Earle Page’s Speech Attacking Robert Menzies

Sir Earle Page was Prime Minister for three weeks in April 1939, following the death of Joseph Lyons and pending the United Australia Party’s election of Robert Menzies as its new leader.

PagePage held the office of prime minister for 20 days from April 7 until April 26. Menzies was sworn in as prime minister on April 27.

On April 19, the House of Representatives met to express condolences for Lyons. On April 20, the House met again. At the end of proceedings, Page rose to move the adjournment motion. He then made a speech excoriating Menzies, who had just been elected leader of the United Australia Party. Page questioned his judgment and loyalty and his lack of war service.

Page said he had offered to resign his seat of Cowper in favour of the former prime minister, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who was then serving as High Commissioner in London. Page had served as Treasurer in the Bruce-Page Nationalist-Country Party coalition government from 1923 until 1929. He now suggested Bruce could return to head up a national government in what appeared to be the certainty of impending war. Bruce had declined the offer.

Page went further and suggested the House could agree on a national leader from inside or outside the parliament and, if necessary, Page would resign his seat to facilitate the agreement.

The Hansard transcript, complete with interjections, is shown below. It includes the speeches by Robert Menzies and John Curtin. The transcript gives some indication of the venom of Page’s speech and its reception by other members, although contemporary newspaper reports included interjections not recorded by Hansard.

Menzies subsequently formed a government without Country Party members. Page’s behaviour led to him being deposed as leader of the Country Party, a position he had held for 18 years. After the coalition was re-established, he joined the Menzies government as Minister for Commerce. In 1949, when Menzies returned for his second, record-breaking, term as prime minister, Page served as Minister for Health until 1956.

Speech by Prime Minister Earle Page in the House of Representatives.

Sir EARLE PAGE (Cowper) (Prime Minister) – I move –

That the House, at its rising, adjourn until Wednesday, the 3rd May next, at 3 p.m., unless Mr. Speaker shall, prior to that date, by telegram addressed to each member of the House, fix an earlier day of meeting.

The motion is couched in these unusual terms for the purpose of enabling a new Government to be formed in the interim and, should the international position become very acute, to permit an immediate calling together of the House.

It is necessary, I think, that I should set out the reasons which make this step necessary, and also some of the reasons why, in my opinion at least, a fortnight should be allowed for the formation of a new Government. I should like, first, to say to honorable members that I had no personal wish to launch a discussion at this stage. The Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Curtin) will corroborate my statement that the Government desired that this motion should be moved yesterday and passed formally; but because that honorable gentleman felt that there should be some discussion of the matter, and that such discussion would undoubtedly be out of harmony with the solemnity of yesterday’s proceedings – a submission with which I agreed – he suggested that the House should meet to-day for this purpose.

The Leader of the United Australia party (Mr. Menzies) was called into consultation. He agreed that the course proposed by Mr. Curtin should be followed, and in order to enable this motion to be moved and dealt with, I was requested to defer the tendering of my resignation to the Governor-General from yesterday, when I intended to return my commission, until to-day. In fact, I might say that when the right honorable gentleman came to me on Tuesday night and informed me of his election as leader of the United Australia party, and after I had congratulated him on his election, I told him that I was entirely at his disposal as to the time at which I should tender my advice to the Governor-General.

Because of the suggestion that has been made that, for some extraordinary reason, I should defer the making of my course known, I make this statement to-day, although my desire was to make it, explaining the reasons which actuated me and my party in the attitude which I adopted, at a time when I was no longer Prime Minister or leader of a government in which there were members of both parties.

Honorable members will recall the dramatic onset of the last stage of the illness which brought about Mr. Lyons’s death. On Tuesday he was present at a meeting of the Cabinet in Canberra; that night he travelled to Sydney. On Wednesday, at about 10 a.m., he informed me by telephone that he did not think that he would be well enough to attend the luncheon of the Royal Agricultural Society to mark the opening of the Sydney Show and he asked me to take his place.

When next day I, in company with the Treasurer (Mr. Casey), saw him in hospital he was very much better, and his doctor said that he had a reasonable chance of recovering quickly. I left him at about 1 o’clock, having promised to interview another Minister on his behalf.

