Ben Chifley (1885 – 1951) was a railway engine-driver who became Australia’s best-loved Prime Minister in 1945. This film is an exercise in 'People’s History": an attempt to find and share the communal memory of Ben and his wife, Elizabeth, that lives on in their hometown of Bathurst, New South Wales. Chifley’s extraordinary compassion and idealism are still treasured 50 years after his death. In Bathurst, stories about the Chifleys are treasured memories, valued almost as family heirlooms to be passed on from generation to generation. Simple, everyday artefacts - a tea cosy or an old pipe - can carry a special meaning. Similarly, places which seem 'ordinary" but are associated with the Chifleys, such as their simple terrace home on Busby Street or the railway community meeting hall where Ben studied and taught, have strong meaning. In this film, the stories and memories of over 50 friends, neighbours and colleagues contribute to an emotional and eloquent portrait of a remarkable community and a national leader.

A flickering Light on the Hill.

Andrew Pike’s documentary on one of Australia’s most humble, home-spun Prime Ministers is a well-intentioned tribute to the former engine driver whose 'Light on the Hill" speech has often been quoted, and misquoted.

But The Chifleys of Busby Street curiously skates over Ben Chifley’s achievements and legacy; nor does it shed much light on his political beliefs and values beyond asserting that he was motivated by concerns for justice and the less fortunate.

The technique of telling his life story largely via anecdotes and recollections of 60 individuals has mixed results: some offer illuminating insights, others serve up minor details and pointless trivia. His wife Elizabeth, a keen cook, spent most of her time in the kitchen, and she caught the bus with other ladies of the district to go shopping... Who’d have thought?

During his reign as Prime Minister from 1945-1949, the Government bought provincial airline Qantas and launched it as an overseas carrier; domestic airline TAA was born; the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme was initiated; the Australian National University was established; and the ABC’s budget was tripled.

All that is dealt with brusquely in an excerpt from the play The Local Man by Bob Ellis and Robin McLachlan, with Tony Barry as Chifley. To be fair to Pike, the docu sets out to tell the story of the man rather than the politician, from his hard-scrabble life on a farm from the age of 5 to his marriage in 1914 and rise through local government to his election in Parliament, losing then regaining his seat.

His most famous speech, delivered in 1949, reflected his determination to protect 'our less fortunate citizens," a mission he described as 'our beacon, our light on the hill." Others say he was referring to life beyond the electoral cycle, the Easter light or coming home to his beloved Bathurst.

In one of the few poignant moments, his nephew John wipes away tears as he recalls how Chifley was hurt by protestors bearing signs reading 'Ben Hitler" after he sent in the Army to break a strike by coalminers. His unpopular move to nationalise banks is also touched on.

Apart from that, did he have any faults or foibles? Very few, apparently. There were rumours the Catholic Chifley had an affair with his secretary, but no hard evidence is produced. And someone else says he was a lonely man, with few close friends outside politics.

Sam Malloy, curator of the Chifley Home Museum, McLachlan and the former local independent MP Peter Andren (who died in 2007) are among the few 'experts’ interviewed. Mostly we have reminiscences from everyday folk in Bathurst, some of whom still revere 'Chif" as Australia’s best ever PM. Annoyingly, most are not identified until the end credits.

This is Pike’s first effort as a director in 25 years, since he focussed on his successful career as an exhibitor and distributor. 'The stories told in our film are often patently at odds with the history books in terms of facts, and few of the stories will ever appear in any published account of Chifley’s life," he says. 'But the stories tell us how people felt about Ben Chifley and help to bring the man and his times to life, often in a very vivid and emotional way.

For all his good intentions, this docu is likely to appeal chiefly to political students and academics, former and current politicians, and the older citizens of Bathurst.


1 hour 13 min
In Cinemas 21 May 2009,