Earle Page

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Sir Earle Page

Earle Page - Falk Studios (cropped).jpg
Page c. 1939
11th Prime Minister of Australia
In office
7 April 1939 26 April 1939
Monarch George VI
Governor-General Lord Gowrie
Preceded by Joseph Lyons
Succeeded by Robert Menzies
Leader of the Country Party
In office
5 April 1921 13 September 1939
Deputy Henry Gregory
William Fleming
William Gibson
Thomas Paterson
Harold Thorby
Preceded by William McWilliams
Succeeded by Archie Cameron
Minister for Health
In office
19 December 1949 11 January 1956
Prime Minister Robert Menzies
Preceded by Nick McKenna
Succeeded by Donald Cameron
In office
29 November 1937 7 November 1938
Prime Minister Joseph Lyons
Preceded by Billy Hughes
Succeeded by Harry Foll
Minister for Commerce
In office
28 October 1940 7 October 1941
Prime Minister Robert Menzies
Arthur Fadden
Preceded by Archie Cameron
Succeeded by William Scully
In office
9 November 1932 26 April 1939
Prime Minister Joseph Lyons
Preceded by Frederick Stewart
Succeeded by George McLeay
Treasurer of Australia
In office
9 February 1923 21 October 1929
Prime Minister Stanley Bruce
Preceded byStanley Bruce
Succeeded by Ted Theodore
Member of the Australian Parliament for Cowper
In office
13 December 1919 9 December 1961
Preceded by John Thomson
Succeeded by Frank McGuren
Personal details
Earle Christmas Grafton Page

(1880-08-08)8 August 1880
Grafton, New South Wales, Australia
Died20 December 1961(1961-12-20) (aged 81)
Camperdown, New South Wales, Australia
Political party Country
(m. 1906;died 1958)

Jean Thomas
(m. 1959)
Relatives Harold Page (brother)
Robert Page (nephew)
Geoffrey Page (grandson)
Donald Page, Jr. (grandson)
EducationGrafton Public School
Sydney Boys High School
Alma mater University of Sydney
OccupationDoctor, surgeon, politician

Sir Earle Christmas Grafton Page, GCMG, CH (8 August 1880 20 December 1961) was an Australian surgeon and politician who served as the 11th Prime Minister of Australia, holding office for 19 days after the death of Joseph Lyons in 1939. He was the leader of the Country Party from 1921 to 1939, and was the most influential figure in its early years.


Page was born in Grafton, New South Wales. He entered the University of Sydney at the age of 15, and completed a degree in medicine at the age of 21. After completing his residency at Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, he moved back to Grafton and opened a private hospital. He soon became involved in local politics, and in 1915 purchased a part-share in The Daily Examiner , a local newspaper. He also briefly served as a military surgeon during World War I. Page gained prominence as an advocate of various development schemes for the Northern Rivers region, especially those involving hydroelectricity. He also helped found a movement for New England statehood.

In 1919, Page was elected to federal parliament representing the Division of Cowper. He joined the new Country Party the following year as its inaugural whip, and then replaced William McWilliams as party leader in 1921. Page opposed the economic policies of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, and when the Country Party gained the balance of power at the 1922 election, he demanded Hughes' resignation as the price for a coalition with the Nationalist Party. He was subsequently made Treasurer under the new prime minister, Stanley Bruce, serving in that role from 1923 to 1929. He had a significant degree of influence on domestic policy, with Bruce concentrating on international issues.

Page returned to cabinet after the 1934 election, when the Country Party entered a new coalition with Joseph Lyons' United Australia Party (UAP). He was appointed Minister for Commerce, and concentrated on agricultural issues. When Lyons died in office in April 1939, Page was commissioned as his successor in a caretaker capacity while the UAP elected a new leader, Robert Menzies. Page subsequently denounced Menzies and refused to serve in his cabinet, withdrawing the Country Party from the coalition, but this proved unpopular and he resigned the party leadership after a few months. The coalition was eventually reconstituted, and Page served again as Minister for Commerce under Menzies and Arthur Fadden until the government's defeat in October 1941.

