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Joseph Aloysius (Joe) Lyons (1879–1939)

by P. R. Hart and C. J. Lloyd

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Joseph Aloysius (Joe) Lyons (1879-1939), schoolteacher, premier and prime minister, was born on 15 September 1879 at Stanley, Tasmania, son of Irish-born parents Michael Henry Lyons and his wife Ellen, née Carroll. His early education was at St Joseph's Convent School, Ulverstone. Michael Lyons had little success as a hotelkeeper, farmer, butcher and baker. In 1887 he lost all of the family's money speculating on the Melbourne Cup. He suffered a breakdown and became unable to care for his wife and eight children. When 9 young Joe helped to support the family by working as errand boy, farm labourer and printer's devil for the Coastal News at Ulverstone. He was saved from drudgery by two aunts, the Misses Carroll, who supported him when he returned to school at 12.

Guided by a sympathetic teacher at Stanley State School, John Scott, Lyons was appointed a monitor, assisting with the education of younger children at an annual salary of £15. He became a pupil-teacher in 1895 and qualified in 1901, teaching at small country schools. At Smithton, Lyons took up debating and developed quickly as a platform speaker. Much influenced by the Irish radicalism of his mother, and perceiving the strength of the Protestant landholders in the small communities of northern Tasmania, he joined the North-West League of the Workers' Political League, the forerunner of the Australian Labor Party in Tasmania. But the Education Department warned him against engaging in politics. It was the first of many clashes between Lyons and the department, but he soon resumed political activity as a critic of the education system.

In 1907 Lyons became one of the pupils at Tasmania's first teacher training college. He taught in Launceston and Hobart, then resigned to contest the State seat of Wilmot for Labor in 1909. He campaigned vigorously. Horsewhipped by a local landholder whom he had criticized, Lyons was awarded damages and believed that the incident enabled him to win the election. In parliament he at first was inclined to talk too much and seemed to take himself too seriously. The Labor caucus lacked talent, and Lyons took a lead, concentrating on educational issues such as the need for post-primary state schools and equal pay for women teachers. He urged the breaking up of big estates, factory legislation, free education and medical treatment for children, a state-controlled medical scheme, aid for small farmers and reform of the Legislative Council.

In 1912 Lyons was elected president of the State branch, and in January 1914 became deputy leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party. From April 1914 to April 1916 he was treasurer, minister for education, and minister for railways in the Earle Labor government. He was able to reform the Education Department, abolishing school fees and improving pay and conditions for teachers, although he failed to effect equal pay. He authorized the building of several schools, including the first high schools in Hobart and Launceston.

Lyons married Enid Muriel Burnell on 28 April 1915, after a short courtship. He was 35 and minister for education, she was a 17-year-old trainee teacher. His request raised some problems for Enid's father, who pointed out that if the suitor had not been Mr Lyons there would have been objections on the grounds of age and religion. Enid became an enthusiastic convert to Catholicism.

Lyons always abhorred violence, opposing capital punishment and refusing to participate in wartime recruiting, although he respected volunteers. He campaigned strongly for a 'No' vote in the conscription referenda of 1916-17, arguing that there was no moral right to vote away another's life. The war years rekindled his Irish nationalism. He became vice-president of the Hobart United Irish League in 1916, describing the leaders of the Easter Rising as misguided heroes and urging immediate Home Rule. When the A.L.P. split over conscription, Lyons replaced Earle as leader on 2 November 1916.

After he had matriculated from the Teachers' Training College in 1907, Lyons's intellectual development had been largely based on his reading. He concentrated on nineteenth-century English poets, Charles Dickens, Henry Lawson and Australian nationalist writers. He was a member of a Labor Party discussion group of Fabian hue formed by Lyndhurst Giblin. Between 1909 and 1922 Lyons described himself as a socialist, establishing a reputation as a firebrand. Despite his rhetoric, he did not have a distinctive political ideology and his socialism was thoroughly reformist and ethical. His revulsion at the carnage of World War I, which he blamed on 'the pernicious capitalistic system', spurred him to passionately advocate a new social order through 'revolution … by peaceful means'. After the war Lyons became more cautious and pragmatic, influenced by his prospects in a conservative electorate. The Labor Party was defeated in the 1919 State election. Lyons himself was further badly beaten in December when he stood for the Federal seat of Darwin.

