Mini-Series: The True Believers
The Labours of St Benedict: The Chifley Labor Government and the Australian Working Class

Drew Cottle

The Miracles of St. Benedict at Fleury tell of a certain Adelard who persisted in mistreating peasants on monastic lands. Once he stole something from a woman who then ran to the saints’ church. There she threw back the altar cloths and began striking the altar crying to the saint, “Benedict, you sluggard, you sloth, what are you doing? Why do you sleep? Why do you allow your servant to be treated so?”
Stephen Wilson (ed.) Saints and their Cults (Cambridge Uni Press, 1983).

It is unlikely that St. Benedict Chifley of the Australian Labor Party will ever suffer the blows or demands meted out to his miraculous namesake. After his death in 1951 Ben Chifley, Labor Prime Minister was finally canonised in print by Finn Crisp.1 Bob Ellis the screenwriter of the political soap opera, ‘The True Believers’ simply modernised and simplified Crisp’s image of Holy Ben. Barely a criticism was made of Chifley’s deification by television, not withstanding Edgar Ross’s spirited repudiation of his own character assassination at the hands of the Chifley- worshipping Ellis.2

Chifley remains a legend for many of the Labor faithful. Not a harsh word or a clenched fist has been raised against Chif. Only secular hosannahs are permitted. And the present Australian Labor Presidente, when stung by criticism of his corporate policies argues forcefully that such policies follow the great Labor traditions of Curtin and Chifley.3 A resounding silence is thus achieved. In the age of disposable political ideas and the ‘blackhole history’ of television, utterance of the name of St. Benedict silences all dissent – for St. Benedict ruled in the Golden Age of Labor, long ago.

If Chifley is to remain a Labour saint and his works miracles, we should abandon critical thought and pray. Genuflection to past Labor idols and to themselves is a position many contemporary right thinking Labor leaders would prefer of the governed. Perhaps it is thought they will achieve a saintly aura by likening their deeds to the Labor saviours, St. John and St. Benedict. Rather than intoning the homilies “of things worth fighting for” and “the light on the hill” we should investigate Chifley’s station on Labor’s cross with the eye of the infidel. Such an examination requires a suspension of belief in the past and present miracle-makers of Labor.4 We need a steady concentration on the earthly differences between the collective Adelards of capital and the waged serfs during the Chifley age. St Benedict and his labours can only be understood within the context of the class struggles of those sacred years. By adopting this method of inquiry, we can scrutinise the saint, his miracles and their relationship to the material lives of those who toiled. To do otherwise is to lay prostrate in a could of unknowing, either awaiting the return of St. Benedict of Bathurst or seeing his likeness in a contemporary Labor saint, the Prime Minister.5

Our historical overview will be as brief as St. Benedict’s three years in the Canberra Vatican. It begins at the death bed of Curtin and ends at Chifley’s own political death in 1949. During this short period the many works of St. Benedict were performed. Our survey will consider those labours for which the saint should always be remembered. ‘Chif’ and his predecessor, Curtin were that part of the Labor sainthood which transformed Australian capitalism under pressure of war. They sought to ‘civilise’ the land of Adelard, to give it a human face. Their saintliness was in the service of ‘the national interest.’6 Miraculously, they were to simultaneously uphold the interests of the Australian lords and peasantry. It was therefore understandable that neither St. John nor his war-time apostle, S1. Benedict of Labor did not nationalise the lordly monopolies during the Pacific War, even though such a demand had long been part of the Labor liturgy. Nationalisation of the lord’s monopolies was something the peasants soon realised was not in the divine ‘national interest’. Nor, of course, were strikes by disgruntled peasants.

In the three year period, 1945-1947 the Australian Adelards ‘lost’ five and a half million working days to the peasants’ enthusiasm for industrial struggle. Numerous sacrifices had been made by the peasants during the war years and before, in the Great Depression.7 Those who worked the monastic lands were determined to improve their lot rather than await St. Benedict’s enunciation on the verities the ‘national interest.’ Through arbitration, Chifley and lesser Labor immortals at the Federal and State levels resisted the peasant’s demands over better wages, hours and conditions.

