A Self-Effacing Prime Minister? A look at J.A. Lyons
Former Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce told Dame Enid Lyons in 1932 that her husband lacked all of the essential qualities to be a Prime Minister, namely “a hide like a rhinoceros, an over-weening ambition, and a mighty good conceit of himself”.
It is the lack of these qualities, contrasted with Joe Lyons’ immense popularity with the public (he was just days off breaking Billy Hughes’ record of time served as Prime Minister when he died) that makes him so fascinating to me.
How can you be gentle, honest, loyal, have a conciliatory style of leadership, AND be a successful Australian Prime Minister?
Joe Lyons’ rise to the role and his struggles to navigate Australia through the Great Depression are worthy of focus in themselves, but for my purposes I’ve restrained myself to the last few months of his government as the starting point of my story.
It really is remarkable that Joe’s party, the United Australia Party (UAP), stayed together as long as it did, being a rag-tag group of independents, ex-labor and conservatives. Joe Lyons was the glue, the only one they all agreed to respect, the only one who could reconcile their differences, the only one the public loved.
The immense personal effort on the part of Lyons over seven years to maintain this balancing act took a toll on his health, so when the likelihood of another World War reared its head, Joe Lyons simply didn’t have anything left in reserve.
In the end though, it was the disloyalty of trusted colleagues within the party that finally broke his heart.
A fellowship from the Australian Prime Ministers’ Centre has allowed me time to delve into the archival material related to this time to piece together a version of what took place.
A sad find, which became a divergence from my main research, was a letter from a Jewish woman, Elsa Korber, in Leipzig, Germany, addressed to Dame Enid thanking the Lyons family.
It is with a heart full of gratitude and joy that I send this letter to you.
Your lines and those of the Prime Minister himself with the enclosed forms of application for permit to enter Australia revived in me new hope and energy…
Elsa Korber, Leipzig
The letter was received after Joe’s death. With the help of Jewish history researchers I found that most likely Elsa Korber never got to immigrate to Australia and was murdered in Krakow, Poland.
The idea of prime ministers responding to crises at this very personal level, as well as on a national one, makes them so much more human and not simply these distant figures of power. Before Joe Lyons died he lent money to a farmer who had written to him, not knowing who else to turn to, because he was about to lose his farm. Both Joe Lyons and John Curtin died with barely any savings.
Now Prime Ministers have a whole department of staff to buffer them from the world, back then they held a ministerial portfolio, plus being Prime Minister, and all with a handful of staff.
After three Prime Ministers died in the space of 11 years (two in office, one just after leaving office), Robert Menzies had the insight to make some changes.
On the death of John Curtin, Dr Earle Page, who was the Prime Minister after the death of Joe Lyons remarked “I should have followed Mr J.A. Lyons and Mr Curtin had I continued in office in 1939. I’m sure the only reason I am alive today is that I had a year… respite from parliamentary duty”.