As leader of the Opposition, Lyons strongly criticized the finance policies of Sir Walter Lee's Nationalist government. His development as a consensual politician was demonstrated in 1922 when he described himself as a friend of all members of the Legislative Assembly. In 1923 he argued that the A.L.P. was not sectional, and was the only party capable of developing comprehensive State policies. These attitudes made him more acceptable to many Nationalists than their own leaders.

In October 1923 several Nationalists revolted and brought down Lee's government. Lyons became leader of a minority Labor government with their support. He proceeded cautiously and impartially. With the advice of economists such as Giblin and (Sir) Douglas Copland, and the approval of the Opposition and businessmen, he worked to reform Tasmania's financial structure, pruning expenses, imposing new taxes, reducing loan expenditure, and presenting the State accounts honestly. His successes and the approval of the State Nationalists gave him greater access to the Bruce-Page government and also to the Commonwealth Treasury.

Lyons's tactful skills helped in the return of his government in 1925. He sought new industries such as wood pulp and mining. He referred to the Opposition leader (Sir) John McPhee as his 'colleague and mate' and cultivated the press, but was chagrined when the Nationalists reverted to hard party politics in 1928 and attacked him for rising unemployment and economic stagnation. In the 1928 elections Labor won a slender majority of the vote, but the Nationalists won sixteen of the thirty seats. McPhee became premier, praising Lyons for his statesmanship and offering to serve under him should he leave the A.L.P.

Lyons had antagonized sections of his party, particularly the small Left group centred on Hobart trade union leaders, which considered his brief espousal of the 'One Big Union' and the socialization objective in the early 1920s as insincere, and his consensual politics as a betrayal. In 1924 he had contemplated moving to the Federal parliament, 'the better to fight for just treatment' for Tasmania there. Losing the premiership and offside with sections of his party, Lyons was undecided about his future. He made soundings for appointment as a Federal arbitration commissioner. With the backing of the influential Hobart Mercury, he considered standing for the Senate, but at the request of the Federal A.L.P. leader, James Scullin, he stood for the Federal seat of Wilmot and won convincingly at the elections in October 1929. Scullin appointed him postmaster-general and a senior member of cabinet. Lyons was an established figure in the labour movement, and apart from Edward Theodore was the only minister with administrative experience.

Lyons found the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party uncongenial. Accustomed to the parochial Tasmanian Labor Party, he felt little kinship with the machine politics of the Sydney and Melbourne trades halls. He was content to administer his department and made no comment or interjection in parliament unrelated to his portfolio or Tasmania. This preoccupation with administrative and State matters did not save him from caucus critics who felt that his policies were too orthodox.

Imbued with respect for conventional economics and orthodox finance, like most Australians of his era, Lyons equated government debt with personal debt and insisted that all commitments had to be fully honoured. He opposed inflation and stressed the importance of balanced budgets and strict loan repayments. He was aware of Keynes's doctrines, probably through Giblin, but felt that, even if they were correct, experiment was inappropriate for the small Australian economy. Lyons became acting treasurer in August 1930, after Theodore had stood aside, and attended the meeting of Federal and State leaders which adopted the Melbourne Plan, designed to adjust the Australian economy to the impact of the Depression. The British financier Sir Otto Niemeyer described Lyons and Scullin as 'entirely at sea … like a couple of rabbits popping their heads out of the hole'. Despite lack of experience in Federal fiscal administration, Lyons assumed responsibility for implementing the Melbourne Plan which hinged on budgetary restraint. In the absence of Scullin in London, Lyons and the acting prime minister, James Fenton, took the full brunt of criticism within caucus. Lyons was forced to defend orthodox policies against the radicalism of Theodore and those caucus members who supported the New South Wales Labor leader, Jack Lang.

Because of temperament and Tasmanian experience Lyons was susceptible to the cautious advice of economists such as Giblin, Copland and (Sir) Leslie Melville, and the orthodox banking principles of Sir Robert Gibson and (Sir) Alfred Davidson. He believed that significant inflation would bring economic and political chaos, although he was prepared to accept a degree of controlled credit expansion to stimulate industry. Lyons proposed to balance the budget, and to reduce government spending, wages and possibly pensions. A sequence of tumultuous caucus meetings began on 28 October 1930. Lyons presented a plan prepared by the Treasury, proposing the unpegging of exchange rates, stabilization of internal prices through monetary control, reduction of interest rates, and provision of Commonwealth Bank credit for industry. His mildly adventurous proposals were rejected in favour of Theodore's more sweeping proposals for credit creation. Lyons secured an adjournment of the House of Representatives to give the government a chance to devise a compromise. When the whip gagged Opposition expressions of jubilation at cabinet's embarrassment, Lyons voted with the Opposition. He returned to cabinet and threatened resignation if the salaries of senior public servants were not reduced. He won on this issue, but the larger conflict over economic policy was not resolved. Against the advice of Lyons and Theodore, caucus voted to postpone repayment of an overseas loan falling due on 15 December. Lyons said that he would not implement this decision, threatened resignation and went ahead with plans to convert the loan. Scullin endorsed his actions in cables and publicly praised him, enabling him to defy caucus, which deferred further debate.