In Victoria, the metal trade masters locked out their hands. Pursuing the ‘national interest’, Chifley’s government of wise souls at first offered the metal workers silence and later arbitration. The metalworkers turned a five month lock-out (from late 1946 to early 1947) into a protracted strike and achieved many of their demands. Leading this struggle were Communist union officials, St. Benedict’s’ sworn enemies. Because of their determination and with no support from St. Benedict, workers in the metal industry were able to establish the forty hour working week in 1948. The metal workers’ victory acted as a catalyst for other unions, often led by communists, to fight for an improvement in their material conditions which Chifley’s ministers merely promised or planned.8

St. Benedict and Labor Keynesians saw another Depression ahead. By maintaining their wartime controls over a restive peasantry the ‘national interest’ seemed assured and sound profits achieved for the employing class. Peasants and masters could only be as one in St. Benedict’s beatific vision. In post-war Australia, capital and labour followed their own divergent class interests as the Labor saint and his brethren vainly attempted to administer the monastery in the ‘national interest.’ Never did Labor’s holy man seek to cast the moneylenders from the temple, although according to labor legend he did attempt this drastic action. Such sacrilege would violate the sermons of social democracy, not withstanding Labor’s hatred of ‘the money power.’ Chifley’s battle with the banks was largely legal. Expropriating the cabal of private bankers was not the way of the Labor saint. Mobilisation of the peasants was out of the question and politically dangerous. A jacquerie would encourage the communist heathens and endanger the ‘national interest.’

It was assumed that bankers were above class interest and would accede to reason. Parliamentary cretinism characterised “Chifs” reasoned efforts with the private banks to centralise the monastery’s financial system and make it more efficient.9

Finance capital reacted swiftly to St. Benedict’s pronouncements on their marbled of profitability. Their London headquarters were wired. Money and energy were poured into Menzies’ Liberal Party, that assembly of the ‘forgotten people’ of moderate and immense means. Tellers and bank clerks rallied to the defence of their employer’s profit margins. Petit-bourgeois Australia formed its “citizen’s committees,” tired of Labor’s restrictions and swore to save the banks from the saint’s madness. 10

Chifley’s response was a series of legal pirouettes performed by Evatt in the High Court and later in the Privy Council. Actively campaigning amongst the working class was never countenanced by the former engine-driver who had seen the devastating results of the bank’s power in the depressions of the 1890’s and the 1930’s. In fact, Chifley never sought to destroy the banking system. Centralisation and efficiency were his twin goals although the reaction he provoked suggested an attempted nationalisation. Never has a Labor saint been more misunderstood.11

A similar lesson can be drawn from St Benedict’s constitutional efforts to achieve a national health scheme. Protracted negotiations on this issue had begun between Chifley and the doctor’s professional body, the British Medical Association, as early as 1944. St Benedict saw the need to modernise the practice of medicine under Australian capitalism. It required a complex and efficient system administered at the Federal level to meet national goals.12

The doctors, like the bankers, saw their class interests threatened by Chifley’s meddling altruism. Despite “Chif’s” tempo rising and continuing willingness to compromise, the doctors rejected his plans for a national medical scheme, principally because it impinged on their small business interests. They damned St. Benedict’s scheme as the harbinger of ‘socialised medicine.’ It was deemed to be a fundamental threat to their relationship with their patients.

Chifley waited in vain for the medical profession to live out their Hippocratic oath as the promise of a national health scheme was lost in the legal arguments of the High Court. Upholding the chimera of his national health idea, “Chif’ allowed the doctors to pursue their own class interests. This denied the working class, who comprised the vast majority of their patients, the opportunity to decide the administration of their own health care.13

Before the present Labor prime Minister made the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (A.S.I.O.) ‘publicly accountable’ and promptly set it off along ‘the Ivanov trail’ the secret political police had always been anti-working class and anti-Labor. Yet A.S.I.O. owes its existence to Chifley. During the Pacific War, American imperialism superseded its British counterpart as the dominant political power in Australia. Despite some prevarication and pretence at adopting an independent stand, the Curtin and later Chifley Governments quietly acceded to Washington’s demands on Australia’s international and domestic matters.14

When the Americans unleashed their Holy Crusade against ‘international communism’ after Churchill’s ‘iron curtain’ speech in 1946, the broad Labor church of St. Benedict spawned its own messianic sect, the Industrial Groups, who were sworn to cleanse Australia of this Satanic menace. Aiding the “Groupers” in their heroic campaign against ‘the communist fifth column’ were the Catholic elect of B.A. Santamaria’s National Civic Council, the ghostly A.S.LO. and Saint Ben. With crucial differences, they collectively upheld the “American way” as Australia’s future. As the staunchest allies of Cold War America, they carried out an ideological inquisition against not only those few who proclaimed communism but also the many who opposed the tactics of and, the vision of a future Australia under the inquisitors.15