Page's last major role was as Minister for Health (1949–1956) in the post-war Menzies Government. He retired from cabinet at the age of 76, and died a short time after losing his seat at the 1961 election. Page served in parliament for almost 42 years, the third longest-serving Australian parliamentarian of all time; only Menzies lasted longer as the leader of a major Australian political party. He secured his party's independence by refusing overtures to merge with the Nationalists and the UAP, and the policies that he favoured – decentralisation, agrarianism, and government support of primary industry – have remained the basis of its platform up to the present day. The coalitions that he established and maintained with Bruce and Lyons have served as a model for all subsequent coalition governments.

Early life

Birth and family background

Earle Christmas Grafton Page was born in Grafton, New South Wales, on 8 August 1880. His first middle name, which he disliked, was given to him to carry on the surname of a childless relative, while his second middle name was in honour of his birthplace. Page was the fifth of eleven children born to Charles Page and Mary Johanna Haddon (Annie) Cox. [1] His younger brother Harold was the deputy administrator of the Territory of New Guinea and a Japanese prisoner of war. Page's parents had both lived in Grafton since they were children. His mother was born in Tasmania to an English father and a Scottish mother. His father, born in London, was a successful businessman and a member of the Grafton City Council, serving a single term as mayor in 1908. The family business was a hardware manufacturing firm, which had its origins in a coachbuilding firm established in 1858 by Page's maternal grandfather, Edwin Cox. [2] His other grandfather, James Page, arrived in Grafton in 1855, serving as the town's first schoolmaster and first town clerk. [3]


Page began his schooling at Grafton Public School, where he excelled academically. His family could not afford to send him to boarding school, as a result of financial difficulties caused by the banking crisis of 1893. Page consequently had to rely on scholarships to advance his education. [4] He won a bursary to attend Sydney Boys High School in 1895, where he passed the university entrance exams, and the following year – aged 15 – began studying a liberal arts course at the University of Sydney. He was equal top in mathematics in his first year, and was also awarded the lucrative Struth Exhibition for "general proficiency in the arts", which allowed him to switch to medicine and covered his first four years of medical school. [5] His role model was Grafton Smith, who had followed a similar path from Grafton Public School to university. [6] At Sydney Medical School, Page's lecturers included William Haswell (biology), James Hill (biology), Charles Martin (physiology), Anderson Stuart (physiology), and James Wilson (anatomy). [7] He graduated at the top of his class in 1901, with the degrees of Bachelor of Medicine (M.B.) and Master of Surgery (Ch.M.). [8]

Medical career

Page's first professional posting came before he had even been registered as a medical practitioner. Due to a shortage of doctors, he was acting superintendent of the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children for one month. [9] In 1902, he took up a position as a resident at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, serving in a variety of roles including as house surgeon under Robert Scot Skirving. During that time he contracted a near-fatal infection from a postmortem examination. [10] He also met his future wife, nurse Ethel Blunt. [11] Page returned to his home town in 1903, taking over a practice in South Grafton. He and two partners subsequently established a new private hospital, Clarence House Hospital, which opened in 1904 and served both Grafton and the surrounding region. [12]

Page was a keen adopter of new technologies. In 1904, he bought what he claimed was "the first Rover car in Australia", which was powered by kerosene. [13] He upgraded to an Itala in 1908, and had the chassis enlarged so it could be used as an ambulance. He also had an x-ray machine installed in his hospital, one of the first in Australia outside a major city. [14] Page developed a reputation for surgical innovation, taking a number of patients from Sydney and even some from interstate. One operation that brought him particular fame was the removal of a patient's diseased lung, a procedure that had only been invented a few years previously. [15] Page became an inaugural Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (FRACS) in 1927, and in 1942 was made an honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (FRCS). [16]

In February 1916, Page enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corps. He served as chief medical officer aboard the troopship HMATBallarat, and was then stationed at an army hospital in Cairo for several months. He was transferred to a hospital in England in July 1916, and concluded his service as a surgical specialist at a casualty clearing station in France. Page returned to Australia in March 1917 and was discharged from the military in July 1917. [16] Although his active involvement in medicine declined as his political career progressed, he was frequently called upon to treat his fellow MPs or parliamentary staff. This was particularly true after the federal government moved to Canberra, as the new capital had only a handful of qualified surgeons. In 1928, for instance, he performed an emergency appendectomy on Parker Moloney. [17]