Lyons's protracted struggle with caucus and his successful defiance gave him national prominence. With assistance from committees of businessmen and non-Labor politicians, the loan was over-subscribed. Lyons spearheaded the successful campaign. But his stature deteriorated within the A.L.P. On 4 December 1930 the Opposition leader, (Sir) John Latham, called for national unity to fight the Depression. Lyons agreed, but caucus rejected Latham's proposal. Lyons was shouted down and rumours were spread that he wanted a coalition government. He vehemently denied it, and challenged his opponents to move a motion of no confidence against him.

Lyons's co-operation with a loan conversion committee in Victoria had brought him into association with Melbourne businessmen, civic leaders and non-Labor politicians. A small body, known simply as 'the Group', was formed to sponsor him as a national political leader and to secure his defection from the A.L.P. Its principal members were the financier Staniforth Ricketson, a former journalist whom Lyons had known in Tasmania, and (Sir) Robert Menzies. Through Menzies Lyons obtained access to National Party networks, including the influential National Union which was the party's principal financial sponsor. Other members of 'the Group' promoted him to powerful business and press interests.

Lyons had remained in the government out of loyalty to Scullin, and to resist the radical proposals of Theodore and the increasingly militant Lang. When Scullin returned in mid-January 1931 he affirmed Lyons's policies, but rejected his pleas to take over as treasurer. Scullin restored Theodore as deputy prime minister and treasurer on 26 January, although Theodore had not then been exonerated on the Mungana allegations. Lyons was affronted, believing that Theodore should clear his name before returning to cabinet. With his close supporter Fenton, Lyons resigned from cabinet on 29 January, although both remained in the caucus. Lyons consulted closely with 'the Group' and other supporters in Melbourne. He likened his circumstances at this time to Mahomet's coffin, suspended between heaven and earth and with no true home. Powerful citizen movements emerged, opposing party politics and promoting the tenets of 'sane finance', looking to Lyons to provide non-party leadership.

The moves which precipitated his departure from the A.L.P. are obscure, but 'the Group' and the National Union were principal factors. Lyons agonized for some weeks, but after caucus accepted Theodore's proposals for a fiduciary note issue, he sounded out his few Labor supporters and prepared to defect. Early in March he went to Melbourne and informed 'the Group'. On 13 March he voted for a motion of no confidence in the Scullin government, vindicating his action in a powerful speech, in many ways the finest of his long political career. With four other defectors he formed a 'little band' which had no electoral support; but he shrewdly cultivated the citizen groups with an eye to forming a base, while continuing negotiations with the National Party. By the end of March there was tacit acceptance that Latham would step down for Lyons in a new political movement embracing the citizens' groups. In April these called on Lyons to serve as their leader, and the Nationalists agreed to pursue the unity of all opponents of the Scullin government. Lyons was unwilling to supplant Latham who, however, was forced to step aside by Nationalist pressure. A United Australia Movement was formed which ultimately incorporated the National Party and the principal citizens' groups. In the Federal parliament, the Lyons group merged with the Nationalists to form the United Australia Party with Latham as Lyons's deputy. Lyons announced the changes in parliament on 7 May amid a torrent of denunciation and recrimination from his former colleagues.

Lyons was absorbed in organizing the U.A.P., particularly at the electoral level, leaving much of the parliamentary leadership to Latham. Lyons's indifferent parliamentary performance aroused criticism but his leadership was firmly entrenched by a decisive victory in the elections of December 1931. The U.A.P. won an absolute majority and he formed a government after negotiations with the Country Party had broken down. His immediate task as prime minister was to counter Lang who had sought to repudiate overseas loan payments. In a series of skilful manoeuvres largely devised by Latham and pursued vigorously by Lyons, Lang was forced into increasingly desperate reponses which led to his dismissal by the governor, Sir Philip Game. The U.A.P. won convincing victories in New South Wales and Victoria in 1932: Australian politics lost much of the turbulence of 1930-32, and Lyons governed for seven years in a climate of relative stability, buttressed by gradual economic improvement. He easily won the 1934 elections, but the U.A.P. lost its absolute majority and he negotiated a coalition with the Country Party under (Sir) Earle Page who became deputy prime minister. The coalition was re-established after Lyons's convincing victory in the 1937 elections.

