In June 1951, Ben Chifley, the former Labor Prime Minister and now Leader of the Opposition, had a massive heart attack in his rooms at the Hotel Kurrajong. The Hotel Kurrajong was essentially an up-market boarding house, built at a time when Canberra was still a country town without many places for its floating population of politicians and public servants to stay. Chifley was moved to Canberra Hospital, but died later that night. He was 65.
L. F. (Fin) Crisp was the professor of political science at Canberra University College. He was working on The Australian Federal Labour Party, 1901-1951 (1955), and was fascinated by the story of Chifley, self-educated and rising from extreme poverty in the 1890s to become an engine driver, then a union leader, and finally Prime Minister. Crisp was already gathering materials for Ben Chifley: a biography (1961).
Crisp knew that a lot of papers dealing with Chifley’s early union and political work must be in Bathurst, where Ben and his wife Elizabeth still lived in the house they were given as a wedding present by her parents, back in 1912. Crisp desperately wanted to look at this material, but he didn’t want to impose on a grieving widow, so he waited a week before he arrived at the Bathurst home.
He was already too late. During that week, Elizabeth Chifley had burned all her husband’s papers. According to the story I was told many years later (and which I freely admit, was by then well polished) the smoke was still rising from the backyard incinerator when he arrived at the front door.
Why did she do it? Did she want to protect his – or her – privacy? Was she resentful of his political life? She must have known that the papers held an interest for others. Elizabeth Chifley rarely accompanied Ben to Canberra. After a miscarriage in 1915, there were no children, so her life alone in Bathurst must have been lonely – or, on the other hand, perhaps she found fulfillment in other ways. He did.
The evidence is there in the slightly cagey prose of Duncan Waterson’s short biography of Chifley in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. While he reports that Ben ‘was a devoted husband who returned to Bathurst every weekend he could manage’, he also mentioned ‘Phyllis Donnelly, his personal secretary, confidante and affectionate companion since 1928’ who was with him in the Hotel Kurrajong the night he died.
It’s not easy being a politician’s wife or, these days, husband, partner or significant other. Last Friday and Saturday, Margie Abbott, the wife of the Leader of the Opposition, appeared in a media blitz to assure Australians that Tony Abbott is just find in dealing with strong women. It was all very reminiscent of Ann Romney assuring Americans that ‘the Mitt she knows’ is an altogether warmer and cuddlier creature than Mr. 47%. It didn’t work very well here. The main problem was overkill, but in any case, Australian political spouses are not auditioning for the position of FLOTUS.
There is very little history of high profile Prime Ministerial wives, though few have been as low key as Elizabeth Chifley. Part of the reason is geographical. Prime Ministers have been drawn from nearly all states (sorry South Australia) and until air travel become the norm, politicians could not commute every week or so, as they do today. They spent the parliamentary sittings weeks alone (or not, as the case may be) in Canberra, while their wives – there were no husbands then – stayed home, raised the kids, perhaps monitored the electorate.
In 18th and 19th century London, the Season coincided with Parliamentary sittings. The powerful and the marriageable converged on the capital, and political hostesses played an important, if indirect, role in political life. These women were aristocrats, like the Duchess of Devonshire. That role of hostess, networker, facilitator, never reached colonial Australia, except in a non party-political sense through the fairly muted activities of Governors’ wives.
And 20th century Canberra was emphatically not London during the Season. A few Prime Ministers’ wives have been politically active, most notably Enid Lyons, who became a Senator after her husband’s death (though she still doesn’t rate a separate entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography). Others such as Margaret Whitlam and Janette Howard, were important behind-the-scenes players, influencing their husbands. But most have limited their involvement to appropriate charity work. Very respectable. Very boring.
Nowadays that role seems increasingly anachronistic, even when attempted by First Bloke Tim Mathieson, whose patronage of the Men’s Shed movement, or prostate cancer awareness, doesn’t really seem to work.
PM Malcolm Fraser’s wife, Tammie, received a good deal of criticism when she once told a journalist that her job was to give her husband a sense of what ‘the dumb electorate’ was thinking. But increasingly I think she was right. Or perhaps the best role a partner can play is that of the slave in a Roman triumph, who stood behind his commander and whispered in his ear: Respice te, hominem te memento. Look behind you, you are only a man.
Or, of course, a woman.
Mrs Prime Minister Exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy
I was told the story of Fin Crisp visiting Bathurst in 1951 by my colleague, the late Dr Dennis Murphy, who heard it from Crisp.
This time last year: