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Joseph Lyons

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Title: Joseph Lyons  
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Joseph Lyons

The Right Honourable
Joseph Lyons
10th Prime Minister of Australia
Elections: 1931, 1934, 1937
In office
6 January 1932 – 7 April 1939
Monarch George V
Edward VIII
George VI
Governor General Sir Isaac Isaacs
Lord Gowrie
Preceded by James Scullin
Succeeded by Earle Page
26th Premier of Tasmania
Elections: 1925, 1928
In office
25 October 1925 – 15 June 1928
Governor Sir James O'Grady
Preceded by Sir Walter Lee
Succeeded by Sir John McPhee
Member of the Australian Parliament for Wilmot
In office
12 October 1929 – 2 May 1939
Preceded by Llewellyn Atkinson
Succeeded by Lancelot Spurr
Personal details
Born Joseph Aloysius Lyons
(1879-09-15)15 September 1879
Stanley, Tasmania, British Empire
Died 7 April 1939(1939-04-07) (aged 59)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Political party Labor; United Australia
Spouse(s) Enid Lyons (1917-1939, his death)
Children 12
Alma mater Philip Smith Teachers' Training College
Religion Roman Catholicism

Joseph Aloysius Lyons, CH (15 September 1879 – 7 April 1939) was an Australian politician. He was Labor Premier of Tasmania from 1923 to 1928 and a Minister in the James Scullin government from 1929 until his resignation from the Labor Party in March 1931. He subsequently led the United Australia Party and was the tenth Prime Minister of Australia from January 1932 until his death.


  • Early life 1
  • State politics 2
  • Federal politics 3
  • Resignation from the Labor Party 4
  • Prime Minister 5
  • Death 6
    • Aftermath and legacy 6.1
  • Honours 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Early life

Lyons was born in Sydney, the grandson of Irish immigrants. His father, Michael Lyons, was a successful farmer who afterwards engaged in a butchery and bakery business, but lost this on account of bad health, and subsequently was forced to work as a labourer. His mother did much to keep the family of eight children together, but Joseph had to leave school at nine to work as a messenger and printer's devil. But with the assistance of two aunts, he was able to resume his education at the Philip Smith Teachers' Training College, Hobart, and became a teacher.[1] He also became an active trade unionist and was an early member of the Australian Labor Party in Tasmania.[1][2]

State politics

In 1909 Lyons was elected to the Tasmanian House of Assembly. From 1914 to 1916 he was Treasurer (finance minister) and Minister for Education and Railways in John Earle's state Labor government. As Education Minister he oversaw a number of reforms, including abolition of fees for state schools, improving teachers' pay and conditions, and founding Tasmania's first state high schools.[2]

In 1913, a participant in the Labor discussion groups, Eliza Burnell, introduced him to her 15 year-old daughter, Enid Burnell, a trainee teacher and they were married two years later.[3] She was a strong-minded woman who exercised great influence over Lyons, while raising their eleven children.

When the ALP split over conscription during the First World War in 1916, Earle, a pro-conscriptionist, followed Prime Minister Billy Hughes out of the Labor party. Like most Australians of Irish Catholic background, Lyons was an anti-conscriptionist and stayed in the Labor Party, becoming its new leader in Tasmania.[2]

He led the Labor opposition in the Tasmanian Parliament until 1923 when he became Premier, leading a minority ALP government. He held office until 1928, also serving as Treasurer during the whole period of his premiership. Lyons' government was cautious and pragmatic, establishing good relations with business and the conservative government in Canberra, but attracting some criticism from unionists within his own party. Labor narrowly lost the 1928 state election to the Nationalist Party.[1][2]

Federal politics

At the 1929 election, Lyons entered Federal politics, winning the seat of Wilmot in Labor's landslide victory under James Scullin. He was appointed Postmaster-General and Minister for Works and Railways.[3]

