To mark the 75th anniversary of Dame Enid Lyons’s maiden speech in the House of Representatives in September 1943, the Menzies Research Centre produced an anniversary edition of Anne Henderson’s Enid Lyons – Leading Lady to a Nation (Connor Court Publishers) At The Sydney Institute, on Monday 24 September 2018, Anne Henderson, Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute joined John Nethercote, Adjunct Professor at the Australian Catholic University, in a discussion of Enid Lyons, her achievements and the world she belonged to.
ENID LYONS: HER LIFE AND TIMES
It’s a great pleasure for me to be here this evening for the relaunch or the launch of the new edition of Anne’s book on Enid Lyons. It’s a most valuable contribution to the library on political biography in Australia as is her book on Joe Lyons and also her book on, essentially, Menzies’ first prime ministership. So, it’s a very welcome occasion for me to be here.
I feel a little like the Oxford professor who didn’t know anything about such and such I but thought he would I’ll give a lecture on it. I didn’t know a great deal about Dame Enid until Anne phoned me up to see if I’d come along. I’m very glad she did because I’ve found it most instructive studying Enid’s career and her life in politics, a very long life in political circles. As far as I can calculate, by the time Enid Lyons was elected to the parliament, she knew every Prime Minister since 1910. She possibly knew every Prime Minister with the exception of George Reid. But she certainly knew every Prime Minister from 1910.
I feel a little like the Oxford professor who didn’t know anything about such and such I but thought he would I’ll give a lecture on it.
Now I want to make up for Anne’s omission of a joke. But it’s not one of my own. In one of the speeches that Dame Enid made to the parliament during her time there, she took on the Prime Minister’s department, saying:
This is a man’s country and if anyone here should doubt the truth of that statement, let him look around this chamber at the moment. My sex is represented by two members only. As a matter of fact, we have 100 per cent attendance at the moment. While the other sex is not so strongly represented. Recently, I heard a woman say that she had practical proof that the age of chivalry was not yet dead. When she fell in attempting to board a tram, the men behind her stepped over her. They courteously refrained from treading on her. This is a man’s country and if anyone here should doubt the truth of that statement, let him look around this chamber at the moment. My sex is represented by two members only.
This is a man’s country and if anyone here should doubt the truth of that statement, let him look around this chamber at the moment. My sex is represented by two members only.
Listening to Dame Enid’s excellent first speech – it seems rather odd to call a mother of 11 children a maiden speech – one of the people present would have been the Prime Minister at the time, Mr John Curtin. Curtin had a Tasmanian connection because his wife Elsie came from Tasmania where her father had been a minister, possibly Methodist but certainly on the chapel side of things. Curtin said:
We who have sat in this chamber tonight have participated in one of the historic episodes of our Commonwealth Parliament. For the first time, as the Honorable Member for Darwin (Dame Enid Lyons) has said, a member of her sex has stood as an equal in this chamber and addressed herself to the problems of the country. The struggle for the enfranchisement of women, and for the right of women to sit in legislative assemblies, belongs indeed to the great struggle for freedom and free institutions which has marked the evolution of our race. It remained for the Seventeenth Parliament to assemble before, in either House of this Commonwealth Parliament, we found women elected as representatives of the people, and now in each chamber of this Commonwealth Parliament a woman sits, sits not because she is a woman, but because she has been elected by the people of Australia. That this great event in the development of Australian citizenship should occur during the greatest war that our country has ever waged is, I think, not a mere accident; it occurs because women, as women, and men, as men, have come to look at problems as problems. That this great event in the development of Australian citizenship should occur during the greatest war that our country has ever waged is, I think, not a mere accident
That this great event in the development of Australian citizenship should occur during the greatest war that our country has ever waged is, I think, not a mere accident
Curtin, as usual, was an example of graciousness in public life. And notwithstanding the fact that he’d been a backbencher in the days of the Scullin government, including the period when Joe lLyons eft the Labor government and left the Labor Party, the Curtins and the Lyons remained on very friendly personal terms.
Dame Enid’s life is worth studying for many reasons apart from the fact that she was the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. She is an example of someone who crossed over two of the greater barriers that have existed historically in Australian life and both of those events are worthy of some reflection.
As Anne has stressed, Enid grew up as a Methodist and she settled fairly comfortably into being a Roman Catholic. She probably came to terms with the Latin mass fairly promptly. She may have noticed the loss of hymns that are so much a feature of Methodist life, and which she and Sir Richard Boyer, when she was a member of the Australia Broadcasting Commission and he was the chairman, occasionally would console each other by singing. He’d previously been a Methodist minister. And I’ve got almost no doubt that, as a Roman Catholic, she didn’t particularly miss the long sermons that would have been a lot of an assiduous Methodist.
But it’s not altogether surprising that Enid could have made the shift because her Methodism was very much of the social gospel character. In particular, she had strong pacifist leanings which were evident not simply during the Great War, but later as the clouds of war hovered over Europe in the late 1930s. Enid was, at the time, a pacifist. There’s nothing wrong with being a pacifist and pacifists are often in fact very brave people. So, I don’t think it’s at all odd that Enid made the transition from Methodism to Catholicism relatively comfortably. And it’s obvious from her letters in the National Library, which I sampled last week, that Methodist and other non-conformist organisations and churches looked forward to her coming to their functions and speaking at them. The fact that she, as it were, had gone to the one true church didn’t seem to alarm them at all. They still wanted her to come along.