I had no sooner reached my home, not more than ten minutes’ travel by car, when I received a telephone call asking me to go back to the hospital. Mr. Lyons had suddenly become unconscious, and the authorities at the hospital had broadcast a message to Dame Enid Lyons and myself to return to the hospital, immediately. I went back and found that the right honorable gentleman had developed a very bad heart attack. From that time until he died next morning, some eighteen or twenty hours after, he was never fully conscious; he was at times sufficiently conscious to recognize his wife and those close to him, but not to deal with public matters.

His Excellency the Governor-General spoke to me in the afternoon and asked whether it would be possible for him to get advice from Mr. Lyons regarding the nomination of his successor. His Excellency had a discussion with two of the doctors attending Mr. Lyons and they informed him that such a direction from the patient was impossible. Consequently, when the right honorable gentleman died, no advice had been tendered to the Governor-General by the only person constitutionally competent to give it.

The position then was that the United Australia party, which was in partnership with the Country party in the government of the country, and which being the larger party, had always provided the leader of the Government, was temporarily without a deputy leader; therefore, no officer of that party could rightly be said to be in the direct line of succession. In those circumstances, and without any advice from me, the Governor-General decided to commission me to form a government to carry on the affairs of this country.

As honorable members will agree, it was obvious to all at that time that at any moment Australia might find itself at war, and that it was imperative there should be a government fully clothed with all powers – not merely an interim government carrying on temporarily pending the choice of a new leader – but one with complete and absolute power to deal with any situation that might arise.

The Governor-General issued his commission to me without any qualification whatever. I discussed the position with him and with my colleagues in the Government, pointing out that for twelve years I had cooperated with members of the United Australia party or of the Nationalist party in the government of this country, and stating that, in my opinion, a composite government was likely to be permanently successful only if led by the leader of the numerically stronger party, who should deal with the general problems of government as a whole.

Although I had been given an unqualified commission my wish was that the status quo ante should be re-established at the earliest possible moment. I told my colleagues, without any pressure at all, and without the signature of any document – the existence of which I absolutely deny, because no such document was ever drawn or signed – that when the United Australia party elected its leader I would tender my resignation to the Governor-General and give to him whatever advice he sought. That is the position I am still in. As I have said, as soon as the right honorable member for Kooyong (Mr. Menzies) was elected, I indicated my readiness to take immediate action.

However, it is beyond question that the change in the leadership of the United Australia party has resulted in a change in the relationship of the two parties composing the Government. The general basis for the successful functioning of a composite government must be the fullest mutual confidence and loyalty between the parties composing it. For twelve years in this Parliament, I have sat in composite governments with Mr. Bruce and Mr. Lyons, under such conditions, and have by my co-operation been able to give stability to the government in this chamber, in which during that period no party had a majority. Mutual confidence and loyalty are still essential conditions for the existence and proper functioning of a composite government; but at present, unfortunately, there is another consideration which overrides, but does not dislodge, these conditions.

Every one realizes that to-day we are perhaps on the threshold of war. During the last four or five weeks actions have been taken by certain aggressor countries, which, if permitted to continue, would undoubtedly finally lead to Australia having no option but to fight in self-defence. More recently, extraordinary steps have been taken by other nations, such as the United States of America, for instance, in an endeavour to assure the peace of the world. It seems to me that if a wartime government is to function – and that may be the position at any time, although I hope not – it must function in such a way as to secure the greatest possible measure of co-operation in the community.

The Australian Government needs a leader with not merely the qualities I have mentioned, but also the three essential qualities of courage, loyalty and judgment, in such degree as will ensure that the people of Australia will give the last ounce of their energies and resources in a united national effort to ensure our preservation.

Therefore, as the Leader of the Country party, which had been associated for so many years with the United Australia party in the government of this country, I was compelled to consider the qualifications of the new Leader of the United Australia party – not that the Country party is interested in the personnel of the ministerial members of the United Australia party, or of its representatives in this Parliament. That is entirely a party domestic matter, but if the leader of that party was to become the leader of a united national effort, I was entitled to consider whether he possessed the qualifications necessary for his high office. I had to ask myself whether his public record was such as to inspire the people of Australia to the maximum unstinted effort in a time of national emergency.