Although Chifley was never a direct inquisitor neither did he oppose their anti-Communist crusade. One of the enduring myths of the Chifley catechism is that “Chif” was an opponent of the anti-Communist Industrial Groups. In fact Chifley was instrumental in the formation of the Australian Labor party’s Industrial Groups. “Chifs Groupers” were established by the Central Executive of the A.L.P. and endorsed at the N.S.W. A.L.P. Conference in late 1945.16 Membership of the Industrial Groups was open even to ‘non-Labor Party members in N.S.W.’ and replicated later in the other states. “The Grouper’s” fight against communism was funded by many employer groups, the National Civic Council, the A.L.P. Central Executive and according to Robert Murray’ American government officials’. 17

With St. Benedict’s blessing “the Grouper’s” influence quickly spread to the other states. By early 1947, the ‘Groupers” exerted a powerful right wing grip on Victoria’s trade unions, particularly the Australian Railways Union, the Electrical Trades Union and the Federated Clerks’ Union.18

Chifley’s encouragement of the activities of the Industrial Groups found its precedent in a similar enthusiasm for “sensible unionism” nurtured by St. John Curtin. In the early years of the Pacific War Curtin had sought out right-wing trade union officials in the armed forces, exempted them from active service and gave them the task of directing the militant demands of the labour movement into safe trade union channels acceptable to capital.19

Only when Catholic Action, “the Groupers” and A.S.I.O. threatened his own saintly presence in the labour congregation, did “Chif’ display displeasure. If Chifley founded A.S.I.O. to appease the new American overlords and Australia’s former British masters the decision was taken with the complete understanding that the secret political police would always be ready to hound ‘Chifs’ traditional enemies, the Left. Indeed, even before the formation of A.S.I.O. Chifley used legislation passed by non-Labor Governments to attack left-wing activists.

Under the Crimes Act, three leading Communist Party members, including the Party’s General Secretary, Lance Sharkey were prosecuted on charges related to their defence of the Soviet Union. Union officials, often “Groupers” close to Chifley expelled many of the Labor Left and Communists from the Clerk’s and Building Unions and Victoria’s Tramway Union in the late 194O’s.20

Myopia or a saintly naivete cannot explain Chifley’s approval of these actions. Moreover socialists within the Labor Party and without had always been the bane of St. Ben’s political authority.21

Chifley and his elect easily acquiesced in the war against ‘the communist evil’ waged by the Industrial Groups’ A.S.I.O. and the Adelards of commerce and industry. Peasant faith in the man with the pipe began to quickly erode. Small and big capital listened intently to a different faith healer, Robert Gordon Menzies. Corporate America grew concerned about the seeming indecision of their safe Australian Labor Leader. He was not the public anticommunist zealot. He had not co-operated sufficiently in widening the Australian monastery’s portals to American investment and influence. Some within his parish like Eddie Ward and Les Haylen were firm opponents of the open door imperialism of the U.S.A. Their arguments were given little credence in the Chifley Cabinet.22

In the final year of the Chifley Government what had promised to be the road to Labor’s new Order paradise became Chifley’ Golgotha. As 1949 progressed to its fateful Federal election, the forces which St. Benedict had benignly unleashed upon the communist miscreants within the labour movement were to be the architects of his political destruction. Chifley’s confrontation with the enrages of the Miners’ Federation was a move in keeping with the crusade to purge Australia of the communist scourge.

Troops breaking the miners’ strike did not revive Chifley’s ebbing political fortunes. It was an act of desperation from which only Chifley’s erstwhile anti-communist allies could prosper. It was also the acme of the Labor party’s long strike breaking tradition when in office. The 1949 Coal Strike arose out of the mineworkers’ claims for safer working conditions, higher wages and a 35 hour week. Their frustration was borne of exploitation exacerbated by depression and war. An overwhelming majority of miners throughout Australia’s coal mining regions demanded strike action to win these reforms.23

St. Benedict’s opposition to the miner’s struggle was supported by most of his Cab met, the N.S.W. State Labor Government, the A.C.T.U., the parties of Menzies and Fadden and capital unanimously. “Chif”, the humble Labor leader who took his place in cinema queues, displayed only ferocity when dealing with the coalminers. With savage forethought, the Chifley brotherhood drafted the National Emergency (Coal Strike) Act. Hastily it was proclaimed law with too few voices of parliamentary dissent and too many abstentions.

