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Sir Earle Christmas Page (1880–1961)

by Carl Bridge

This article was published:

Earle Page, by Falk Studios, c.1939

Earle Page, by Falk Studios, c.1939

National Library of Australia, 12267470

Sir Earle Christmas Grafton Page (1880-1961), politician and surgeon, was born on 8 August 1880 at Grafton, New South Wales, fifth of eleven children of London-born Charles Page, blacksmith and coachbuilder, and his Tasmanian wife Mary Johanna Hadden, née Cox. Harold Hillis and Rodger Clarence George Page were brothers. Encouraged by his mother, Page excelled at Grafton Public School and won scholarships to Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1902). The money was essential as his father had landed himself in acute and lasting financial difficulties in the 1890s depression. Page entered university at 15 and after a year of arts enrolled in medicine and eventually topped the final year. One of his teachers, (Sir) Alexander MacCormick, chose Page as his house surgeon at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where Page met his future wife, Ethel Esther Blunt, a nurse. Early in 1902, perhaps at Ethel's prompting, he applied to be a Methodist medical missionary in the Solomons, but decided to continue at the hospital. Several months later, however, he contracted a near-fatal infection of the arms after a post-mortem examination and, while recuperating at Grafton, decided to join a medical practice there as junior partner.

He soon raised sufficient capital to start a thirteen-bed private hospital, Clarence House, at South Grafton and bought out his partner. He imported then-novel X-ray equipment and performed many daring and successful operations. Sydney colleagues judged him among the best surgeons of his generation. His practice soon spread far along the coast and inland. The roads were poor and he often took days to reach a patient, so in 1904 he acquired perhaps the first car on the north coast, which, though it was often bogged, greatly facilitated his work. Before long he was employing three other doctors.

Page induced Ethel to work in his hospital as matron for a year in 1904, but she returned to Sydney. After a long courtship, conducted mainly by letter, they were married at Ashfield on 18 September 1906. Their only daughter was born in 1909, followed by four sons. By 1908 Page had put £2100 aside to invest in land for dairy farms and a sawmill near Kandanga in Queensland; by 1912 his combined assets amounted to £10,000. He had also lent money to his father and brothers. The young, energetic surgeon and businessman was turning his mind increasingly to politics.

Attending a medical convention in New Zealand in 1910, Page was very impressed by the way in which dams and hydro-electricity schemes fostered closer settlement and more intensive economic development. He returned convinced that the same should be done on the Clarence River. His family had held civic office intermittently at Grafton since 1860; his grandfather had been town clerk and his father, as mayor in 1908, had established the city's first permanent water supply. They had always harboured the northerners' resentment of the 'Sydney octopus' and had been active in calls for a new State. Earle Page in 1913 was elected an alderman on the South Grafton Council and also chaired meetings for the Farmers and Settlers' Association candidate in the State elections. In January 1915 he launched what became the Northern New South Wales Separation League in Grafton and that year, using his car and his network of patients, formed some twenty-two branches. In speeches, pamphlets, and in the press, he argued that metropolitan interests had stunted northern growth, for example by refusing to link the north coast to Queensland by rail or to bridge the Clarence or clear its mouth for navigation. In December Page became part-proprietor of the Grafton Daily Examiner. But World War I led to a postponement of his plans.

Page arranged his war carefully so as not to interfere unduly with his political and business affairs. Even before he enlisted in January 1916 he intended, after less than a year overseas as a doctor in the Australian Imperial Force, to return home to swap places with the last remaining member of his Grafton practice. His plan worked admirably. Captain Page spent six months in Egypt, two in England and three at a casualty clearing station in France; and, in March 1917, his claim was accepted that in order to avoid financial ruin he had to return urgently to Australia as his partner had enlisted. Nevertheless, he found time to travel home with Ethel through Canada and the United States of America, inspecting hydro-electric projects there.

Back in Grafton by June, Page quickly resumed his political career and began to lobby for support in a bid for the local Federal seat of Cowper. A conscriptionist, he kept his opinions quiet during the 1917 plebiscite, not wishing to lose the confidence of the farmers. In 1918 he ignored requests to report for military duty in Sydney though he participated strongly in recruiting campaigns. That year he was elected mayor of South Grafton, serving till 1920, and he initiated the Nymboida hydro-electric scheme to supply the town with power, a project he opened as Federal treasurer in 1924.

