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Joseph Lyons

Joseph Aloysius Lyons (1879–1937), politician, has a unique place in Australian history as the only Tasmanian (and the only post-Federation state premier) to have served as the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth.

Born at Stanley, Lyons was of Irish descent, but proudly 'Australian'. He and his seven siblings enjoyed a happy childhood on the north-west coast until 1887, when his father destroyed the family's financial stability through gambling, after which the young Joseph (aged nine) entered the workforce at Ulverstone in a series of menial occupations. These experiences left him with a sense of social justice and an abiding fear of instability.

The youth resumed his education at Stanley in 1891 through the beneficence of two maiden aunts and by 1901 Lyons had become a teacher. After a sobering posting to the southern midlands, where he first encountered the Tasmanian variety of feudalism, the young teacher joined the Workers' Political League at Smithton in 1907. Through political activism, Lyons soon fell foul of an authoritarian Education Department, and what he perceived as a degree of bureaucratic persecution motivated him to take the chance of politics. This was a risky course for a man who had already become the head and hope of his extended family, but in 1909 he was elected to the state parliament as a Labor member for Wilmot.

A skilful parliamentarian and initially a radical, Lyons was deputy leader of the parliamentary ALP by 1914. When the Earle Labor government took office in April, Lyons was given ministerial responsibilities (including education) and soon proved both able and cautiously reform-minded. When the Labor government imploded in April 1916, Lyons became party leader, Leader of the Opposition and the leading Tasmanian champion of voluntaryism, assisted in the campaign against the two conscription referenda, 1916 and 1917, by his new wife, Enid. Their union proved an enduring one that provided Lyons with both political counsel and consolation in turbulent times.

Conscription was defeated, but at his party's expense during and after the First World War. Subsequent disunity led Lyons to contemplate leaving politics in favour of the law, but his political fortunes changed in 1923 when Labor was able to form minority government. Power presented a daunting prospect given the state's parlous finances, but Lyons restored financial stability through 'consensus' politics and was elected in his own right in 1925. As Premier, 1923–28, he proved a reformer, but one with an eye on a conservative electorate – his mixture of cautious, electorally-endorsed reform ('Deloraining') and consensus brought broad popular favour, but made enemies within the party.

The Labor Party was defeated in 1928, but Scullin soon invited Lyons to Canberra and the new federal member for Wilmot was immediately elevated to the ministry in October 1929, to the envy of some caucus time-servers. He assiduously administered his departments, alienated from the machine politics of many of his mainland colleagues. With Scullin's departure for London in 1930, Lyons gained national prominence as acting Treasurer and de facto acting Prime Minister – however, despite his skill as a conciliator, he was unable to prevent tensions between caucus moderates and extremists coming to the fore in November 1930. Lyons' response to this party rancour was influenced by his involuntary removal from Treasury in January 1931. He resigned from the ministry (4 February 1931) and withdrew from the Labor movement itself (in mid-March 1931) – a considerable wrench for this self-made man. Yet, within two months, Lyons was the leader of a new, 'fused' opposition and of a new ad hoc movement (the United Australia Party), and within nine months he was prime minister-elect. This was a remarkable transformation for 'Honest Joe' and a staggering reversal of political fortunes.

'His Master's Voice'. A critical view of what Lyons termed 'Australian Foreign Policy', from Smith's Weekly, 1938. Lyons was often portrayed as a koala in political cartoons. The Mint even declined to issue a half-crown coin in this period owing to its design of a koala, out of fear that the coin would become popularly designated as a 'Lyons' or a 'Joe'.

The Prime Minister–Treasurer's immediate task after January 1932 was the restoration of financial stability: accomplished through the orthodoxies of balancing budgets, retrenchment and waiting for the recovery of world trade. Trade recovery tarried, however, and Lyons was forced to modify his orthodoxies in a quest to stimulate the development of Australian secondary industry through the 'trade diversion' episode of 1936. Nonetheless, his economic credentials were sufficient to gain him the partisan reputation of a 'saviour' and yielded the unprecedented electoral 'hat-trick' of a third term after October 1937.

Lyons' search for economic stability came amidst his search for peace, for he also saw himself as a peacemaker and eventually even as something of an imperial statesman. Always keenly interested in world affairs, he dispatched a mission to the 'Near North' in 1934 in an attempt to negotiate with an aggressive Japan. He evolved a distinct view of Australia's regional and imperial role, increasingly turning his attention to external affairs in the belief that 'appeasement' (as an international form of consensus) could help to maintain world peace. The climax of this peace-making came in mid-1937, when Lyons introduced the notion of a 'Pacific Pact' of non-aggression to the Imperial Conference in London. Ultimately, however, Lyons' foreign policy aims could not be attained without independent Australian diplomacy, something that he finally initiated in the months before his death.

A physically and mentally exhausted prime minister died at Sydney, only weeks short of a record term. Following a large funeral that demonstrated widespread esteem, the body was returned to the Tasmanian soil that Lyons held so dear. He is buried at Devonport. Lyons' reputation has diminished over the years, for he failed as an international peacemaker and without his moderating chairmanship the party he founded soon dissolved. His ultimate personal consolation was that he had helped to prevent social dissolution in the period 1930–32. Yet, in this estimation of himself, he was unduly modest. Although many of Lyons' grander aspirations remained unfulfilled in 1939, he had nevertheless guided the nation through difficult times and left it rearmed for more dangerous ones. In this sense, whatever his shortcomings, the legacy of the 'Tame Tasmanian' has endured.

Further reading: ADB 6; A Henderson, 'Joseph Aloysius Lyons', in M Grattan (ed), Australian prime ministers, Sydney, 2000; E Lyons, So we take comfort, London, 1965; K White, Joseph Lyons, Melbourne, c 2000; D Whitington, Twelfth Man, Melbourne, 1972; D Snowden, '1921–1941,' in Labor in Lyons, Hobart, 1991.

David Bird