Inside Story

Australia’s forgotten internationalist

Books | Labor’s Ben Chifley played a key role in breaking down Australia’s fortress mentality

David Fettling 31 May 2019 1843 words

New internationalists: Ben Chifley (fourth from right) and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru (far right) with other leaders in London on 21 April 1949 for the Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers. From left: D.S. Sananayake (Ceylon), Lester Pearson (Canada’s external affairs minister), Liagat Ali Khan (Pakistan), King George VI, Clement Attlee (Britain), Daniel Malan (South Africa) and Peter Fraser (New Zealand). Fox Photos/Getty Images

J.B. Chifley: An Ardent Internationalist
By Julie Suares | Melbourne University Press | $49.99 | 277 pages

As Australia’s foreign policy ambitions have become more cautious and one-dimensionally transactional in recent years, those wanting a bigger, bolder engagement with the world have increasingly sought inspiration in examples of prime ministers past. John Curtin’s look to America “free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom,” Gough Whitlam’s opening of relations with the People’s Republic of China, Malcolm Fraser’s demands for change in apartheid South Africa, and Bob Hawke’s multilayered pursuit of Asian “enmeshment” all show the possibilities of an astute, activist internationalism. One rarely mentioned prime ministerial example — one whose dealings with the changing world of the late 1940s are particularly relevant to our age of populist nationalism and a rising Asia — is Joseph Benedict “Ben” Chifley, subject of Julie Suares’s J.B. Chifley: An Ardent Internationalist.

Chifley assembled an astute, forward-looking set of foreign policies amid the global transformations following the second world war. As Suares recounts, he supported the new international architecture of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods economic institutions. He encouraged a transition from European colonialist rule to independence in Asia — aggressively so in the dispute between the Dutch and the Indonesians after the latter proclaimed an independent republic — and developed warm relations with Jawaharlal Nehru’s newly independent India. On the reconstruction of Japan he sought social reforms, including land reform and creation of trade unions, intended to entrench liberal democracy and repress militarism.

Chifley also believed America and Britain were moving towards a level of cold war confrontation with the Soviet Union that was unwise and avoidable, and told them so with a frankness unmatched by any Australian PM besides Whitlam. He was sceptical of, and refused to join, Western military interventions to thwart communist insurgencies, most prominently in Malaya. “I do not think that some persons… fully realise the changed order in the world today,” he said. “We have a proud history but we must not live in the past. The methods of twenty years ago are no good today.”

What turned a former train driver and trade unionist into such a committed internationalist? Suares thinks Chifley’s upbringing in regional New South Wales, where he saw how agricultural commodities were sold into world markets, impressed on him the importance of global events for Australia. Two world wars and a Great Depression tragically confirmed that interconnectedness.

As prime minister, like many postwar leaders, Chifley would justify policies of international cooperation by evoking memories of horrors: of young soldiers becoming “gun-fodder” and of “2000 men outside a factory… to secure… one job.” These things had happened because of international hostility and isolationism, and it was why he committed himself to their opposites. Suares quotes from speeches Chifley gave to Bathurst local forums in the 1930s, where he mourned the failure of international conferences to agree to coordinate economic action, dismantle protectionist barriers, disarm, and revise Germany’s punitive war reparations. But the international scene in these years also offered him sources of hope, not least in the form of US president Franklin Roosevelt, “the most courageous statesman in the world.”

In government, serving Scullin and Curtin and then in the top job himself, he was known for working closely with senior public servants, particularly the talented generation of H.C. “Nugget” Coombs and his peers. He was immersed in a Keynesian-influenced reformist milieu that strengthened his internationalist convictions. Explaining how he developed an interest in Asia — which was “very uncommon,” as Suares points out, among Australian politicians and labourites at the time — is less clear. He visited Asia as a tourist in the 1930s, but it’s difficult to know if this was cause or effect.

Chifley’s decision to sign Australia up to the Bretton Woods Agreement required him to confront a frequently xenophobic suspicion of “Money Power” even among some in his own Labor caucus and cabinet. His thwarting of this opposition, which Suares recounts in detail, offers a masterclass in how to defeat such movements. He challenged their arguments directly and comprehensively in clear, simple language, his trademark straight talk setting out “to dispel some of [the] confusion and allay some of [the] fears.” Nonsense he calmly refuted, stressing that the International Monetary Fund would be controlled by signatory governments rather than by Washington or private financiers, and was “expressly forbidden to interfere with our domestic social and economic policies.” He also directed some caustic jabs at his opponents: for all his folksiness, he could be withering. There were “pitfalls enough in international affairs,” he declared, “without inventing any out of our own imaginations.”

Chifley also believed that participation in Bretton Woods institutions would give Australia a chance to shape the world to its liking. Australia would stamp its own values and priorities on Bretton Woods, he said, “doing our utmost to influence its policies.” To stay out would be self-defeating: “there is nothing… which could happen to us within Bretton Woods that could not happen to us in worse degree outside it.” Using statesmanlike rhetoric, arguing that joining the institutions was about “the welfare of not only Australia and its people, but also the people of the whole world, for generations to come,” he made his opponents look small. Australia ratified Bretton Woods.

