The National Character in Joe Lyons

Anne Henderson, Joseph Lyons: The People’s Prime Minister (New South, 2011), 480 pages, $49.95.

The decade of the 1930s is renowned for its leaders: Hitler, Stalin, F.D. Roosevelt and—Joe Lyons. It can be argued that at a time of crisis a country throws up a leader who is emblematic of the quality of its national character. It can also be said that the leaders who are best remembered are those who create the most effective public image, and who leave behind a positive picture of themselves in the public mind.

Hitler, Stalin and Roosevelt are all remembered for what they achieved in the 1930s. Hitler turned Germany around. Stalin successfully, if brutally, industrialised the Soviet Union. Roosevelt brought in the New Deal and has acquired a reputation as the man who dealt successfully with the Great Depression. Roosevelt and Stalin are still highly regarded in their own countries.

Yet of all those leaders the one who is least remembered in his own country, and yet did both the greatest good and the least harm to his fellow citizens, was Joe Lyons. As Anne Henderson demonstrates in her new biography of Lyons, on the two biggest issues of the 1930s—dealing with the Great Depression and preparing for the coming military struggle that would engulf the world just months after his death—he not only provided good leadership but also achieved results.

With Lyons as Prime Minister, unemployment in Australia declined much more quickly than in many countries affected by the Great Depression. Citing Amity Shlaes’s excellent The Forgotten Man, Henderson points out that the New Deal was hardly a great success, with American unemployment still 14.6 per cent in 1940. Only war allowed the United States to escape from its pit. Lyons was much more concerned with traditional financial virtues, such as balancing budgets, which explains his success but also perhaps his reputation.

Henderson also points out that although Lyons has a reputation as a pacifist he nevertheless oversaw a rearmament program in Australia that both allowed Australia to be better prepared for the Second World War than would otherwise have been the case and also helped to kick-start the process of developing secondary industry in Australia.

This creates somewhat of a paradox. If Henderson is correct, and I think she is, Lyons provided extremely good leadership for Australia at a very difficult time in its history, and left the country in better shape when he died in office than when he assumed office. Yet his reputation is not high; in the collection Australian Prime Ministers edited by Michelle Grattan his entry is about half the length of that given to Gough Whitlam, a Prime Minister who was a disaster, and about the same length as Harold Holt, who was Prime Minister for less than two years. Lyons was Prime Minister for seven years, won three elections and, most importantly, saved Australia from the equivalent of the madness that Whitlam and his colleagues inflicted on the country. As Henderson argues, he deserves a better reputation.

The real problem seems to be that no one has an interest in the reputation of Joseph Lyons. To those on the right, he seems to be regarded as someone who simply held the fort during the 1930s, leading a government that contained men better than him. The collapse of the United Australia Party in the years after his death and its replacement by the Liberal Party of Robert Menzies meant that there could be little place for Lyons in, to use the fashionable term, the “narrative” that the Liberal Party created for itself.

To put it mildly, there are several problems with the narrative of the non-Labor side of politics in Australia. The original Liberal Party was founded in 1909 through the fusion of two former enemies, the Free Traders and the Protectionists, on the basis of creating a single political force to oppose Labor. If Judith Brett is correct, then the basis of that union was not ideology, as many of the Protectionists had more in common on that score with Labor than with the Free Traders. Rather it was the fact that the Protectionists could not stomach the structure of the Labor Party that attempted to control elected politicians and take away their freedom of conscience. Liberals could agree on their own freedom not to be coerced even as they disagreed on how far the state should be able to coerce its citizens.

Then there is the problem that the Liberals lasted less than a decade before they united with Billy Hughes and his followers to become the Nationalist Party, which in turn lasted until 1931 when it took Lyons and other Labor dissidents on board to become the United Australia Party. So two of the three non-Labor governments formed during this period were led by former Labor politicians.

Of course, since 1944 there has been a single Liberal Party but it had, and continues to have, problems with both its past and its ideology. It has two founders in the shape of Alfred Deakin and Robert Menzies, but few Liberals today would want to be associated with the political ideology of either of them, especially Deakin. In the past it was always safer to keep the idea of “liberalism” as something vague, warm and fuzzy for fear that someone might want it to mean something, and instead to concentrate on the real task at hand, which was defeating Labor. This supreme pragmatism means that liberalism needs to be constantly re-invented in Australia, which is what John Howard successfully did with his combination of economic liberalism, social conservatism and nationalism.

Because of the messiness of the past and the desire to avoid ideological unpleasantness and embarrassment, the Liberal narrative tends to focus on Menzies and the post-1944 period. It can also celebrate the fusion of 1909 to a certain extent and look upon Deakin and George Reid with some favour. But the period in between is somewhat of a problem. Celebrate Billy Hughes, a man described by Woodrow Wilson as “a pestiferous varmint”, and place him in the Pantheon of Liberals? And then, of course, there is the unique figure of Joe Lyons, a Catholic Prime Minister leading a non-Labor government at a time when Catholics were hardly welcomed on that side of politics.

The Liberal narrative cannot afford to provide too much room for either Hughes or Lyons. It is a little embarrassing that the man who “saved” Australia during the Depression was not a true-blue Liberal but a former Labor man from Tasmania. Moreover he appears to be someone of whom Menzies did not have a high opinion.

For the Labor narrative Lyons can only be treated in one way: as a rat. The Australian Labor Party not only developed an unworkable structure which attempted to make politicians into little more than the tools of the party, it also placed a premium on loyalty to the party. Its many splits over the years were the natural consequence of the demands it placed on its politicians and its leaders. When politicians placed conscience above party they were treated as traitors, as loyalty to party mattered far more than an individual doing what he or she believed to be right.

