A. Aitken/Fairfax Syndication

Earle Page

Country7 April 1939–26 April 1939

Earle Page became Australia's 11th prime minister following the death in office of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons.

Earle Christmas Grafton PageCountry

Member of the Privy Council (1929), Order of St Michael and St George - Knight Grand Cross (1938), Order of the Companion of Honour (1942)

Born

8 August 1880

Grafton, New South Wales

Died

20 December 1961

Sydney, New South Wales

Partner

Ethel Page

Jean Page

Party

Country

Earle Page relentlessly pushed for rural development and progress throughout his long political career. Page thought quickly and spoke rapidly, proposing a flood of ideas all aimed at improving the lives of those in country communities. Page was often immersed in the politics of leadership transitions, and held strong views about who should lead Australia.

Page was drawn to study medicine after his mother lost her sight in one eye due to the lack of medical facilities in Grafton. He achieved a Sydney University medical scholarship at only 15 years of age and graduated in 1902. Page worked at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and later returned to Grafton to become a successful district surgeon and private hospital proprietor. Page acquired dairy farms and became an active participant in the Northern New South Wales Separation League and the Farmers and Settlers Association. Page was elected to the Grafton Shire Council in 1913 and enlisted in the Army medical corps in 1916, returning from overseas war service in June 1917. Page won the federal seat of Cowper in 1919 as an independent, but joined the Country Party by 1920. Page was elected party leader in April 1921 and, by 1923, is deputy leader and treasurer in the Bruce government. He is again deputy leader and Minister for Commerce after the Lyons government is returned in 1934. Page briefly became prime minister in April 1939, but refused to work with Robert Menzies after he became the United Australia Party leader, prompting his resignation from the Country Party leadership in September 1939. After stints as the Australian war cabinet envoy in London and as Health Minister, Page lost Cowper just before his death in 1961. Page always championed country interests and established the Country Party as a political force.    

Milestones

  1. 1939

    Enid Lyons

    Cabinet agrees on 17 April that financial provision should be made to support Enid Lyons after the death of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons.

  2. 1939

    Taxation Commissioner

    The selection of Lawrence Jackson as Commissioner of Taxation is confirmed by Cabinet on 17 April 1939, and his official appointment is announced on 6 May 1939.

Dr Earle Page examining a plan with four other men, New South Wales, 4 August 1931
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Dr Earle Page examining a plan with four other men, New South Wales, 4 August 1931

Parliament

While prime minister, Page launched a strong personal attack against Robert Menzies in the House of Representatives on 20 April 1939. Menzies had been elected leader of the United Australia Party two days earlier. With the war approaching, Page had already made clear his desire for a national government and that he would not serve with Menzies, who he believed was incapable of providing stability. Page criticised Menzies’ disloyalty to Lyons over a speech he had given on leadership and, in what was considered highly inappropriate, questioned Menzies’ motives for not serving in the First World War. Page argued that a man with such a background could not be wartime leader. Page’s speech rebounded on him immediately, with members from all sides of the House yelling out ‘shame’ and ‘that is dirt’. The speech was to be the low point of Page’s long and industrious career. 

Party

The Country Party held the balance of power after the Nationalist Party lost their majority in the 1922 federal election. As leader, Page proved to be politically adept, forcing the resignation of Billy Hughes as prime minister and securing favourable Coalition conditions from Stanley Bruce his successor. This included the appointment of five Country Party members in a Cabinet of eleven. The Coalition became known as the Bruce – Page government and remained in office until 1929, with Page as deputy leader and treasurer. It was not until after the 1934 election that Lyons required Page and the Country Party to form office. Page became deputy leader again, but was unable to extract the same beneficial terms from Lyons. Page was commissioned as prime minister on the death of Lyons in 1939, pending the election by the UAP of a new party leader.  Page made it clear he would not form a coalition with Menzies and actively canvassed for Bruce to return as prime minister. After Menzies was elected leader on 18 April 1939, Page launched a bitter personal attack on him against the advice of colleagues. The speech split the Country Party, with Arthur Fadden and three others going to the crossbench. Page, unable to work with Menzies, resigned as Country Party leader on 13 September 1939.   

Partnerships

Stanley Bruce commented about Page that ‘he had new brainwaves every day’. The vast volume of Page’s ideas centred on the economic advancement of northern New South Wales and his hometown of Grafton. For most of his political career, when not attending Parliament, Page was engaged in perpetual development surveys of the north coast of the state. In 1925, when Page was treasurer, he appointed Sir George Buchanan, a British expert on ports, to examine marine navigation. The report recommended an extensive expansion of port facilities to provide an outlet for produce from rural areas situated near the coast. Grafton was one of the townships identified as a first class waterway and potential deep sea shipping port. In the end, few of the recommendations were carried out. By 1939, Page was still pushing for Grafton to become a port, and was accused by the state Minister for Works Eric Spooner of  using ‘the sacred name of defence to advance his own local scheme.’ He responded to Spooner saying ‘successive New South Wales Governments, disregarding their advice and plans, spent money in such a way as to make the entrance worse than when Flinders passed in 1806.’ 

People

On 5 July 1939, Page attended an official ceremony at the Eungai Memorial Hall to mark the switching on of electricity in the small township. The switching on ceremony was combined with the Diggers Debutante Ball, where the debutantes were presented to Page as the special guest of honour. As mayor of South Grafton in 1918, Page had been the driving force behind the establishment of hydro-electricity on the Nymboida River, a tributary of the Clarence. It was Page’s frustration with state government inaction on this issue that propelled him into federal politics. Page recalled in his speech that, ‘it took some five years to beat down opposition in my own town to electrical installation. Another five years to wear down the opposition on my own river. Another five to overcome the opposition in the surrounding districts…’ The electricity was turned on gradually, external hall lights first, followed by the internal lights turned on in honour of returned servicemen from the district and ‘immediately the gloom was dispelled by a brilliant illumination.’  After the ball ‘was pleasingly carried out’ and supper taken, Page was toasted for his contribution to Australian development.    

Sources

Carl Bridge, Sir Earle Page (1880-1961) Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1988

Brian Costar & Peter Vlahos, Sir Earle Page, 7 April 1939 – 26 April 1939, in Michelle Grattan (ed.), Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland Publishers, Sydney, 2000 

Paul Davey, The Country Party Prime Ministers: Their Trials and Tribulations, Chatswood, 2011

Ulrich Ellis, The Country Party: A Political and Social History of the Party in New South Wales, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1958

Sir Earle Page, Truant Surgeon: The Inside Story of Forty Years of Australian Political Life, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1963

Jim Page, The History of Heifer Station, McPhee Printers, 2004

The Manning River Times, Port and Railway – Questions to Sir Earle Page, 5 April, 1939

Nambucca and Bellinger News, Electric extension to the Eungai District – Sir Earle Page present at switching-on ceremony, 7 July, 1939

The Sydney Morning Herald, Port at Grafton – Condition a National Tragedy – Sir Earle Page’s Reply to Mr Spooner, 7 March, 1939

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The main inspiration.. of my political life.. has been the Clarence Valley where I was born. Not only has it stimulated my public activities but it has provided a peaceful haven to which I could return..

Earle Page, Truant Surgeon:The Inside Story of Forty Years of Australian Political Life, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1963

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