’ – should take sides against a former Dutch ally.[68] In December 1948, Chifley issued a press statement that condemned the Dutch offensive [69] and Australia charged the Netherlands with carrying out the first outright violation of the United Nations Charter.[70] The Security Council’s response was weak and ineffectual, calling for a cease-fire, rather than a withdrawal of Dutch troops. This led India’s Prime Minister Nehru to propose a New Delhi conference in January 1949. Australia was invited to attend. The conference would ‘provide regional support for the Indonesian Republic’s cause and discuss the Indonesian-Dutch conflict’.[71]

Australia’s attendance was criticised by the Australian press, and public concern was ‘fanned further’ by Menzies, who ‘argued that Australia should not take sides against the European colonial powers and furthermore, Australia was … the “only Government outside Asia attending the conference”’.[72] The conference proved to be highly successful, however, and very productive, with participants working constructively together. The relationships formed there, augured well for future co-operation between Australia and India. The ‘display of Asian unity’ and the ‘world-wide media attention’ that the conference received, exerted pressure on the United States, which previously had been much more concerned to keep its European allies on side and saw Asia not on its own terms, but through the Cold War filter of US-Soviet relations. Because of American popular support for the republicans, United States policy became much more supportive of the Indonesians.[73] And just over four years after the declaration of the Republic, Indonesia would achieve its independence.[74]

AW Stargardt selected and arranged the collection of Chifley’s speeches, Things Worth Fighting For: Speeches by J.B. Chifley, first published in 1952. He regarded Chifley with ‘boundless admiration and trust’,[75] and provides some fascinating insights into Chifley and his government’s foreign policy-making towards Asia. In his study of Australia’s Asian policies published in 1977,[76] Stargardt wrote that the Indonesian nationalists’ fight for independence against the Dutch, presented a major challenge for the Chifley government in the post-war period. The government was ‘faced with the alternatives of supporting the restoration of the colonial power, or of giving the Indonesians a chance’. He argued that the Chifley government’s ‘far-sighted decisions’ and ‘independent Asian policy … reflected historical foresight and moral courage of a high order’, enabling them to forge bonds with their Asian neighbours. [77]

There is no doubt that the Indonesian republicans would have continued to resist the Dutch. In 1945, in his ‘Report on N.E.I’, William Macmahon Ball had written, that, in his opinion, if no settlement was reached, ‘nationalist resentment would grow in strength and we would be faced with the prospect of a long civil war in Java’.[78]  Similarly, distinguished Department of External Affairs diplomat, Tom Critchley, who was stationed in Indonesia and played an important role in the Republic’s journey to independence, also said in an interview in November 1993, in words that echoed sentiments expressed by Macmahon Ball and Stargardt, that if there had been no settlement, the Indonesian Republicans would have continued their guerilla campaign against the Dutch. He believed that the Indonesians would have defeated the Dutch in the end, but the subsequent struggle would have meant a great loss of life. ‘The struggle in Indonesia could well have developed along lines similar to what happened in Indochina with heavy loss of human life and much suffering’.[79]

In his study of Australia’s Asian policies, Stargardt asked a ‘searching question’; and that was, what if Menzies had been in power during this period?

Where might the conservative alternative have led? Would military support for the Dutch attempt at colonial restoration in Indonesia have had a chance of success, or, would it have led to an unwinnable war, unimaginable in its proportions and incalculable in its consequences? [80]

Stargardt went on to say that, ‘The Vietnam war presents sobering analogies’. [81]

What do you think contemporary politicians could learn from Ben Chifley, in terms of both his political persona, and his policies?

AW Stargardt wrote that Chifley had a sense of the ‘emergent future which was ever in his mind’.[82] He understood that momentous change was occurring in the post-war world—that the old colonial order was ending. He realised the need to adjust government policy to these new circumstances to ensure the future prosperity and secu­rity of Australia. In Opposition, he revealed his sense of ‘the emergent future’[83] when he reflected on the reasons his government had supported the Indonesian nationalists in their battle to win freedom from the Dutch. As he said in parliament, ‘in the long view— looking 40 or 50 years ahead’, it was ‘essential’ that friendly relations were developed between the peoples of Australia and Indonesia. For that reason, Australia had referred the Indonesian–Dutch conflict to the United Nations. As a result, Indonesia was now experiencing a ‘degree of harmony’.[84]

Present day politicians could learn a great deal from Chifley and his sense of the ‘emergent future’ and the need to look 40 to 50 years ahead when developing foreign policy. Contemporary politicians could also learn the importance of nation-building, rather than nation destruction as in the invasion of Iraq.