Moreover in the great mythological tale of Australian politics—the “party of progress” versus the “party of reaction”—the narrative of Australian progress can only be told in terms of Labor initiating progressive policies and non-Labor resisting them. Whatever non-Labor governments do must by definition be reactionary. According to this story, Australian political history seems to consist of rather short periods of progress punctuated by much longer periods of reaction. This myth ran into problems in the 1980s when the party of progress began to implement policies that did not appear to be progressive. The consequence has been that Bob Hawke does not enjoy the same status as a Labor leader in comparison to failures such as Gough Whitlam or even Paul Keating. 

In the competing narratives of the two sides of Australian politics there would appear to be little place for Joseph Aloysius Lyons, for one side a traitor and for the other a bit of an embarrassment. Of course, it would be a pity if the study of Australian political history were to be reduced to this sort of partisanship, but alas, sometimes this does appear to be the case. If we remain trapped in the straitjackets that these politically motivated narratives impose on us, then our understanding will remain equally constricted.

As he has such an ambiguous status in the Australian story, Joe Lyons would appear to be a good place to start if we are to have a more nuanced picture of Australian political history that goes beyond politically motivated narratives. There is a greater complexity than the mythological stories allow. Anne Henderson’s biography of Lyons is a good move in this direction. Lyons is a somewhat complex and, at times, difficult person to approach as a historical personality. The situation is complicated by the fact that he died in office and did not leave behind any reflections on his prime ministership. Instead such memoirs as we have were written by his wife Enid, who would herself become a politician. There has been a tendency to see Dame Enid Lyons as the woman behind the man; Henderson emphasises that her influence has been exaggerated.

The Lyons story is a fascinating one, and one that is emblematic of the story of Australia. Born into a poor Irish Catholic family, Lyons was fortunate enough to receive a reasonable education and to become a teacher through the old method of learning to teach while still a student. His social mobility was through teaching, though the profession was hardly well-paid. As one would expect in these circumstances his political preferences were initially on the Labor side, and he moved from teaching into politics even though on becoming a member of parliament in Tasmania he had to take a reduction in salary.

Lyons was hard-working and able to get on with people. What comes out of this biography is that Lyons’s skills lay in negotiating and getting people onside. In this regard he most resembles Bob Hawke. He also appears to have been a genuinely humble man. Although he and Enid both seem to have been swept away by the great socialist enthusiasm of 1921 he was not doctrinaire or excessively ideological. Having faced Tasmania’s financial problems as Premier in the 1920s, he had a strong sense of the need for financial rectitude and balanced budgets. In other words, Lyons’s political education made him into a pragmatist, cautious and aware of the need to maintain balance.

He may have lacked the “vision thing” but then it is those with “vision”, from Gough Whitlam to Bob Brown, who have inflicted the greatest harm on the country. Although it was Bob Menzies who subsequently coined the phrase “the forgotten people”, the ordinary Australians who are not ideological and simply want to get on with life without being crushed by the state, it was Lyons who more closely embodied that ideal. John Howard has been the most recent example of a Liberal leader who was renowned for being ordinary. Australians have demonstrated over the years that they prefer their leaders to be in that mould and to have the “common touch”. That is why Ben Chifley is remembered with such warmth. Even my father, who had no love for Labor, held Chifley in high regard.

The problem these days is that fewer and fewer people with the “common touch” enter politics. They are increasingly university-educated party apparatchiks who have been cut off from their roots and who live in the elite-driven world of “politics”. They can only pretend to have a genuine connection to the ordinary person.

For Lyons such a problem did not exist. But there is a puzzle in explaining how he became Prime Minister. And the answer to that puzzle is Jack Lang. Lang was not a very nice man. He was the one man in Australian history who drove ordinary Australians to adopt extreme measures to oppose him. Yet he managed to achieve hero status in some quarters. I recall as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney going to listen to the nonagenarian Lang give an address as a symbol of radicalism. He was, of course, an inspiration for Paul Keating.

Lang’s extreme stand on not paying back debt helped to split the Labor Party and to alienate Lyons from the party. Lyons’s emphasis on fiscal responsibility led to the creation of the United Australia Party with him as leader. Although Lyons was a former Tasmanian premier he was not, until this time, a leader at the federal level. Was it just an accident, fuelled by Labor’s troubles, that propelled him into the top job? Or were the canny men of the Nationalist Party looking for a popular figure, one who could fill the role of useful idiot?

The interesting thing is that during Lyons’s prime ministership there was occasional talk of replacing him with Stanley Bruce or Bertram Stevens, but none of this came to pass. Henderson argues that Lyons’s continuation in the job, even at a time when his health began to fail, was because he had political gifts that others lacked. He had the capacity to talk and to negotiate, to work through things rather than impose himself. He was good at relating to people and had considerable electioneering skills. This did not make him a “strong leader” in the way that it is often claimed one has to be in Australia. It was he, supposedly a “weak leader”, who held Australia together during the hard years of the 1930s while those who would be strong leaders remained in his shadow.

I have always thought the idea that Australians want a strong leader is not accurate. Being as “tough as nails”, does not necessarily endear someone to the Australian people. Australians prefer a leader who they feel is one of them. Australia has been, and remains, a democracy in both a political and a social sense. Joe Lyons was an ordinary sort of Australian even as he achieved extraordinary things during a time of crisis.

One of the most endearing things about Lyons was that when he died he left a mere £344. He did not go into politics to enrich himself and throughout his political career he struggled to support his ever-growing family. One of his last acts, according to Henderson, was to give a cheque for £60 to a farmer to enable him to buy cattle. Lyons was a successful politician because he embodied the decency of the Australian people. Anne Henderson has done us a service by providing us with this life of a great Australian. 

Greg Melleuish is an Associate Professor in the School of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong. He wrote on Mark Steyn’s After America in the November issue. 

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