Because of that I was reminded of three incidents in the public career of the newly elected Leader of the United Australia party. The first of the three happened only 24 days previously, when, honorable members will remember, the right honorable gentleman tendered his resignation as Attorney-General in the Lyons administration. This country is spending many millions of pounds in preparations for a defensive war, and we are endeavouring to get every industry to put forward the maximum effort in order that Australia may be prepared for any eventuality. At this time, when all our efforts were being strained to put the defences of this country in order, the right honorable gentleman insisted on resigning from the Government because he differed from its attitude towards national insurance.

Sir Frederick Stewart – He was keeping faith with the public.

SIR EARLE PAGE – I shall quote but one sentence from his letter of resignation to the late Prime Minister. He said –

I frankly do not think we can expect to be taken seriously if we start off again with conferences and drafting committees at a time when we have already so notoriously failed to go on with an act which represents two years of labour, a vast amount of organization, and a considerable expenditure of public and private funds.

Now the right honorable gentleman says that that is exactly what he intends to do.

The second incident is this: Some 24 weeks ago he went to Sydney, where he made a speech on leadership; that pronouncement was regarded by the public and the press of Australia as an attack upon his own leader. I do not say that it was; I merely say that it was construed in that way.

Mr JOHN LAWSON (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) – His leader did not regard it as such.

Sir EARLE PAGE – I spoke to Mr. Lyons and he was very distressed about the matter.

Sir Frederick Stewart – At least six members of this House had an assurance from Mr. Lyons that he did not so regard it.

Mr. SPEAKER (Hon. G. J. Bell) – Order! The Chair must insist that the Prime Minister be heard. These interjections are distinctly disorderly and are unfair to the right honorable gentleman and to other members who wish to hear him.

Sir EARLE PAGE – I come now to the third incident: Some 24 years ago the right honorable member for Kooyong was a member of the Australian Military Forces and held the King’s Commission. In 1915, after having been in the military forces for some years, he resigned his commission and did not go overseas.

Mr James – That is dirt!

Sir EARLE PAGE – I am not suggesting that the right honorable gentleman had not the best possible reasons for his action.

Mr JOHN LAWSON (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) – Then why did the right honorable gentleman mention the matter ?

Sir EARLE PAGE – I am not calling into question the reason for the right honorable gentleman’s action, nor would I question the reason of any other individual in similar circumstances. All I say is that the right honorable gentleman has not explained, to the satisfaction of the very great body of people who did participate in the war, his reasons, and because of this I am afraid that he will not be able to get that maximum effort from the people of Australia to which I have referred.

I, personally, have been very considerably perturbed in regard to the whole position. I believe that the present is a time when we should he in a position to pull our whole weight in a combined national effort to ensure the defence of Australia. Because I felt the urgent need for this unity, on Wednesday last I sent a message to the High Commissioner for Australia, Mr. Bruce, at Honolulu, telling him that in my view there would, in all probability, be turmoil, and possibly an election, in Australia at a time when we would need the whole of our national effort for one purpose – the defence of Australia – and I believed that if he returned to this country he would be able to exercise an ameliorative influence in public affairs. To this end I informed him that if he were wiling to return to active public life in Australia, I would resign my seat which, as honorable members know, is a fairly safe one, in order to enable him to re-enter this Parliament. Mr. Bruce cabled to me a reply to the effect that he was not prepared to accept my seat, but would be willing to come back to Australia if, by so doing, it would be possible to bring into existence a non-party government of the Commonwealth – a government comprising members of all parties, irrespective of their affiliations. He added that he had no wish to interfere with the internal organization of those parties, but would be prepared to place himself at the disposal of the people of Australia if there was a general desire that he should do so. That offer was made and the Country party has considered it. Though the party objects strongly to my leaving politics, it desires such a national government to be brought about. I believe that the United Australia party is still considering the suggestion, but it will be of no avail to approach any other party unless we can get substantial agreement on the proposal.