What lessons can we learn today from Chifley’s understanding of processes such as decolonisation and nationalism?

Because of his receptiveness to ‘new ideas and to the impact of new conditions’, [85] Chifley developed a far-sighted vision of Australia’s future. This meant that he and his government took a bold new approach to Australian foreign policy. As Chifley stated in his ‘Report to the Nation’ on 21 November 1948, Australia was ‘directly concerned with the great region of Asia and the Far East’. But this was ‘not the Asia of pre-war days’, but an Asia in which newly independent states had been estab­lished. It was an ‘Asia in which vigorous nationalism is bringing new changes almost every day’.[86] Chifley understood that the government needed to adapt to the impact of new conditions such as the decolonisation of the Asian world and the rise of Asian nationalism. The government also understood that living conditions needed to improve in Asia and rejected the Cold War framework through which change in post-war Asia was viewed by the American and British governments.[87]


[1] Donald Kilgour Rodgers interviewed by Mel Pratt, 29 April 1971, National Library of Australia (hereafter NLA): ORAL TRC 121/14, pp. 23-24.

[2] FW Eggleston, Reflections of an Australian Liberal, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1953, p. 82.

[3] Christine de Matos, Imposing Peace and Prosperity: Australia, Social Justice and Labour Reform in Occupied Japan, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2008, p. 34.

[4] Eggleston, Reflections of an Australian Liberal, p. 255.

[5] ‘The Leadership of Mr. Chifley—Strong Influence On Party’, Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 14 June 1951, page 2.

[6] Harold Breen, ‘JB Chifley’, Twentieth Century, Autumn 1974, p. 239.

[7] Alan Reid interviewed by Mal Pratt, 1972–1973, NLA: ORAL TRC 121/40, p. 79.

[8] Ibid., p. 78.

[9] Letter, JB Chifley to JJ Dedman, 15 December 1943. Papers of LF Crisp, NLA: MS 5243, Series 5, Folder 1.

[10] HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs, interviewed by Robin Hughes, Tape 4, 23 January 1992.

[11] Greg Whitwell, The Treasury Line, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney,1986, p. 22.

[12] David Day, Chifley, HarperCollins, Pymble, Sydney, 2001, p. x.

[13] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, (hereafter CPD, HoR), 20 March 1947, p. 1002.

[14] Issued by the Prime Minister (Mr. Chifley), ‘Bretton Woods’, n.d., p. 8. National Archives of Australia (hereafter NAA): M448, 120.

[15] ‘Macquarie Fight—Declaration of Poll’, National Advocate (Bathurst, NSW), 9 January 1932, p. 2.

[16] ‘World Problems’, National Advocate, 19 October 1932, p. 2.

[17] CPD, HoR, 2 September 1948, p. 64.

[18] CPD, HoR, 20 March 1947, p. 1003.

[19] Ibid., p. 63.

[20] JB Chifley, ‘Reconstruction After the War’, The Institute of Public Administration, Vol. III, No. 3, September 1941, p. 103.

[21] Minutes of Meetings of Dominion Prime Ministers, London 1946, 9th Meeting, 1 May 1946, p. 3, in NAA: A5954, 258/2.

[22] DB Waterson, ‘Chifley, Joseph Benedict (Ben) (1885-1951)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 1993, p. 417.

[23] ‘World Problems’, National Advocate (Bathurst, NSW), 19 October 1932.

[24] JB Chifley, ‘Clear Cut Decisions’, address to the federal ALP conference, Canberra, 2 March 1951, in Things Worth Fighting For: Speeches by Joseph Benedict Chifley, selected and arranged by AW Stargardt, Australian Labor Party, Melbourne, 1953, p. 369.

