He studied accountancy, and after qualifying through a correspondence course, he set up an accountancy practice in Townsville in September 1918. He later established accountancy partnerships there and in Brisbane. In 1930 Fadden was elected to the Townsville City Council. From 1918 practiced as an accountant in Townsville, where he later became an alderman on the city council.
Fadden's first steps into politics were as a Townsville alderman, then as a Country Party member in the State Parliament. When he lost his seat in 1935, he vowed he was finished with politics. But in 1936, he stood for, and won, the federal seat of Darling Downs. Fadden joined Queensland’s Country and Progressive National Party, and in 1932 was elected a member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly for the seat of Kennedy. In 1934 he was shadow Treasurer, but the following year was defeated after an electoral redistribution in Queensland. In March 1936 Fadden joined the rural group that split from Queensland’s combined Country and Progressive National Party. From then, Queensland maintained a separate Country Party, distinct from the United Australia Party.
After the death of sitting member Littleton Groom on 19 November 1936, Fadden stood as the Country Party candidate in the 19 December by-election for the House of Representatives seat of Darling Downs. He defeated the United Australia Party candidate, and took his seat in a parliamentary session of only 29 sitting days in 1937. Fadden was again returned at the federal election on 23 October 1937 and a member of the 15th parliament, opened on 30 November by Governor-General Lord Gowrie.
This parliament was the third term of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. As in his second term, he was dependent on the support of Country Party members. In the new parliament, his United Australia Party held 29 seats, the same number as the Labor Party led by John Curtin. Lyons’ Cabinet included five Country Party ministers, Earle Page as Minister for Commerce and Minister for Health, Harold Thorby as Defence Minister, John McEwen as Minister for the Interior, and Victor Thompson and Archie Cameron as ministers without portfolio. Lyons’ leadership was under pressure both externally and internally. Keith Murdoch’s Melbourne Herald questioned his ability to hold the Cabinet together, and the resignation of Thomas White made a re-shuffle necessary on 7 November 1938. Then when the government’s proposed national insurance scheme collapsed at a Cabinet meeting on 14 March 1939, Attorney-General Robert Menzies resigned from both Cabinet and the deputy leadership of the United Australia Party.
Three weeks later, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons died in office on 7 April 1939. Without a deputy, a United Australia Party leader was not immediately available as a successor, Country Party leader Earle Page became ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister. He had opposed Menzies’ resignation, seeing it as wrong at a time of political crisis in Europe and intended to provoke a leadership crisis. Page refused to enter into a coalition with a United Australia Party government that included Menzies, and made a bitter speech against him in parliament on 20 April. That same day Page handed his resignation to Lord Gowrie, but remained in his ‘caretaker’ role until a new Prime Minister was commissioned.
Fadden and three other Country Party parliamentarians dissociated themselves from their leader and from the parliamentary party. In the next few days Menzies was elected leader of the United Australia Party, and sworn in as Prime Minister on 26 April 1939. After Page resigned as Country Party leader in September, Archie Cameron replaced him and Fadden and the others returned to the parliamentary party.
In March 1940 Prime Minister Robert Menzies reshuffled his Cabinet to form a coalition government with the Country Party. He included five Country Party members in the new ministry – Archie Cameron (Minister for Commerce and Minister for the Navy), HVC Thorby (Postmaster-General and Minister for Health), John McEwen (Minister for External Affairs) and Arthur Fadden and Horace Nock (ministers without portfolio). As RG Casey had resigned from parliament in January to become Australia’s Ambassador in Washington, only three United Australia Party members lost their places for the new Country Party ministers, (Sir) Eric Harrison, John Perkins and Harold Holt.
On 13 August 1940, three United Australia Party ministers were killed when their aeroplane crashed approaching Canberra. The loss of Geoffrey Street, James Fairbairn and Henry Gullet was a severe blow to the government, with a federal election on 21 September. Fadden himself was to have been on the flight, but instead the tragedy became his opportunity. He was sworn in to Fairbairn’s portfolios of Air and Civil Aviation the following day. He held the new portfolios in addition to his existing roles as minister assisting the Treasurer, and assistant Minister for Supply and Development.