Joseph Lyons
When the Depression struck in 1930, the Scullin government split over its response. Lyons became the leading advocate within the government of orthodox finance and deflationary economic policies, and an opponent of the inflationary, proto-Keynesian policies of Treasurer Ted Theodore. Theodore was forced to resign over accusations of corruption in June 1930, and Scullin took over the Treasury portfolio in addition to the Prime Ministership. Lyons served as acting Treasurer from August 1930 to January 1931 while Scullin was in Britain for the Imperial Conference. In October 1930 Lyons announced his plan for recovery, insisting on the need to maintain a balanced budget and cut public spending and salaries, although also advising lower interest rates and the provision of greater credit for industry.[2]

His conservative economic approach won him support among business, but angered many in the Labor caucus, who wanted to expand the deficit to stimulate the economy, and were horrified at the prospect of cuts in salaries and government spending. Alienated by their attacks, Lyons began to consider suggestions from a group of his new business supporters, including influential members of the Melbourne Establishment, that he leave the government to take over the leadership of the conservative opposition.[2][3]

Resignation from the Labor Party

When Scullin returned in January 1931, he reappointed Theodore (as it had become clear Theodore would not be charged with corruption) to the Cabinet as Treasurer, which Lyons took as a rejection of his own policies. Lyons immediately resigned from the Cabinet, and then in March from the Labor Party. Accompanied by another senior minister in the Scullin government, James Fenton, and four other right-wing Labor MPs, he formed the "All for Australia League" and crossed the floor to sit on the opposition benches. The opposition Nationalist Party and the six dissident Labor MPs (as well as three conservative independent MPs) soon merged to form a new party, the United Australia Party.[2][3]

Joseph Lyons
Although the new party was basically the Nationalist Party under a new name, Lyons was chosen as leader of the party (and thus became Leader of the Opposition), with former Nationalist leader John Latham as his deputy. The UAP realised that Lyons, an affable family man with the common touch, was a far more electorally appealing figure than the aloof Latham. Additionally, his Labor background and his Catholicism would allow him to win traditional Labor support groups (working-class voters and Irish Catholics) over to what was essentially an upper- and middle-class conservative party.

In March, at about the same time as Lyons led his group of defectors from the right of the Labor Party across the floor, 5 left-wing NSW Labor MPs, supporters of New South Wales Premier Jack Lang, also split from the official Labor Party over the government's economic policies (for Lyons they had been too radical, for the Langites they were not radical enough), forming a "Lang Labor" group on the cross-benches and costing the government its majority in the House of Representatives. Late in the year, the Langite MPs supported a UAP no-confidence motion and brought the government down, forcing an early election.[3]

Prime Minister Joe Lyons and J J C Bradfield

At the 1931 election, Lyons and the UAP offered stable, orthodox financial policies, and portrayed an image of putting national unity above class conflict, while Labor remained split between the official party and the Langites. The result was a huge victory for the UAP, which took 34 seats against 18 seats for the two wings of the Labor Party combined. The new government was sworn in January 1932. Lyons became the third former Labor Party MP to become a non-Labor Prime Minister.

Lyons with wife Enid, first woman in the House of Representatives.

Prime Minister

The UAP fought the election in the traditional non-Labor Coalition with the Country Party (then led by Sir Earle Page). However, the massive swing to the UAP left it only four seats short of a majority in its own right, and Lyons' position was strong enough that he was able to govern alone during his first term. After the 1934 election resulted in the government's loss of eight seats, Lyons was forced to invite the Country Party into his government. Until 1935 Lyons served as Treasurer as well as Prime Minister. In office, Lyons followed the same conservative financial policy he had advocated during the Scullin government, cutting public spending and debt.[4] He benefited politically from the gradual worldwide recovery that took place after 1932.

As far as foreign policy was concerned, Lyons was a firm though by no means servile ally of Britain, and also supported the League of Nations. His government tended to support the conciliation of the dictatorships of Germany, Italy, and Japan to avoid another world war, but he still increased military spending. As a result he ensured an expansion of the armed forces, the opening of an aircraft factory, and the planning of new munitions factories and shipyards.

At the 1934 election the ambitious and talented Robert Menzies entered Parliament, and was immediately seen as Lyons's successor, although he denied that he was seeking to displace Lyons.

