Silken Diplomacy

Chifley, China, and the Gifted Scroll

Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Chifley liked to knit. On the wall of her rendered brick cottage at 10 Busby Street, Bathurst, nearby the comfortable sage green armchair where she often sat to pursue her craft, this beautiful Chinese scroll had been hanging since about 1948.

Lizzie was Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s wife, and this was their home, which remained Ben’s quiet retreat during his years spent in Parliament. After Ben’s death in 1951, Lizzie continued to live there (until her own death in 1962), and hanging on the wall, the scroll. Its tranquil river and mountain scene served as exotic decoration but, beyond its face-value, the scroll always carried a deeper story.

Painted in watercolour by Chinese artist Yuan Song-nian, in tribute to his father, the Right Honorable Yuan Shan-Chiu, the verse inscribed on the scroll translates as ‘An Autumn Morning Outing.’ In 1948 it was presented to Ben Chifley by the Chinese Embassy in Canberra – at that time, a generous, but curious gift from an Asian government. Chifley was a supporter of the White Australia Policy, stating that Asian migrants would threaten Australia’s high wages and living standards, and his government brutally deported Asians from Australia. The following year, Communism took hold in China, which worried Chifley.

Why then, did the Chinese Embassy consider Chifley worthy of such a gift? Perhaps because he was also interested in improving Asian employment and living standards, building stronger relations with South-East Asian countries, and encouraging trade. After WWII, Chifley embarked on an ambitious program that increased immigration to Australia. Chifley and the Labor party were considered relatively soft on Communism, and in early 1951, Chifley opposed the Menzies government ban of the Communist Party in Australia, believing it was contrary to civil liberties.

It may have been Chifley’s own working-class origins and his years spent as a train driver that influenced his belief in righting injustices, as well as his internationalist, forward-looking approach as a politician. This gifted scroll appears to be a result of the goodwill that Chifley’s interest in Asia created, in a politically volatile era.