Tuesday, 21 August 2018
Lyons, Dame Enid Muriel, AD, GBE
Although he was a Labor Premier of Tasmania, he went on to become a UAP Prime Minister of Australia. He was our prewar Prime Minister. While Joe Lyons was Prime Minister, Dame Enid Lyons had a gruelling public speaking schedule in support of her husband. You can only imagine what that must have been like. During the period of time when Joe Lyons was either Treasurer, Premier or Prime Minister, Dame Enid gave birth to 12 children, which is quite extraordinary. There might have been a couple of miscarriages along the way; I think there were 15 pregnancies in all. One of her children died very young, of whooping cough, so she had 11 by the time Joseph Lyons died in office, which was a tragic, sudden and unexpected event. She did once reflect that her hardest role in life was that of the Prime Minister's wife. I wonder whether Lucy Turnbull would give the same answer today; I wouldn't be at all surprised.
It was terribly tragic when Dame Enid's husband died in 1939 and left her a widow at only 41 years of age. At that stage she truly retreated into grief, went back to Tasmania and watched a number of her older sons go off to the Second World War. You can only imagine combining grief with that stress. World War II saw Australia change quite profoundly. Over the war years the number of women in the workforce increased dramatically, by a third, and there was a newfound respect for the changing roles of women, their abilities and their contributions. Before the Second World War only a handful of women had been elected to Australian state parliaments, and at that stage the mere suggestion of female parliamentarians was considered something of an outrageous experiment whose outcome was very uncertain.
But in the midst of the social change of World War II a vacancy arose in the seat of Darwin. I like the fact that it was Dame Enid's daughter who talked her into running for that seat. She won that ballot by only 800 votes. On entering she was a very popular member. I think she was nominated as deputy leader the moment she entered parliament, which is quite an honour indeed. Being a woman who was extraordinarily modest, she declined that nomination. I wonder whether we would see people do that today. She had a political toughness and a folksy charm that characterised a very unique style and personal appeal. Her speeches were known for their humour but also their very sentimental nature. Indeed, Sir Robert Menzies said of her speeches—I love this phrase:
She could reduce me to tears about the state of a railtrack …
I might have done the same in this chamber, but probably tears of boredom as opposed to tears of sentiment.