The government won a third term at the 1937 election, with 44 of 74 seats and 50.6 percent of the two-party preferred vote against a reunited Labor Party led by John Curtin. As the international situation darkened in the late 1930s, Lyons, a long-term pacifist, became increasingly despondent. Most politicians expected that he would soon be replaced by Menzies, who resigned from Cabinet in protest at the government's inaction on the national insurance scheme.


On 7 April 1939, in Sydney,Darlinghurst Lyons died suddenly of a heart attack – the first Australian Prime Minister to die in office, he was buried in Devonport, Tasmania.[5] He was 59 years old.[2]

Aftermath and legacy

Lyons was one of the most genuinely popular men to hold the office of Prime Minister, and his death caused widespread grief.[4] His genial, laid-back appearance often led to cartoon portrayal as a sleepy koala.[2] A devout Catholic, he was the second Catholic to become Prime Minister, after his immediate predecessor Scullin, and the only non-Labor Catholic Prime Minister until Tony Abbott.

Lyons is the only person in Australian history to have been Prime Minister, ), and the only Australian Prime Minister who was in office continuously throughout a monarch's entire reign (albeit a very short one, the 11 month-reign of Edward VIII).

The Lyons family in the 1930s on the lawn of The Lodge.

Dame Enid Lyons later went into politics in her own right, in 1943 becoming the first woman to sit in the House of Representatives, and later the first woman Cabinet Minister in the Menzies' Liberal government. Two of their sons later became involved in Tasmanian state politics in the Liberal Party: Kevin Lyons was Deputy Premier between 1969 and 1972 and Brendan Lyons served in the ministry of Robin Gray during the 1980s.


The Australian federal Division of Lyons is named jointly in honour of Joseph Lyons and his widow Dame Enid Lyons.

The Canberra suburb of Lyons, Australian Capital Territory is named in honour of Joseph Lyons.

In 1975 he was honoured on a postage stamp bearing his portrait issued by Australia Post.[6]

See also

Bust of Joseph Lyons by sculptor Wallace Anderson located in the Prime Ministers Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens


  1. ^ a b Serle, Percival. "Lyons, Joseph Aloysius (1879–1939)".  
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hart, P. R. (1986). "Lyons, Joseph Aloysius (1879–1939)".  
  3. ^ a b c d e "Joseph Lyons, before". Australia's Prime Ministers.  
  4. ^ a b "Joseph Lyons, in office". Australia's Prime Ministers.  
  5. ^ "Fast facts: Joseph Lyons". Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  6. ^ Australian stamp

Further reading

  • Henderson, Anne (2000), 'Joseph Aloysius Lyons,' in Michelle Grattan (ed.), Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland, Sydney, New South Wales, pages 152–167. ISBN 1-86436-756-3
  • Hughes, Colin A (1976), Mr Prime Minister. Australian Prime Ministers 1901–1972, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, Ch.11. ISBN 0-19-550471-2

External links

  • Tasmanian Parliamentary library profile
Political offices
Preceded by
John Earle
Leader of the Opposition of Tasmania
Succeeded by
Edward Hobbs (acting)
Preceded by
Sir Walter Lee
Premier of Tasmania
Succeeded by
John McPhee
Preceded by
John McPhee
Leader of the Opposition of Tasmania
Succeeded by
Ben Watkins (acting)
Preceded by
William Gibson
Succeeded by
Albert Green
Minister for Works and Railways
Preceded by
John Latham
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
James Scullin
Preceded by
James Scullin
Prime Minister
Succeeded by
Earle Page
Preceded by
E G Theodore
Succeeded by
Richard Casey
Preceded by
Charles Hawker
Minister for Commerce
Succeeded by
Frederick Stewart
Preceded by
Billy Hughes
Minister for Health
Succeeded by
Billy Hughes
Minister for Repatriation
Preceded by
Billy Hughes
Vice-President of the Executive Council
Succeeded by
Billy Hughes
Preceded by
Archdale Parkhill
Minister for Defence
Succeeded by
Harold Thorby
Party political offices
New political party Leader of the United Australia Party
Succeeded by
Robert Menzies
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
Llewellyn Atkinson
Member for Wilmot
Succeeded by
Lancelot Spurr
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