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A formidable trio

By Sylvia Marchant - posted Thursday, 3 November 2011

This is a leadership story about three Prime Ministers in three months. What it reveals is that today's rancorous conflicts over party and Government leadership are not new, or even more rancorous than in the past.

One of the most extraordinary conflicts was the nasty and bitter struggle fought out 70 years ago when Prime Minister Joe Lyons died in 1939. Lyons was leader of the UAP, which existed for only ten years-from 1932 to 1943. For nine of those years he was the unchallenged leader and Prime Minister. Yet, the party provided three Prime Ministers, a formidable trio of Joe Lyons, Earle Page and Bob Menzies. Page was of course from the CP but under the terms of the coalition he was Deputy Prime Minister under Lyons and so became Prime Minister on his death.

What were their leadership qualities, what made them leaders, what made the battle so bitter and are there similarities with today's leadership contests in both leading parties in Federal Government?


First up is Joe Lyons, the longest serving UAP Prime Minister and, at seven years and three months, Australia's longest serving Prime Minister at the time of his death. He just pipped Billy Hughes, who was prime minister for six years and three months from 14 November 1916 to 1923, and held the record until Menzies record run of sixteen years from 1949 to 1966.

Lyons name does not roll down the years, as does Bob Menzies' or Billy Hughes.' Yet, he was a very successful Prime Minister as described by Ann Henderson in her new biography of Lyons. He began his political life in Tasmania as a stalwart labour man and showed leadership early when he became Premier of Tasmania in 1923. He was persuaded to come to Canberra and join the ill-fated Scullin Government in 1929, but became involved in a bitter dispute about the Government's management of the economy in the dark days of the depression and finally deserted Labour to lead the newly formed, right wing United Australia Party in 1929.

The story of Lyons' defection from Labor is a complex story of intrigue and conspiracies managed by a sinister entity known as 'the Group' and which included such luminaries as Bob Menzies, Keith Murdoch and an eminent financier Staniforth Ricketson. That murky tale does not belong here except to say that it shows that both sides of politics recognized Lyon's leadership qualities.

Lyons was clearly the linchpin of party unity and stability. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the ugly struggle for leadership that followed his death, and the failure of the UAP to find a leader who could command enough party loyalty to replace him. From this distance it is difficult to assess why Lyons possessed such charismatic leadership quality when so many commentators dismissed him as mediocre.

Former Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce, thought that though Lyons was a delightful person he couldn't run a Government, but could win elections and his key characteristics were his eleven children, family man appeal and essential humanity. Then there was a more insightful remark by Keith Murdoch who thought that Lyons was a conciliator, a peace man, and, a born rail sitter, and the periodical Smith's Weekly considered him to have given Australia humdrum politics.

Lyons' major leadership quality then seems to have been immense personal charm combined with a desire to please and an ability to placate conflicting factions, rather than any visionary ideals. It is a speculation that reinforces the idea that he was kept in power by the party's financial backers, orchestrated by the 'Group' with the concurrence of the Country Party and its leader Earle Page.


He was amenable to their suggestions on policy, brought the Government a facade of national unity and was unlikely to rock the boat.

His untimely death fractured this symbiotic nexus and the much more forceful character of Menzies, who succeeded him, was much less acceptable to either the party's backers or to Earle Page. While Lyons' propitiatory and conciliatory leadership strategies maintained a veneer of party unity and stability, on another level, beyond personalities, it could be argued that the strategies undermined the party by rendering it ineffective

If the complex leadership style of the uncomplicated Joe Lyons was fundamental to the functioning of the UAP, it was a style that his successor, the complicated Mr Menzies, was neither able nor willing to emulate.

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About the Author

Sylvia Marchant is a Canberra writer, historian and reviewer and has published many feature articles and book reviews in Australian newspapers and magazines.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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