Early political involvement

Page in about 1920 Earle Page 1920.jpg
Page in about 1920

Page's medical career brought him considerable wealth, and he began investing in land. He bought several large farming properties in South-East Queensland, including in Nerang, Kandanga, and the Numinbah Valley; Pages Pinnacle in the Numinbah State Forest is named after him. [18] His entry into public life came about as a result of his passion for hydroelectricity, which he first observed in New Zealand while attending a medical convention in 1910. He believed that it could be applied to the Northern Rivers region, which was still mostly unelectrified outside of the major towns. Page was elected to the South Grafton Municipal Council in 1913, believing his position as an alderman would be useful in his lobbying efforts. However, his overtures to the state government were rebuffed. In 1915, Page was one of the founders of the Northern New South Wales Separation League, which advocated the creation of a new state in the New England region. He toured a number of towns to raise awareness of the new movement, but interest waned as a result of the ongoing war. Later that year, he was part of a syndicate that bought The Daily Examiner , the local newspaper in Grafton. [19]

Page visited a number of hydroelectric sites in North America in 1917, on his way back from military service in France. He was elected mayor of South Grafton in 1918, serving until 1920, and also became the inaugural president of the North Coast Development League. He developed more concrete plans for a hydroelectric project on the Clarence River, and put forward various other development schemes relating to roads, railways, and ports, all of which served to raise his profile in the local district. Page was elected to the House of Representatives at the 1919 federal election, defeating the sitting Nationalist MP, John Thomson in the Division of Cowper. He stood as an independent with the endorsement of the Farmers' and Settlers' Association, and after the election joined the new Country Party, along with 10 other MPs from rural seats. Page continued to advocate for hydroelectricity throughout his political career, and many such projects were built in New South Wales. However, the specific scheme he favoured for the Clarence River was never put in place, only the smaller Nymboida Power Station. Decentralisation also remained a pet project, with Page frequently arguing for New South Wales and Queensland to be divided into smaller states to aid regional development. The movement for New England statehood waned in the 1920s, but re-emerged in the 1950s; a legally binding referendum on the subject was finally held in 1967, after Page's death, but was narrowly defeated in controversial circumstances. [19]

Bruce–Page Government

Page in 1924 as acting prime minister signing the first cabinet document prepared in Canberra Earle Page first cabinet document in Canberra.jpg
Page in 1924 as acting prime minister signing the first cabinet document prepared in Canberra

Government formation

Page was elected leader of the Country Party in 1921, replacing William McWilliams. At the 1922 federal election the party campaigned on a platform which included the establishment of a national sinking fund, national insurance scheme covering "sickness, unemployment, poverty and age", and conversion of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia into a full central bank. [20] The party emerged from the election with the balance of power in the House; the Nationalist government of Billy Hughes lost its majority and could not govern without Country Party support. It soon became apparent that the price for that support would be a full coalition with the Nationalists. However, the Country Party had been formed partly due to discontent with Hughes' rural policy, and Page's animosity toward Hughes was such that he would not even consider supporting him. Indeed, he would not even begin talks with the Nationalists as long as Hughes remained leader. Bowing to the inevitable, Hughes resigned. [21]

Page then began negotiations with Hughes' successor as leader of the Nationalists, Stanley Bruce. His terms were stiff; he wanted his Country Party to have five seats in an 11-man cabinet, including the post of Treasurer and the second rank in the ministry for himself. These demands were unprecedented for a prospective junior coalition partner in a Westminster system, and especially so for such a new party. Nonetheless, Bruce agreed rather than force another election. [21] For all intents and purposes, Page was the first Deputy Prime Minister of Australia (a title that did not officially exist until 1968). Since then, the leader of the Country/National Party has been the second-ranking member in nearly every non-Labor government. Page served as acting prime minister on several occasions, and in January 1924 chaired the first meeting of Federal Cabinet ever held in Canberra, at Yarralumla. Parliament did not move to Canberra until 1927. [22] [23]


