Einstein is not that brainy on Australian politics, at least judging by the Einstein Factor on ABC TV. A few Sundays ago host Peter Berner asked Rod Wise, a contestant who specialised in Prime Ministerial trivia, the following question:

Kirribilli House was first set aside for use as an official residence of prime ministers in which decade?

The contestant didn’t know and was told the answer was – 1950s.

Wrong, it was never set aside by a motion in the Parliament or by a Cabinet decision.

The late Eddie Ward asked Menzies in the House on 23 April, 1958 – “Is it a fact that the Prime Minister now regards Kirribilli House as his official residence?”

Menzies replied that Kirribilli House was for Commonwealth Government guests – “It is a very good thing for this country that we should be able to give distinguished visitors from overseas, in the largest and senior city of this country, accommodation appropriate to them”.

Every Prime Minister (leaving out the short termers like McEwen and Frank Ford) has lived at The Lodge apart from Chifley, who occupied a room at the Kurrajongs Hotel, and Howard, who uses it casually as a place to stop when in Canberra. Prime Ministers have traditionally stayed at Kirribilli House when visiting Sydney.

But Howard confiscated Kirribilli House, telling an ignorant media after the 1996 election he would live “in the Prime Minister’s Sydney residence”. His excuse was to avoid disruption to his children’s education. When they grew up he switched to saying it was a good thing for the PM to live in a major city. Perhaps he just likes the view.

Chifley didn’t occupy The Lodge either, but for a slightly different reason. He lived in a first floor room at the Hotel Kurrajong, within easy walking distance of Parliament House.

His wife, Lizzie, made only occasional visits to Canberra from Bathurst and she and Chifley would then both stay at The Lodge. The Lodge was used for official entertainment.

The reason Chifley would have found it awkward to live at The Lodge was because he had a long-term affair with Phyllis Donnelly, who was at his bedside when he was struck down by a heart attack and died on 13 June, 2001. Chifley had a long-term love affair with both Phyllis and her sister Nell, in Bathurst.

All this was revealed in 1950 by David Day in his book Chifley. Day upset a lot of Labor people in the process. The facts were never denied and Chifley’s standing as one of the greatest Prime Ministers Australia has had was undamaged.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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