Joseph Aloysius (Joe) Lyons claimed three firsts in Australian politics. He was the first — and so far only — Tasmanian to become Prime Minister of Australia. He has been the first and only Catholic, so far, to lead a non-Labor government. And he was the first Australian Prime Minister to win three elections in a row, and continue as Prime Minister after the third election. It could also be said that the Lyons family was the first to live in the Lodge as a family group. S.M. Bruce and his wife had no children, and Scullin elected to live elsewhere.
In her book Joe Lyons: The People’s Prime Minister, Anne Henderson has done much to fill in gaps in public knowledge of a long-serving but poorly analysed Prime Minister. Lyons fell between the two stools of political prejudice. To Labor followers, he was a rat, because he teamed up with members of the opposition National party to form a conservative government. To many traditional non-Labor people he continued to be seen as not quite ‘one of us’, more a partner of political opportunity than a true believer. As Henderson writes: ‘The United Australia Party would not survive opposition … the UAP would go into history as the political party of a particular moment, a coalition of forces created out of financial crises and never more than a pragmatic
Henderson’s biography is sympathetic. Quite rightly it places Lyons’ achievements in the context of his close and enduring marriage to Enid, a strong and formidable woman. They had 12 children; she herself would go on to sit in Cabinet as Vice President of the Executive Council in the first Menzies government after 1949. In the last year of his life Joe would say in a letter to Enid: ‘I’m always longing for the time when, if God spares us, we can be together in our own beautiful home forgetting all the problems of politics.’ They were the words of a man who found in his marriage the bedrock of his existence.
Drawing heavily as it does on correspondence between Joe and Enid, the book is a reminder of how communications have changed. Joe Lyons led Australia at a time when daily letter-writing between husbands and wives was commonplace.
Lyons, however, was no slouch in adapting to new technology. In 1931 the newly formed United Australia Party produced newsreel pieces of Lyons for use in cinemas during that year’s election campaign. He also reacted well to radio, then still in its infancy.
The most interesting part in this book is the Labor implosion during Scullin’s time as Prime Minister, which resulted in Lyons leaving the ALP and joining forces with former political opponents. This led to the formation of the United Australia Party which would go on to win the 1931 election, thus condemning the Scullin Labor administration to be the only one in Australian history to have been turfed out after only one term in government.
Henderson’s book helps to validate the argument of some that, far from Lyons having left the Labor party, the Labor party left Joe Lyons. His point of departure from the economic policies of the Scullin government was his adherence to strong anti-inflationary responses to the Depression.
This had been the initial Scullin government reaction. It was not Lyons who changed, rather Scullin himself who, along with Ted Theodore, prematurely restored to the job of Treasurer, crumbled under the wrecking ball tactics of that provincial political terrorist Jack Lang. It was Lang’s overweening influence on the Federal Labor caucus which forced a change of tack by Scullin, Theodore and others, thus contributing to the departure of Lyons. Lyons left Labor continuing to support the initial Scullin position.
Baldly stated, that analysis show Lyons in a favourable light. There is little doubt that elements of personal ambition were part of his motivation. The central fact, however, cannot be contested: Lyons opposed the debt repudiation policies of Lang, which had contaminated the Scullin administration. As Scullin’s trouncing at the polls in 1931 showed, the Australian people supported this more conservative approach.
For eight years, Joe Lyons presided over the nation, which gradually, but steadily, pulled out of the Great Depression. On his death, the New York Times headlined its report ‘The school teacher who beat the Depression’. Henderson’s book reminds the reader of some illuminating economic growth figures. Between 1929 and 1940, real GDP growth in the US was only 1.6 per cent. By comparison, over the same period, it was 16.6 per cent in Australia and 24.6 per cent in Britain. Even allowing, as one must, for different stages of growth in those countries in the late 1920s, those figures underline how slowly was the US recovery compared with that of others.
As Anne Henderson herself points out, this supports the argument advanced by the American writer Amity Shlaes in her book The Forgotten Man that Roosevelt’s warmly praised New Deal did far less to lift America from depression than popular belief has it. It was certainly the case that unemployment in the US did not return to more normal levels until the country entered the second world war. In his response to the ominous rise of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Lyons’ thinking was very much part of the mainstream. Like Curtin, Menzies and many others, he supported the appeasement policies of Chamberlain.
In a wonderful vignette, the author reminds us that the tyranny of distance dominated Australian politics in Lyons’ time. Lyons went to Western Australia to campaign for the No case in the secession plebiscite of 1933. He thought it necessary, because of the time he might be away from Canberra, to appoint John Latham as Acting Prime Minister in his absence!
The evidence is that Joe Lyons’ simple, direct style made him popular with the Australian people. He did not play his politics according to the doctrines of tribal bitterness and was under no illusions about the nature of his calling. He once wrote to Enid: ‘You must expect to be misrepresented and lied about as long as you are in politics. The alternative is to get out.’
John Howard’s Lazarus Rising (HarperCollins) is now out in paperback.