Page in 1929 Earle Page 1929 02.jpg
Page in 1929

As Treasurer, Page formed a close working relationship with Bruce. [24] Due to favourable economic conditions the government was able to abolish land tax, cut income tax, and establishment the national sinking fund that Page had campaigned on. The government also established an investment fund for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and sponsored the first national housing program. [25] The final years of Page's treasurership were marked by the beginnings of an economic downturn. The budget went into deficit in 1927 and his 1929 budget speech referred to a "temporary financial depression". [26] He was a strong believer in orthodox finance and conservative policies, as well as a "high protectionist" supporting tariff barriers to protect Australian rural industries. [19] [27]

Page introduced a series of reforms to the Commonwealth Bank to enhance its central banking functions. In 1924, he announced that the government would place the Commonwealth Bank under an independent board, comprising a governor, the Treasury secretary, and representatives of industry. The same bill placed banknotes under the direct control of the bank, whereas previously it had been under a nominally independent Note Issue Board. [28] Later reforms saw the establishment of a Rural Credits Department within the bank, the profits of which were partly hypothecated to agricultural research. [29] In March 1925, cabinet decided to return Australia to the gold standard, which it had left during World War I. It delayed its announcement until the United Kingdom had decided it would do the same, which "disguised what was arguably Australia’s first explicit macroeconomic policy decision". [28]

In 1924, Bruce and Page established the Loan Council to coordinate public-sector borrowings between the state and federal governments. It was given constitutional force with an amendment passed in 1928. The government abolished the previous system of per-capita grants to states that had been implemented in 1911 and began introducing tied grants, initially for road building. [29] It also announced a royal commission into a national insurance scheme chaired by Senator John Millen. Page was one of the chief supporters of the National Insurance Bill 1928, which would have provided "sickness, old age, disability and maternity benefits", as well as payments to orphans and a limited form of child endowment. It was to be paid for by compulsory contributions from workers and co-contributions from employers. The government took the policy to the 1928 federal election but failed to pass the bill by the time of its defeat in 1929. [30]

As Treasurer, Page continued his professional medical practice. On 22 October 1924, he had to tell his best friend, Thomas Shorten Cole (1870–1957), the news that his wife Mary Ann Crane had just died on the operating table from complications of intestinal or stomach cancer, reputed by their daughter Dorothy May Cole to be "the worst day of his life".[ citation needed ] Due to a shortage of surgeons in Canberra, in 1928 Page performed an appendectomy on fellow MP Parker Moloney. [31]

Opposition and Lyons Government

The Bruce-Page government was heavily defeated by Labor in 1929 (with Bruce losing his own seat), and Page went into opposition. In 1931, a group of dissident Labor MPs led by Joseph Lyons merged with the Nationalists to form the United Australia Party under Lyons' leadership. Lyons and the UAP won majority government at the 1931 election. Although Lyons was keen to form a coalition with the Country Party, talks broke down, and Lyons opted to govern alone—to date, the last time that the Country/National Party has not had any posts in a non-Labor government. In 1934, however, the UAP suffered an eight-seat swing, forcing Lyons to take the Country Party back into his government in a full-fledged Coalition. Page became Minister for Commerce. He was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in the New Year's Day Honours of 1938. [32] While nine Australian Prime Ministers were knighted (and Bruce was elevated to the peerage), Page is the only one who was knighted before becoming Prime Minister.

Prime Minister and aftermath

Page c. 1940 Earle Page.jpg
Page c. 1940

When Lyons died suddenly in 1939, the Governor-General Lord Gowrie appointed Page as caretaker Prime Minister pending the UAP choosing a new leader. He held the office for three weeks until the UAP elected former deputy leader Robert Menzies as its new leader, and hence Prime Minister. [33] Page had been close to Lyons, but disliked Menzies, whom he charged publicly with having been disloyal to Lyons. Page contacted Stanley Bruce (now in London as Australian High Commissioner to the UK) and offered to resign his seat if Bruce would return to Australia to seek re-election to the parliament in a by-election for Page's old seat, and then seek election as UAP leader. Bruce said that he would only re-enter the parliament as an independent. [34]

