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JAMES HENRY SCULLIN, AUSTRALIA’S 9TH PRIME MINISTER (1876-1953)

Australian prime ministers were not taught when I was a school boy in Sydney, and because he succeeded Stanley Melbourne Bruce on 22 October 1929, two months before my birth, I had no knowledge of his 2 years 2 months 16 days tenure until I researched this cover. He was unlucky in his timing for the ‘Wall Street Crash’ and the ensuing ‘Great Depression’ took place in the first week of his government. Yet it has been said that this was the right moment for a P.M. remembered as ‘a teetotal, non-smoking, budget pruner’ who was also an honest and stoical man; but he described his tenure as like a nightmare. His life story runs a total of 5 pages in the on-line Australian Dictionary of Biography, quite a problem to capture the essence of the man.

The plain looking cover was sent air mail to the Hon. J.H. Scullin, Prime Minister of Australia, Federal Parliament House, Canberra and the purple 4½d KGV head stamp was cancelled with a roller postmark PERTH/ 24 FEB/ 1930/ 2 30 PM/ W. A. with a slogan COMMONWEALTH BONDS/ NOW OPEN/ APPLY AT ONCE. The 4½d stamp paid the combined air mail and letter rate in Australia at that time (Figure 1).

James Henry Scullin grocer, newspaper editor and prime minister was born at Trawalla Victoria, 5th child of John, railway platelayer and wife Ann, Catholic migrants from Derry, Ireland. He was educated at small state schools until 14, then at night school and by good use of the public library, he became a good debater. He had a series of manual jobs until his mid twenties, and then ran a grocery at Ballarat for 10 years. He became interested in the Labour political movement and was Labour’s candidate for Ballarat against Alfred Deakin, the prime minister, and lost. He married Sarah Maria in 1907, but they had no children.

He won the Victorian seat of Corangamite in 1910 at the Federal election, and quickly impressed with his abilities, concentrating on moves to increase the powers of the Federal Parliament. He lost his seat in 1913 and became the editor of a Labour daily until 1922. In 1916-17 he was a leading opponent of conscription. In 1918 he unsuccessfully contested a by-election and became more radical and inflammatory, especially concerning the war, and in support for the Irish against British rule. He was elected in 1922 for Yarra, a seat that held until 1949, moving his home from Ballarat to Richmond, Melbourne. He was a strong supporter of the White Australia Policy and of protection for manufacturing industries.

No whisper of any scandal touched him and he had a somewhat puritanical nature, with modest tastes. He had been deputy leader of the Labour Party, but in 1928 he became the leader and he gained 8 seats in the 1928 elections. In October 1929 when S.M. Bruce precipitated an early election, he led Labour to a sweeping victory and became Australia’ first Catholic and Labour’s first native born, prime minister. With the N.Y. stock exchange’s collapse his previous forecasts of the dangers of Australia’s adverse trade balance and growing external debt, were vindicated. His problems included the Australian economic problems he inherited, the fact that the opposition controlled the Senate blocking his legislation, and the lockout of the N.S.W. northern coalfields.

In spite of a few small achievements by the end of 1929, the economy continued to deteriorate and by March 1930 parliament faced ‘depression without parallel’. Unemployment rose to above 20%. He was absent in England from 25 August 1930 until 6 January 1931 at the Imperial Conference in London, and there was a battle in Australia between the ‘inflationists’ and the supporters of the Melbourne agreement of balanced budgets. This was followed by such a complex series of increasing fiscal policy problems and political disarray (too complex for me to dissect), that Scullin was defeated by Joseph Aloysius Lyons of the United Australia Party, who became Prime Minister on 6 January 1932, for the next 7 years and 3 months.

Now as an opposition leader he was weakened by small numbers and he was crushed again in the 1934 election, and with his health failing he resigned his leadership in the Labour party to John Curtin. Scullin endorsed Robert Menzies decision to go to war in September 1939. He had a severe illness in 1943-44, but recovered. He was survived by his wife when he died on 28 January 1953, and was given a state funeral. He was described as red haired, with handsome regular features, of medium height and trim build, which afforded cartoonists little scope for caricature. A picture of James Henry Scullin is shown in Figure 2.

 

I am pleased that the cover gave me an introduction to this man.

The on-line Australian Dictionary of Biography was the source for most of this paper.


 
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