Reactivating the New State movement, Page criss-crossed the north preaching separation and development. With the aid of lantern slides of overseas dams, he recommended damming the Clarence gorge to create a lake 100 miles (161 km) long, developing wood-chip and other industries, and electrifying northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. He also talked of new roads and railways and his obvious ability and tireless enthusiasm won him supporters. In the 1919 Federal elections he nominated for Cowper as an independent 'straight out country' candidate, soon received Farmers and Settlers' Association endorsement and was elected.

Page joined ten other farmer members in January 1920 to form the Federal Country Party and was immediately elected whip. Needing only one more seat to hold the balance of power in the House of Representatives, the new party opted to sit on the cross-benches while offering Billy Hughes's Nationalist government its general support. Increasingly, however, they found reasons to be critical. The high Massy-Greene tariff of 1921 may have protected Australia's fledgling secondary industries but it also forced up the price of imported farm equipment. The government's compulsory wheat pool caused producer disquiet. And the government was unresponsive to cries for tax cuts, retrenchment, new States, rural development and the sale of Commonwealth-owned industries.

Page soon developed the reputation of a terrier at Hughes's heels. In April 1921 he was elected to replace William McWilliams as party leader. A Page stratagem to defeat the budget using a Nationalist defector came within one vote of success and Hughes was forced to acknowledge the Country Party's power by reducing the estimates. Cheekily, Page declared that his party were the ones to 'switch on the lights when the burglar is about', making him 'drop the loot'. The Macleay Argus depicted Hughes as 'Goliath' and the tyro Page as 'David', 'humming a gay tune … collecting nice round stones for his sling'. But Page confided to Ethel that he found the ministry 'primitive beasts—fighting tooth and claw without any rules or anything else … [I] fear [I] am just too soft for this work'.

Page's fears were unfounded. When the October 1922 elections resulted in the Country Party controlling the balance of power he forced home his advantage with the ruthless precision and timing that had made him a first-class surgeon and businessman. In discussions with Stanley (Viscount) Bruce and (Sir) John Latham he put very stiff terms for the Country Party's entry into a coalition government: Hughes's removal; joint Senate tickets in elections; the deputy prime ministership for himself; and five Country Party portfolios to the Nationalists' six, despite the Nationalists holding 31 seats to the Country Party's 14. Page dared and he won. His terms were accepted, Hughes went, and Bruce became prime minister.

Page's vision and drive had totally transformed the political strategy of his party. Rather than trying to win piecemeal concessions, it boldly entered government. He was the main architect of the coalition between the Country Party and the urban conservative parties which remained one of the most durable and influential features of Australian politics for over sixty years.

It was a heady experience after just under three years in parliament to have played a principal role in Hughes's overthrow. Page was now in a position to put his abundant energies to work implementing his promises and diagnosing and curing the nation's ills. In Bruce he found an ideal partner. Both were relatively young, successful businessmen and former soldiers who were keen to streamline government and promote economic development within an Imperial framework. Bruce would obtain the 'Men, Money and Markets' from Britain and Page as treasurer would concentrate on domestic arrangements. Their new broom would sweep away the 'old corruption' of the Hughes generation. As Bruce was later to say, Page's mind teemed with ideas and Bruce, being more methodical and a more effective speaker, worked out how to present them. Page was garrulous and democratic, Bruce aloof and patrician. Their abilities and characters complemented each other in 'a more or less happy combination'.

To Page politics, like medicine, was very much the art of the possible; he appreciated acutely the human element in any situation. Time after time he demonstrated an uncanny genius for inventing practical mechanisms to solve particular problems of government, many of which became, like the coalition, lasting features of the Australian political and economic structure.

