Joseph Benedict Chifley enjoys a special place in the Australian pantheon – an icon of decencies almost extinct. Born in 1885, Chifley was raised in Bathurst, where he joined the NSW Railways in 1903. One of the youngest-ever first-class locomotive drivers at the age of twenty seven, Chifley was among those who struck for six weeks in 1917 against new management practices in the railways. They lost. He was demoted to fireman, and his union, the Federated Engine-drivers and Firemen’s Association of Australasia, deregistered. He was soon restored to engineman.
Chifley’s night study and reading equipped him as a labour movement activist: an advocate and witness for his union in industrial tribunals, an office-bearer and state delegate for the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen. In 1928, he won the seat of Macquarie for the Labor Party. As a minister (Defence) in the Scullin government, Chifley supported the Premiers’ Plan, a recipe for recovery from the Great Depression that was condemned by Jack Lang’s New South Wales Labor government. Langite working-class voters dumped Chifley in 1931.