Stephen Wilks

Stephen Wilks recently submitted for review his PhD thesis on the policy ideas of Earle Page, undertaken at the ANU. He earlier studied economic history at Monash University before embarking on a decidedly mixed career in government based in Canberra and overseas, covering almost as many different issues as did Page himself. This was leavened by a shadow career writing reviews and articles for newspapers and magazines on Australian history and anything else editors would entrust him with. When not still labouring in the public service he is often to be spotted in the vicinities of the ANU History School, the National Library, the Australian War Memorial and suchlike institutions.

First, a few facts.  Earle Christmas Grafton Page was born in 1880 in Grafton in the Clarence River region of north-eastern New South Wales. He was a rural surgeon who helped found the federal Country Party and was its parliamentary leader 1921-39.  Page sat in the House of Representatives from 1919 until his death in 1961.

He was de facto Deputy Prime Minister under Stanley Bruce and Joseph Lyons, and held the portfolios of Treasury, Commerce and Health.  In 1941-42 he was Australian representative in Churchill’s War Cabinet, and later became foundation Chancellor of the University of New England.  Page was even Prime Minister for twenty days on a caretaker basis in April 1939 following the death of Lyons.  All this said, the significance of Earle Page is not merely that of a politico who stuck around. 

1. What kind of first impression would Earle Page have made? What kind of man was he, physically and personality-wise?

The personality was more distinctive than the physical impression.  Page stood just over 5 foot 8 inches tall, was solidly built and faced the world with an impish grin.  Some said that he was blessed with a surgeon’s strong arms and delicate hands.  Few forgot his assured and effervescent personality.  His rapid, forceful conversation was interspersed with repetitions of “you see, you see” and not infrequent chuckles.  Jack Lang, hardly a retiring type himself, recalled meeting Treasurer Page in 1925: Page “bustled in, full of energy” and soon “was lecturing me as if I was a young medical student.”  Ulrich Ellis, Page’s admirer and Country Party chronicler, added more sympathetically that Page’s “main driving force was ideas” and that he “had no reluctance in impressing the services of any person from a Prime Minister to a journalist or a humble messenger who had the misfortune to be in his vicinity when there was a job to be done.”

2. How did Page earn his interesting middle names, Christmas and Grafton?

Grafton is a tribute to his home town, the Page family having a strong sense of place.  Christmas is the result of a childless female relative asking that one of the Page children carry her family name into the next generation.

3. Tell us about Page’s early life?

Page grew up amidst a family of 11 siblings.  The Pages were not especially wealthy but were very active across their community, particularly in the Methodist Church.  Pages sat on the local council and the board of Grafton’s first public hospital, ran a cinema, founded a building society, established a local newspaper and managed a meat cannery.

The Pages were also notable for a commitment to education.  Earle’s grandfather James was brought out to Australia in 1855 by the government of New South Wales to help establish a new school system.  Five of the Page children went to the University of Sydney, an extraordinary outcome at the time.  Earle commenced his medical studies aged in 1896 all of 15. 

4. What were the major influences that shaped Page’s political beliefs? What drove him as a politician?

Page considered himself a rationalist, but the single-mindedness with which he pursued his policy goals reflects a strong emotive basis in his early life experiences.  Foremostly, memories of a happy upbringing in Grafton underlay his faith in small communities.  In his vibrant memoir, Truant Surgeon, he declared that “the main inspiration…of my political life, and indeed, the predominant influence throughout my eighty-one years has been the Clarence Valley where I was born.”  Page recalled Grafton as “a small and friendly community” which provided “the continually renewed inspiration which enabled me to persevere in my quest for national balance and a place in the sun for the country dweller.”

Family life was the other great influence.  The Pages had a strong Methodist commitment to worldly good works.  Their tradition of community service is encapsulated in symbolism incorporated into the Page family commemorative window in Wesley and St. Aidan’s Uniting Church in Canberra.  Its lower panel commemorating Earle depicts Jesus healing the sick, the coats of arms of the University of New England and of the Commonwealth of Australia, and the Rod of Asclepius, the classical symbol of medicine.