Significant reduction of the tariff proved impossible, so Page changed tack. He enjoined his party to 'get into the vicious circle' with secondary industry and argue for similar protection for primary producers. He used the party's political muscle to bring about legislation which subsidized the export of dairy products, sugar and dried fruits by charging higher domestic prices, an idea first suggested by Page's deputy, Tom Paterson. Producer-controlled and government-subsidized export boards were formed in order to market products collectively. Bounty schemes were adopted for meat and cotton exports and advances made to wheat and hops growers. After a trip to North America in early 1925 Page established the rural credits department in the Commonwealth Bank of Australia to extend loans to farmers on the security of their produce, as was done in the United States. He was oblivious to Opposition claims that all these measures were 'doses of socialism'.

Page did his best to convert the Commonwealth Bank into a fully fledged central bank, giving it an independent board of directors and control over note issue. Unfortunately he failed to get the private banks to take the crucial step of agreeing to deposit reserve funds with the bank, and thus had to be satisfied with a half-loaf. Buried in a report of the royal commission on taxation (1920-23), Page found a suggestion that section 96 of the Constitution could be used by the Commonwealth to grant money for virtually any specified purpose. The tied Commonwealth grant was born. Initially grants were made for road-building, but they were later extended to other public works and to co-operative marketing; from the 1940s the mechanism was used to channel Commonwealth funds into hospitals and education. It is now applied to myriad purposes.

Page kept his feet planted firmly on the ground in his own constituency. It was no coincidence that early projects approved for Commonwealth financial assistance included the linking of Grafton to South Brisbane by a standard-gauge railway line and the sealing of the road from Grafton to the coast, or that the dairy industry fared well. When Page left office in 1929 the road and rail bridge over the Clarence was due for construction (it opened in 1932) and premature plans for a hydro-electric grid for the north were under discussion.

As treasurer Page advocated 'co-operative federalism', of which tied Commonwealth grants were one part; another was the reorganization of the whole field of Commonwealth-State financial relations. In May 1923 Page and Bruce called the State premiers together to form the Australian Loan Council, a voluntary body to co-ordinate borrowings to avoid competition. In 1927 Page and Bruce brilliantly used the stick of the abolition of per capita grants to the States and the carrot of the Commonwealth's assuming responsibility for States' debts to secure the premiers' agreement that the Loan Council should become statutory, which it did from 1929. The Commonwealth thus gained permanent control over all public borrowing, a tremendous shift in power to the Federal government.

Page's first budgets reflected the relative prosperity of the time. With an expanding government income he was able to abolish Federal land tax and reduce income tax. A National Debt Sinking Fund was established in 1923. An investment fund financed the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research independently of the budget. A petrol tax paid for federal roads. Though he used the standard rhetoric of 'Australia Unlimited', in practice Page husbanded funds carefully and borrowed cautiously, preferring self-financing or at least productive expenditure; the prodigal borrowing of the 1920s which exacerbated the Depression was overwhelmingly by the States and other authorities, loans which before 1929 the Commonwealth could not restrict. When Page's 1927-28 budget fell into a £5½ million deficit, the Nationalist (Sir) Henry Gullett described Page as 'the most tragic Treasurer this country has ever had'. With the onset of the Depression the label stuck, but it was undeserved. The deficit was mainly caused by a sudden, sharp drop in world commodity prices which Page could not reasonably have anticipated. He cannot be made a scapegoat for the Depression. That many of the financial and marketing mechanisms he introduced are still in use is sufficient testimony to his abilities.

The 1920s were Page's most productive decade privately as well. In 1921 he built two houses at Strathfield in Sydney and another at Wollstonecraft in 1928. He paid £10,000 in 1928 for a five-twelfths share in a partnership to purchase Heifer station, a beef-cattle property near Grafton. In 1927 his combined assets, which still included the hospital and the Queensland dairy farms, were worth about £70,000. That year he joined the Australian Club, Sydney, and acquired a French governess for his children, who all attended private schools in Sydney.

One major disappointment was that his political career separated him from his family for long periods. It was decided in 1920 that Ethel would make the family home in Sydney where she and her mother could see to the children's education. Ethel had never been happy in the country and, though all her life she was to campaign vigorously and effectively for him there when politics demanded, she welcomed the move. She lived in Sydney until 1950. Page visited on average once every two or three weeks, of necessity spending most of his time in Melbourne, Canberra and Grafton; but no other solution seemed possible. The loneliness thus engendered does much to explain his constant and frenetic political activity.