When Menzies was elected UAP leader, Page refused to serve under him, and made an extraordinary personal attack on him in the House, accusing him not only of ministerial incompetence but of physical cowardice (for failing to enlist during World War I). His party soon rebelled, though, and Page was deposed as Country Party leader in favour of Archie Cameron. [33]

World War II

In March 1940, Archie Cameron led the Country Party back into coalition with the UAP. However, he resigned as party leader on 16 October, following the 1940 federal election. Page attempted to regain the party's leadership, but was deadlocked with John McEwen over multiple ballots. As a compromise, the party elected Arthur Fadden as acting leader; he was confirmed in the position a few months later. Page replaced Cameron as Minister for Commerce in the reconstituted ministry. [35]

Parliament House portrait of Page by Fred Leist, 1940-41 Earle Page, 1940-1941 (Fred Leist).png
Parliament House portrait of Page by Fred Leist, 1940–41

Fadden replaced Menzies as prime minister in August 1941. A few weeks later, cabinet decided to send Page to London as resident minister, with the intention that he would be granted access to the British War Cabinet. While he was en route to England, the Fadden Government lost a confidence motion and was replaced by an ALP minority government. The new prime minister John Curtin nonetheless allowed Page to take up the position, declining his offer to return to Australia. [36] The attack on Pearl Harbor in December changed the dynamic of Anglo-Australian relations, as the War in the Pacific became the primary concern of the Australian government. Page assisted in the creation of the Pacific War Council early the following year. He later recalled Winston Churchill's frustration in war cabinet meetings with Curtin's decision to withdraw troops from the Middle East and North Africa and return them to Australia. He credited himself with helping negate the tensions between the two men, but in February 1942 mistakenly advised Churchill that the Australian government was amenable to diverting the 7th Division to Burma rather than return it directly to Australia. He was heavily rebuked by Curtin and external affairs minister H. V. Evatt for his error. [37]

Page wrote to Curtin in April 1942 that since January he had been through "the worst period of acute mental distress of my whole life". [37] His tenure was not regarded as a success, and he was said to have suffered from a lack of experience in diplomacy. [38] Field Marshal Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, recalled that in war cabinet meetings he had "the mentality of a greengrocer". [39] Page left London in June 1942 following a severe bout of pneumonia. [37] He had been made a Companion of Honour (CH) before his departure. [40] He returned to Australia in August, travelling via the United States, [41] and quickly turned his attention to planning for post-war reconstruction. [42]

Page spent the remaining years of the Curtin and Chifley Governments on the opposition backbench. [43] He served on the Advisory War Council and was a delegate to the constitutional convention in Canberra in late 1942, which included members of all major political parties. However, he was frustrated by the government's failure to offer him any formal role in developing post-war policy, which he believed was due to him given his past work. [44] Page's brother Harold and nephew Robert were killed by the Japanese during the war. [45] [46]

Return to the ministry

Page c. 1950 Earle Page 1950.jpg
Page c. 1950

Page was reappointed Minister for Health after the Coalition won the 1949 federal election, at the age of 69. [47] He was the chief architect of the National Health Act 1953 , which established a national public health scheme based on government subsidies of voluntary private insurance and free medical services for pensioners. He played a key role in securing the support of the medical profession, which had strongly opposed the Chifley Government's attempt to introduce universal health care. [48] Unlike in previous governments, Page had little influence beyond his own policy area and was frustrated by the lack of interest in his ideas for national development. [47]

Upon the death of Billy Hughes in October 1952, Page became the Father of the House of Representatives and Father of the Parliament. [49] In 1954, he became the first chancellor of the University of New England, which had become fully autonomous from the University of Sydney. [50] He retired from cabinet at the age of 76, moving to the backbench in January 1956 after the December 1955 election. [51]

Upon Arthur Fadden's retirement in 1958, Page became the only former Prime Minister returned at that year's election.