I wish to make it clear that I am not wedded to the selection of any individual as the future leader of the Government. As leader of my own party, I make this offer on the floor of the House: If the leaders of the three parties can agree upon the choice of a national leader, either from inside or outside this Parliament, I shall be willing to serve under him, and my party will be prepared to co-operate in the administration of this country under those conditions. If it be necessary for a man from outside the Parliament to be brought in, I shall be prepared at once to vacate my seat in order to enable him to enter this Parliament to carry out the agreement.

Alternatively, I am willing to discuss with the House itself whether means cannot be adopted amongst the parties in this chamber, all of which I believe have the same earnest resolve to defend Australia at all costs from aggression, to secure an expression of opinion by this Parliament as to whom its leader should be. I make only one stipulation: In order that there shall be no question of our bona fides, neither I nor any member of my party shall be regarded as a candidate for such leadership.

My position may be shortly stated: The Leader of the United Australia party having been elected, I shall see the Governor-General this afternoon and tender the resignation of my commission as Prime Minister. It is obvious that whoever is chosen and accepts the responsibility of forming a government will require time to select his Ministers. I believe that a fortnight at least should be allowed for this task and for preparing a legislative programme for presentation to this House so that Parliament may function immediately upon re-assembling. If, in the meantime, anything happens in the international field rendering necessary the earlier meeting of Parliament, the form of the motion will permit the House to be called together by Mr. Speaker in the shortest possible time.

MenziesMr MENZIES (Kooyong) (Leader of the United Australia party) – I do not oppose the motion. On the contrary, I support it, and I should have had no occasion to say more than that if it were not for the most extraordinary speech that has just been made by the Prime Minister (Sir Earle Page), speaking, as I understand, in his capacity as Leader of the Country party, but not, I imagine, on behalf of his Cabinet.

Honorable Members. – Hear, hear !

Mr MENZIES – It was an extraordinary speech, delivered, if I may say so, at a most inappropriate time. We all agree, irrespective of party associations, that the Commonwealth is, at the moment, called upon to deal with difficult problems. Most of us believe that those problems can be attacked successfully only by a concerted effort. I, in consequence, and in spite of some temptation during the last two days, have preserved complete silence on subjects that are now matters of notoriety, although I have heard whispers occasionally about the reason for the refusal of the Country party to co-operate with me in the formation of a government. I should have been very glad to avoid having to say anything about that matter even if that refusal had been persisted in, because my own view is that in the interests of Australia the door might have been kept open. If that door had been closed for reasons of high policy, I could have respected those reasons. But the door has been closed, bolted, and barred, presumably, for reasons which are not only offensive and personal, but also paltry. I shall say something about those reasons in their turn, and I shall speak, Mr. Speaker, with due restraint – indeed with more restraint than I might have felt disposed to display on another occasion.

The first reason that has been adduced for the refusal of the Country party to co-operate with me, as Leader of the United Australia party, is that I resigned from the Lyons Government on the issue of national insurance. But honorable members know that I resigned from that government because, only a few weeks ago, I had given a specific pledge in writing to my electors.

Mr Brennan – Irrespective of the honorable gentleman’s Cabinet colleagues? Did he have no responsibility to them?

Mr MENZIES – I am stating my views; in due course, the honorable gentleman may have an opportunity to give his. After all, I am the person who has been attacked – nobody else. I resigned from the Lyons Government because, as I have told the House, I gave a specific pledge to my electors in connexion with the national insurance scheme. Is it a contemptible thing for a man to keep his word? Is it the mark of a coward for a man to keep his word on an issue which is far from popular? I have no apologies to offer for my resignation. On the contrary, I regard it as one of the more respectable actions of my public life.

