home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Ben Chifley: The Unremembered Internationalist

Launch of Julie Suares, J.B.Chifley: An Ardent Internationalist (Melbourne University Press, 2019), Melbourne, 14 May 2019

I plead guilty. I am one of those who – in all my years of speaking and writing about Australian foreign policy and the seminal contributions made by various Labor political leaders to an enlarged view of Australia’s role in the region and the wider world – have never fully understood, and have certainly never properly acknowledged, the role in this respect of our 16th Prime Minister, from 1945- 49, Joseph Benedict Chifley.

I certainly haven’t been alone in seeing not Ben Chifley, but his predecessor John Curtin, as having made the most distinctive and important prime ministerial contribution to our foreign policy evolution in the 1940s, with his famous wartime speech in 1941 – ‘Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom’. This did show us for the first time capable of addressing a fundamental issue about our place in the world other than reflexively, instinctively and dependently as a member of the British Empire.

And, while all foreign ministers do have a natural tendency – of varying degrees of uncontrollability – to talk up their own role vis-à-vis their prime ministers, in those supremely important early post-War years when Chifley was Prime Minister, I certainly haven’t been alone in seeing his Minister for External Affairs, Dr HV ‘Doc’ Evatt, as overwhelmingly the most important driver of Australia’s international relations.

As I said, for example, in my ANU Manning Clark Lecture in 2011:

The creation of an Australian foreign policy really came only with Evatt, whose most striking contribution was his internationalism – his very real commitment to the building of cooperative multilateral institutions and processes to address both security and development objectives. His contribution to the founding of the United Nations is the stuff of which legends are made, and rightly so – especially in his fight for the rights of the smaller powers against the great powers in the respective roles of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and in his faith in the UN as an agent for social and economic reform and as a protector of human rights. No previous Australian leader had anything like Evatt’s passion for cooperative internationalism, nor anything like his success in creating practical foundations for it.

I did acknowledge in that lecture, as I have elsewhere, that Chifley’s role was at least as important as Evatt’s on the particular issue of Australia’s support for Indonesia’s independence struggle against the Dutch. I made the point that this was the closest we had ever come until then to ‘understanding the new forces at work in our region, and our need to reposition ourselves accordingly’, albeit having to add the rider that this ‘never became, however, a sustaining or dominant theme in our foreign policy at the time, and it certainly did not become one in the conservative era that followed, from 1949 to 1972.’

Of course I have always fully understood and applauded Chifley’s other achievements in government, and as one of our really greatest and most visionary Prime Ministers – so much so that I once persuaded my family to name a particularly beloved cat after him! Who of us in the Labor movement could ever forget his ‘light on the hill’ speech in 1949: ‘We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand’.

He was a brilliantly successful and universally respected wartime Treasurer under Curtin, and was brilliant both in that role and as Prime Minister in leading post-war reconstruction: overseeing the dramatic expansion of the welfare state, and big nation-building initiatives like the mass immigration program and the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme, not to mention the establishment of the Australian National University. His tough handling of the 1949 coal miners’ strike lost him some support in the movement, and his judgement unquestionably deserted him on bank nationalisation, but his revered place in the Labor Pantheon remains justly secure.

These are the achievements on which, until now, all of Chifley’s major biographers have concentrated – L.F. ‘Fin’ Crisp in his seminal work, D.B. Waterson in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and more recently David Day. They all write about him as essentially a domestic figure, overwhelmingly engaged with local issues, and only marginally interested in international relations. It’s not surprising under these circumstances that the understanding of his role that I and so many others have had until now is as limited and one-dimensional as I have described it.

The great achievement of Julie Suares in this book is to credibly paint a much fuller and more rounded picture of Chifley as an internationalist. An ‘ardent’ nationalist indeed: well-read on international affairs from his earliest adult years; much better travelled before he came into office than previously recognised; much more intellectually engaged than previously acknowledged in international issues throughout his years in government – and not just trade issues, although those were his central focus at the beginning; and much more directly influential – playing much more of a leadership role - in many areas of foreign policy formulation and implementation than has previously been acknowledged.

The most stunning single revelation to me was that in the early 1930s, after he had lost his seat in Parliament with the defeat of the Scullin Government, he made a quiet trip on a cargo boat to Indonesia, and possibly India as well. In his words to Peter Ryan quoted here, this was ‘just to see what was going on in these parts’. In particular he had been appalled at the near-slavery working conditions on the docks at Batavia (modern-day Jakarta), saying to Ryan ‘I said to myself then that if ever a time came I’d do all I could for those poor buggers’. Which of course he did with his strong support for the Indonesian nationalists against the Dutch in 1945-46, leading and not following Evatt in this respect, as Julie documents. This was the high-point of Australia’s early relations with Asia and a strongly positive foundation for our bilateral relationship with Indonesia to this day.

