Thomas Joseph Ryan was born in 1876 and died in 1921. During his working life he was a teacher, a barrister and a member of parliament. From 1909 to 1919 he represented the electorate of Barcoo in the Queensland Legislative Assembly and was the member for West Sydney in the House of Representatives between 1919 and 1921. He was the Premier of Queensland from 1915 to 1919, being the first Labor premier to have a majority in the lower house. His teaching career was not spectacular and was merely a means of supporting himself until he qualified as a barrister. His early ambition centred on a career in law, but he also had a liking for politics. He combined careers in both fields as had several of his contemporaries. Though he proved to be an outstanding barrister, his skill here became subordinated to politics and it was in the latter field that he made his reputation.
Since Ryan left no diary nor any personal papers, this political biography necessarily is based on public and archival material plus the semi-private records of the Labor party and certain trade unions. These sources were supplemented by a number of verbal and written interviews with several surviving contemporaries. Minutes of cabinet meetings were not kept at this time; ministers kept their own notes of decisions affecting their departments.
Ryan's period as premier coincided with the hectic days of World War I and his career is intertwined with the national politics of the war. He was a central figure in the two conscription referenda; in guaranteeing the allied troops a continued supply of meat during the war; in establishing the State Government Insurance Office; in the first attempt to abolish the Legislative Council in Queensland; and in breaking the monopolistic hold of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) over the whole sugar industry. In addition he initiated a wider range of State enterprises than any other government had attempted; he established, through the Privy Council, the constitutional power of state parliaments to legislative authority within their own boundaries and played a vital role in the Labor party's denying its own political theory of rank and file control when he was asked to assume the leadership of the Federal Labor party as the only man capable of matching the Prime Minister William Morris Hughes. This biography is a study of Ryan's reaction to each of these and of the contemporary influence of his decisions throughout Australia, with more particular attention being given to Queensland.
I have chosen to deal with these issues together, rather than thematically, because that, unavoidably, was how Ryan had to confront them. The question of the sugar industry well illustrates this point. Between 1910 and 1920, sugar was the primary industry having the greatest political importance in Queensland. It would have been quite impossible to analyse adequately his attempts to stabilize the industry, give growers and workers a fair share of the profits and curb the power of the CSR, without showing how this impinged on his fight with the Legislative Council, and during 1917, on the growing chasm between Ryan, then the sole Labor premier, and Hughes the former national Labor leader. In fact, it will be shown throughout the period that the problems of sugar, meat, the Legislative Council and conscription influenced each other and all other political events in Queensland, particularly during the war. In assessing Ryan's capabilities as a political leader, it is necessary to see his handling the whole range of political issues as they emerged, rather than to consider each one separately. It has been necessary to deviate from this course when an event has been of such importance that it transcended all else. Such was the 1917 conscription referendum when the conflict between Ryan and Hughes became the central point of the whole campaign and when the nation was engaged in its most bitter political debate.
In writing this political biography, I have concentrated on Ryan the politician rather than on Ryan the barrister, or Ryan the man. The numerous court cases that Ryan fought are considered in the light of their political ramifications rather than for their legal importance. Ryan was married, he had two children and eventually was to buy Sir Thomas McIlwraith's large house at Auchenflower. But since he did not associate his home life very much with his political life, the former is only marginally mentioned. On the other hand, his wife was important as an unofficial private secretary who looked after the sending of condolence or congratulatory messages to constituents or important figures in the State or Commonwealth.
Finally this is a study of the political behaviour of a Labor premier and of the internal workings of the Labor party prior to 1921. Ryan's career is of particular significance in this regard. Having first attempted to enter politics as a supporter of the Liberal Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, he switched his allegiance to the Labor party and despite his bourgeois, non-working class background became the parliamentary leader of that party after only one term in the Legislative Assembly. Within a further six years, his continued progress through the party culminated in a State and national reputation among Labor party and trade union leaders, equalled by few other Labor politicians.