When a woman took the Lyons share, the power couple was born

Political power couples are suddenly all the rage – Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, while Down Under there is Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull. While Kevin Rudd’s wife Therese Rein may prefer to say little publicly while running her own business, husband and wife partnerships in politics have taken off. And while they are mostly positive, the saga of NSW’s Belinda Neal and John Delabosca shows there can be downsides.

It was once very different. The silent wife of a political bloke stood by her man, her public presence reserved for party gatherings, official snaps or glimpses of her as reports of official functions came in. Robert Menzies and wife Pattie, the Curtins, the Chifleys, even Harold and Zara Holt. The role of first lady was decorative rather than substantive in any real political sense.

But in all of this, well before Gough and Margaret Whitlam, one Australian political power couple stands out for being a first in the modern sense of the term.

Joe and Enid Lyons, as far back as the 1920s, became a political phenomenon so remarkable, they deserve a place in the forefront of political records. Eventually the parents of twelve children, they were Australia’s first “power couple” well before the term was ever used.

That Joe Lyons, Labor premier of Tasmania (1923-28) and United Australia Party prime minister (1932-39), became so endeared to a multitude of average Australians had much to do with the woman who became his wife, at seventeen, when he was Tasmanian Treasurer and Minister of Education in 1915. With Joe some eighteen years older than Enid, their relationship drew on a diversity of strengths and talents, each supporting, coaxing and coaching the other in a mutual endeavour.

When Enid Burnell married Joe Lyons, she was mature for her years by any reckoning. But Joe Lyons recognised early on that Enid’s natural talent for public speaking could quickly become a political asset for him, especially after a few lessons in how to handle hecklers. As time went on, Enid found she loved the political stage while Joe rejoiced – with a sensitive, New Age glow – in his wonderful wife.

In 1925, as the mother of seven, Enid Lyons stood for Tasmania’s seat of Denison when Labor needed women candidates for the state election. She campaigned vigorously and only lost by a small margin. When Labor lost the 1928 election, Lyons spoke to the media of how Enid had been his real political ally, something unheard of for a political wife at the time. Enid, he said, had “a brilliant intellect, combined with the natural sagacity of her sex” and this had helped him “elucidate many of the problems” confronting the state.

In time, Enid Lyons also became a partner in Joe’s public appearances. After Lyons broke with Labor and moved to the conservative side of politics, he and Enid addressed huge rallies through May 1931 as citizens movements gathered across to condemn the Scullin Government. By the time Joe Lyons had become Prime Minister, in the landslide election of 1931, Enid was known across the nation as a public figure in her own right.

The Hillary/Bill Clinton and Barack/Michelle Obama campaigns in the USA Democratic primaries have changed US electioneering. Both partners take the stage to speak and whip up excitement in loyal supporters. In newspapers, on websites and TV screens, it’s a stage managed, finely tuned circus. For Joe and Enid Lyons it was quite different. The clamour for Mrs Lyons was from the masses not the spin doctors.

However much she enjoyed her success at a microphone, for a long time it was Joe Lyons who pushed his wife in front of audiences. This was not an era for political wives at the podium. Robert Menzies, whose own wife Pattie made speeches to many women’s organisations but believed no good would come of spouses who were both “political at the prime ministerial level”, worried at Enid’s place on the stage. Towards the end of the May 1931 tour, Menzies advised Enid to simply give the vote of thanks. But when she took the advice and left her words for the end, the crowd went wild calling out that she was “Queen of Australia”.

Enid Lyons wrote of how she and Joe on a platform “worked like partners in a game of bridge”; she played to his lead and never did “trump his ace”. Throughout the years of the Lyons governments in Canberra, Enid Lyons had a strong public role, addressing political functions in her own right, appealing to women voters and men alike. Her newspaper columns for the Murdoch press while abroad in 1935 and 1937 further enhanced her reputation as a seasoned political player.

And when Joe Lyons died in office in April 1939, that partnership experience eventually gave Enid Lyons the skills to become the first woman member of the House of Representatives, making the Lyons power couple’s legacy complete.

Article published in Weekend Australian

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