The second reason given exhibits an amazing effort at ingenuity on the part of the right honorable gentleman. Having, I think, looked the matter up, he said that 24 weeks ago – I have forgotten the date – I made a speech to members of the Constitutional Club in Sydney on the subject of leadership. I do not know whether any honorable gentleman was present on that occasion and heard the speech, but I can say now that not one word of it do I wish to retract. The burden of my remarks was that the dictatorships owed no small portion of their success to two things – one was the leadership, the undivided leadership, which they enjoyed; the other was the undivided loyalty to that leadership which existed inside their countries. I went on to say that whilst I despised the doctrines of dictatorships and would resist them to the utmost, the test of a successful democracy was leadership, and loyalty to that leadership. After I had said that I actually went out of my way to add that it was a homily which I was addressing to myself and every other person in Australia who occupied any public position involving leadership of the people. I am not responsible for the manner in which my views may have been twisted. The right honorable the Prime Minister refrained from saying that he personally thought that my speech was an attack on my late leader. All I can say on that point is that conversations which I had with my late leader and friend were completely inconsistent with any suggestion that he regarded my speech as an attack upon him. After all, is this not getting down pretty low? If we are to be held responsible not only for what we say – I am always prepared to accept responsibility for my utterances – but also for the gloss which some person who may or may not have heard a speech puts upon it, that will be the end of all pleasure in public life. I invite every honorable gentleman in this chamber to ask himself: ” How should I like that standard of judgment to be applied to me?”

I come now to the third ground of attack, which, I may add, is no novelty. It represents a stream of mud through which I have waded at every election campaign in which I have participated. The attack is “You did not go to the war.” That is a statement which, I daresay, has occasionally been directed to some members of the party led by the right honorable gentleman.

Mr Gander – Yes, and in the Government front rank. “Shoot ’em down, Thorby!”

Mr MENZIES – There are certain people who regard it as their ordained mission in life to pry into the private reasons for the actions of other people; to put them up against a wall and say, “Why didn’t you do so and so?” Presumably prying in this fashion, the right honorable gentleman discovered some facts concerning my action at the time he mentions, but failed to discover others. He said, with all its deadly implication, that I resigned a military commission a year after the Great War broke out. If he had investigated a little further, he would have discovered that I, in common with other young men of my age, was a trainee under the then existing system of compulsory training, and as such, in common with other young men, I took my chance of being a private, a sergeant, a lieutenant or an officer of any other rank. When my period of universal training expired, my activity in connexion with the system also expired. I did not resign anything. I served the ordinary term of a compulsory trainee.

I was in exactly the same position as any other person who at that time had to answer the extremely important questions – Is it my duty to go to the war, or is it my duty not to go? The answers to those questions cannot be made on the public platform. Those questions relate to a man’s intimate, personal and family affairs, and, in consequence, I, facing those problems, problems of intense difficulty, found myself, for reasons which were and are compelling, unable to join my two brothers in the infantry of the Australian Imperial Force.

Mr Frost – It is the business of no one but yourself.

Mr MENZIES – I say that. After all, this kind of attack is very disagreeable. It is the sort of attack that is made, and in my case has been made, time and again; but I am foolish enough to believe that the only judgment as to a man’s capacity, a man’s courage, a man’s fortitude that has any relevancy to his public conduct is the judgment of the people who have known him and worked with him. Members of the United Australia party are familiar with me; they know my many faults; they are acquainted with such poor qualities as they may think that I possess; they believe, and I am conscious of the honour that they have done me in expressing that belief, that I am capable of leading them, and I am vain enough to hope that I have capacity enough to discharge that trust, and that in the discharge of it I shall exhibit none of those miserable attributes that have been suggested by the Prime Minister in the most remarkable attack that I have ever heard in the whole of my public career.

CurtinMr CURTIN (Fremantle) (Leader of the Opposition) – I shall not in any way share the personal aspects of the controversy that has developed here this morning – has developed openly here this morning, but has, I venture to say, been one of the factors making orderly government in Australia almost impossible in the last two years. The coalition has survived since the last election, it will now be universally recognized, solely because of the personal influence of the late Prime Minister, and with his passing, all of the inevitable points of collision, some political, but it would appear the major ones personal, have come to the surface.

