In the wake of the Irish Famine his grandfather had left his impoverished Tipperary home and migrated to New South Wales. When he was born in Bathurst, on 22 September 1885, his father was working as a blacksmith. His grandfather was at that time living on a small farm at Limekilns, about 26 kilometres from Bathurst. When he was five years old, Chifley was taken to live on the Limekilns farm to help his grandfather and aunt, and went to the small local school. In January 1899, his grandfather died and Chifley returned to his parents' home. For a year he went to a local Catholic school and then he went to work - firstly at a local store and then at a tannery. His third job was at the Bathurst railway yards, just across the road from his parents' house.
Chifley began railway work as a shop boy in Bathurst's extensive steam shed in September 1903 and six years later he was a fireman. A keen reader and a regular at evening classes, Chifley's education continued at his own direction and by his own determination. He was an active member of the Federated Engine-drivers and Firemen's Association of Australasia, and also of the Labor Party. In July 1913, at the relatively young age of twenty-seven, he became an engine-driver. A year later, on 6 June 1914, Ben Chifley and Elizabeth McKenzie were married in the Presbyterian church in the Sydney suburb of Glebe.
When war was declared in 1914, Chifley did not enlist. He was totally opposed to conscription and in 1916, took a leading part in Bathurst's anti-conscription movement when the Prime Minister WM Hughes moved to introduce conscription to boost flagging enlistments for the war in Europe. Chifley was no rabble-rouser as he preferred appeal to reason. He proceeded patiently to set out the facts of the anti-conscription case, then moved an amendment opposing conscription as being 'unnecessary in Australia'. In a 1916 plebiscite, the conscription proposal was only narrowly defeated.
In August 1917, Chifley and his fellow engine-drivers went out on strike to protect their working conditions against the introduction of new American time-and-motion methods of working. The strike spread quickly, involving coal miners and other workers. The Commonwealth and State governments enlisted the help of volunteers to take the strikers' jobs and break their resolve. Chifley helped to keep order in Bathurst.
Among other projects, he brought strikers together to build a memorial avenue to commemorate the war casualties. Six weeks later the strike ended when the railway men were faced with the ultimatum of return to work or accept dismissal. Whilst many were demoted, three thousand union men were denied re-employment. Chifley was first denied re-employment, but was demoted to fireman. This demotion was a crushing blow for him, as was the State government's de-registration of the engine-drivers union. Chifley regained his position as a driver, but the experience put him on a track that led to parliamentary politics. He worked to rebuild the de-registered union in Bathurst and across New South Wales. He was content to play a supporting role and did not seek power or position for himself. He chaired meetings but let others have the influential positions of branch secretary and president. In 1921 Chifley took a seat on the board of the National Advocate, the Labor-leaning Bathurst newspaper.
His first attempt to enter parliament came in 1922 when he stood for Labor pre-selection for the New South Wales parliament. But the State Labor executive stepped in and selected the candidates and Chifley was not one of them. When some disappointed candidates wanted to stand as Independents, Chifley argued against the idea, declaring that it was "better to fight the dirt from within the movement than to fight it from without". In 1924 he stood again for Labor pre-selection but was again unsuccessful. This experience gave him practice at public speaking and gained him political contacts throughout the electorate. In 1925 he won pre-selection for the federal seat of Macquarie. Macquarie had been held by Labor, and the party looked likely to do well at the 1925 federal election. But the Bruce government's law and order campaign, and the introduction of compulsory voting, were handicaps to Labor and Chifley was unsuccessful.
In 1928 Chifley again stood for the Macquarie seat and was successful. This time, Labor ran a scare campaign of its own, arguing the Bruce government's immigration policy was undermining the White Australia policy. Chifley criticised the government for admitting "so many Dagoes and Aliens into Australia". The National Advocate called on electors to vote for Chifley to protect White Australia. And this time they did, although the Bruce government was returned. Chifley was a strong opponent of the Bruce government's approach to Commonwealth-State powers. SM Bruce and his coalition partner, deputy Prime Minister Earle Page, saw the States as the proper holders of contested powers.
Chifley was an avowed centralist. He not only wanted to make the Constitution easier to alter, he proposed to abolish the States altogether. To Chifley, only then would the "seeds of national unity have at last come into flower". During 1929, dissension within the Nationalist Party forced Prime Minister SM Bruce to call another federal election. In October 1929, voters swept Labor into office under James Scullin and Chifley was returned with a massive majority in his seat of Macquarie.
The world was teetering on the verge of economic depression and Labor's hopes of beginning a program of reform were quickly dashed. The Scullin government was forced by the private banks and the Bank of England to administer policies based on orthodox economic theories to drag Australia from the slump. From the back benches of the parliament, Ben Chifley was not happy with the government's methods, but was unable to offer a credible alternative. He expressed frustration over the government's inability to exercise full control over the economy due to the power of the banks. He became absorbed by economics, reading avidly and developing an ongoing interest in economic theory.
