JB Chifley: an Ardent Internationalist by Julie Suares


JB Chifley

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

“Mr Menzies, the Prime Minister, announced that his parliamentary colleague, an honourable opponent, the man who loved his neighbour better than he loved himself, the whimsical philosopher, the man who rose without favour or patronage to the Prime Ministership and he was never far from God, had died suddenly” (7).

In these few words we read a precise and accurate and honest summary of Joseph Benedict Chifley, the PM who had such a momentous impact on post-war Australia. Julie Suares sets out to investigate Chifley’s internationalist outlook, the dreams he shared, the ideas that he and his followers, closely aligned with senior public servants in implementation, put into policy. Suares goes outside her brief to draw for her readers an eminently readable account of the man himself, from his days when he was promoted to labourer, worked his way up to locomotive driver and subsequent demotion to fireman. Her account is grass-roots and knowledgeable.

The account is divided into four sections plus a concluding chapter. She investigates the origins of Chifley’s internationalism in Part 1. In this chapter she touches lightly on Chifley’s view that India was a source of great hope for the civilised world because Chifley saw mutual economic opportunities and an inspiration in preserving peace. Much is made of Chifley’s speeches as source material, particularly that gleaned from the local Bathurst newspaper which recorded Chifley’s speeches in depth. The book aims to trace the evolution of Chifley as an internationalist. To do this Suares lays out ‘the genealogy’ of Chifley’s internationalist views, and this gives her licence to write at length about all things Chifley with just a swipe at internationalism on her way through.

Part 1 continues for sixty-nine pages of rather enjoyable prose detailing the early years of Chifley’s life, his involvement in the union movement and the part he played in the Scullin and other governments. This is fascinating material that is well told, thoroughly researched and presented in a non-emotive fashion that nevertheless urges one to read on. Who would have thought that the office of treasurer would become ‘one of the creative forces in the Australian war effort’ (57). A quote in Suares states that through its recommendations and analyses Treasury gained a ‘reputation for unsurpassed intellectual strength and expertise” (57). All of this is compelling reading – and unfortunately sometimes off the topic. If the book were called Ben Chifley – a biography, it would receive full marks and they would be justly earned. This text so far has offered scintillating, even brilliant insights into Chifley, but they are of marginal relevance to a text with a specific focus on internationalism.

Part 2 is called ‘Chifley and Economic Internationalism’ and consists of a chapter on Chifley and the Great Depression (to which forty pages are allocated) and Chifley and the World Economy from 1941 to 1949 (a further forty pages). This interwar period was of great importance to Chifley because it was in the cauldron of economic events that many of his ideas were forged. His speeches reveal a global, rather than a parochial, interest in international events. The author takes the view that World War I and the Great Depression affected and influenced Chifley’s policy decisions in relation to the international economy. According to Suares these events led to Chifley’s endorsement of a rules-based economic order. The eras of Scullin, Lang and Theodore are not glossed over but are dealt with swiftly and economically as precursors of later, more important times. Conferences in Geneva, Lausanne and Ottawa are given space. One questions, but not vigorously, the attention given to the Royal Commission into the Monetary  and Banking Systems 1935 – 1937. Chifley played an important role in what was essentially a means of broadening his own knowledge at the international level, a small step but worthy of no more than mention in a book of this type.

The effects of the Depression seared Chifley’s soul, the slaughter that was World War 1 fostered a hatred of war. He was appalled that money was difficult to come by during peace time but readily available to fund a war. The fires for international arbitration now burned in his belly. In the second chapter of Part II we are led along the tortuous path to the Bretton-Woods Agreement and the formation of the International Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the International Trade Organisation (later General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). Suares insists that Chifley’s early interest in foreign affairs carried through to his time as Prime Minister and “led him to adopt innovative and radical policies towards the emergent nations of Asia in the immediate post-war years” (136).

Part III deals with Chifley’s foreign policies towards Asia. This was a period when there was never going to be a return to colonization. It was a time of multiple births especially of new nations in Asia. Suares details Chifley’s relations with India and his opposition to the Dutch presence in Indonesia. His views on Indo-China and on the Korean conflict receive an airing in this part of the book. It becomes apparent to today’s readers that Chifley’s role was much more significant than he was given credit for. With Nehru he fostered the view that the scourge of communism should be met with economic advancement and improved standards of living. There was no place for war in this scenario. The conclusion to this chapter on Chifley and post-colonial Asia is a list of principles by which Chifley lived. Suares’s presentation is exquisite. The chapter on the establishment of the 1949 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference and the productive and ongoing relationship with, and in support of, India, follows.

The following chapter deals with the Japanese peace settlement and shows Chifley as a warrior who rejected the Cold War view of the world that was dictating US and British policy on Japan. It may seem odd to readers today that an Australian Prime Minister would not accept the views of the United States as of lesser value than his own. For Chifley, Japan should not be held hostage to relations between the Soviet Union and the USA. There follows a chapter on Chifley and the Cold War which, while interesting in itself (much more than interesting to other scholars like me) does not add to the thesis. Most of the arguments, many of the descriptions of Chifley’s internationalism, have been made by the time readers come to the concluding chapter, called A Receptivity to ‘New Ideas and to the Impact of New Conditions’. It is a refresher course on the Chifley made available in this book.

I found the book an exciting study of a man who has remained a mystery for so long. Its appeal lies in the revelation of the main player, and sometimes players, in the political sphere of the early and mid-twentieth century. It is a revealing look at a man who lived through two depressions and two World Wars only to be largely forgotten for nearly seventy years.

Read the book for pleasure and enlightenment.

JB Chifley: an Ardent Internationalist


By Julie Suares

Melbourne University Press

ISBN: 978-0-522-87470-9

$49.99; 334pp


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