Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Joseph Lyons

Joseph Lyons

Joseph Aloysius Lyons (September 15, 1879 - April 7, 1939), Australian politician and tenth Prime Minister of Australia, was born in Stanley, Tasmania, the son of Irish immigrants. He left 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 and become a teacher. He also became an active trade unionist and was an early member of the Labor Party in Tasmania.

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 Labor government. In 1915 he married Enid Burnell, an 18-year old teacher. She was a strong-minded woman who exercised great influence over Lyons, while raising their eleven children. He succeeded Earle as Labor leader and in 1925 he was elected Premier, holding office until 1928.

In 1929 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. When the Depression struck in 1930, the Scullin government split over its response. Lyons became an advocate of orthodox finance and conservative policies and an opponent of Treasurer Ted Theodore.

When Scullin reappointed Theodore to the Cabinet in 1931, Lyons resigned from the Cabinet and then the Labor Party. He formed a new party, the United Australia Party (UAP), which absorbed the Nationalist Party. The Scullin government fell when the supporters of New South Wales Premier Jack Lang defeated it in the House of Representatives. At the subsequent election, Lyons won a huge victory. He was the third ex-Labor man to become a non-Labor Prime Minister.

The UAP ruled on its own for one term, but after the 1934 election it formed a coalition with the Country Party. In office, Lyons followed the same conservative financial policy he had advocated during the Scullin government. He benefited politically from the gradual world-wide recovery that took place after 1932. In foreign affairs he supported Britain with little criticism, and was a strong supporter of the League of Nations.

In 1934 the ambitious and talented Robert Menzies was elected to 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 in 1937, but as the international situation darkened in the late 1930s, Lyons, a lifelong pacifist, became increasingly depressed. Most politicians expected that he would soon be replaced by Menzies, who resigned from Cabinet in protest at the government's inaction. In April 1939 Lyons died suddenly of a heart attack - the first Australian Prime Minister to die in office.

Lyons was one of the most genuinely popular men to hold the office of Prime Minister, and his death caused widespread grief. It is likely, however, that he would have made a poor wartime leader. His widow, Dame Enid Lyons, later went into politics in her own right, in 1943 becoming the first woman to sit in the House of Representatives.

Preceded by:
James Scullin
Prime Ministers of Australia Followed by:
Earle Page