[25] CPD, HoR, 2 September 1948, p. 67.

[26] CPD, HoR, 27 September 1950, p. 24.

[27] Ibid., p. 26.

[28] ibid., p. 11.

[29] David Lowe, Menzies and the ‘Great World Struggle’: Australia’s Cold War 1948-1954, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1999, p. 20.

[30] CPD, HoR, 27 September 1950, p. 22.

[31] Meg Gurry, India: Australia’s Neglected Neighbour? 1947-1996, Centre for the Study of Australia-Asia Relations, Griffith, Queensland, p. 4.

[32] ‘Leadership of Mr. Chifley—Strong Influence on Party’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 June 1951, p. 2.

[33] de Matos, Imposing Peace & Prosperity, p. 31.

[34] Digest of [Commonwealth Government] decisions and announcements, and important speeches by the Prime Minister (The Rt Hon J B Chifley) No. 144, (hereafter DDA), ‘Report to the Nation’, 29 May 1949, p. 14, NAA: B5459, 144.

[35] Barry Jones, A Thinking Reed, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2008, p. 143.

[36] Julie Suares, ‘Engaging with Asia: the Chifley Government and the New Delhi Conferences of 1947 and 1949’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 57, No. 4, December 2011, p. 510.

[37] Donald Kilgour Rodgers interviewed by Mel Pratt, 1971, NLA, pp. 22–24.

[38] Ai Kobayashi, W. Macmahon Ball: Politics for the People, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, Vic., 2013, p. 46.

[39] In Canberra Today’, Cairns Post, 31 May 1948, p. 5.

[40] JE Isaac, ‘The Macmahon Ball Mission November 1945’, in John Legge (ed.), New Directions in Australian Foreign Policy: Australia and Indonesia 1945-50, Monash Asia Institute, Clayton, Vic., 1997, p. 21.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Cablegram 12, Ball to Burton, 17 November 1945, WS Hudson and Wendy Way, (eds), Documents on Australian Foreign Policy, Vol. VIII, (hereafter DAFP), Australian Government Publishing Service, (hereafter AGPS), Canberra, 1991, p. 620.

[43] Memorandum, Ball to Burton, 22 November 1945, in ibid., pp. 628-629.

[44] Letter from Macmahon Ball to Kylie Tennant quoted in Kylie Tennant, Evatt: Politics and Justice, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1970, p. 200.

[45] Kobayashi, W. Macmahon Ball: Politics for the People, p. 77.

[46] Grew (Acting Secretary of State) to Stimson (Secretary of War), Washington, June 28, 1945, p. 573, in United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: diplomatic papers 1945. The British Commonwealth, the Far East, (hereafter FRUS), Volume VI, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1945.

[47] Ibid. pp. 557-558.

[48] Asian Relations: being Report of the Proceedings and Documentation of the First Asian Relations Conference, New Delhi, March-April, 1947, Asian Relations Organization, New Delhi, 1948, p. 21.

[49] Gerald Packer, ‘The Asian Relations Conference: The Group Discussions’, Australian Outlook, Vol. 1, No. 2, June 1947, p. 4.

[50] Suares, ‘Engaging with Asia’, p. 509.

[51] G. Packer and J. A McCallum, ‘‘Australian Observers Report on Asian-relations Conference, New Delhi, March 1947’, prepared for submission to Commonwealth Council; Australian Institute of International Affairs; and the Board of Directors, Australian Institute of Political Science, p.17, in NAA: A1068, M47/9/6/15 Part 3.

[52] ibid., p. 26.

[53] ibid., p. 11.

[54] Suares, ‘Engaging with Asia’, p. 502.

[55] Ibid., pp.501-502.

[56] Ibid., p. 502.

[57] W. Macmahon Ball, ‘Report on a Mission to East Asia: May 27 – July 6, 1948’, 27 July 1948, DAFP, Vol. XIV, pp. 313-314.

[58] Letter, Burton to Ball, 9 August 1948, NAA: A1838, 381/1/3/1.

[59] Harold Cox Reports, 12 October 1945, NLA: MS 4554, Folder 2: 1945–1947.