Building foundations for close relations with Asia, especially the two emergent powers of India and Indonesia, was perhaps Chifley’s most significant international achievement. By encouraging a diplomatic solution in Indonesia favouring Sukarno’s republic — Indonesia’s “nationalist aspirations,” he said, were “real and strong” and needed to “be met more than halfway” — he created significant goodwill for Australia in the archipelago. India had Chifley’s attention, too: he thought it “the linchpin of Asia” and worked well with Nehru.

Chifley’s support for these states contrasted with his successor Robert Menzies’s suspicion of their refusal to take sides in the cold war and act as pliant Western allies. He played an important role in finding a formula to allow India to remain in the Commonwealth despite becoming a republic, which facilitated Delhi’s retaining political, strategic and economic ties with Western nations. While other Western politicians implored India not to discard the British king and crown as symbols, Suares records, Chifley deftly avoided such cultural missteps. For him, an Asia whose nationalist aspirations were fulfilled was more likely to be politically stable, denying oxygen to communism or militarism.

Suares calls Chifley an “economic internationalist” and argues he “would probably have been very much at home with the present-day dominance of the ‘economic dimension’ in Australia’s international affairs.” I wonder if this comparison obscures some of the significance and distinctiveness of Chifley’s foreign policy. He certainly wanted more trade between Australia and Asia. But he also had an interest in Asian peoples’ living conditions — he called Asian workers “grossly exploited” and believed that freedom in Asia could not simply mean “freedom to starve” — which cannot be explained solely by a desire to boost exports. He believed that “full employment and rising living standards” in the region were “important… both for our own sake and the sake of a peaceful and thriving world.” Chifley’s pointed criticisms of autocratic regimes also suggest an internationalist sensibility distinct from the present-day focus of Asian engagement on pursuing free-trade agreements.

How did a man obviously sympathetic to Asian peoples’ aspirations support the White Australia policy? In her brief treatment of the policy Suares quotes Chifley declaring White Australia was “economic not racial” and that Australia “does not feel superior” to “nations of non-European people.” Can this really have been so, given his government’s brutal deportations of Asians from Australia? Chifley said he believed, as was common at the time, that migrants from Asia would threaten Australia’s high wages and living standards — a “pool of cheap labour” was the main “threat” to Australia’s social arrangements, Suares quotes him saying, and Asian countries were the “likely sources.”

Proponents of this line of argument often inferred, or said outright, that Asian people had this effect because they were inherently servile — they would naturally accept lower wages and living standards rather than fight for a fairer deal. Did Chifley — who greatly admired Nehru’s intellect and was monitoring a revolution in Indonesia partly fuelled by intolerable colonial working and living conditions — believe that this stereotype had some plausible basis?

The idea that wages and conditions for white working classes depend on excluding non-white immigrants now seems less era-specific than we once thought. An analysis of how Chifley formed and held to such thinking — even as he discarded other shibboleths — would be of considerable contemporary relevance. Admittedly sources are a limitation: Chifley’s preference for the telephone and habit of periodically burning his correspondence means he left behind little evidence that might clarify the issue.

Appropriating Paul Keating’s phrase, Suares argues the Chifley government “looked for security within its region, but not from its region.” This seems an overstatement. Japan worried Chifley, as did the prospect of Maoist China and various Asian communist insurgencies, even if he opposed Western intervention. And a government that saw the accelerated expulsion from Australia of an Indonesian mother and her children as a pressing national security issue was most certainly, at some level, seeking security “from” Asia.

Suares also argues that British race patriotism shouldn’t be “an overarching categorisation” for the Chifley government. Yes: but nor can it be minimised. Chifley’s generation was motivated by a mix of new hopes and old fears. With the old British Empire dramatically weakened and the United States, pre–Korean war, unwilling to make new security commitments in Asia, and with the ANZUS agreement not yet on the horizon, they felt acutely vulnerable — and this vulnerability instilled an urgency that explains much of their foreign policy boldness.

Yet by seeking regional security in cooperative relations with the vociferously independent new Asian states India and Indonesia, Chifley did take a highly significant step away from the old model of a British-guarded Fortress Australia and towards the model of security “in” Asia that Keating described. One of this book’s most intriguing details is Chifley’s interest in, and approval of, India’s non-alignment doctrine: he “urged Nehru to remain neutral — India could ‘do a great service to the world… by showing the way to preserving peace.’”

Suares has provided a useful corrective to the commonly held view of Chifley as domestically focused. His term in office offers an instructive case study of a forward-looking Australian foreign policy at a time of rapid change: with deepened ties to Indonesia and India intended to strengthen Australian security, an emphasis on Asian socioeconomic welfare as a prerequisite for durable stability and prosperity, a widening set of bilateral relationships, and “ardent” membership of international organisations in which distinctive Australian perspectives and values were conveyed. I was left wanting to hear Chifley’s voice applied to the world of today. “No one can live alone,” he said in the 1940s. “[W]e are all dependent on each other.” •