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The Australian National University

Life Sentences - Australia's first prime minister

Brian Wimborne, 'The nation’s first leader was Edmund Barton but it might easily have been otherwise', vol 47, no 4, summer 2016, ANU Reporter, Life Sentences, p 62

William John Lyne was born in 1844 at Great Swan Port, Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). An active community leader, he moved to New South Wales in 1875 and was elected to the state’s legislative assembly five years later where he was aligned with the Opposition to the Parkes-Robertson coalition government.

A hardened, bearded bushman, standing over 180cm (six feet) tall, he supported squatters (of whom he was one himself), water conservation, railway expansion and, most of all, protectionism. He was Secretary for Public Works (1885-87, 1891-94), Secretary for Lands (1889), before becoming Leader of the Opposition (1895).

As well as being a strong protectionist, Lyne consistently opposed federation. He represented NSW at the 1897 convention and voted against the bill to establish a federated Australia.

From September 1899 to March 1901, he was NSW Premier and introduced important reforms that included early closing of retail shops, coal mine laws, miners’ accident relief, old-age pensions, graduated death duties and women’s suffrage.

The success of the 1899 referendum on federation saw Lyne push to be Prime Minister since he was the leader of the largest state, despite his opposition to federation.

In fact, on 19 December 1900, the Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun, invited Lyne to form the first Commonwealth government. His decision was based on Lyne’s political strength and the importance NSW would hold in the new nation. However, Lyne’s opposition to federation would come back to haunt him.

Edmund Barton, a leading federalist whom Lyne had replaced as Leader of the Opposition in 1899, declined to serve in his ministry while Alfred Deakin, who spear-headed the movement for federation, persuaded major political leaders in Victoria and South Australia to do the same. Unable to put together Australia’s first government, Lyne had no option but to admit defeat.

Hopetoun then turned to Barton who was subsequently appointed Prime Minister. His ministry, including Lyne as Minister for Home Affairs, was sworn in on 1 January 1901. At the first federal election in March Lyne was elected for the division of Hume.

In his ministerial role, he was responsible for the Commonwealth Electoral Act (that enfranchised women) and the Act that established the Commonwealth Public Service. He became Minister for Trade and Customs in 1903 and Treasurer in 1907.

Lyne had another attempt at becoming Prime Minister in April 1908 when Prime Minister Deakin offered to resign if Lyne could form a coalition government with Labour (as the party was then called). His attempt failed.

Although he never joined the Labour Party, he was close to it and in 1910 he was re-elected to parliament as a pro-Labour Independent. Illness prevented him from campaigning at the election of 1913 and he was narrowly defeated. He died later that year, on 3 August, survived by three daughters and a son of his first marriage, and by his second wife, Sarah Jane Olden and their daughter.

Updated: 24 March 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Director, NCB / Page Contact:  Web Publisher