Joseph Aloysius Lyons was born at Stanley in north-western Tasmania on 15 September 1879. He was one of the eight children of Irish immigrants Ellen and Michael Lyons. In 1887 the family were plunged into poverty after an unfortunate Melbourne Cup bet and, at age nine, Joseph Lyons was working at odd jobs as well as attending the convent school at Ulverstone. In 1891, when he was 12 years old, his mother's sisters paid his upkeep so he could go to the state school at Stanley. At 16 he became a pupil-teacher, completing his training in 1901. At 17, he qualified as a teacher. His first teaching posts were tiny country schools in north-western Tasmania. In 1905, he transferred to Smithton as head teacher.
There Lyons started the Duck River branch of the Workers Political League and a local debating society. In 1907, when he was 26, Lyons formally qualified at Tasmania's new teacher training college in Hobart. Membership of the Workers's Political League brought a sharp reproof from the Education Department. He responded by resigning and standing for State Parliament. In 1909 Lyons won the seat of Wilmot in the Tasmanian parliament. At 30, he began his 19 years in State Parliament which included five as Premier. His ministry was the first to have a clear Labor majority in Tasmania and to show a surplus in the State's shaky finances.
In 1912 he was elected president of the state ALP branch. In 1914 he became deputy leader of the parliamentary ALP. From April 1914 to April 1916 he served as Treasurer, Minister for Education and Minister for Railways in John Earle's ALP government, during which period he reformed the Education Department, abolished school fees, improved teachers' conditions and pay, and had Tasmania's first high schools built in Hobart and Launceston. The Easter Uprising in Dublin in 1916 reawakened his sense of Irish nationalism; he became vice-president of the Hobart United Irish League that year.
Among the many people he knew through the Workers Political League, the debating societies and Labor discussion groups, was Eliza Burnell. In June 1913, she introduced Enid to Lyons at parliament house. The wedding of Lyons and Enid Burnell on 28 April 1915 was the start of perhaps the best-known marriage in Australian politics. Like others in the Labor Party whose background was Irish, Lyons supported Home Rule. In 1916 he was the vice-president of the Hobart United Irish League. He was also an opponent of conscription. On 2 November 1916, Lyons became leader of the state parliamentary party and Premier of Tasmania after the expulsion of federal parliamentary party leader WM Hughes split the Labor Party.
After the Labor government was defeated in the Tasmanian elections in May 1919, Lyons was Leader of the Opposition. In December he stood unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives seat of Darwin, the west coast electorate held by King O'Malley until 1917, when O'Malley lost to a pro-conscription Nationalist candidate.
He became Premier of Tasmania on 25 October 1923 when the Nationalist government of Walter Lee fell after several Nationalists deserted the party. Lyons was appointed Premier at the head of a minority ALP government. As well as being Premier he took the Treasury and Railways portfolios. He remained Treasurer for the five and a half years he was Premier.
Lyons quit state politics to enter the federal sphere at the suggestion of the federal parliamentary ALP leader, J.H. Scullin. He contested the federal seat of Wilmot for the ALP at the general election on 12 October 1929, and won comfortably. He held his seat through the next three general elections: 1931, 1934 and 1937. He did not warm to Canberra-style politics and tended to keep a low profile. But he showed his financial acumen, as Acting Treasurer, by floating a E25 million conversion loan despite the Depression.
Scullin gave Lyons the portfolios of Postmaster-General, and Works and Railways and he held both ministries for the next 15 months. But he showed his financial acumen, as Acting Treasurer, by floating a E25 million conversion loan despite the Depression. Lyons joined Scullin's Cabinet as Postmaster-General and Minister for Works and Railways. When Treasurer EG Theodore was required to stand down from Cabinet in August 1930, Lyons became acting Treasurer. Lyons and acting Prime Minister James Fenton negotiated the difficult path of implementing strategies for combating the Depression.
Scullin went overseas from August 1930-January 1931 for the Imperial Conference and Lyons served as Acting Treasurer. In October 1930 Lyons presented a plan of moderate action, drawn up by Treasury, to the ALP Caucus. This was for a balanced budget and a reduction in government expenditure, including reduced salaries for public servants. It also featured stabilisation of internal prices through monetary controls, reduced interest rates and provision of credit for industry to stimulate production. Caucus rejected his plan in favour of more radical, inflationary proposals by Theodore for creating credit and expanding the deficit. Caucus then went even further, against the advice of both Lyons and Theodore, to defer repayment of an overseas loan due on 15 December. Lyons, threatening to resign, refused to defer the repayment, and was supported by cables from Scullin.
