James Henry Scullin was born on 18 September 1876. He was the fifth of nine children of Irish immigrants Ann Logan and John Scullin. He went to the local school at Trawalla, Victoria, and then to the Mount Rowan school near Ballarat. He left school at about 12, toiled in jobs such as farmhand, woodcutter, surface worker on a goldmine and grocery assistant, and continued to educate himself. The Catholic Young Men's Society helped in his studies, and membership of a debating society honed an Irish talent for public speaking. He was to become renowned for his fine voice, imaginative oratory and well-ordered arguments. Probably his voice was his most striking physical endowment.
He developed into a neat, slender, sandy young man, unremarkable except for the "cocky's curl" of hair which cartoonists later exaggerated. As a teetotaller, non-smoker and devout Catholic, he had little taste for idle socialising. He always lived simply and his manner seemed reserved and even cold. But this masked a keen, sensitive and generous intellect About 1900, Scullin found a job managing a small grocery in Ballarat. He made the most of everything Ballarat had to offer - the public library, the vibrant South Street debating society, and the meetings and guest speakers of the Australian Natives Association.
He was also a regular at the study groups of the Catholic Young Men's Society, where he developed a thorough knowledge of the Rerum Novarum, the powerful social justice encyclical issued by Pope Leo in the 1890s. A man of energy and drive, Scullin was a talented debater and had a keen interest in politics. A meeting with Tom Mann, the English socialist, and marriage to a girl from a family of union activists, consolidated a youthful attraction to the Labor cause.
He was a founder-member of the local Labor Party branch and soon became a full-time union organiser setting up branches of the Political Labor Council throughout western Victoria. In 1906 he blooded himself politically with an unsuccessful bid for Deakin's seat of Ballarat, then won the seat of Corangamite. But he lost it again in 1913 and spent the next few years as union organiser, editor of a Labor newspaper and anti-conscription activist.
Scullin (now 30 years old), stood as a candidate for the Ballarat seat in the December 1906 election for the House of Representatives. Although assisted in his campaign by visiting British Labour politician Ramsay Macdonald, Scullin nevertheless lost to sitting member and Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin. In the next federal election in 1910, Scullin won the seat of Corangamite and was part of the Labor landslide that made Andrew Fisher Prime Minister.
He was also part of the defeat when, at the next election in 1913, Joseph Cook replaced Fisher as Prime Minister, and Scullin lost Corangamite. Scullin spent the next eight years as editor of the Evening Echo in Ballarat, Labor's daily newspaper. These were turbulent years in Labor politics - Andrew Fisher led Labor back into office in 1914, only to be replaced by WM Hughes as Labor leader the next year.
When the Labor party split over conscription, Scullin was among those campaigning against the Hughes government referendums in 1916 and 1917. At Labor's December 1916 conference, Scullin moved to expel supporters of conscription, including Prime Minister WM Hughes and former Prime Minister JC Watson. Hughes remained in government by forming a Nationalist ministry, and Labor's new leader, Frank Tudor, became Leader of the Opposition. Preferential voting was introduced before the 1918 election when Scullin again stood for Corangamite. Though he won the most votes outright, after preferences were distributed, the seat went to the Farmers Union candidate, William Gibson.
In 1921 he sponsored the Socialist Objective resolution at a Labor conference, a move passionately condemned by conservatives. But Labor had little hope of government and Scullin had to work patiently to win the seat of Yarra and become first deputy leader and then leader of the party. In October 1929 he led the victory over the Bruce-Page coalition. When Frank Tudor died suddenly in 1922, Scullin was selected to contest the by-election for the seat of Yarra.
After a ten-year gap, Scullin again became a Member of the House of Representatives in 1923. He retained his seat until he retired in 1949. He was not among the more radical Labor members in the federal parliament on all issues, but supported the key 1921 socialist objectives. Though consistently opposed to compulsory enlistment, Scullin was neither an unwavering pacifist like Frank Brennan, nor a militant Irish nationalist like Hugh Mahon, expelled from the House of Representatives on 11 November 1920 for having attacked British policy at a public meeting in Melbourne. Scullin had long been an advocate of Irish "Home Rule". He was among those opponents of British policy in Ireland during the Anglo-Irish war (1919-21) who were dismayed by the internal conflict which followed the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.
On 26 April 1928, Scullin was elected leader of the the federal parliamentary Labor Party. At the election in November that year, among the 31 seats won by Labor were Macquarie and Fremantle, bringing Ben Chifley and John Curtin into parliament. In October 1929, Labor won government in a landslide victory of 46 seats, and James Scullin became Prime Minister.
Labor had their biggest majority yet in the House of Representatives, with 46 of the 75 seats – but were outnumbered in the upper House, with only seven of the 36 Senate seats. The Scullin government thus had limited legislative effect. The Senate blocked some key measures of the Labor program, including bills to give the Commonwealth greater constitutional powers over industrial relations and trade, and the Central Reserve Bank Bill. Labor had been out of office for thirteen years, and none of the new Cabinet sworn in at Government House late on 22 October 1929 had ministerial experience – not even the Prime Minister. Earlier in the day, Caucus had elected ten ministers and Scullin had allocated the portfolios.
Australia’s thirteenth Prime Minister was unlucky in his timing. The New York Stock Exchange failure – the ‘Wall Street crash’ – took place in the first week of his government. He faced the crisis of economic depression by attempting to manage a failing economy while implementing Labor reforms.
Labor regained power full of brave aspirations. The Australian Broadcasting Commission came into being under the Scullin administration and he insisted that Isaac Isaacs should be appointed as the first Australian-born Governor General - but the side-effects of the Depression overwhelmed most Labor plans for progress and reform.
The flow of British capital to Australia suddenly stopped and the states could barely pay the interest on existing loans. Premier Jack Lang, the ‘Big Fella’ of New South Wales, demanded a drop in interest rates and deferment of payments so that his government might help countless families in dire distress. Eventually he stopped payment and was dismissed from office. Scullin's government took over the repayments and responded to Bank of England demands by organising the Premiers' Plan of massive spending cuts which slashed social services.
In this situation, Scullin had only two colleagues with previous ministerial experience: Joseph Lyons and 'Red Ted' Theodore, who had been Premier of Queensland. Scullin appointed Theodore Treasurer, but he had to resign when a Royal Commission accused him of financial skulduggery while he had been Premier. Lyons became Acting Treasurer.
But when the Queensland government dropped the case against Theodore, Scullin reappointed him Treasurer. Lyons, who was known as ‘Honest Joe' ' disliked and distrusted 'Red Ted' and soon crossed swords with him over his financial policies. Eventually Lyons led a splinter group away from Labor.
Scullin found himself caught between a hostile Senate, a caucus split into a right wing which supported him and radical 'Langites' who opposed him, the Lyons group and an Opposition thirsting for his political blood. Colleagues saw his hair turn snow-white in the conflict of loyalties and demands. Caucus discipline fell apart and Labor could do little to help a nation staggering under the impact of the Depression.
When the House, including the Lyons group, passed a motion of no confidence, Scullin feared Labor would split into left- and right-wing parties. He advised the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and, in the subsequent elections, the United Australia Party swept into power.
Scullin continued as leader of the Labor Party until 1935 and he worked devotedly for the party until his death in 1953. His unofficial epitaph was: 'He chose the wrong time to be Prime Minister.'