[60] David Lee, ‘Indonesia’s Independence’, in David Goldsworthy, (ed.), Facing North: A Century of Australian Engagement with Asia Volume 1: 1901 to the 1970s, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 2001, p. 145.

[61] Letter. Van Aerssen to Chifley, 10 August 1945, NAA: A5954, 562/3.

[62] Christopher Thorne, Allies of a Kind: the United States, Britain and the war against Japan, 1941-1945, Hamilton, London, 1978, p. 648. Thorne cites Aust. NAA: A816,19/305/114 and NAA: A989/735/306.

[63] ‘Many Advantages If Dutch Troops Came – Mr Menzies’, The Herald, 4 August 1945, NAA: 5954, 562/3.

[64] ‘Cold Shouldering An Ally’, The Herald, 8 August 1945, NAA: A5954, 562/3.

[65] Cablegram P146, Chifley to Evatt, ‘Indonesia’, 12 August 1946, in W.J. Hudson & Wendy Way, (eds.), DAFP, Volume X: July – December 1946, AGPS, Canberra, 1993, pp. 114-115.

[66] David Lee, ‘Indonesia’s Independence’, in Goldsworthy, (ed.), Facing North, p. 154.

[67] ibid., pp. 152-155.

[68] CPD, HoR, 24 September 1947, p.179.

[69] Press Statement by Chifley, 21 December 1948, Philip Dorling & David Lee, (eds.), DAFP 1937-49, Volume XIII: Indonesia 1948, p.461.

[70] Margaret George, Australia and the Indonesian Revolution, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1980, p. 124.

[71] Cablegram 1, Australian High Commissioner in New Delhi to DEA, 1 January, 1949, NAA: A1838, 383/1/2/5.

[72] Suares, ‘Engaging With Asia’, p. 505.

[73] T.K. Critchley, ‘View from the Good Offices Committee’, in John Legge (ed.), New Directions in Australian Foreign Policy, p. 71.

[74] David Lee, ‘Indonesia’s Independence’, in Goldsworthy, (ed.), Facing North, p. 169.

[75] Letter, Wolfgang S [Stargardt] to Professor Crawford, 8 March 1951, University of Melbourne Archives: Papers of R.M. Crawford, 91/113, Box 22, Series 7, Item 87, Correspondence with former students and members of staff, 1952 – 1953.

[76] A.W. Stargardt. Australia’s Asian Policies: The History of a Debate 1839-1972, The Institute of Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1977.

[77] ibid., pp. 212-13.

[78] Ball to Dunk, ‘Report on NEI”, 17 December 1945, DAFP, Volume VIII, pp. 721-722.

[79] T.K. Critchley, Interviewed by Michael Wilson for the Australian diplomacy 1950 – 1990 oral history project, 25 November 1993, NLA: TRC 2981/7, p. 16.

[80] Stargardt. Australia’s Asian Policies p. 281.

[81] ibid.

[82] AW Stargardt, ‘Introduction’, in Things Worth Fighting For, p. 9.

[83] Ibid.

[84] CPD, HoR, 23 March 1950, p. 1176.

[85] JDB Miller, ‘Reviews. Ben Chifley: A Biography. By LF Crisp’, Historical Studies: Australia and New Zealand, vol. 10, no. 39, 1962, p. 381.

[86] ‘Asia and the Far East’, Report to the Nation by the Prime Minister, No. 11, 21 November 1948. NAA: A1838, 380/1/9.

[87] Lowe, Menzies and the ‘Great World Struggle’, p. 14.



Julie Suares completed her PhD—‘An Ardent Internationalist: Ben Chifley and the New World Order’—at Deakin University, which was awarded in October 2015. From 2002 to 2014, she worked part-time as an electorate officer for the former member for Ripon who was the state Minister for Agriculture and Small Business in the Bracks and Brumby governments. Julie has been a consultant for Primary Skills Victoria, the industry training board for agriculture. She has also worked as a library technician, farmhand, shearers’ cook and teacher. Julie’s book JB Chifley: An Ardent Internationalist will be published by Melbourne University Publishing in March 2019.