Earle Page - Ideas Man of Australian Developmentalism?

Stephen Wilks is the author of ‘Now is the Psychological Moment: Earle Page and the Imagining of Australia concerning Page’s economic and social ideas, and here writes about the significant place of Page in Australia's national development story.

Amidst the mostly unmemorable memoirs produced by Australian Prime Ministers, one stands out.  Earle Page’s posthumously published Truant Surgeon was not just another defence of a personal record or string of tired anecdotes. It was a conscious attempt to leave a policy legacy for future generations to follow. Even the title signals a very different denizen of the world of politics. 

Earle Christmas Grafton Page was born in 1880 in Grafton in north-eastern New South Wales.  He was a rural surgeon who helped found the federal Country Party and was its parliamentary leader from 1921 to 1939. Page’s membership of the House of Representatives from 1919 until his death in 1961 makes him Australia’s third longest serving federal parliamentarian, after Billy Hughes and Philip Ruddock.

Earle Page standing in front of an archway made of brick, holding his hand up in a gentle fist.

Photo: Page Collection/MoAD

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.  Page was even Prime Minister. This was for all of twenty days on a caretaker basis in April 1939 following the death of Lyons, but nonetheless accords him a certain cachet.  

This said, the significance of Page is not just that of a politico who stuck around. His long and varied career was instilled with a rare sense of purpose. He raises the old issue of whether Australian politics has been as bereft of ideas as its critics have long held. Even in death Page tosses up surprises. The widow of this 1930s Prime Minister died in 2011, the result of his late life second marriage. Consider also that he studied Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History and concluded that “successive civilisations [had been] been saved and transmitted to posterity by [a] virile minority” – individuals just like himself.  

Yet Page is best remembered for his notorious parliamentary attack of 20 April 1939 on Robert Menzies when about to hand over the Prime Ministership. His inference that by not having served in the Great War Menzies was unfit to lead the nation misfired so totally that it prompted the singular sight of Labor MPs shouting in Menzies’ defence.  

Page, not normally vindictive, seems to have been motivated by his angry belief that Menzies’ obstreperous behaviour had hastened the death of Lyons. (Menzies strenuously denied ill intent). Page never recovered politically and resigned from the Country Party leadership the following September.  

Effervescent, intelligent and somewhat eccentric, Page draws differing reactions. Stanley Bruce famously recalled him as bubbling with ideas, occasionally producing a very good one indeed. To the extent that historians have paid him attention, assessments range from praising his inventiveness to implying that he was of modest intellect. The latter is despite Page having started Sydney University medicine aged 15 and graduating equal top of his class. The journalist Ulrich Ellis worked with Page for decades and portrayed him as a rare combination of dreaming idealist and practical man of politics. But note also Ellis’s comment that Page usually argued his case backwards by seeking justification for an already established idea. 

Page is often assumed to have been merely reflective of the Country Party mainstream and hence primarily intent on securing resources for rural interests. In fact, his career is characterised by remarkably consistent but pragmatically opportunistic efforts to re-shape Australia according to his vision of a decentralised and regionalised nation. Page’s successes and failures cast light on the wider place of concepts of national development in Australian history.

It is widely appreciated that Page had a major hand in pioneering the Country Party coalition with the urban-based conservatives; establishing some basics of our federal fiscal system; and as Health Minister in the 1950s overseeing the creation of the distant forerunner of to-day’s Medicare. But even these achievements do not fully encompass Page as one of Australia’s great optimists, who saw the nation as a tractable land of possibilities. Self-proclaimed visionaries are a dime a dozen, but Page’s status as a long term holder of high office makes him of special interest.  

Page first stated the basics of his vision on a national stage in an August 1917 speech to a conference of rural newspaper proprietors. Foremost was the decentralisation of population and industry to the countryside; centralisation is an “evil”, Page said simply, as urban environments brought out the worst in people. He saw the creation of new states within Australia as steps towards nationwide regionally-based governance. 

This would stimulate local engagement with social and economic development, leading to national growth. Paradoxically, this was all to follow policies set by a strong central national government under which “men will begin to think in terms of the continent of Australia as a whole, rather than of their state.” A reformed constitution would strengthen national government or at least enable co-operation with otherwise warring state governments.

Later Page became committed to the national economic planning of infrastructure and new industries. Harnessing rivers for hydroelectricity was to provide regionally-based power across the countryside. Rural-based education would encourage decentralisation and civic awareness, especially though small residential universities that reflected Page’s ideas about the proper scale of institutions. Page did not invent any of these ideas, but uniquely moulded them into a coherent vision of a radically re-cast nation. Few Australian leaders have since been so neglected who stood for so much.  