The CP experienced a crisis in leadership in October 1940 after A.G. Cameron, stung by criticism from party members, quit leadership of the party. E.C.G. Page and John McEwen then contested the leadership, resulting in a tied vote. Fadden, now Deputy Leader, was appointed 'Acting Leader' to break the deadlock. He was confirmed as CP leader 21 March 1941, and retained the position for the next 17 years, until March 1958, shortly before retiring from parliament. On 28 October he became Treasurer in Menzies’ Cabinet, replacing Percy Spender. The next day, Fadden became a member of the all-party Advisory War Council on 29 October 1940. He brought down his first budget the following month. As Treasurer in 1940–41 and from 1949 to 1958, he presented a record 11 budgets, including a ‘horror budget’ in 1951.
1939-41 was a period of instability in federal government, marked by conflict between the UAP and CP coalition partners, and by power struggles within each party, with the leadership of each changing several times. Taking advantage of coalition disunity during this period of national wartime crisis, Labor under John Curtin took power and effectively united the nation for the war effort.
On 24 January 1941 he became Deputy Prime Minister for four months while R.G. Menzies was overseas. During this time, Fadden was confirmed as leader of the parliamentary Country Party on 12 March 1941. He began moves to amalgamate Country Party and United Australia Party parliamentarians, but the Queensland Country Party strongly opposed this. Fadden also urged Labor leader John Curtin to consider a wartime all-party national government, but like Robert Menzies, he was unsuccessful.
Menzies returned to Australia in May 1941 to a coalition deep in political intrigue. He was pressured both by his own party and his coalition partner to resign. On 28 August 1941 he did so. A joint United Australia Party–Country Party meeting chose Arthur Fadden as his successor, and Fadden was sworn in as Prime Minister the next day. The United Australia Party elected WM Hughes to replace Menzies as party leader.
Fadden became Prime Minister after Menzies resigned in 1941, but less than six weeks later, his government was defeated on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The 40 days of Artie Fadden as Prime Minister of Australia were simply a stopgap. In the midst of a disastrous war, he lacked the time and the power to make any impact on history and he could try only to hold the coalition together. Early in October, a hostile Labor amendment rejected his budget and he was obliged to resign. The Governor-General commissioned John Curtin as his successor. The United Australia Party vanished into history but the Country Party, with Fadden as leader, survived. Eventually, he and Menzies patched up their differences to form the Liberal-Country Party coalition which lasted for 40 years.
Fadden's second period as federal Treasurer 1949-58 was a period of rapid economic growth, expanding population, industrial development, rising levels of education, improved standards of living, low unemployment and the beginning of the 'long boom' of the immediate postwar decades. On the return of R.G. Menzies as Prime Minister at the general election in December 1949, Fadden was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer in Menzies' Liberal-CP coalition government. He retained both positions for the next nine years, until he retired from parliament in December 1958 at the height of his political power. His position as CP leader was taken by John McEwen.
In contrast to an earlier period of coalition disunity from 1939-41, the Menzies-Fadden (1949-51) and Menzies-McEwen (1958-66) coalitions were strongly united. Except for close votes at the 1954 and 1961 general elections, they appeared electorally unassailable. They took great advantage of Labor disunity following the 1955 Labor split, drawing electoral support from the Democratic Labor Party, Labor's anti-Communist breakaway faction. The Coalition successfully portrayed Labor to the electorate as being disunited, 'soft' on Communism, unreliable on defence and national security, wedded to impractical socialist ideals, committed to high-tax policies, and controlled by unelected 'faceless men' - political ideologues and trade union activists who remained outside the federal parliamentary party but exerted strong influence on the party's national executive.
He retired from politics in December 1958, in the hope of being appointed chairman of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation. But he was disappointed in this ambition and, although he still had much to offer, he did not return to politics before his death in 1973. He was knighted in 1961 at the last investitures by King George VI . The king died the following month.
A notable raconteur, in retirement Fadden published his memoirs, 'They Called Me Artie (1969). He also wrote an account of his short time as Prime Minister, 'Forty Days and Forty Nights', published in Australian Outlook in the year of his death.