The Scullin government began to fall apart under the external economic pressures and internal dissension. The federal parliamentary Labor Party was shaken on one side by the formation of a 'Lang Labor' faction led by New South Wales Labor leader Jack Lang. On the other, JA Lyons, a senior member of the Scullin Cabinet, resigned from Cabinet in January 1931, and set about forming the conservative United Australia Party. In the resulting Cabinet shuffle, Chifley became Minister for Defence. As a member of Cabinet, Chifley had to defend economic policies he fiercely opposed. These included salary and pension reductions forced on the Scullin government by the banks and the State Premiers.
The Scullin government was defeated in the polls in December 1931. This was a bad year for Chifley, he had been defeated at the polls and he was expelled from the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen. Without a parliamentary seat and unable to return to his former occupation, Chifley turned to other means of getting enough money to survive the depression years. His earnings at the National Advocate were supplemented by an inheritance Elizabeth Chifley received on her father's death in 1931.
Chifley had more success on the local level. He won a seat on the largely rural Abercrombie Shire Council in 1933 and became president of the council in 1937. Chifley gained not only an income, but invaluable experience and contacts. In 1935, RG Casey, Treasurer in the Lyons government, appointed him to the Royal Commission into the banking system. Chifley disagreed with the commission's findings and submitted a minority report calling for nationalisation of the banks as the only way to ensure the system was run in the interests of the whole community.
When war was declared in September 1939, the Menzies government acknowledged Chifley's economic expertise by appointing him to the Capital Issues Advisory Board. Then in July 1940 he was made director of labour supply and regulation in the Department of Munitions. But when the federal election was called just weeks later, he resigned from both positions to stand again for the seat of Macquarie. In hospital suffering from pneumonia after a minor operation, Chifley was unable to campaign as vigorously as he had in his unsuccessful bids in the 1931 and 1934 federal elections. To his amusement, he was nonetheless voted back to his former seat in parliament. The new parliament was finely balanced and in May 1941 Menzies lost the prime ministership to Arthur Fadden. Fadden was no more successful in holding a government together. In October 1941, Labor leader John Curtin became the third prime minister.
Chifley was elected by Caucus to the Cabinet and, to the surprise of some, was appointed by Curtin as Treasurer. Chifley was among the few in Curtin's Cabinet who had ministerial experience. Always a voracious reader and largely self-taught, Chifley had used his time out of parliament to develop his knowledge of economics. He had become one of the few parliamentarians familiar with the subject, and with economists. The entry of Japan into the war meant the new Treasurer was faced with the problem of financing a much greater war effort. With Australia expecting invasion, rapid expansion of the armed forces and of defence production had to be coordinated. Chifley was determined this effort would not leave Australia burdened with war debt as in the first world war.
Chifley and his colleagues were also determined that the economic benefits of Australia's wartime expansion should flow to the workers who made defence production possible, and who had been denied so much through the pre-war depression years. Chifley's major achievement was taking from the States the power to levy income taxes. In pressing this as a wartime measure Chifley declared "National rights must take precedence over all state rights". It was an historic achievement for, as Chifley intended, this essential power was never returned to State governments.
In 1942, the Curtin government established a new Department of Post-war Reconstruction, with Chifley the responsible minister. He also remained the Treasurer. Although Frank Forde was deputy Prime Minister, the added portfolio made Chifley the most powerful minister after Curtin. The Curtin government's management of the war effort had provided a model of a centrally directed economy producing conditions of full employment and the British economist JM Keynes had shown how those conditions could be maintained in peacetime.
The strong Curtin-Chifley political partnership helped gain a massive victory for Labor at the federal election in August 1943. The government had gained clear support from voters to implement the nation-building measures introduced in their platform. Chifley was the chief architect of this design for a smooth transition to a progressive peacetime economy. One of the most important measures was a banking bill that went some way towards bringing the banks and the supply of credit under Commonwealth control.
While living at the Hotel Kurrajong in Canberra, Chifley usually phoned his Bathurst home each evening to talk with Elizabeth Chifley. His usual practice was to make the long drive from Canberra to Bathurst every second weekend. His time there was shared between visiting friends and relatives, seeing constituents, and attending to business at the National Advocate office.
Chifley's responsibilities increased in November 1944, when Curtin was hospitalised with a heart attack. Though Curtin returned to The Lodge in January and attended parliament, he was far less able to attend to his prime ministerial workload. In May 1945, it fell to Chifley to announce the end of the war in Europe, and on 30 May Chifley presented to parliament the white paper on one of Curtin's key post-war goals - the policy of full employment.
He became Prime Minister following Curtin's death, succeeding the caretaker Prime Minister, F.M. Forde, on 13 July 1945. He retained office at the 1946 elections but lost to R.G. Menzies' Liberal-Country Party coalition, in December 1949. The defeat followed a series of events and issues through which Labor's popular support declined. These included a long running coal strike, Communist influence in the union movement, the continuation of wartime rationing controls over the sale of petrol, and Chifley's personal crusade to nationalise private sector banking.
He continued in parliament as Opposition Leader after his defeat by Menzies. He died on the way to hospital after a heart attack in his hotel room in Canberra, 13 June 1951, while a ball celebrating the Jubilee of Commonwealth Parliament was in progress in Parliament House.