Page attested to how early life influences provided a lasting basis for his world view, especially a happy upbringing in Grafton that underlay his faith in small communities. As a young doctor, Page resented rural exclusion from services available to urban dwellers and became aware of the potential of new technologies. Page’s early involvement in the new state movement gave him a platform across his north-eastern New South Wales home base. His family’s strong tradition of community service, particularly in education, is portrayed in the symbolism incorporated into the Page family commemorative window in Wesley and St. Aidan’s Uniting Church in Canberra. The panel depicting Earle’s ideals shows 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, classical symbol of medicine.

Page had luck, as all politicians need. Prior to being elected to parliament in December 1919 the highest public office he had held was the mayoralty of South Grafton. Less than 18 months later, he was leader of the Country Party and issuing demands to a formidable Prime Minister, Billy Hughes. By February 1923 he was  delighted to find himself Treasurer and his party holding almost half the positions in a coalition Cabinet. Page had entered politics at a formative time, riding a rise in rural-based protest and its organisation into party political activity. The highly inclusive nature of the early Country Party particularly suited him; someone so idiosyncratic would not have prospered within a more established party. Page’s personal agenda was broadly compatible with the Bruce-Page government’s more conventional priorities, but he had sufficient authority to venture into pursuing more personal passions of hydroelectricity, new states and rural roads.  

Page was well aware that he held views far ahead of wider political and public opinion.  He employed the phrase “now is the psychological moment” whenever he judged that the political stars had at last aligned to offer a chance of implementing a particular strand of his grand vision.  Hence, for example, his burst of regionalist activity in the mid-1920s when the new state movement was strong. Page’s long campaign to dam his beloved Clarence River for hydroelectricity similarly waxed and waned, including efforts in the 1940s to make this a post-war reconstruction project. 

Two other initiatives impart a particularly strong sense of Page’s audacity. In 1931-2 he was the central figure in a campaign to unilaterally declare the separation of northern New South Wales from the rest of the state, one of Australia’s greatest political conspiracies. This drew on longstanding northern ambitions for separation, but gained more immediate impetus from outrage over Premier Jack Lang’s repudiation of interest payments due to foreign bond holders. In 1938-9 Page drew the ailing and increasingly compliant Lyons into supporting a bold attempt to establish powerful governmental machinery for national economic planning.  Page was dismayed when two Premiers’ Conferences convened to provide endorsement instead ended in public rejection. In Truant Surgeon he made particular mention of Menzies’ aloofness from proceedings – so perhaps Page’s April 1939 attack also had a policy base, as did almost everything he did. 

Page’s ideas about development mark him as one of many prominent Australian leaders – figures as diverse as Ben Chifley, Thomas Playford and John McEwen – who shared a broad assumption that so vast and formative a nation was surely open to the aggressive exploitation of natural resources and the fostering of primary and secondary industry. Such developmentalism captures something distinctive about Australian public culture. Delineating this contributes to understanding how Europeans tried to build a nation in a land they perceived to be a tabula rasa.  

The unusual clarity of Page’s policy vision makes his career a basis for historical assessment of such ideas. This includes revisiting the widespread assumption that the Australian nation was once committed to heroic national development initiatives. (The Snowy Mountains Scheme is routinely presented as exhibit A here). Page’s career suggests a far more nuanced narrative of a longstanding tension between assertive developmentalists and realists who stressed the limitations of Australia’s physical environment and of government action. Ambitious developmentalist proposals were often more strongly supported at the intellectual and popular levels than by policy-makers. Visions of hydroelectricity, new states, massive infrastructure and national plans were increasingly challenged in twentieth century Australia by hard-headed engineers, public servants, business leaders and Page’s political colleagues. 

Many of Page’s policy ideas thus simply failed. Yet the national debates he led on regionalism, technology, planning and federalism stretched right through the inter-war years and beyond.  Some became lost causes, but all were once important issues. Page also helped embed a few of his favoured concepts as lasting features of Australian political culture, especially by being the most prominent parliamentary advocate of co-operative federalism, and the allied concepts of regionalism and decentralisation. He directly steered the agendas of governments he served in, lobbied governments when in opposition, appealed to the press and inserted ideas from outside formal politics into parliamentary debate, always inciting reactions to his incessant activity.  

One last thought. There was long a tendency by biographers to conventionalise our main political figures, such as by disregarding Deakin’s spiritualism or Curtin’s depression. To this we can add Earle Page’s unique dreaming of a very different Australia.