As a weapon of repression, the Coal Strike Act was immaculate. It froze the Miner’s Federations funds and those of other unions which offered assistance. It gaoled seven communist and two labor strike leaders, legitimised the ransacking of the Communist Party’s Sydney offices and sent over one thousand Australian Army engineers, drivers and footsoldiers to work and guard two open-cut coalmines in N.S.W.24

Such measures demoralised the miners and effectively broke the coal strike. It also spelt the doom of the Chifley Government. In a time of intensified class struggle, Chifley’s adherence to the creed of the ‘national interest’ only strengthened the cause of capital. His works were a brake on the militancy of a working class grown tired of poverty, war, rationing, promises and plans. They had made their sacrifices from which the capitalist class throughout the Depression, the War and the post-war period had profited.25 With St. Benedict leading the Labor flock, capital had experienced its ‘golden years’. As Chifley’s hagiographer, Crisp noted, “Under his (Chifley’s) careful handling of its finances the country was flourishing as rarely, if ever, before.”26

As Chifley, the chastened saint, fell a victim of his own good works, the Cold War divided his diocese, anointed R.G. Menzies the patron saint of American investment and ensured capital’s victory over a militant working class. In Cold War Australia no proletarian called for guidance or direction from Chifley. The crying to saints and the striking of their images was left to medieval peasants besotted with mysticism.

Nevertheless, in death “Chif’ achieved ‘greatness’ as a Labor legend, something he had never achieved when Labor leader.27 After nearly a quarter of a century of the Federal Labor Party out of office, Gough Whitlam, at the close of Labor’s successful 1972 campaign In Melbourne invoked the name of Chifley to legitimise his position as Labor leader. To a thunderous ovation Whitlam eulogised ‘the magnificent achievements’ of his predecessor, Ben Chifley. Nothing was remembered except the saintly name, ‘Ben Chifley.’ In the years following the 1975 Constitutional Coup, Whitlam too would join the Labor sainthood. But unlike Chifley, ‘Gough’ was to become a living legend for those who refused to sanctify the hard corporate miracles of the self-appointed Labor saint, Hawke.

Through the passage of time St Robert’s doctrine of hard labor is all too reminiscent of St. Benedict’s. True believers remain the captives of Labor legends. Whatever else, the proletariat will not attain deliverance out of reverence for Labor saints.


