Hail to Chifley
Ben Chifley's home.
Bruce Elder takes a political pilgrimage to the central west and a time when politicians were figures of admiration.
Although he died more than 60 years ago, the former Labor prime minister Joseph Benedict Chifley is still in the news. The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, invoked Chifley's famous words about a "light on the hill ... working for the betterment of mankind" in a speech he made last year and again this year.
Labor supporters admiring Chifley is one thing, but for the Coalition to invoke his memory? Chifley must have been quite a man.
Born in Bathurst, in the NSW central west (about a three-hour drive from central Sydney), it's surprisingly easy to see how the city celebrates its most admired son. Chifley's family home, the engine he drove as the state's youngest first-class locomotive driver, the church he attended, the Railway Institute where he furthered his education, and a memorial in the Catholic section of the Bathurst cemetery, ensure that visitors can immerse themselves in the life journey of a remarkable political leader.
The obvious starting point is 10 Busby Street, a modest late-Victorian semi-detached residence and the marital home of Chifley and his wife, Elizabeth. To visit is to undertake an adventure in time travel. Our guide, Sam Malloy, is the co-ordinator of Busby Street's Chifley Home and Education Centre, and a knowledgeable advocate for Chifley and his world.
"When he died," Malloy says, "a car pulled up outside and [Chifley's successor as prime minister] Robert Menzies stepped out. You can see him walking up the steps and he would have been welcomed by Elizabeth in the lounge room, probably with a cup of tea." In the lounge, Malloy points to a chair. "He probably would have sat there while conveying his condolences."
To visit Chifley's grave in Bathurst cemetery is to be reminded of the deep Protestant-Catholic sectarianism of Australia's earlier times. In the Presbyterian section, Elizabeth Gibson Chifley shares a headstone with her father and mother, George and Isabella Mackenzie, and her sister Annie Milne Mackenzie. Then, quietly acknowledging that the pain of a "mixed marriage" endures even in death, we walk across the cemetery, past neat rows of headstones for nuns to an obelisk erected by the Labor Party and Australian Council of Trade Unions. The inscription reads: "Joseph Benedict Chifley MHR PC Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia July 1945-Dec 1949. Beloved husband of Elizabeth. Died 13-6-1951. Aged 65 years. 'If an idea is worth fighting for, no matter the penalty, fight for the right, and truth and justice will prevail."'
Later, as we drive past St Philomena's school and church in Rocket Street, Molloy points out that Chifley, even during his terms as prime minister, attended Mass regularly, but sat at the back and did not take Communion.Then we drive to Kelly Crescent, where a bust of Chifley stands in the centre of the street, unveiled by Labor leader H.V. Evatt in 1954. Chifley didn't want a statue. He suggested that the best memorial would be housing for working people: this one is surrounded by a housing estate.
At Bathurst Railway Station, one side houses the old Railway Institute where Chifley attended night classes for more than 15 years; the other hosts the DC50 class steam locomotive 5112 Chifley once drove. At a time when the contemporary denizens of Parliament House rank lower than thieves and internet scammers in some surveys, a visit to Bathurst is a reminder of when politicians were honoured. Chifley's enduring greatness is that he wanted little more than to work for his fellow Australians.
Getting there Bathurst is a three-hour drive west of Sydney via the Great Western Highway. A train-coach service runs daily. See countrylink.info.
The Bathurst Visitor Information Centre, 1 Kendall Avenue, phone 1800 681 000, has an excellent self-guided brochure, A Driving Tour of Ben Chifley's Bathurst; and copies of Deborah Withington's A Self-Guided Tour and Social History of Elizabeth and Ben's Neighbourhood.
The Chifley Home and Education Centre is open on weekends between 10am-noon, or by appointment, 10 Busby Street, phone (02) 6332 1444. See chifleyhome.org.au.