LYONS, Joseph Aloysius (1879-1939)

LYONS, Joseph Aloysius (1879-1939)
prime minister of Australia
was born at Circular Head near Stanley, Tasmania, on 15 September 1879. 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, a woman of courage and endurance, did much to keep the family of eight children together, but Joseph had to begin work at an early age. By the time he was 12 he had been an errand boy in a store, a boy in a newspaper office, and had done scrub-cutting and farm work. Then two aunts at Stanley found him a home and encouraged him in his work at the local state school. By the time he was 17 he had qualified as a teacher in the education department, and some years later he resumed his studies at the Philip Smith Teachers' Training College, Hobart. As a teacher in the education department he advocated educational reforms, and became sufficiently prominent to be the subject of a debate in the Tasmanian parliament. In 1909 he resigned from the department to become a candidate in the Labour interest for Wilmot, and was elected to the Tasmanian house of assembly. There he continued his interest in educational questions, and was able to do much to restore peace in the teaching service. He also fought successfully for the widening of educational facilities and the establishment of high schools in Tasmania. In April 1914 he became treasurer, minister for railways and for education in the J. Earle (q.v.) ministry. This ministry lasted for a few days over two years, including the beginning of the 1914-18 war, and Lyons as treasurer showed ability in managing the finances of the state, and helping to keep industry going until 15 April 1916 when the ministry was defeated. He had opposed conscription, and when Earle was lost to the party on this issue Lyons was elected leader and was in opposition until 25 October 1923, when he became premier, treasurer and minister for railways. He had a party of 12 in a house of 30, there was a very large accumulated deficit, and the task of restoring the finances appeared to be almost hopeless. Lyons pursued a policy of caution and economy, and two years later was able to show a surplus. He was then returned at the head of a party of 16, the first time Labour had had a clear majority in a Tasmanian parliament. Lyons remained in office until 15 June 1928, having passed useful legislation for the encouragement of mining, and the wood-pulp and paper and other industries. Acts were also passed authorizing advances to British settlers, compensation to employees contracting occupational diseases, and the provision of retiring and death allowances to public servants. In June 1928 the ministry was defeated and went out of office. In 1929 at the request of the leader of the federal Labour party, J. H. Scullin, Lyons stood for the Wilmot seat in the house of representatives and was elected. On 22 October 1929 he became postmaster-general and minister for works and railways in the Scullin government, and in the following year as acting-treasurer, succeeded in successfully floating a £23,000,000 conversion loan in spite of the depression then almost at its worst in Australia. On January 1931 Lyons resigned from the cabinet as a protest against the proposed return of E. G. Theodore to the position of treasurer. Theodore was in favour of the Gibbons resolution, which if carried out, Lyons considered, would have the effect of bringing in inflation. Furthermore Theodore had resigned in the beginning of the previous July on account of the finding of the royal commission on the Mungana leases, and it was felt that Theodore should not again take office until he had succeeded in clearing himself. Another colleague, J. E. Fenton, also resigned, and with a handful of followers allied themselves with the opposition and formed the United Australia party. J. G. Latham, the leader of the Nationalist party, stood aside and Lyons was elected leader of the opposition. At the election held in November 1931 the Labour party was defeated, and Lyons formed a government taking the positions of prime minister and treasurer.
Australia was still suffering from it world-wide depression when the Lyons government took office. Generally a policy of sound finance was followed, the chief problem being the reduction of unemployment. At the 1934 election the party came back with a reduced following, but a coalition was made with the Country party and Lyons continued to be prime minister and treasurer. In 1935 he visited England to attend the silver jubilee celebration of George V, and in October of that year he handed over the treasurership to R. G. Casey. The 1937 election again gave his government a majority, and though the depression gradually passed away, fresh problems arose in connexion with the defence of Australia. In 1937 for all practical purposes Australia was defenceless, but the unsettled state of Europe demanded a great extension in land, sea and air forces, in a country which had been accustomed to relying almost completely on England for its defence. Lyons did not spare himself though he realized that his health was suffering. He was contemplating taking a rest from office for a period, when he died at Sydney from heart failure after a short illness, on 7 April 1939. He married in 1915 Enid Muriel Burnell, a woman of great ability and distinction, who was created G.B.E. in 1937. Dame Enid Lyons survived her husband with five sons and six daughters. Lyons was made a member of the privy council in 1932, and a companion of honour in 1936. He was given the honorary degree of LL.D. by Cambridge university in 1937.
Lyons was essentially a modest man, dependable and human. A sincere Roman Catholic, a lover of his country, his heart was with the less fortunate members of the community, and his one regret in his political life was that the reasons for his break with the Labour party could not be properly appreciated by his former supporters. When he was first made prime minister, many people felt that the reins had only temporarily been handed to a sound and honest man who might guide the country through a difficult period. But it was found that he was more than that. To his honesty was added a native shrewdness and tactfulness, a richness in common sense that made him unspoiled by power, a capacity for inspiring confidence in business circles, and a personality that commanded loyalty both in the cabinet and in the party. He was prime minister continuously for seven years, three months and one day; a record only exceeded by W. M. Hughes whose term was 12 days longer.
The Argus, Melbourne, 8 April 1939; The Age, Melbourne, 8 April 1939; The Herald, Melbourne, 8 April 1939; The Examiner, Launceston, 10 April 1939; The Mercury, Hobart, 10 April 1939; Parliamentary Handbook for the Commonwealth, 1936; Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1929-38.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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