it’s not altogether surprising that Enid could have made the shift because her Methodism was very much of the social gospel character
The other shift, which Anne explained, was that Enid came from a Labor family. This wasn’t unusual. Particularly, prior to the great conscription split in the Labor Party in 1916, it wasn’t unusual at all for Methodists to be in the Labor Party. In fact, the first couple of Labor Prime Ministers were non-conformists of various varieties. Again, I don’t think that the transition either on Joe’s side or on Enid’s side is altogether unusual given their family background, and given the Tasmanian background.
prior to the great conscription split in the Labor Party in 1916, it wasn’t unusual at all for Methodists to be in the Labor Party
In 1967, when the distinguished political scientist Colin Hughes was asked about this very question, he pointed out that there was a great deal of difference between Labor under Lyons in Tasmania in the 1920s and Labor under Lang in New South Wales. And, of course, Lang was a critical figure in Lyons’ decision to leave the Scullin Labor government and the Labor Party. Lang was not in favour of financial orthodoxy. He wanted a particularly vigorous form of unorthodoxy. And that lay very much at the heart of Joe’s reluctance to continue in the Labor government.
Lang was a critical figure in Lyons’ decision to leave the Scullin Labor government and the Labor Party. Lang was not in favour of financial orthodoxy
Another reason for Lyons leaving the Labor government was over the reinstatement of Edward Granville Theodore as the treasurer. Theodore had had to step aside to address the charges he faced in the Mangana mine scandal in North Queensland. For Lyons, there had been another such case while premier of Tasmanian, involving the state’s attorney-general, Albert Ogilvie. Lyons forced Ogilvie’s resignation over findings of poor conduct in the public trustee office.
Both these moves by Dame Enid in the course of her life, the move from Methodism to the Roman Catholics, and the move from Labor to the UAP, although very unusual and certainly the source of a lot of angst and controversy, nevertheless seemed to me to be very explicable. And Anne’s two biographies give insight into the Lyons side of the story. Especially for two people who were quite capable of making up their own minds about how they should behave.
Anne’s two biographies give insight into the Lyons side of the story. Especially for two people who were quite capable of making up their own minds about how they should behave.
Dame Enid, as a parliamentarian, was extremely active. In fact, I took from my notes for this speech a couple of pages from the index to the Hansard. These listed how often and on what subjects she spoke in the Parliament; she was an extremely active member. She was much more active, for example, than the person who follows her in the index – Sir Philip McBride.
Dame Enid spoke at least twice as often as he did on a whole range of subjects – aluminium (not surprising to have a Tasmanian speaking about aluminium), Australian citizens recall from overseas, civil aviation, King Island services (a natural interest for a Tasmanian again), euthanasia, education, fertilisers, football, department of information, film, immigration, passports, potatoes, prices control, primary industries, repatriation and so on. She was extremely active as you can see in the index of the Hansard.
Her big interest was of course domestic questions. She often spoke on subjects that other people weren’t speaking about. It would be easy to point out that she didn’t talk much about contentious matters of the time such as the financial situation or the trade question.
Her big interest was of course domestic questions. She often spoke on subjects that other people weren’t speaking about.
But, what she has to say is never emotional or sentimental or even academic; it’s always practical and pragmatic. Dame Enid always knew how to look at a question in the large without running off onto a particular case or a particular individual story. Enid Lyons is also a good example of parliament in the era before the Second World War and its immediate aftermath when the members had many more opportunities to speak and were much freer to speak, without the constraints of party platforms and party discipline. Naturally, Enid Lyons had strong interests in Tasmania. She also had a big interest in the public service.
Dame Enid always knew how to look at a question in the large without running off onto a particular case or a particular individual story.
In one speech, she gave a detailed examination of the attitude of the public service to the employment of women. In this case, she was well briefed by the Canberra Association of Women Graduates. Her speech is one of the most impressive parliamentary speeches I’ve read on public service matters. Enid Lyons had an astute political mind and this was very evident when the changes were made in 1948 to the method of electing senators. Enid Lyons pointed out the consequences of obliging voters to number every square instead of merely a sufficient number of squares to cover the number of senators to be elected. Had her advice been followed, advice based on the Tasmanian voting system, Australia would have had a very different type of Senate, particularly on the crossbenches.
Her speech is one of the most impressive parliamentary speeches I’ve read on public service matters. Enid Lyons had an astute political mind and this was very evident when the changes were made in 1948 to the method of electing senators.
I’ll finish on one point. One issue that came up quite frequently in Dame Enid’s later life was her relations with Sir Robert Menzies, in particular his resignation in March 1939, just three weeks before the death of the Prime Minister Joe Lyons. This event has often been seen, as it were, as what they call “in the framework of the challenge”, which is a peculiar Australian feature of political conduct. I haven’t got time to go into this and besides it’s not appropriate on this account, but I think that it has been wrongly seen as crudely as a challenge to Joe Lyons.
There was a great crisis in the Coalition government of the time. It centred most publicly around the abandonment of the National Insurance Scheme which was on the cusp of coming into being, but it was also evident in the rising levels of tariff protection for manufacturing industries. Menzies was opposed to all these developments. He wanted the National Insurance Scheme to be pursued and he wasn’t keen about the many forms of industry assistance. His father had been a member of a small business rural association, the Kyabram Movement, which was very opposed to subsidies and bounties and government propping up rural industries. Menzies’ first resignation from the Victorian government in the late 1920s had also been over the question of subsidies for an abattoir.
Menzies was opposed to all these developments. He wanted the National Insurance Scheme to be pursued and he wasn’t keen about the many forms of industry assistance.
Dame Enid’s perception of the tussle derives in some degree from the fact that matters of tariff protection and so forth were not really her major field of interest. But I do think that Menzies’ resignation in March 1939 is worth much more searching study than we’ve thus had of it. It is very much a crucial event in the history of Coalition government in Australia which after all has marked our federation for about two thirds of its history.