Page, Earle Christmas Grafton

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MB 1902 MSurgery 1902

Earle Christmas Grafton Page was Prime Minister of Australia for 20 days, from 7 to 26 April 1939. He was also Deputy Prime Minister to Stanley Melbourne Bruce from 1923 to 1929, and to Joseph Lyons from 1934 to 1939. A founder of the Country Party, Page was Party Leader in Parliament from 1921 to 1939. He is also remembered for his long term as Minister for Health, from 1949 to 1956, in the government of Robert Menzies.

Earle Christmas Grafton Page was born on 8 August 1880 in Grafton, on the Clarence River in northern New South Wales.[1] Earle went to school in Grafton and won a scholarship to undertake his final year at Sydney High School in 1894. He was only 14 when he enrolled in an Arts degree at the University of Sydney. He won a prestigious scholarship at the end of the year that enabled him to transfer to Medicine in 1896. He topped his final year in 1900, and spent two years working first as a House Surgeon and then as a Pathologist at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

In 1903 Earle returned to Grafton to set up in general practice. He raised the funds to open a 13-bed private hospital in Grafton, and appointed Ethel Blunt, whom he had met as a theatre sister at Prince Alfred Hospital, as Matron. She had not only topped her year as a nursing graduate, but had experience running a hospital at Manly in Sydney.

Fascinated by technology, and with an extensive region to cover in his medical practice, Earle bought a car in 1904. It was the first in the district and among the first in Australia. He also installed the first X-ray machine in New South Wales at his hospital – the first demonstration of X-ray properties had only been seven years earlier in 1897, when Earle was still at university. Earle also developed other business interests, buying a Queensland sawmill and land for dairy farms. In 1906, he and Ethel Blunt married.

In 1910 the Pages travelled to New Zealand for a medical conference and also toured hydro-electricity projects there. In 1913 Earle was elected to the South Grafton Council, enabling him to pursue his goal to develop a hydro-electric scheme for the Clarence River.

By the time World War I began in 1914, Earle had become an influential local figure. He was prominent in the Farmers and Settlers Association and in July 1915 founded the Northern New South Wales Separation League. The ‘New State Movement’ aimed to establish a seventh state in northeastern New South Wales. In January 1916, Earle enlisted in the 1st Australian Imperial Force Army Medical Corps. For 12 months he worked in military hospitals in Egypt, then in England and France. He returned to Australia in March 1917 and received his discharge in July. Within a month he resumed his political activities, arguing for a new state, and also for wider Commonwealth control of national development.

On his way back to Australia in 1917, Earle had inspected hydro-electric projects in Canada and the United States. He was elected Mayor of South Grafton the following year and began to lay the groundwork that, six years later, established the Nymboida hydro-electric scheme.

In the 1919 federal election, Earle Page won the seat of Cowper, one of the 11 seats won by members of farmers’ groups. Earle and six of these members formed a federal Country Party on 24 February 1920, two days before the opening of parliament. That year, the Pages, now with five children, moved to the Sydney suburb of Strathfield. Sydney was a midpoint for train travel between the parliament in Melbourne and Earle’s electorate on the north coast of New South Wales.

On 5 April 1921 Earle was elected leader of the parliamentary Country Party. The party was unaligned and held the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

At the House of Representatives election in December 1922, 14 Country Party members were returned, while the Nationalists won only 26 seats. Prime Minister W M Hughes was forced to seek an alliance, but the Country Party members refused to work with a government that included him. Hughes resigned as Prime Minister and leader of the Nationalist Party in favour of S M Bruce. Earle Page formed a coalition government with Bruce, negotiating a generous deal for the new party: the Deputy Prime Ministership, five Cabinet positions, and a joint ticket in campaigning for Senate elections. Earle’s strategy had transformed the new party – it no longer sought concessions from government, but shared the reins of government.

On 9 February 1923 Earle Page was sworn in as Treasurer in the new coalition government.

As Treasurer, Earle chaired the Council from its early days in 1924. Earle was also twice acting Prime Minister for extended periods while Bruce attended the 1923 and 1926 Imperial Conferences. During the first four-month term he made history when, in Bruce’s stead, he chaired the first Cabinet meeting held in Canberra, on 30 January 1924.