In 1932 Page mortgaged himself to the hilt, and bought out the rest of Heifer station (renamed Boolneringbar). He survived the Depression without having to sell any property or prejudice any of his children's education for professions.

In 1931 Page negotiated a pre-election pact with Joe Lyons but found to his chagrin that Lyons chose to govern independently of the Country Party when the United Australia Party polled a majority in its own right. This freed Lyons to take the path of high protection and left the Country Party to denounce the U.A.P. as a 'party of spare parts' that would not last.

Page returned to his old cry for a new State. The movement had been halted in 1925 when the New South Wales government's Cohen commission had reported that the proposed northern State was not financially viable. Nevertheless, when Jack Lang refused to honour debts to British bondholders, Page, flirting briefly and somewhat reluctantly with right-wing revolutionary politics, announced at Armidale in early 1932 that New England was prepared to declare itself an independent State unilaterally and loyally pay its share of the debt. He also supported similar moves in the Riverina and mid-west. But the moment passed, Lang accepted his dismissal peacefully, and with Page's blessing the New South Wales Country Party under (Sir) Michael Bruxner and David Drummond happily formed a coalition government with (Sir) Bertram Stevens's U.A.P. Though the Harold Nicholas commission of 1935 pronounced the new State a possibility, no action followed. In 1967, nearly six years after Page's death, a referendum rejected the idea. Paradoxically Page's expenditure in the region in the 1920s, and Bruxner's and Drummond's in the 1930s, met many of its specific needs and so blunted the demand. The establishment of the New England University College in 1938, whose council Page chaired until 1955, is a case in point.

Page and his wife suffered a deep personal blow in January 1933 when their eldest son Earle was killed by lightning. Page withdrew from active politics for nine months to nurse their grief and to sort out affairs on Boolneringbar where young Earle had been supervising conversions to dairy farms. Ethel had moved up from Sydney to help her son and remained with her husband at Boolneringbar until he re-entered politics.

The 1934 election once more gave the Country Party the balance of power and Lyons was forced to accept a coalition; his terms were less generous than Bruce's, but Page accepted them. He became minister for commerce and unofficial deputy prime minister and the party received only four of the fourteen cabinet posts, two of them without portfolio. Page's policy achievements were commensurately moderate: he secured the inclusion of some imported agricultural equipment on the free list; founded the voluntary Australian Agricultural Council to further co-ordinate agricultural marketing activities; led trade delegations to London in 1936 and 1938 to negotiate modest increases in Britain's Australian sugar and beef imports; and in 1938 passed the Wheat Industry Assistance Act which, when necessary, ensured a home consumption price by taxing flour.

On Lyons's death in April 1939 Page became caretaker prime minister for nineteen days while the U.A.P. elected a new leader. He and Richard (Lord) Casey failed to persuade Bruce to return to take office, and (Sir) Robert Menzies, a man with no love for the Country Party, was elected. Having destroyed Hughes in 1922, Page now tried to destroy Menzies. In a carefully prepared philippic he accused Menzies in parliament of cowardice for not having enlisted in World War I and of disloyalty to his leader which had hastened Lyons's death. Such a man, Page argued, was not fit to lead his country, especially as war was again imminent. Page gambled audaciously, and lost. It was the nadir of his political career. The Country Party was excluded from Menzies' cabinet, the party split, Page was forced to step down from the leadership in September and never regained it. The Country Party re-entered cabinet in March 1940, and Menzies forgave Page sufficiently to reappoint him minister for commerce in June, but his influence in cabinet was to be much reduced.

In September 1941 the Fadden government appointed Page Australian minister resident in London and the new Labor administration retained him there. By December Page had won the battle to sit on the relevant British war cabinet committees. In January 1942 he helped to establish the London Pacific War Council and advised Churchill to fight to the end in Singapore. Convinced that Australia should be defended from Asia, Page exceeded his brief in the next month when he misread an instruction from the Australian cabinet and hatched a plan with Churchill for the diversion to Burma of the 7th Australian Division, due to return as a defence force to Australia from the Middle East. John Curtin overruled Page peremptorily. Page seems to have thought that the London Pacific War Council was an executive rather than an advisory body. Mediating between Churchill and Curtin at this critical time took its physical and emotional toll: Page wrote to Curtin in April that 'I went through since January the worst period of acute mental distress of my whole life'; and a severe attack of pneumonia forced his return to Australia in June.