Further, experiences as a young doctor fuelled Page’s resentment of rural exclusion from the services available to urban dwellers.  They also made him aware of new technologies, especially the transformative potential of electricity.  Damming the Clarence River for hydroelectricity became a life goal.

5. You have written that Page harboured a unique dream of a very different Australia. Can you tell us about his dream?

Page first stated the essentials of his vision at an August 1917 conference of rural newspaper proprietors. Foremost was the decentralisation of population and industry to the countryside: centralisation, said Page, is an “evil” as big city environments brought out the worst in people.  Regionally-based governance would foster local engagement with social and economic development, and so collectively stimulate national growth.  Paradoxically, this was to follow broad policies set by a strong national government, under which Australians would “think in terms of the continent of Australia as a whole, rather than of their state.”  A re-drafted constitution would strengthen national government or at least enable co-operation between otherwise warring state governments.  Harnessing rivers for hydroelectricity was to provide regionally-based power.  Later, Page added the national planning of infrastructure and new industries.

Page hardly invented any of these ideas, but uniquely moulded them into a coherent vision.  Its elements were all linked: planning, for example, was a means of developing rural infrastructure, including hydroelectric power schemes, which provided a productive basis for regional governance.  Page was painfully aware that he held views far ahead of public opinion.  His phrase “now is the psychological moment” signalled whenever he judged that the political stars had at last aligned to offer a chance of implementing part of his grand vision.

6. In 1915, Page founded the Northern NSW Separation League, which aimed to achieve separate statehood for the north-eastern region of NSW. Why did Page initiate the New State movement, and return to the cause so often over this life time? How did it relate to his broader beliefs in decentralisation and national development?

New statism, one of the great lost causes of Australian history, was a vehicle for Page’s faith in regional communities.  Most new state advocates focussed on their home area alone, but Page saw new states as a step towards the further division of the nation into smaller regional units.  He stood back from this whenever his status as a senior minister had to take priority, but kept alert for “the psychological moment” – such as in 1931-2 when Jack Lang’s repudiation of payments to overseas bond holders was perceived as rendering New South Wales an outlaw state from which the north should separate.

New statism was in Page’s blood.  His father Charles campaigned variously for a new state of northern New South Wales and for the transfer of the Clarence region to Queensland.  Grandfather James collaborated with John Dunmore Lang in advocating new colonies.  The foremost local political issue during Page’s youth was lobbying the state government based in distant Sydney to provide public works.  Page’s involvement in new state agitation gave him a public platform and powerful network of political contacts.

7. Page advocated constitutional reform to affect stronger central government. How did this wish accord with his belief in rural and regional development and decentralisation?

This obvious paradox has puzzled those few historians to have considered Page’s ideas in any detail, not to mention some of his political confreres.  He proclaimed that the central government would set nation-wide policies on transport, energy and much else but let regional legislatures and communities draw on their knowledge of local conditions to implement these strategies.   But Page was a controller, plotter, schemer – it’s hard to imagine him in practice sitting back and letting local authorities have their head. 

8. Page was one of the few senior Australian politicians to have served in the First World War. What kind of war did he have? How cynically did he approach his war service? Was it something he thought he needed to do in order to advance his political career?

Page was a medical officer for about a year over 1916-17, serving in Egypt, England and France.  He experienced the proverbial ‘good war’, but the extent to which this reflected outright cynicism is very hard to call.  His letters dwelt on the professional opportunities that war service offered – but this could have been the result of censorship and the reticence of the time.

Page’s early departure from the AIF was not necessarily untoward – it was a fairly common practice for medical officers.  He funded his own travel back to Australia via North America so that he could study hydroelectric schemes.  Page made great play of his war service when he first ran for parliament in 1919.  Its brevity seems not to have attracted any opprobrium.  But one of the interjections during his notorious April 1939 attack on Menzies’ lack of a war record was “How many Germans did you kill, Doc?”

