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Video clip synopsis – For most of the 1940s Australian Labor Party had managed to be the automatic choice for those wishing for an intelligently progressive future.
Year of production - 2008
Duration - 2min 16sec
Tags - Australian History, Cold War, politics, Prime Ministers, society, see all tags


Ben Chifley's Australia

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About the Video Clip


Ben Chifley’s Australia is an excerpt from the documentary _Infamous Victory – Ben Chifley’s Battle for Coal- produced in 2008.

Infamous Victory – Ben Chifley’s Battle for Coal
This is a story of coal, communism, and the Australian prime minister who went to war against his own during the national miners’ strike of 1949.

A Screen Australia Making History production. Produced in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Some archive footage contained in this video clip is reproduced with permission of Snowy Hydro Limited under licence from National Archives of Australia. Copyright Commonwealth of Australia.
Special Thanks to the National Film and Sound Archive (of Australia).

Curriculum Focus


Explains social, political and cultural developments and events and evaluates their impact on Australian life

Inquiry question
What have been the major social and cultural features of the 1940s and 1950s

Students learn to
Describe the main social and cultural features of the 1940s and 1950s

Background Information


For most of the 1940s Australian Labor Party had managed to be the automatic choice for those wishing for an intelligently progressive future. The 1930s Great Depression had badly damaged the image of free market capitalism, and the general consensus was that more rather than less state control of society and the economy was inevitable to avoid great social breakdown. The ALP – first under John Curtin (1885–1945) and then, after his death in 1945, Joseph Ben Chifley (1885–1951) – was the best qualified to achieve this.

The Liberals and conservatives were the ones tainted by past disasters: they’d failed to govern in time of war, and still further back they had been the most enthusiastic advocates of laissez-faire “sink or swim” policies in the 1930s, building for themselves an unenviable reputation for valuing contracts and big business patronage far more than the needs of ordinary people.

But in a post-war world where lines were being drawn between Soviet Russia and democratic capitalist America, views about the right way forward became increasingly polarised. The ALP and Ben Chifley found themselves caught in the middle, and the great coal strike of 1949 would come to not only exemplify this new cold war context, but would drive the Chifley government from power.

The Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act in 1947 was an attempt to formulate the Chifley philosophy about how best to settle industrial disputes, by arbitration and negotiation before an independent umpire, at a neutral tribunal, which would listen to both sides – employer and employee – before pronouncing judgement and best resolve the issue. But some of the militant, communist-controlled unions – waterside workers, seamen, coalminers, metal workers – had little interest in restraining their demands in the pursuit of righting their grievances.

The coal strike was the Communist Party’s big grab for power. It hoped to precipitate a great national crisis which it could benefit from and perhaps even turn into a revolution. Chifley took them on, and won, but at fatal cost. After the coal strike the Communist Party was shattered irretrievably as a potent political force. The ALP was ejected from office. Robert Menzies (1894–1978) and the Liberals seized the ascendancy, won government in December 1949, and didn’t let it slip from their grasp for the next 22 years.

Classroom Activities

  1. Note-making
    Note the Australian public’s view of Prime Minister Ben Chifley in 1949.
    Note the tone of the 1949 ALP national conference.
    Note Chifley’s vision for Australia’s future.
    Note the metaphor of “the light on the hill”. How was it to be achieved?
    Note the failed nationalisation attempts of 1948.
    Note Chifley’s background.
    What was life like in Australia in 1949?
  2. Research
    What did the “Light on the Hill” mean to ALP supporters?
    Why did Chifley attempt to nationalise certain industries after WW2?
  3. Reporting
    Explain Chifley’s vision for post-war Australia.
    Explain the CPA’s vision for post-war Australia.

Further Resources


Australia’s Prime Ministers – Ben Chifley

Australian Dictionary of Biography Online – Chifley, Joseph Benedict (Ben)