Mister Prime Minister – Joseph Aloysius Lyons (c.1966)
Joseph Aloysius Lyons served as Prime Minister of Australia from 1932 to 1939. Academics, Lyons’s widow Dame Enid Lyons and political figures, including former prime minister Sir Robert Menzies, discuss Lyons’s life and times.
Joe Lyons was the tenth Prime Minister of Australia and remains the only Tasmanian to hold the office. In this first instalment of the ABC TV series Mister Prime Minister, Lyons’s eventful life is discussed by former politicians, political analysts and his widow, Dame Enid Lyons. The presenter of the series – who appears smoking a pipe! – is Colin Hughes, professor of political science at the University of Queensland.
A straightforward biography of Lyons, it focuses largely on how a man not gifted with the greatest of intellects or vision was able to become prime minister during the Depression and win three successive elections – a record unbroken until the era of Sir Robert Menzies (prime minister from 1949–66).
From a poor Irish immigrant family in the small Tasmanian fishing town of Stanley, Lyons’s story would have been very different if not for two aunts who paid for his education when it seemed he would have to leave school aged 12. He became a teacher and trade unionist whose interest in politics led to membership of the Workers’ Political League, forerunner of the Australian Labor Party. After serving as Premier of Tasmania from 1923–28, Lyons entered federal politics as Treasurer in the Labor government of James Scullin.
A bitter falling-out between Lyons and his leader over economic policy resulted in Lyons crossing the floor and voting with the opposition – automatically expelling himself from the party (see clip one). While the opinions of experts and politicians are valuable, particularly the testimony of Sir Robert Menzies (see clip two), it is Dame Enid Lyons who makes the strongest impression. A mere 17 years old when she married 35-year-old Lyons (they had 11 children), Dame Enid regards her husband’s likability – that most precious of human attributes – as the key factor in his long political life.
Combined with an outstanding political brain (see clip two) Lyons seems to have been very much ‘the right man at the right time’ in Australian political life. The role of Dame Enid as Lyons’s confidante and political adviser is also noted. Considering Dame Enid became the first woman to sit in the House of Representatives and was Australia’s first female cabinet minister, her part in Lyons’s enduring success cannot be underestimated.
The recollections of eyewitnesses and archival material evoke a strong sense of the political and social landscape in Depression-era Australia. It is through this prism the documentary effectively analyses how ‘honest Joe’ remained popular during a time of record unemployment (around 30 per cent) and political infighting. Although almost everyone agrees that Lyons did not leave a great legacy or drive any nation-changing reforms, he represented stability and reliability when it was needed most.
Mister Prime Minister was narrated by Roger Climpson, later a long-serving television newsreader on ATN 7 in Sydney, and produced by Tom Haydon.