9. What was Page’s impression of Billy Hughes? Why did he refuse to form a coalition with a Hughes-led Nationalist Party?

Page and not a few other MPs suspected that Hughes as a former ALP leader continued to harbour socialist sympathies despite switching to the conservative Nationalist Party in 1917.  The Country Party also considered Hughes dangerously wasteful of public funds.  The irascible Hughes’s angry ripostes to Page’s goading helped make the new Country Party leader a national figure. More broadly, the early Country Party saw itself as honourably apolitical, and so valued its non-alignment between the ALP and the Nationalists.  But when Hughes lost his shaky majority at the 1922 election and sought talks with the Country Party, Page saw an opportunity to both remove Hughes and form a coalition that would give him a direct say in national policy.  Heedless of the rest of the Country Party, he negotiated an agreement with the new Nationalist leader Stanley Bruce.  Page did not harbour grudges.  After Hughes had extracted revenge by helping bring down the Bruce-Page government in 1929, the two became quite friendly.

10. Page seems to have greatly admired Stanley Melbourne Bruce. What was the basis of that admiration?

Page and Bruce were one of oddest couples in Australian political history – the intense, small-town Page and the stately Bruce from the Melbourne business world.  Their handwritten coalition agreement of 1923 in the Page papers held by the National Library is one of Australia’s most important political documents.Bruce needed Country Party support to stay in office.  Fortuitously, he and Page possessed complementary personalities and held broadly compatible worldviews.  The hyperactive Page generated ideas which Bruce would ponder before deciding, acting as a break on his deputy’s many enthusiasms.  Both took an expansionist approach to national development, although Bruce’s was more conventionally based on rural development, government efficiency and migration from Britain.  Bruce also offered the advantage of not being Billy Hughes – his polite (if distinctly patrician) ways came as a relief to all.But it appears that Page admired Bruce more that Bruce admired him.  Bruce considered Page poor at presenting ideas, no small limitation for someone with so ambitious an agenda.

11. Page wrote a very moving letter to his oldest son, Earle Charles, on his twenty-first birthday in 1931. Two years later Earle Charles died when he was struck by lightning while mustering cattle on the family property. How did the death of Earle junior affect his father?

Earle senior took nine months’ leave from politics and came close to retiring from public life.  David Drummond, Page’s foremost admirer within the parliamentary Country Party, feared that if he did so the federal party would shrivel.  His wife, Ethel – a founder of the Women’s Country Party – suffered a stroke, but continued her role in family and public life.

This was the only time that Page seriously wavered from pursuing his policy vision of Australia.  Although there were occasions when he privately complained of the stress of political life, these were fleeting by comparison. 

12. Page notoriously attacked Robert Menzies in April 1939 for not enlisting in the First World War and refused to serve in a coalition with Menzies as prime minister. Why did Page have such an aversion to Menzies? Did the two men mend their relationship?

Page’s notorious parliamentary attack on Menzies reflects his penchant for demonstrative cleverness.  24 days ago, observed Page, Menzies resigned from Cabinet over its failure to implement a national insurance scheme.  24 weeks ago, Menzies delivered a speech on leadership widely interpreted as an attack on Lyons (something Menzies strenuously denied).  Then the climax – “when, 24 years ago, Australia was in the midst of the Gallipoli campaign, Mr Menzies was a member of the Australian Military Forces”, yet “he resigned his commission and did not go overseas.”  If he cannot explain this, “he will not be able to get that maximum effort out of the people in the event of war.” 

These words had an immediate impact, but not of the sort Page hoped for.  Four Country Party colleagues at once sat separately as independent MPs: even Labor members shouted in Menzies’ defence.  Headlines included “Unedifying Scene” and “Despicable Attack”.  Observers were more impressed by Menzies’ dignified response that as Prime Minister he would “exhibit none of those miserable paltry traits” shown by Page.  Young Menzies had felt bound by a family decision that he was the one of three brothers who would not enlist.