The Bruce–Page government passed legislation to separate the trading and central bank functions of the Commonwealth Bank, and also established a ‘tied grants’ scheme to assist the States in building roads. As well as the rural credit scheme, Earle also devised an investment fund to finance the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, later the CSIRO.

At the election on 10 October 1929, Earle was unopposed in his electorate, but Prime Minister S M Bruce lost his own seat. Both the Country Party and the Nationalist Party lost support, and a Labor government was elected.

With United Australia Party members reduced at the federal election in September 1934, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons formed a coalition government with the Country Party, and Earle was once more deputy Prime Minister.

In April 1936, the State government appointed Earle chairman of a New England University College Council. The college was officially opened two years later, and Earle held this post for almost twenty years. When the University of New England was established in 1955, he became the University’s first chancellor.

The Pages went overseas again from April to July 1938, when Earle headed the trade mission to London for the revision of the 1932 Ottawa Treaty. On 22 July 1938 they attended the dedication by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of a memorial to Australian troops at Villiers-Bretonneux. Earle was awarded the KCMG on this visit.

After the coalition was returned at the 1937 election, Earle also became Minister for Health, a portfolio he held from 1937 to 1939. From October 1938 Earle was acting Prime Minister during the illness of Joseph Lyons, and chaired a conference of State Premiers on national security and planning.

When Joseph Lyons died on 7 April 1939, the Governor-General commissioned Earle Page as caretaker Prime Minister until the United Australia Party could elect a new leader. He held office for only 20 days, from 7 to 26 April 1939.

After the federal election in September 1940, the leadership of the parliamentary Country Party was declared vacant. Earle Page and John McEwen won an equal number of votes, so Fadden was made acting leader as a temporary compromise. In October 1940 Earle became Minister for Commerce in the coalition government, and from January to May 1941, he was a member of the War Cabinet, while Robert Menzies was in England. On 28 August 1941 Menzies was replaced as United Australia Party leader, and the following day Country Party leader Arthur Fadden became Prime Minister.

On 7 September Fadden appointed Earle as a special envoy in London, to report on defence issues affecting Australia and to enable the government to take a role in decision-making. While Earle was in Singapore en route to London, Fadden was unable to retain majority support in the House of Representatives and resigned on 7 October 1941. John Curtin became Prime Minister and Curtin directed Earle to continue with his planned mission.

Earle was in London from October 1941 to June 1942. He attended Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet on 29 October, but disagreed with an arrangement that he should attend only when called on for issues deemed relevant and secured agreement to sit on the British War Cabinet. In February 1942 Earle helped establish the Pacific War Council and negotiated a plan with Churchill for the diversion of Australian troops to Burma. These troops were about to return from the Middle East to Australia, as Curtin had requested. On 19 February 1942, the day of the bombing of Darwin, John Curtin cabled his refusal of this plan to Churchill. From 26 August until 29 September 1943 Earle again served on the Advisory War Council.

In April 1943 he went to Papua New Guinea with health officials to study ways to prevent malaria. After Robert Menzies withdrew from the War Cabinet in February 1944, Earle served from then until the end of the war in the Pacific in August 1945. The Country Party remained on the parliamentary cross benches until 1949.

After a coalition government replaced the Labor government of Ben Chifley in December 1949, Earle joined the Cabinet as Minister for Health. He designed and implemented the government’s comprehensive health program including a scheme for free pharmaceuticals on an ‘essential’ list, maintaining free medical services for those unable to pay, a subsidised voluntary private health insurance scheme, and increased Commonwealth grants to hospitals. The National Health Act, introduced in 1953, was seen by Earle as a ‘bulwark against the socialisation of medicine’.

From July to September 1951 the Pages travelled in North America, where they met with US President Truman, and to Canada, investigating the systems of hospital and medical insurance. From 1 September until 22 November the following year Earle was acting Postmaster-General while H L Anthony was overseas.

In January 1956 Earle retired from the Health portfolio to the backbench, and campaigned from the government backbenches for the Clarence Gorge hydro-electric scheme.

Earle was diagnosed with lung cancer before the 1961 federal election, but campaigned until late in November when he was taken from Grafton to Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred for emergency surgery. He died on 20 December 1961 before the election.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Page, Earle Christmas Grafton. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.