Lyons' difficulties with the ALP Caucus continued throughout December 1930-January 1931. Caucus accused him of collaborating with Opposition Leader, J.G. Latham, who was suggesting a cross-party government of national unity. When Scullin returned to Australia on 6 January 1931, he affirmed Lyons' policies as Acting Treasurer, but ignored his wish to become Treasurer. Instead, he had Theodore reinstated as Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister.
E.G. Theodore had been Treasurer in J.H. Scullin's ALP government and had been forced to resign. He was forced to resign when a Queensland Royal Commission found that as Premier in 1919 he had defrauded state government of £30,000 in the sale of mines at Mungana. After a Queensland court cleared Theodore of charges arising from the Mungana affair, Scullin persuaded Caucus to reinstate him as Treasurer.
Lyons' first major task as Prime Minister was to deal with an action by J.T. Lang's government in New South Wales, which had decided to withhold interest payments on British loans, in defiance of the federal government. To maintain faith with the bond holders, Lyons' government paid the interest, then passed the Financial Agreement Enforcement Act to recoup the moneys by appropriating New South Wales funds. The problem was resolved on 13 May 1932 when the Governor of New South Wales, Philip Game, dismissed Lang.
Lyons came to power while Australia was still in the toils of the Depression. And he held power during those fateful years of the 1930s when the world economies slowly recovered but the democracies had to face the emerging threat of the German, Italian and Japanese military dictatorships. Lyons, as an Irish Catholic, had been an anti-conscription activist during the First World War and, like any sensible man, he hated the waste and horror of war. But it fell to him, as Prime Minister, to prepare Australia for another war at a time when the armed forces had been allowed to run down to a mere skeleton. His government began to re-equip the Army, double voluntary recruitment and strengthen the RAAF and the RAN. It also broadened the industrial base essential for the war effort by opening the first Commonwealth Aircraft Factory and planning munitions works and shipyards.
With the political and financial crises of 1931-32 behind him, Lyons settled into his role as head of the UAP government. His government implemented the Premiers' Plan for handling the depression which the former Scullin ALP government had devised. He led the UAP to victory at the general elections on 15 September 1934, and 23 October 1937. At the October election the UAP lost its absolute majority, and was forced to enter into coalition with the Country Party, whose leader, Earle Page, became Deputy Prime Minister.
Lyons' chief success as Prime Minister was to restore stability to the government following the onset of the Great Depression, and turbulent events surrounding the ALP split of 1931. He also succeeded in holding the UAP together for seven years. As Prime Minister he had considerable popular appeal, his reputation as a 'family man' helping him out here. (The Lyons family was the first to use the Prime Minister's Lodge in Canberra as a family home.) By late 1938-early 1939, Lyons, now ailing, began losing control of the UAP as several potential challenges to his leadership emerged. To restore unity, he tried to persuade S.M. Bruce, the former Nationalist Prime Minister, to return to parliament and become UAP leader. These negotiations broke down, however. Among Lyons' chief critics was R.G. Menzies, his Attorney-General, Minister for Industry and UAP deputy leader, who resigned these positions on 20 March 1939 in protest over the government's failure to implement its national insurance scheme.
Lyons' health began to fail as he came under increasing pressure from tensions within the UAP, from a revitalised ALP (now under John Curtin's leadership) and from criticism of Australia's defence as a second World War became more likely. The coalition forced him into consensus politics and inevitably he could not please everyone. Menzies described him as "the best parliamentarian I've ever known". But others, pushing for their own advantages, disliked him. As the shadows of impending war darkened, he became more decisive and determined, but letters to his wife during his final year in government reveal the unhappiness of a man under many conflicting pressures. No doubt they contributed to his fatal heart attack in April 1939.
On 7 April 1939, Joseph Lyons became the first Prime Minister to die in office. He had driven from The Lodge in Canberra to Sydney, en route to his home in Tasmania for Easter, when he suffered a heart attack, dying in hospital in Sydney, on Good Friday.