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Joseph Lyons: the man that overthrew a first term Labor PM

By Alexander Morgan - posted Thursday, 7 March 2013


Julia Gillard has a few reasons to claim her rise and tenure as Australia's Prime Minister has been more difficult than some of her male predecessors. Gillard, from a humble working class immigrant family, has had to battle a never ending political battle since her decision to seek preselection for the seat of Lalor at the 1998 federal election. As Prime Minister she has had to contended with; the ambiguous treatment of her gender in relation to her political career from the mainstream media, constant leadership speculation from her predecessor Kevin Rudd, uncertain economic conditions following long lasting recessions in Europe and the United States and a certain feeling of illegitimacy following the way she took office and her failure to secure a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010.

Although however tough Gillard's political career may (or may not) be, she could nevertheless have learned a number of lessons from Australia's tenth Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons. The United Australia Party Prime Minister from 1932-1939 has, like Gillard, overthrown a first term Labor Prime Minister, led the nation through a global financial crisis and had a career persistently interrupted with leadership speculation. The difference being that Lyons was able to overcome his challenges to become the first federal leader to win three successive federal elections, until his health ultimately succumbed.

Unfortunately for Lyons, often described as 'the People's Prime Minister', contemporary historians have largely ignored the achievements of his lengthy Prime Ministership in favour of his successor Robert Menzies. However, in his day Lyons was arguably Australia's most popular Prime Minister along with his popular wife, Enid, who forged a successful political career of her own. Lyons was a man with a passion for education, serving as both a teacher and as an education minister, a man who was one of the first advocates for equal pay for women, and despite his popularity amongst the public he was a man who gained a number of enemies over the way he ascended to the Lodge. If Lyons were alive today, there is no doubt that he and Gillard would have a few things to talk about.

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The most striking similarity between the two leaders is the fact that both were responsible for bringing down a first term Labor Prime Minister; Gillard bringing down Rudd (2007-2010), and Lyons bringing down James Scullin (1929-1931). Furthermore both of these leadership changes occurred during the midst of global economic downturns and were strongly influenced by the actions of the NSW Right faction. In the case of Lyons, it was the Scullin Governments poor handling of the Great Depression and tumultuous influence of the Labor caucus by Premier Jack Lang's supporters in Canberra that made Lyons both abandon Scullin and the ALP.

The similarities between Gillard and Lyons don't end there. Whilst initially Gillard governed with a comfortable House majority, the 2010 federal election resulted in Gillard leading a minority government with the support of various independent and the Greens. Lyons too led a minority government after the newly formed United Australia Party swept away the ALP in the 1931 election and governed without its traditional coalition with the Country Party. With the Labor Party in tatters following the 1931 split, Lyons was able to govern comfortably until losing a number of seats in the 1934 election, which forced the UAP and CP back into a formal alliance

Another feature of the Gillard and Lyons similarities is the fact that the media at the time, particularly the Murdoch media, constantly reported speculation about the leadership of the two Prime Ministers. The battle between Rudd and Gillard has been a particular favourite with the media, even after Rudd was overwhelmingly defeated by Gillard 73-31 in the February 2012 leadership ballot. Also reported numerous times is the speculation that either Bill Shorten, Simon Crean, and Stephen Smith could rise to the Labor leadership. And despite the fact that the 2013 election is just six months away, the leadership speculation has continued.

This constant leadership speculation was not an uncommon feature back during Lyons' reign. Many member of the UAP both inside and outside the caucus had many doubts of the ability Lyons, being a former Labor member, to lead a party consisting of mostly politicians from the former Nationalist Party. As reported in historian Anne Henderson's book Joseph Aloysius Lyons: The People's Prime Minister, Lyons was subjected to strong speculation not only from former Prime Minister Stanley Bruce, who was Lyons' Ambassador to Great Britain, but also from future Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Menzies was often seen as the natural successor to the aging Lyons and the rivalry came to a point where in 1939 Menzies resigned from the cabinet, just months before Lyons' death.

But Menzies was not the only leadership threat to Lyons. Bruce, whose government was bought down on the floor of the House some years earlier, was asked on numerous occasions to return from London to reassume the Prime Ministership. On one such occasion an agreement was said to have taken place between Richard Casey and Bruce in which he would take over from Lyons on the condition that he would be an independent member leading over a national government. Clearly this agreement did not eventuate as it was Menzies who would become Prime Minister in 1939.

Undoubtedly Gillard has faced a number of challenges in becoming Australia's first female Prime Minister, but having said that, Lyons certainly dealt with quite a few more issues of his own. For instance, Lyons was never afforded a complete education having been forced at the age of nine to take up part time work after his father gambled away his family's security. From there, Lyons gradually rose up the teaching ranks after serving his time teaching in run down and ill equipped Tasmanian classrooms, with Lyons often spending hours per day walking to and from the local schools. Furthermore from the time when his political career began, to the time he died, Lyons was often challenged by others over his Catholic beliefs to a far greater extent than Gillard is over her atheist beliefs.

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In his State political career Lyons simultaneously served as Tasmanian Premier and Treasurer from 1923 to 1928 (whilst initially leading a minority government) and led Tasmania through a devastating credit crisis by bypassing the authority Legislative Council, raising numerous constitutional issues. When he moved to federal politics in 1929 he immediately became a Cabinet Minister and then served as Acting Treasurer during the midst of the Great Depression. Then following his split with the Labor Party in 1931, he crushed the ALP at the subsequent election to become both Prime Minister and Treasurer less than three years after entering federal politics (a record that even Bob Hawke could not beat). As Prime Minister Lyons managed a boisterous conservative party made up of former Prime Ministers Billy Hughes, Stanley Bruce and future Prime Ministers in Earl Page, Robert Menzies, and John McEwen. To put further challenges on his plate, after struggling through the effects of the Great Depression Lyons was to begin preparing his nation for an inevitable war with Germany, Italy and Japan. Through all of this, Lyons' greatest achievement was said to be successful marriage to Enid and bearing twelve healthy children.

Hence no matter what troubles Gillard has been through, it certainly appears as though little of it compares to Lyons. Lyons fought many of the same battles Gillard did and then more, as he successfully retained his popularity and Prime Ministership for over seven years throughout the most difficult of circumstances. Lyons' story is nothing short of remarkable. It certainly puts Gillard's political struggles in perspective and it undoubtedly deserves to be told on a greater scale. Out of Australia's six longest serving Prime Ministers (Menzies, Howard, Hawke, Fraser, Hughes and Lyons), it is arguably Lyons that has been forgotten in the pages of history. It is somewhat unforgivable that his extraordinary, challenging, and controversial career is not better renowned. The challenge for Gillard is to attempt to create a narrative in which her Government will be remembered for the right reasons, and less for the lady that uttered the words "there will be no carbon tax under the Government I lead".

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About the Author

Alexander Morgan is a student in the Faculty of Arts at the University of New South Wales.

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