October 21, 2014

Horse 1780 - Australia's Prime Ministers - No 10 - Joseph Lyons

X - Joseph Lyons

Joseph Lyons was one of eight children, whose father had lost the family's bakery business due to ill-health. Young Joseph went to work in a printer's shop at the age of 9 but was able to resume his education thanks to his two aunts.
He would eventually become a teacher and as a member of the teacher's union, joined the Labor Party in Tasmania.

He became a state member of parliament and became Treasurer and Minister for Education where he oversaw the abolition of state school fees and the setting up of many state high schools.
He would stay on through several terms of the Tasmanian state parliament and would eventually become Leader of the Opposition and then Premier of Tasmania. His state government lost the 1928 election and so he became a candidate for federal parliament in 1929; easily winning the seat of Wilmot in the Scullin Government's landslide victory.

Previous PM James Scullin's government was barely a fortnight old when the Wall Street Crash of 1929 blew apart any chance it had at normality.
Following a revolt after Scullin had reappointed Treasurer Ted Theodore, Lyons was one of six Labor MPs who defected to join the Nationalists to form the United Australia Party.
Lyons was appointed as leader of the new party as it was hoped that voters would follow him to win working-class voters. Whilst techically not defeated in an explicit  motion of no confidence, Scullin called an election after the loss in  a motion to adjourn debate.

The 1931 election saw the UAP take 34 seats which was 3 seats short of a majority and so it formed a coalition with the Country Party, which took it to 50 of 75. The 1934 election saw the coalition win 42 of 75 seats and in the 1937 election in won 44 or 75 seats.

What makes Lyon's governments interesting is that during the depression, he was able to convince unions to agree to lowering of wages for workers and despite the compaints from the Country Party, continued to impose heavy tarrifs to protect local industry.

In 1932 the NSW Premier Jack Lang refused to pay interest payments on debts that the state of NSW had accrued. In danger of defaulting, Lyons as Treasurer, stepped in and paid the debts, then passed the Financial Agreement Enforcement Act (1932). Ultimately this would lead to the Income Tax Assessment Act (1936) and the eventual surrender of the states to collect income tax revenues in their own right in 1942.

With the rise of facist governments in Germany and Italy and the beginning of Japanese belligerence, the period towards the end of the Lyons government was one of increasing overseas tension and former PM Billy Hughes was brought back into the cabinet, along with former PM Stanley Bruce who was made "Minister Without Portfolio in London". Australia in theory achieved some degree of autonomy with the passing of the Statute of Westminster 1931 but wouldn't adopt the provisions until 1942.

Lyons' government was also able to pass through a national unemployment insurance scheme, much to the annoyance of the Country Party who forced the government to repeal some sections of the act. This caused the Attorney-General and Minister for Industry, Robert Menzies to resign both posts over the issue.

On 7th April 1939, Joseph Lyons died unexpectedly of a heart attack and Sir Earle Page was appointed as interim Prime Minister. Lyons is to date the only person to have been Leader of the Opposition at both state and federal level and a State Premier and Prime Minister.

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