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James Scullin

James Scullin

James Henry Scullin (September 18 1876 - January 28 1953), Australian politician and ninth Prime Minister of Australia, was born in the small town of Trawalla, in western Victoria, the son of a railway worker of Irish descent. He was educated at state primary schools and worked as a journalist while studying privately. He joined the Labor Party in 1903 and became editor of a Labor newspaper in Ballarat, the Evening Echo.

In 1910 Scullin was elected to the House of Representatives for the country seat of Corangamite, but he was defeated in 1913. He established a reputation as one of Labor's leading public speakers and experts on finance, and was a strong opponent of conscription. After World War I he came close to outright pacifism. In 1922 he won a by-election for the safe Labor seat of Yarra, and in 1928 he was elected Labor leader following the resignation of Mathew Charlton.

In 1929 the Bruce government fell when its industrial relations bill was defeated in the House of Representatives. In the subsequent elections Scullin campaigned as the defender of the industrial arbitration system and won a landslide victory. The conservatives, however, retained control of the Senate. Shortly after Scullin took office, the Wall St Crash inaugurated the Great Depression.

The Depression hit Australia hard in 1930, with the collapse in export markets for Australia's agricultural products and causing mass unemployment. The Scullin government, guided by orthodox economic advice, was unable to cope, and the Labor Party was rent by internal conflict over how to respond. Matters were made worse by Scullin's decision to travel to London to seek an emergency loan. While there he persuaded King George V to appoint Sir Isaac Isaacs as the first Australian-born Governor-General.

In June 1930 the government suffered a heavy loss when the Ted Theodore, the Treasurer (finance minister), was forced to resign after he was criticised by a Royal Commission inquiring into a scandal (the Mungana affair) dating back to Theodore's time as Premier of Queensland. Theodore was an early advocate of Keynesian economic ideas, and advocated deficit financing as a means of reflating the economy. Without him the government floundered. Scullin felt he had no choice but to agree to the recommendations of advisers from the Bank of England that govermment spending be heavily cut, despite the suffering this caused.

During 1931 the Scullin government disintegrated. In January Scullin decided to reinstate Theodore. Joseph Lyons and his supporters resigned from the ministry in protest and soon joined up with the Nationalist Opposition to form the United Australia Party. Meanwhile the Labor Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang was campaigning for Australia to repudiate its foreign debt and take other radical measures. In October Lang's supporters in the federal Parliament split from the Labor Party, forming a "Lang Labor" group, which then voted with the Opposition to bring the government down.

Labor was heavily defeated in the December 1931 elections, and Lyons became Prime Minister. Scullin felt traumatised by the experience of presiding over such a disastrous period, but stayed on as Labor leader. After losing another election in 1934, he resigned the leadership. He remained in Parliament and became a trusted adviser to later Labor Prime Ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley. He retired in 1949 and died in Melbourne in 1953. Historians have judged him as a politician who was simply overwhelmed by events.

Preceded by:
Stanley Bruce
Prime Ministers of Australia Followed by:
Joseph Lyons

Preceded by:
Mathew Charlton
Leaders of the
Australian Labor Party
Followed by:
John Curtin