Page seems to have been foremostly motivated by his angry conviction that Menzies’ behaviour had hastened the death of the ailing Lyons.  There were also further reasons.  Menzies acquired a disdain for the Country Party during his stint in Victorian state politics and is said to have let it be known that he found Page’s mannerisms amusing.  As Lyons weakened, the ascendant Page had called meetings of state Premiers to try to create national economic planning machinery: in Truant Surgeon he recalled Menzies’ disdain for this failed venture.

Menzies eventually tolerated Page and twice had him back in his ministries.  But he neither forgot nor forgave, and singled Page out accordingly in his own memoirs.

13. What were Page’s principal achievements as a politician?

Page’s principal achievements are usually listed as the coalition; the Financial Agreement of 1927 that rationalised Commonwealth-state financial relations; pioneering tied federal grants to the states; contributing to co-operative federalism such as through creation of the Australian Agricultural Council; improved rural amenities; and a public health scheme that was the distant forerunner of to-day’s Medicare.

He was not sole progenitor of any of these but was still central to each.  There was, for example, an anti-Labor coalition involving the Western Australian Country Party as early as 1917.  But it was Page who pushed through a coalition at the national level and embedded this in Australian political culture.  Most of Page’s other policy ideas were less successful.  Yet the debates he led on regionalism, hydroelectricity, planning and constitutional change stretched right through the inter-war years and beyond.  All were important issues in his time. 

Page’s longevity and political seniority make him twentieth-century Australia’s most important advocate of developmentalism, a very important yet little-studied stream of thought that assumes that governments can lead the Australian nation to realise its economic potential.  This has encompassed measures as varied as land settlement schemes, fostering of secondary industry, major infrastructure and investment in massive mining projects, right up to such unlikely proposals as the Bradfield scheme to irrigate the inland.  Competition between optimistic and more sober conceptions of national development is one of the great themes in Australian history, with Page an especially persistent optimist.    

Page’s long career supports revisionist arguments such as by James Walter that Australian political life was richer in applied thinkers than is often assumed.  It also confirms that although Australia has long inspired popular ideals of national development, their practical implementation was increasingly challenged during the twentieth-century.  This was not just by political rivals and obdurate sceptics, but also by experts acutely aware of constraints imposed by the environment, a small and dispersed population, and the fundamental limits of government. 

14. What could contemporary politicians learn from Earle Page?

It’s easy to simply observe that Page had a grand vision and assert what a great example this provides.  Politics with a higher purpose isn’t to be sniffed at.  But anyone can proclaim a vision.  What mattered more was that Page fell short on garnering support.  Politics in a democracy is typically a matter of compromise and incremental progress.  Page tended to seize whatever opportunity suddenly arose rather than work through the slow process of building a credible case.  There are shades here of comments by the MIT economist W. Rupert Maclaurin in 1937 that while there was “a willingness to experiment” in a nation so lacking traditions as Australia, there was also a “faith in legislative palliatives.” 

15. Why is Page not better remembered?

Few Australian leaders who stood for so much have since been so neglected.  Page’s reputation suffers from assumptions that he and the early Country Party were intent only on securing resources for their electorates.  Over time, the Country Party became more embedded in the political mainstream, creating a gap between Page and his colleagues.

Page is also tarred by his attack on Menzies.  And then there is also frequent reference to his unhappy time as Australian representative in Churchill’s War Cabinet, when in February 1942 he misinterpreted the Curtin Government’s instructions and gave Churchill the impression that Australia was agreeable to the diversion to Burma of the 7th Australian Division.  Curtin and Evatt rebuked Page in an angry exchange.  Page later confessed that this episode imposed “the worst period of acute mental distress of my whole life.”

* This research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship.’