Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Faith and Politics-Dame Enid Lyons

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Faith and Politics-Dame Enid Lyons

Article excerpt

Remember when we used to sing "Faith of Our Fathers". And how we never thought of it as rather narrow minded. But we should have also been singing "Faith of our Mothers". Mothers, more often than fathers, kept the faith.

It is one of those mothers I want to talk about today.

Enid Muriel Lyons was Australia's first woman to win a seat in the House of Representatives--she did this in 1943 as a conservative candidate for the United Australia Party, the party her late husband and former prime minister Joseph Lyons had helped to found in 1931.

She also won against the political tide--at the 1943 election, Labor prime minister John Curtin recorded a landslide win. Enid Lyons needed a week of preference counting before she was declared the new Member for Darwin (now Braddon, in north-west Tasmania) in 1943, which she had contested standing against six other candidates, two from her own party.

It was a remarkable achievement on several counts.

As Enid Lyons put it later about the election: "I was a Catholic and that was a point not in favour there."

This was another era, when the Protestant-Catholic divide dominated Australian politics. Enid Lyons had ridden the heights of popular appeal beside her husband Joe Lyons through the 1930s. But Lyons, as a political figure, was something of an aberration. And, after his death in 1939, Lyons' conservative United Australia Party had declined while seeing the return of much of the Catholic vote to Labor.

In addition, Enid Lyons faced huge hurdles as a political candidate, both for being a woman and the Catholic mother of eleven.

The Lyons phenomenon

The political phenomenon that was Joseph and Enid Lyons has been largely forgotten in Australia. Edmund Campion doesn't mention them in his Australian Catholics.

One wants to ask in all this if Joe and Enid Lyons failed to fit some sort of code for Australian Catholics in some way? It's possible. For there was nothing lacking in their Catholic faith, or political achievements.

To my mind, it's all about tribe. Australian Catholicism a century and less ago was all about tribe--a tribe under siege and on the fringes. A tribe held together by its Irish heritage and a tribe made strong by the concerted campaign of its bishops and religious orders to build a Catholic education system in the face of the secular and government system introduced in the Australian colonies in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Even Australia's first saint--Mary MacKillop--was driven by this tribal urge.

The Lyons couple stood outside the tent in much of their political life. In spite of being the most devoted practising Catholics and an example to the wider community in their very much outsiders' religious faith

Joe and Enid Lyons not only left Labor in 1931, they also joined the heavily Protestant and Masonic conservative side of politics. And Labor took a decade to recover. Catholic historians of the past half century seem to have deemed them to belong outside the tribe.

Some background

As prime minister from January 1932 till 7 April 1939 (when he died in office), Joe Lyons still matches only Bob Hawke in popularity as a PM. His win at the December 1931 election remains the record, in spite of Malcolm Fraser in 1975, for the percentage of House of Representatives seats won by any coalition of forces in the history of Australian federation.

Unlike Hawke, however, Lyons was a people's PM leading a loose force of political groups combining former Labor and conservative supporters.

Lyons, a senior minister in the Scullin Government after 1929, abandoned Labor over financial policy in March 1931, leaving first the Cabinet and soon after voting against Labor treasurer Ted Theodore's bill to print money for employment relief. Lyons was joined by five Labor colleagues. All were immediately outside the caucus. …

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