THE new spy HQ in Campbell has been named after Ben Chifley, one of the great heroes of the Labor movement.
Although our Labor leaders these days might like to associate with him, a chat with my 91-year-old mother-in-law provided some insights into Chifley.
“He was just a genuinely nice bloke. I knew him because he stayed in the Hotel Kurrajong, where I stayed for a short while when I first came to Canberra in 1944. There were just 12,000 people in the city at that time”.
It is hard to imagine anyone describing a modern Labor leader the way that Enid described Chifley: “Simply put, Chifley was really a humble man.
“I remember walking from the Hotel Kurrajong to Parliament House with him. He did not see himself above walking with a typist and chatting about the matters of the day.”
With a sly grin, my mother-in-law added: “Another story – perhaps just a joke of the time – about Chifley is that the one time locomotive driver was responsible for a population boost in Bathurst. Apparently, he would toot the engine whistle as he came into the town early in the morning and wake people up”. Stories and rumours about politicians are certainly not new.
We have seen an extraordinary amount of criticism of former PM Julia Gillard, who was openly living with Tim Matheson even though they were not married. Things were done differently 70 years ago. “Everyone knew, but no-one mentioned it publicly, that Chifley was living with his girlfriend in the Hotel Kurrajong while his wife Elizabeth lived in Bathurst,” said Enid. “It may have been scuttlebutt, of course. However, he was held in such high respect that this information never appeared in the paper or on the radio”.
This is an interesting comment considering the biography written by D B Waterson in 1993, published in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, which describes the Chifley marriage as one of dedication and affection. However, it also describes Elizabeth as a woman of “austere self-control” who rarely travelled with him apart from occasionally playing hostess at The Lodge and a trip to NZ in 1947. The biography says of Chifley: “He was attractive to women and had an eye for a pretty girl, though he declined to take advantage of this characteristic.”
Contrasting the time to modern politics, my mother-in-law added: “He did not see himself as the messiah. Perhaps this is part of the problem with modern politics.”
When asked what should politicians of today learn from Chifley, she responded: “He was certainly a different sort of personality from Kevin Rudd. Politicians were not as well educated – but they behaved differently. Chifley was just more of a gentleman. He was a genuinely humble person.”
Perhaps some of our politicians will learn lessons such as genuine humility. But I am not holding my breath.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.