On 13 September 1939, Earle Page resigned as leader of the federal parliamentary Country Party, ending an 18 year reign. This was the belated outcome of his attack of 20 April that year on the personal worthiness of Robert Menzies to serve as Prime Minister – the most notorious statement ever delivered in the Australian Parliament.
Page was a surgeon from Grafton who helped found the Country Party and served in Parliament from 1919 until he died in 1961. He was de facto Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition governments of Stanley Bruce and Joseph Lyons, holding portfolios of Treasury, Commerce and Health. Page was even caretaker Prime Minister in April 1939 following Lyons’ death in office. This was for a mere 19 days but his attempt to block Menzies as his successor ensured it would not be forgotten.
Page was intelligent and effervescent. He envisaged an Australia re-shaped into decentralised communities with regional governments, to be made possible by a re-cast federal constitution, national planning and the spread of hydro-electricity. His penchant for demonstrative cleverness is reflected in the structure of his speech on Menzies. 24 days ago, he observed, Menzies had resigned from Cabinet over failure to implement a national insurance scheme. 24 weeks ago, Menzies delivered a speech on leadership widely interpreted as an attack on Prime Minister Lyons (something Menzies strenuously denied). Then the climax – in Page’s words as reported by the press – “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 the sort Page hoped for. Interjections included “that is dirt!”, “how many Germans did you kill, Doc?” and even the singular sight of Labor members shouting in Menzies’ defence. Headlines included “Unedifying Scene” and “Despicable Attack”. Country Party colleagues who thought Page would heed pleas for restraint were appalled; four at once sat separately as independent Country Party MPs. Observers were more impressed by Menzies’ response that as Prime Minister he would “exhibit none of those miserable paltry traits” shown by Page “in the most remarkable attack I have heard in my public career.” Menzies had felt bound by a family decision that he was the one of three brothers who would not go to the war.
Page, not normally vindictive, seems to have been motivated by his angry belief that Menzies’ recent behaviour had hastened the death of the ailing Lyons. Perhaps Page also thought he could repeat his effort of 1923 when he was instrumental in replacing Prime Minister Billy Hughes with Bruce as a condition of a Country Party coalition with the urban-based conservatives.
There were also deeper reasons. Menzies acquired a dislike of the Country Party during his stint in Victorian state politics and is said to have privately been amused by Page’s mannerisms. As Lyons weakened, the ascendant Page had called a meeting of state governments to create national economic planning machinery. In his vibrant memoir, Truant Surgeon, Page recalled Menzies’ disdain for this unsuccessful venture.
The premise of his 20 April speech – rejection of coalition under Menzies – was the Country Party stance as Menzies insisted on personally choosing ministers without being inhibited by a coalition agreement and steadfastly supported national insurance. It was the raising of Menzies’ lack of overseas military service that sparked outrage, ruling out Page’s inclusion in a future coalition ministry that might yet emerge.
The coalition was temporarily broken but it was only in early September 1939 that the Country Party considered voting down the Menzies Government in parliament. It dropped this strategy immediately war broke out and Page reiterated his longstanding support for a national government of all parties. His resignation cleared the way for the next best option of restoration of the two-party coalition in March 1940, after the Government had suffered a comprehensive by-election loss. This was an important step in consolidating the coalition as a perennial of Australian politics, a major factor in the Country Party’s long-term survival as a political force.
From October 1940 Page was nominally reconciled with Menzies and sat uneasily in his Ministry, followed by rather unhappy service as Australian representative in Churchill’s War Cabinet. As Health Minister in the second Menzies Government he oversaw creation of the distant forerunner of to-day’s Medicare. Yet Menzies never forgave Page and in his own memoirs condemned him for what he termed a bitter and false attack. Page’s ill-judged words of 1939 still dominate accounts of the man, contributing to underappreciation of his status as one of Australia’s most creative public figures.
Sir Earle Page, Mildenhall Collection, NAA, A3560, 6053
cover image: 'The Blotted Page', Argus, 21st April 1939, p.10
Stephen Wilks is a doctoral student in the ANU School of History.
Sources and Further Reading
Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 1939.
The Argus, 21 April 1939.
Paul Davey, Ninety Not Out: The Nationals 1920-2010, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2010.
Ulrich Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, Melbourne University Press, Parkville, 1963.
A.W. Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life, Volume 1, 1894-1943, Melbourne University Press, Parkville, 1993.
Sir Robert Menzies, Afternoon Light: Some Memories of Men and Events, Cassell Australia, Melbourne, 1967.
Sir Earle Page, Truant Surgeon: The Inside Story of Forty Years of Australian Political Life, edited by Ann Mozley (Moyal), Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1963.