There’s been a bit written about Ben Chifley, including the biographies by Professor Crisp (who the author states she has drawn on considerably) and David Day and the coverage of him in Ross McMullin’s history of the Labor party. However, Remembering Ben Chifley is quite different; it’s described as a “family biography containing memories about their beloved Uncle Ben”. It was written by his great-niece Sue Martin, and the “researchers” are Jane Chifley and Elizabeth Chifley (her sisters).
The tone of the work is illustrated by the fact that Chifley is usually referred to as “Uncle Ben”, and his wife as “Auntie Liz”. It’s a very readable and quite comprehensive account, even if sometimes rambling, giving numerous insights into all aspects of his life. It includes lots of anecdotes, but also deals with the various political and other issues that he encountered. These include his relationship with the Catholic church as well as the bank nationalisation and his opposition to the banning of the Communist party. I was interested in the coverage of the period after World War II, when Chifley as Prime Minister and Treasurer dealt with the aftermath of war and the reconstruction of the economy.
It’s also quite hard-hitting: other factions in the Labor party (especially the Lang faction and B. A. Santamaria’s Movement), most of the media, the communists (and the unions they controlled), the banks (of course) and Menzies (to name just a few) all come in for “serves”. In fact, one chapter is headed “Destroying Chifley”.
Things in Chifley’s era were very different to today, but in the eyes of the authors, it seems that Chifley could do no wrong. As an example, the book unquestioningly accepts Chifley’s logic for nationalising the banks, although it does mention that he conceded that he may have moved too fast on this issue, and “you shouldn’t show the rooster the axe first just before you cut its head off, you give it a bit of corn first.” His reasoning was apparently that “only control of the banks could stop further depressions from occurring and that prices of the essential services could be kept lower if the government had more control” (page 251). The great crash of 1890 (when he was a young boy) and the depression of the 1930’s clearly had their effect on him.
Although most of the book is quite readable and I enjoyed much of it, at a more technical level, I have to agree with the the assessment on the “Honest History” site that the production of the book could have done with a good editor. The early chapters dealing with the background of both his parents’ families are quite disjointed, and there are instances where particular events are dealt with in a number of different places. Also, as pointed out in that review, there are grammatical and typographic errors, to which I would add that there are a number of instances of straight-out repetition. (Note – for the record, my link to the Honest History website doesn’t mean that I regard that site as “impartial” history, but that’s for another time).