September 29, 2014

Horse 1761 - Australia's Prime Ministers - No 9 - James Scullin

IX - James Scullin

James Scullin was elected before the Great War but lost his seat of Corangamite not too long after. He moved to the inner-city seat of Yarra in Melbourne's inner east and quickly rose through the ranks of the Labor Party. In 1927 he became deputy leader of the party and there was little objection when Matthew Charlton stepped aside as Opposition leader to give Scullin the reins.
Scullin although an economic leftist, still pressed Stanley Bruce's Nationalist government quite firmly on the issues of national debt and although he lost the November 1928 election, Bruce's government became increasingly unpalatable and in the election of 12 October 1929, Scullin took government with 46 out of 75 seats, to give Labor the biggest in their history.
Scullin's cabinet was sworn in on the 22nd of October and just two days later, the stock market crash on Wall St which would herald the beginning of the Great Depression, became front page news. No government which inherited more than a billion pounds of debt and that sort of economic crash could ever hope to succeed and Scullin's government would last just two years; in a climate of total and utter economic chaos.

By the end of 1929, unemployment had already reached 13%, the price of wheat and wool which were Australia's two biggest exports had fallen through the floor and to compound the problem, because the 1929 election did not include a half-Senate election, the Senate was still loaded with Nationalists from the 1928 election.
The 1930 budget came under increasing difficulties beacause the Nationalists wanted to cut government spending, the Commonwealth Bank Board had to power to deny finance to the government unless it got what it wanted (which was also further cuts to spending) and at the same time, the Labor caucus was threatening to rip itself to pieces.

In order to appease the Senate and try to pass some sort of working budget, Treasurer Ted Theodore came up with a plan to further enact budget cuts which he hoped that the state premiers would agree to (at the time, Income Tax was collected by the states and the remitted to the federal government). NSW Premier Jack Lang dissented and soon, other state premiers followed him and they came up with the Premiers' Plan which cut spending by 20% at both state and federal level and also further cut government paid wages and pensions; accompanied with increased taxation rates.

This caused a rift within the party and Joseph Lyons who was the Postmaster-General and Minister for Works and Railways led a revolt and a group who defected with Lyons absorbed the Nationalists to form the United Australia Party. Although not technically a vote of no confidence, the group crossed the floor and successfully passed a motion to adjourn debate on 5 November 1931; and so a snap election was called.
The UAP were the logical opposition to Labor and joined the Country Party in a coalition to win government in the December 1931 election with 50 of 74 seats - Labor was reduced to just 14 and the schism was so rife in the Labor Party that the NSW members who had sided with Jack Lang's revolt, were expelled from the party at national level. "Lang Labor"would remain on the outer for the entire of the '31-'34 term and would only be readmitted in 1936.
Scullin would remain on in politics until 1949 and although he would contest the 1934 election as the Labor party leader, he was pretty well much a tired and spent force, although during World War 2, his office was next to John Curtin's and so I imagine that he would have been consulted for his advice.

James Scullin was Prime Minister in an horrendously tumultuous time. It passed no meaningful legislation and his Labor government remains the only one to have been defeated after only a single term in office.
It is worth noting that the Statute of Westminster was passed in the UK in December of 1931 which marks the start of Australia's legislative independence proper. Also, when the post of Governor-General came up for renewal, Scullin put only forward the name of the Chief Justice of the High Court, Isaac Isaacs, who was the first Australian born Governor-General; even though at the time it was seen as potentially somehow treasonous.

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