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The Lyons redrawn: PM gets his due

22 October 2011 765 views No Comment

FOLLOWING her excellent 2008 biography of Enid Lyons, Anne Henderson has produced an eminently readable life of Joseph Aloysius (Joe) Lyons, United Australia Party prime minister from January 6, 1932, until his death on Good Friday (April 7) 1939.

This thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated biography explains how Lyons was the first PM to win and survive three consecutive elections and is one of only two politicians to be a leader of both sides of federal politics.

Labor premier of his native Tasmania from 1923 to 1928, Lyons entered federal parliament in November 1929 during the Depression to be a key figure in Jim Scullin’s Labor government, first as postmaster-general, then as acting treasurer.

After rejecting the reformist economic theories of controversial former Queensland premier E.G. “Red Ted” Theodore, and those of the much more militant and fiscally loopy NSW Labor premier Jack Lang, Lyons resigned from the ALP and aligned himself with the conservatives. For this he has long been derided as a Labor rat.

The son of Irish migrants (father Michael was a compulsive gambler), Lyons was born in 1879. A staunch Catholic, the hardworking Lyons started his career as a popular, politically inclined schoolmaster in rural Tasmania. In 1909 he was elected as a Labor member to the state parliament.

This was where, in 1913, the 32-year-old Lyons met his wife-to-be, Enid Burnell, when she was a 15-year-old student, and a Methodist to boot!

Fortunately, many of their private letters have survived and these demonstrate just how passionate and long-lasting was their relationship. After Enid converted to Catholicism, they married on April 28, 1915. Theirs was a rewarding and fecund personal and political union that produced 12 children. Four years after her husband’s death, Enid in 1943 became the first woman to win a seat in the House of Representatives.

Perhaps the most revealing chapter in this book is Caucus Wars. As Henderson explains, history has not been kind to “the people’s prime minister”. Because Lyons was a Labor politician who switched to the conservatives, “Labor historians have undermined his record or ignored it”. And because he was in some sense an outsider in the UAP, his years in the Lodge would “eventually be overshadowed by the formation of the Liberal Party in 1944 and the era of . . . Robert Menzies”.

Thus neither Liberal Party nor Labor Party would fully embrace him. Lyons’s early death in 1939 left his achievements to be “spoken for”, as Henderson puts it, by his talented wife in her powerful memoir, So We Take Comfort, and in many interviews about their life together. But her comments were often viewed by Lyons’s opponents as defensive and self-serving.

The fact is, as Henderson reveals, many of Lyons’s conservative colleagues “believed they had carried him in his first year or two on their side of the House”. At the same time, those among his former federal Labor colleagues who remained personal friends, such as Scullin and Ben Chifley, would never speak up for him publicly. Hence a picture has emerged of Lyons as a rather likable conciliator and vote-winner but not someone suited to high office and to the cut and thrust of federal parliamentary politics. Such a judgment, Henderson cogently argues, “ignores many of the facts”.

While the silver-haired Lyons was no slick-tongued orator, he appealed to many ordinary Australians as a leader who spoke with simplicity and often great common sense. Although cartoonists often drew him as a cuddly koala, Lyons was in fact a tough operator at a time of political and economic crisis, and a person and politician of considerable moral fortitude.

Hence it was, Henderson explains, that Australia thrice elected as prime minister a Tasmanian who on a superficial level would seem to be “one of the most unassuming of leaders to guide their nation through some of its darkest days”.

In this finely worked biography of the first Australian prime minister to die in office, Henderson makes a convincing case that Lyons, up to now, has not been afforded his rightful place in our political history. This book deserves a wide readership.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 35 books.

Joseph Lyons: The People’s Prime Minister, by Anne Henderson, NewSouth, 480pp, $49.95 (HB)
The Weekend Australian, October 22 – 23, 2011, REVIEW, Books, p.25