Member of the Privy Council (1945)

13 July 1945 — 19 December 1949 4 years, 160 days

Ben Chifley became Australia's 16th prime minister after being elected leader of the Australian Labor Party, following the death of John Curtin earlier in July 1945.


22 September 1885
Bathurst, New South Wales


13 June 1951
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory


Elizabeth Chifley


Australian Labor Party

Photo: News Ltd/Newspix

13 July 1945 — 19 December 1949 4 years, 160 days


Ben Chifley provided Australia with a reassuring figure in the immediate post-war reconstruction period. He had an unvarnished charm that allowed him to connect with ordinary people and world leaders alike. Herbert Coombs, his chief economic adviser, referred to Chifley’s homespun advice as ‘Chifforisms’. 

Ben Chifley standing in front of a new car surrounded by people.

Photo: News Ltd/Newspix

At an early age Chifley went to work as a labourer in primitive conditions on his grandfather’s farm and received only limited education. He joined the New South Wales Railways becoming the youngest engine driver in the state.

Chifley was active in his union, leading him to stand for the seat of Macquarie in 1925. He was unsuccessful, but stood again in 1928 and won. With the election of the Scullin Labor government he became Minister for Defence. Chifley lost his seat in the 1931 landslide loss that swept Scullin from office and he did not regain Macquarie until 1940.

Chifley was a capable administrator and planner who aimed to secure economic stability, full employment and social justice for his fellow Australians. Chifley lost the election in 1949 after misreading the mood of the electorate in relation to issues such as petrol rationing and bank nationalisation.

He stayed on as opposition leader and contested the 1951 election, which Labor lost. On 15 June 1951 he suffered a fatal heart attack. Chifley, along with John Curtin, remains a Labor Party hero for his embodiment of traditional party values.  


360° VIEW


Chifley won the 1946 election with a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives and a landslide in the Senate. This favourable parliamentary situation allowed him virtually free reign to continue, as prime minister, the reformist economic and social legislative program that he had begun as treasurer in the Curtin government.

The vast numbers of returned servicemen were provided with access to preferential employment where available and, if not, to vocational training and tailored unemployment benefits. The Australian National University was established, followed by a university scholarships scheme. The Hospital Benefits Act was extended to provide the States with subsidies to provide free public ward treatment.

The Commonwealth Employment Service was created and an ambitious immigration program commenced. This provided workers for what was to become Australia’s largest construction project in the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. The setbacks to Chifley’s legislative agenda mainly came from outside the Parliament, in the form of the High Court challenges to the banking controls and pharmaceutical benefits scheme proposals.

Ben Chifley walking with a pipe in his mouth and a coat over his arm.

Photo: Fairfax

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