  1. L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley: A Political Biography, Long8ans, Green and Co. Ltd., Australia.
  2. See this issue of Hummer.
  3. Tony Stephens, ‘Bob lifts the lid on his political heroes’, The Sydney Morning herald, July 2, 1988.
  4. Crisp is peerless in his ‘Chifiolatry’. Read the flesh made word in L.F. Crisp Ben Chifley…, Chapter XXIV, The Light on the Hill.
  5. The Herald’s chief ‘intelligence’ writer, Peter Hastings informs us that Sir Garfield Barwick, a coup conspirator of November 1975, ‘saw Chifley as a humble, sincere, and dedicated idealist, courageous and decisive’. Barwick had won a victory for the banks against the Chifley Government at the Privy Council in 1949. Hastings notes wryly that the parliamentary adversaries Chif and R.G. Menzies shared a bottle of whisky at the end of each parliamentary session where Chif the reformist visionary would declare, ‘it’s all bullshit, Bob. It’s all bullshit’. See Peter Hastings, ‘What Chif said to Bob Menzies,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, July 11, 1988.
  6. Kelvin Rowley, The Political Economy of Australia since the War’, in J. Playford and D Kirsner, Australian Capitalism: Towards a Socialist Critique, Penguin, 1972, p. 302-305.
  7. Tom O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism Stained Wattle Press, Sydney, 1985., p. 53-55.
  8. W.J. Brown, The Communist Movement and Australia, Australian Labor Movement History Publications, Haymarket, Sydney, 1986, p. 153; The Battler, 26 March, 1983, p. 9.
  9. The most comprehensive account of the Chifley Government’s attempts to control the power of banking capital remains A.L. May The Battle of the Banks, Sydney University Press, 1968.
  10. Labor M.P., Arthur Calwell told parliament that the private trading banks raised $500,000; the Chamber of Manufacturers $100,000; the Chamber of Commerce $150,000; the Individual’s Freedom League $50,000 and the Confederation of Furniture Manufacturers $20,000 in Victoria alone to defend the bank’s free enterprise. The Liberal Party sent Richard Casey to London to raise $200,000 for the bank’s fighting fund. See Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 28 September, 1949; p. 696. In contrast, Chifley the nationaliser fought his courageous campaign behind an occasional radio microphone and within the panelled confines of parliament.
  11. Ever since Chifley’s battle with the banks was declared unconstitutional other ‘Labor legends’ have sheltered behind the argument that Labor Governments cannot go beyond the boundaries of the Constitution. Parliamentary cretinism is matched only by their constitutional timidity.
  12. L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley …, p. 316-318.
  13. Never did Chifley at any stage wish to socialise medicine. For a contemporary demand for socialist medicine see Dr E.P. Dark, Medicine and the Social Order, Pinchgut Press, Sydney, 1942.
  14. See B. McFarlane, ‘A.S.I.O.: The Past’ and P. Cochrane ‘The Australian and American Intelligence Relationship’ in Pat Flanagan (ed.) Big Brother or Democracy? The Department of Continuing Education, The University of Adelaide.
  15. Ralph Gibson, The Fight Goes on: A Picture of Australia and the world two post-war decades, Red Rooster Press, in Maryborough, Victoria, 1987, Chapters 10, ‘American Invades’, and 11, ‘Thoughts on Labor Governments’.
  16. Richard Phillips and Martin Mantell, ‘The Split: A.L.P. formed the ‘Groups”, Workers’ news, August 17, 1985, p. 12-13.
  17. Robert Murray, The Split, Cheshire, Sydney, 1984, p. 265-266.
  18. Robert Murray, The Split, p. 287-289.
  19. Richard Phillips and Martin Mantell, ‘The Split… ‘Workers’News, August 17, 1985, p. 12.
  20. L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley, p.359-360; W.J. Brown, The Communist Moveaent and Australia, Chapter 5, ‘The post-war years’.
  21. This point is emphasised by Crisp when he cites an obituary of Chifley written by Father J.G. Murtagh, (a cleric who worked closely with Chifley and anti-socialists within the labour movement throughout his life) Murtagh stated that Chifley’s socialism ‘was practical and empirical, not philosophic or ideological and he clearly showed that he had little or no time for socialist intellectuals and doctrinaires’,in L. F. Crisp Ben Chifley, p. 250.
  22. See Melanie Beresford and Prue Kerr, ‘A Turning Point for Australian Capitalism; 1942-1952’ in E.L. Wheelright and Ken Buckley (eds.) Essays in the political Economy of Australian Capitalism: Volume four, Australia and New Zealand Book Company, Sydney, 1980, especially p.161-166.
  23. Phillip Deery (ed.) Labour in Conflict: the 1949 Coal Strike, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Canberra City, 1978.
  24. Phillip Deery, Labour in Conflict, especially chapter 3, ‘Boots and All: June-July 1949’ and chapter 4, ‘Rifles and Bayonets: July-August, 1949’; Ralph Gibson, The Fight Goes on, Chapter 8, ‘The Mining Strike of 1949’; E.F. Hill, Looking Backward:.. Looking forward Revolutionary Socialist politics against Trade Union and Parliamentary Politics Typo-Art Printing Co. Pty. Ltd, Brighton, Victoria, 1965, p. 58-61.
  25. Kelvin Rowley, ‘The Political Economy of Australia Since the War
  26. L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley p. 32. Contrary to Labor myth concerning Chifley’s prudent and independent approach to the Australian economy from 1945 until the electoral defeat of 1949, Chifley guided Australia into financial dependency upon U.S. corporate capital, see Robert Milliken, ‘The new York loans whiz who kept Australia afloat’, The National Tiles, January 25-31, 1981, p. 14.
  27. Chifley’s early days as a trade unionist remains largely unexamined. His myth-makers relate the story that ‘Chif’ was victimised because of his participation as an AFULE member during the 1917 General Strike in N.S.W. Analysis of ‘Chifs’ role during and after the strike provide a less heroic picture. Indeed, p7 Crisp provides an antidote to this legend of Chif’s early socialist militancy. Chifley’s efforts throughout the struggle were ‘to convince the many Bathurst railwaymen – whose one ambition was to fight on-to return to work’. Moreover, Chifley took no active part in maintaining the strike. he could, therefore, honestly complain to the Railway Commissioners that his dismissal was unjust. Three weeks after the defeat of the strike Chifley was one of the few union leaders to be re employed by the – N.S.W. Railways at reduced wages. Many other engine drivers, stokers, guards, porters, station assistants and gangers were blacklisted for life – unlike Chifley the strike-breaker. Seen in this context his latter actions in the 1949 Coal Strike are neither extraordinary nor inexplicable. See L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley, p20-25.