Later life and death

By the 1961 election, Page was gravely ill, suffering from lung cancer. [52] Although he was too sick to actively campaign, Page refused to even consider retiring from Parliament and soldiered on for his 17th general election. In one of the great upsets of Australian electoral history, he lost his seat to Labor challenger Frank McGuren, whom he had defeated soundly in 1958. Page had gone into the election holding Cowper with what appeared to be an insurmountable 11-point majority, but McGuren managed to win the seat on a swing of 13%.

Page had campaigned sporadically before going to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney for emergency surgery. He went comatose a few days before the election and never regained consciousness. He died on 20 December, 11 days after the election, without ever knowing that he had been defeated. [19] [53]

Page had represented Cowper for just four days short of 42 years, making him the longest-serving Australian federal parliamentarian who represented the same seat throughout his career. Only Billy Hughes and Philip Ruddock have served in Parliament longer than Page. [54] He was the last former Prime Minister to lose his seat until Tony Abbott lost his seat of Warringah in 2019, though John Howard would lose his seat of Bennelong as a sitting Prime Minister in 2007.

Page's defeat/death saw the Australian Federal Parliament having no former Prime Ministers among its members, for the first time since the period between Sir Joseph Cook's resignation from Parliament in 1921 to become Australia's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Billy Hughes' forced resignation as Prime Minister in 1923.

Personal life

Page and his first wife Ethel Ethel and Earle Page 01.jpg
Page and his first wife Ethel

Page married Ethel Blunt on 18 September 1906. They had met at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital while he was undertaking his medical residency; she was a senior nurse there. Page soon began courting her, and convinced her to become the matron of his new hospital in Grafton. She gave up nursing after their marriage, but was active in politics and community organisations. The couple had five children: Mary (b. 1909), Earle Jr. (b. 1910), Donald (b. 1912), Iven (b. 1914), and Douglas (b. 1916). Their grandchildren include Don Page, who was active in New South Wales state politics, and Geoff Page, a poet. [11]

Page was predeceased by his first wife and his oldest son. Earle Jr., a qualified veterinarian, was killed by a lightning strike in January 1933, aged 22. [55] Ethel died in May 1958, aged 82, after a long illness. [56] On 20 July 1959 at St Paul's Cathedral, London, Page married for a second time, wedding his long-serving secretary Jean Thomas (32 years his junior). Stanley Bruce was his best man. [19] The second Lady Page lived for almost 50 years after her husband's death, dying on 20 June 2011; her ashes were interred at Northern Suburbs Crematorium. [57]


Bust of Earle Page, Prime Ministers Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens Earle Page bust.jpg
Bust of Earle Page, Prime Ministers Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens

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  1. Australia's PMs > Earle Page > Before office Archived 18 July 2010 at the Wayback Machine , National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
  2. Moorhouse, Frank (2001). Earle Page. Black Inc. p. 19. ISBN   1863952748.
  3. Moorhouse (2001), p. 17.
  4. Moorhouse (2001), p. 26.
  5. Moorhouse (2001), p. 29.
  6. Moorhouse (2001), p. 28.
  7. Moorhouse (2001), pp. 35–36.
  8. Moorhouse (2001), p. 40.
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Further reading

Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
John Thomson
Member for Cowper
Succeeded by
Frank McGuren
Preceded by
Billy Hughes
Father of the House of Representatives
Succeeded by
Eddie Ward
Father of the Parliament
Party political offices
New political party Leader of the Country Party
Succeeded by
Archie Cameron
New title Federal President of the Country Party
Succeeded by
William Moss
Political offices
Preceded by
Joseph Lyons
Prime Minister of Australia
Succeeded by
Robert Menzies
Preceded by
Stanley Bruce
Treasurer of Australia
Succeeded by
E G Theodore
Preceded by
Frederick Stewart
Minister for Commerce
Succeeded by
George McLeay
Preceded by
Billy Hughes
Minister for Health
Succeeded by
Harry Foll
Preceded by
Archie Cameron
Minister for Commerce
Succeeded by
William Scully
Preceded by
Nick McKenna
Minister for Health
Succeeded by
Donald Cameron
Academic offices
New title Chancellor of the University of New England
Succeeded by
Phillip Wright