Lyons was content to apply the orthodox economic policies embodied in the Premiers' Plan. He also sought to rekindle the development and welfare objectives of the Bruce-Page government of the 1920s. He tried without success to develop Northern Australia by charter companies, and sought expansion of public works programmes with emphasis on housing and urban infrastructure. He was frustrated in introducing welfare policies by lack of funds and from the opposition on constitutional grounds of Menzies, deputy leader since the 1934 elections. Lyons sponsored a national insurance scheme which parliament approved in 1938, but the Act was never proclaimed. He took few initiatives in foreign affairs, contenting himself with the reiteration of Imperial sentiments and stressing the primacy of the British navy in Australia's defence. He maintained his opposition to conscription as pressure for rearmament grew in the late 1930s, imposing it on his cabinet colleagues in a rare assertion of policy. Latham's earlier enthusiastic efforts to prosecute communists, and the vigorous censorship and restrictive immigration policies applied by some ministers had given the Lyons government a repressive tinge.

In his early years as prime minister, Lyons relied on experienced colleagues such as Latham, Bruce and (Sir) Walter Massy-Greene. These ministers had left the cabinet by 1934 and Lyons depended on Page and on younger colleagues from his own party, notably Richard (Lord) Casey. His relationship with Menzies was ambivalent. There are hints in Lyons's correspondence with his wife that he expected to make way for Menzies after the 1934 elections, but was persuaded to remain by the National Union which considered Menzies immature.

Lyons's skills as a consensual politician and co-ordinator were fully deployed in the management of a difficult cabinet. He acted largely as chairman, using his abilities to present decisions in the best light. This approach led him into errors of judgement, notably over the trade diversion controversy of 1936-37 and the exclusion from Australia in 1936 of a British passport-holder, Mrs Mabel Freer, apparently on moral grounds. For the most part, Lyons was able to contain tensions and avoid political mishaps. His touch with his parliamentary party was just as sure although he sustained occasional rebuffs, notably over tariff adjustments and the timing of the 1937 elections. Much of his energy was devoted to co-ordinating and administering the loosely organized U.A.P. He spent considerable time publicizing his government, holding frequent press conferences and briefing journalists, editors and newspaper proprietors. He sought the assistance of private enterprise groups in economic reconstruction.

Lyons won three successive elections convincingly, a performance then unmatched by any other prime minister. His victories in 1931 and 1934 were certainly assisted by bitter divisions within the A.L.P., but he overcame formidable difficulties, including his own declining health and disillusionment within the electorate and the U.A.P., to defeat a rejuvenated Labor Party under John Curtin in 1937. Lyons innovatively made extensive use of air travel and placed emphasis on radio broadcasting. His parliamentary skills were outstanding, Menzies describing him as the finest parliamentarian he had seen in action.

Despite increasing exhaustion, Lyons maintained the stability of his government until the final months before his death, but his increasing desperation was revealed in letters to his wife. He wrote in May 1938: 'It is just dreadful to come back to what always awaits me here [Canberra] but I suppose one day it will come to an end'. He found solace and relief in official visits to Europe and the United States of America in 1935 and 1937. Menzies, who accompanied him in 1935, effusively praised his extempore speeches and public performance, although he noted with distaste the relish of Lyons and his wife for official travel, observing that both were 'over-inclined to extract the last drop of juice from the orange'. Lyons was deeply affected by his visits to Australian war cemeteries in France and Belgium, which reinforced his pacifist and anti-conscription convictions.

