Zachary Gorman reviews Stephen Wilks’ ‘Now is the Psychological Moment’: Earle Page and the Imagining of Australia (ANU Press, Canberra, 2020).
The fact that it has taken this long for long-serving Treasurer and brief Prime Minister Earle Page to receive a full-length political biography is testament to the understudied nature of Australian political history, particularly when it comes to figures of the centre-right. In popular memory non-Labor politics starts with Robert Menzies and the formation of the Liberal Party in 1944, with the first forty years of Federal politics fading into a relatively obscure background, and colonial politics not registering at all.
Biographer Stephen Wilks seems to share this frustration, for his book ‘Now is the Psychological Moment’: Earle Page and the Imagining of Australia begins with Page’s infamous speech attacking Menzies as an unfit replacement for Joseph Lyons in an attempt to prevent the new United Australia Party leader from ever becoming Prime Minister. Wilks notes that this address – ‘the most notorious speech ever heard in the parliament of Australia’ – seems to have defined how Page has been viewed ever since.
This is a real shame because Page was arguably one of the most influential side-characters in Australian political history. He was personally responsible for removing Billy Hughes as Prime Minister (a precedent which likely inspired the attempt to veto Menzies), and was the second in command for two lengthy and highly effective ministries, the Bruce-Page Government and the Lyons Government (from 1934, as in its first term the UAP governed without a Coalition partner). In Page’s day, Deputy Prime Minister was not an official position, but had it been he would easily rank as the longest serving in Australian history and the only to surpass the decade mark.
While Wilks explores Page’s central role in these two governments, and as Minister for Health under Menzies, he is as concerned about what Page wanted to do as what he actually did. Page is convincingly painted as a visionary, a man with a fully fleshed-out ideology of ‘developmentalism’, in which central planning combined somewhat quixotically with decentralised application to ensure that Australia could reach its full potential. While Page’s desired method of achieving development was unique, development itself is an ongoing theme of Australian history, and has been described by Donald Horne as the nation’s ‘secular faith’.
That is not to say that ‘Now is the Psychological Moment’ is a story of a ‘what if’, an unrealised dream. As the author points out, ‘visionaries often inadvertently tell us more about what they represent in their own present than the future they foresee’. Page’s beliefs speak to a particular time and place, much of which has now been lost.
Take for example Page’s strong support for and leadership of the New State Movement. This is now seen by most people as historical eccentricity, but at the time people genuinely thought that a continent like Australia might become a second United States and needed to be divided up accordingly. For Page and other ‘New Staters’, one of the main things holding Australia back was that State governments (which constitutionally appeared to retain most of the power) sat in and focused on serving the major cities.
In our own time centralisation is synonymous with handing things over to the Commonwealth, but for Page, the Commonwealth was a new entity that could break the monopoly of Sydney and rectify grievances that went back far earlier than 1901. Even Canberra, the ‘bush capital’ to which Federal Parliament moved in 1927, seemed to symbolise this sense of opportunity. It should never be forgotten that Sydney voted ‘no’ to federation at both referendums, it was only the regional areas which drew the ‘Mother Colony’ into a political union with her daughters.
The emphasis on Page’s originality means that he is treated by the author as quite a separate entity from the Country Party he came to lead. Indeed, his entry into politics is painted as something that happened to coincide with the Party’s emergence, rather than being something that was driven by it. Consequently, party affairs come into frame only where the story requires them, a choice which may also reflect the existing historiography. While there have been other histories of the Country Party, there have not been other significant histories of Page beyond his autobiography Truant Surgeon.
Wilks is keen to demonstrate that Page was focused on the big picture, and that as much as he loved his native Grafton and wanted it to become a hydro-electric powerhouse, he was not hung up on defending the sectional interests of farmers and his raison d’etre lay elsewhere. This has the potential to leave Page politically homeless. If he was not some founding father of an enduring political party, but rather a man of ideas whose ideas reflected his time, then will he merely be remembered as a historical oddity?
This would not be fair, as Page did make an impact, particularly during his partnership with Stanley Bruce, another strong believer in development at a time when the whole country seems to have been intoxicated by possibilities before reality hit home with the onset of the Great Depression. The fact that it is remembered as the Bruce-Page Government speaks for itself; Page wielded a level of power which his National Party successors cannot hope to match.
Page was an opportunist in the most positive sense of the term. The book takes its name from the fact that he was always on the lookout for the ‘psychological moment’ when political circumstances would suit his pre-existing ideas. In this vein, Wilks’ book serves as a fascinating examination of not just a man and his time, but of the processes through which schemes and intentions can be brought to bear on the real world. More Australian studies of its kind are needed.