On the election of the Menzies coalition government to office in 1949 Page, as minister for health, was given the difficult task of drafting new legislation in the wake of the Chifley Labor government's disastrous battle with the medical profession. He was acutely aware of the difficulties as he had twice before failed in attempts to introduce national insurance schemes, in 1928 and 1938. Page again exercised his genius for finding a workable compromise. Over five years from 1950 he legislated to provide free essential drugs to the community, maintain free medical services for the poor, subsidize the bulk of the population in their voluntary contributions to private health insurance funds, and increase Commonwealth grants to hospitals. The legislation was drafted after discussions with all concerned groups and Page was at pains to maintain the independence and co-operation of the medical profession. In 1953 he was able to claim that he had erected 'a bulwark against the socialisation of medicine' while also meeting the necessary health requirements of all the population. As with other Page creations many of its essentials lasted. It was a crowning achievement. He retired from cabinet in January 1956 to devote his last years to fighting from the back-bench for the Clarence gorge hydro-electric scheme and the new State, and to writing his memoirs, Truant Surgeon, (Sydney, 1963).

Page was 5 ft 8½ ins (174 cm) tall, blue-eyed, with a shock of wavy brown hair; robust, possessing the delicate hands of a surgeon and the brawny forearms of a blacksmith. He rode a horse and played a daily hard game of tennis until he was over 80, playing it, as he did politics, with scant regard for the rules. His impatience and quick mind led him to speak in a torrent of high-pitched words with ideas often outstripping expression. He habitually punctuated his speech with the refrain 'You see, You see', and would assume agreement and be on to the next point before the listener could get a word in. His distinctive and frequent laugh enabled him to chortle his way out of many an embarrassing corner.

Page's modus operandi was apparently chaotic. He woke at dawn and would thereafter do several things at once: draft a speech, buy material by telephone for one of his properties, contact his banker, arrange an itinerary for a trip, all frenetically. His photographic memory and infinite capacity for problem-solving were offset by a reckless and intuitive audacity which at its best could lead him to topple Hughes, at its worst to destroy himself over Menzies in 1939. He saw most issues through the prism of his rural base and his own constituents, forever winning them concessions. His shrewdness made him adept at the rough-and-tumble chicanery of political life; yet he left a solid legacy of practical achievement. His friend Drummond remarked that Page's ideas 'fertilised the political thought of Australia'; Jack Lang, an opponent, admired his unusually 'constructive' cast of mind.

In 1951 Page sold his Queensland farms and Sydney houses and divided his spare time between Boolneringbar and a flat at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney. Ethel died in 1958; and on 20 July 1959 Page married his secretary Jean Thomas at St Paul's Cathedral, London, with Bruce as best man. He fought his last election in December 1961. Suffering from cancer, he hardly appeared in the electorate and died in Sydney on 20 December, not knowing that he had lost his seat after forty-two years; he was cremated.

Page had been appointed to the Privy Council in 1929, made a G.C.M.G. in 1938, Companion of Honour and an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, London, in 1942; he was a foundation member of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. In 1955 he was installed as first chancellor of the University of New England and awarded an honorary doctorate of science. There are portraits by Fred Leist in Parliament House, Canberra, and by Joshua Smith at the University of New England.

Select Bibliography

  • U. R. Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party (Melb, 1963)
  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • D. M. Horner, High Command (Canb, 1982)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 12 May 1962
  • J. O'Hara, The Entry into Public Life of Sir Earle Christmas Grafton Page 1915-21 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New England, 1969)
  • E. C. G. Page papers (National Library of Australia and University of New England Library and Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Carl Bridge, 'Page, Sir Earle Christmas (1880–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Earle Page, by Falk Studios, c.1939

Earle Page, by Falk Studios, c.1939

National Library of Australia, 12267470