His final months were miserable as his government became increasingly unstable. Apart from Menzies, there were other threats, particularly from Charles Hawker. According to Enid Lyons, Hawker was on his way to Canberra to challenge Lyons when he was killed in a plane crash in October 1938. Lyons lost the support of (Sir) Henry Gullett to whom he had been extremely loyal during the trade diversion controversy, and he came to doubt even Casey's loyalty. Although Menzies never issued a direct challenge, he made pointed public comments about lack of national leadership; through 1938-39 his claims were advanced in the newspapers of Sir Keith Murdoch, previously an enthusiastic supporter of Lyons. He retained the support of the National Union, the U.A.P. State branches and most federal parliamentarians, and was able to thwart the implicit Menzies challenge in the final months of 1938. On 14 March 1939 Menzies resigned from cabinet because of the deferment of the national insurance scheme. Sensing that a direct challenge to his leadership was inevitable, Lyons urged Bruce to return from London to take over, but he insisted on impossible conditions, including a national government. Despite these pressures there were signs in this period that Lyons was emerging as a more assertive and decisive figure, ready to confront his opponents. There is evidence that he would not have submitted to Menzies without a struggle.

Lyons died in Sydney Hospital on 7 April 1939 from coronary occlusion. After memorial services in Sydney and Canberra, his body was conveyed in state by an Australian navy vessel to Devonport in Tasmania where he was buried. He was survived by (Dame) Enid, six daughters and five sons of whom Kevin became deputy premier of Tasmania in the Liberal ministry of Angus Bethune. Lyons's estate amounted to £344.

Lyons was the first prime minister to use the official lodge in Canberra as a family home. The large family was often split, with Lyons looking after three or four of the children at the lodge with the assistance of domestic staff. He was often photographed in the grounds flanked by his children. His closest political ally and adviser was his wife, who became a minister in the post-war Menzies government. His devotion to her emerges in the tender letters of their courtship, one of the few surviving documentations of the intimate relationships of an Australian prime minister. His first act as prime minister in January 1932 was to write to Enid, 'because whatever honours or distinctions come are ours, not mine'. His letters through the 1930s reflected his distress at frequent family separations and his bouts of despair: 'I wish they would defeat us and we'd be out of our misery and get a little happiness'. Other letters display a vulgar touch: 'Foll says the Country Party are like copulating cats, getting all they want and crying out all the time'. Above all, the correspondence shows his spirit of resignation and his firm belief that he had done his duty: 'Neither you nor I can put everything right and we saved Australia from ruin. Think of the homes that are happy because of what we did and realise that no-one is unhappy because of what we did'.

Lyons was plump, of medium stature, upright in bearing, with blue eyes and an unruly mop of blond hair. Caricatured as a koala, he had a thin, longish nose and a high forehead, and in his later years walked with a marked limp, the legacy of a car accident. His voice was a little high pitched. He was an enthusiastic sportsman in his youth, playing cricket and football, cycling, and running in the Burnie Gift. He attributed his physical durability to the residue of fitness built up when young. A portrait by William McInnes hangs in Parliament House. In later years Lyons sought relaxation with occasional games of golf and billiards, and visits to the cinema with his driver. As prime minister he attended Mass each Sunday at Manuka parish church in Canberra. He was a moderate drinker, usually of Scotch.

Despite his apparent simplicity and the conventional stereotype of 'Honest Joe', Lyons had an enigmatic and elusive personality. The New South Wales premier, (Sir) Bertram Stevens, who admired and respected him, felt that there was a studied aspect to his populism, although it was fundamental to his nature. (Dame) Mary Gilmore emphasized his populist appeal, describing him as 'deeper and wider than party'. Charles Hawker, who opposed his leadership, described his conservatism as that 'of the man with small savings, a home of [his] own'. Lyons's critics stressed his plebeian qualities and their manifestation in his political leadership. According to the Labor newspaper, the World, Lyons was the victim of a suburban personality, 'an eminently well-meaning dullard'. Perhaps the greatest tribute to his political skills was the rapid disintegration of the U.A.P. after his death. His major achievements were reform of the Tasmanian financial structure and the stability of government he brought to Australian society during the difficult years of the Depression and the drift to World War II.

Select Bibliography

  • E. M. Lyons, So We Take Comfort (Lond, 1965)
  • E. M. Lyons, Among the Carrion Crows (Adel, 1972)
  • P. Hart, J. A. Lyons: A Political Biography (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1967)
  • C. J. Lloyd, The Formation and Development of the UAP, 1929-37 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1984)
  • Joseph Lyons official papers (National Archives of Australia)
  • Joseph Lyons personal papers (National Library of Australia)
  • A. Clark, taped interviews with Dame Enid Lyons (privately held)
  • Dame Enid Lyons personal papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

P. R. Hart and C. J. Lloyd, 'Lyons, Joseph Aloysius (Joe) (1879–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012