Chifley’s trip was not unknown to his previous major biographers, but none of them put any evident effort into untangling different versions of its date and precise locations, none of them seemed to appreciate its significance, and Fin Crisp did not think it worth mentioning at all! To me it’s hard to see how this voyage was not a crucial formative influence, certainly for Chifley’s attitude to decolonisation generally – where, as Julie thoroughly documents, he always refused to conflate Asian nationalism with communist agitation (something later Australian governments conspicuously failed to do at least until the 1970s).

It’s also hard to believe that his voyage to India, if he did indeed go there as well as to Indonesia, had nothing at all to do with Chifley’s very real friendship with Nehru, and with his determined support at the 1949 Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference – which owed nothing to Evatt’s support, and was against great opposition in London – for newly independent India’s admission to the Commonwealth notwithstanding its status as a Republic owing no allegiance to the Crown. The nature and extent of Chifley’s feeling for India is beautifully captured in the last interview he ever did, on the afternoon of the day he died in June 1951, with a visiting senior Indian journalist – recorded at length, to set the scene for the rest of the book, in Julie’s opening chapter.

Beyond Indonesia and India, Chifley – on the evidence meticulously compiled here – played a leading role in advocating a non-punitive approach towards the peace settlement with Japan, and the critical need to support that country’s economic reconstruction; in adopting an extremely measured approach toward the onset of the Cold War and the European fear of the communist Soviet Union, including resisting the proposal for a ‘Western Union’ alliance directed against it, particularly if it included the then profoundly undemocratic states of Greece and Spain; and in his full-throated support, over the resistance of many of his parliamentary colleagues, for Australia joining from the outset the new multilateral Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF and World Bank.

None of Chifley’s interest in international affairs through his time in high office came out of the blue. As the author here shows, it was born of many years of reading and writing and speaking about these issues, not least in the many articles he wrote, and the many speeches he made – often to very local audiences – that were recorded in the Bathurst daily newspaper, the National Advocate, on whose Board Chifley sat from 1922 onwards. Those speeches – published in full for posterity in a way that would be inconceivable today in what is left of the mainstream press, let alone a provincial city paper – are a treasure trove for a historian and biographer, and Julie Suares has here mined them to the full.

Faced with the reality that has frustrated earlier biographies – that Chifley left so little of a paper trail in his ministerial, and especially personal, papers, the latter of which he regularly burned (with his wife finishing the job after he died) – Julie has relied heavily on these published speeches and articles in a way that no previous writer has troubled to do. And the result, in revealing just how much over so many years Chifley had thought about and formed clear views about international issues, is really eye-opening.

What comes through above all else is how much of his interest and concern for foreign relations was based not on realpolitik-driven concerns about Australian, or Western, security protection or trade advantage, but a strong sense of our common humanity – the inherent decency and dignity and need to be respected individually of human beings everywhere, whatever their colour, caste or creed.

Of course that sits uncomfortably with Chifley’s continuing reflex support for the White Australia policy, but what can be said at least partially in his defence is not just that he was a man, and politician, of his time. He did make clear, as Julie quotes him, that in his view ‘the Australian nation did not and does not feel superior to nations of non-European people’, and that the reasons for a restricted immigration policy were ‘economic not racial’.

How much does all this demonstration of Chifley’s internationalism require us to fundamentally rethink his place in Australian history? Maybe, in the view of one or two professional historians I have asked about this, not all that much. None of the material in Julie’s book, it was put to me, was really completely previously unknown. And while it rounds out some aspects of Chifley’s life and career that could, and maybe should, have been given more attention in earlier biographies, his overwhelming contribution remains in the domestic political sphere and it is by both the highs and lows of that dimension of his career that he will be overwhelmingly remembered.

My own judgement is that this kind of response is just too defensive of long-received historical wisdom, and does not do justice to the very new spotlight that Julie has thrown on Chifley’s life and career. Ben Chifley does deserve to be remembered not just for his Australian domestic legacy but his internationalism.

As well as supporting everything Evatt did to help create the United Nations, he saw the need for multilateral financial institutions so stabilize the global financial system and encourage development. He saw the need to rebuild rather than punish the wartime defeated. He saw the need for a free and open global trading system. He saw with enormous clarity the forces that were stirring in the world, not least in our own region – decolonisation, and nationalism at least as much as communism – and the need to respond to them not fearfully, but cooperatively and constructively.

Julie Suares has done us all a great service in bringing all this out, giving us a very full appreciation of the breadth and depth of Ben Chifley’s humanity and commitment. She has been ably and professionally assisted in this enterprise by Melbourne University Press – as always in the past, and in a way we hope will continue in the future, with books of interest to the general reader. I have much pleasure in declaring this major new contribution to Australian history, and Labor history, duly launched.