The speech of the Prime Minister (Sir Earle Page) about the personal unfitness of the Leader of the United Australia party (Mr. Menzies) to become head of the Government would, if we believed the right honorable gentleman, disqualify the Leader of the United Australia party from any claim to national leadership. That is on the one hand. On the other hand, although the right honorable member for Kooyong (Mr. Menzies) has spoken in the most restrained way, I have not the least doubt that if he took us into his confidence as fully as the Prime Minister has done, he would make it plain to us and the people that the leadership of the Country party is not in such hands as would justify the people of Australia in having any confidence in it. Thus it must be clear to Australia now that the Leader of the Country party has no confidence whatever in the United Australia party as a collateral branch of responsible government when it selects the right honorable member for Kooyong as its leader; and in the light of the interjections that punctuated the speech of the Prime Minister I have not the least doubt that members of the United Aust tralia party, who found it difficult to tolerate some of the practices of the present Prime Minister while Deputy Prime Minister, would, if they spoke the truth, make it clear that they do not regard his presence in the Government, let alone as leader, as a contribution to the welfare of this nation. Thus two responsible spokesmen, for they are the most responsible persons in the two parties that have formed the coalition and have been responsible for the government of this Commonwealth for some considerable time, have now convicted each other of offences which make the good government of Australia not only difficult, but, indeed, so long as they exhibit this attitude towards each other, impossible.

My position is that we have no confidence whatever in either the United Australia party or the Country party, separately or corporately. We told the people that the Labour party was the only party whose principles were consistent and whose elements were homogeneous. The honorable gentlemen behind me, and other recruits who will come to the ranks of my party, sit in this Parliament as members of a completely solid and consistent party. Last December, when the Government had the undoubted value of the astute leadership of the deceased Prime Minister, an election was held in a constituency which was a traditional stronghold of the Government. The appeal to the people was on high issues and the candidate against the Labour party was a man of great and unusual distinction who had held the highest office in his own State. Such a formidable representative of anti-Labour, who stood for the policy of the United Australia party and its association with the policy of the Country party in this Parliament, was defeated in the most remarkable transfer of votes that can be recalled in the history of this Commonwealth, and the vacancy which was caused by the death of the Honorable Charles Hawker is now filled, not by a supporter of the Government, but by an opponent of the Government. That is to say, the people of Australia, were they to have the opportunity to express themselves, would say about the Government as a whole in effect what the Prime Minister has said about the Leader of the United Australia party, and what the Leader of the United Australia party has said about the Leader of the Country party.

Opposition Members. – Hear, hear !

Mr CURTIN — It would appear to me, Mr. Speaker, that the solution of this difficulty is that the people of Australia should be heard. One suggestion by the right honorable the Prime Minister was that he would be prepared to recommend that the three party leaders in this House should consult, with a view to the formation of a government. Presumably, the right honorable gentleman meant an all-party government. If there could be anything worse than a government consisting of two parties it would be a government consisting of three parties. Such a combination would not be a government, it would be a society of disputation and debate; decisions would never be reached; determinations could not be arrived at, let alone carried out.

I say to Australia, quite seriously, that however good a government may be, it will be all the better if it is composed of men who subscribe to the one set of political principles, who are united in their outlook upon the problems of the country, and who may as a team translate into reality ideas that they have as to the way in which the country should be administered. That government would be a government of leadership and action. And any government, even if it has the best policies, would do far better service to the nation if there were arrayed against it in Parliament an Opposition courageous, intelligent, and patriotic. It is not a good thing for democracies to have governments that are unchecked by criticism or by honest opposition. We have to preserve the reality of democracy, and, therefore, all this talk about an all-party government is not really a contribution to the safety of the nation. It is designed merely to ensure the safety of the government against internal criticism, however necessary it may be in the interests of the nation that that criticism should be levelled. Let us not have the reality of totalitarianism while pretending to maintain democratic institutions. For myself and my party, 1 say that either in peace or war we are prepared to take the responsibility of governing this country on the basis of our own programme. We shall not attempt to govern this country on any other platform than that of Labour, and we shall make no presumptuous endeavour to become the Government until the people of Australia give us a majority in this House. So long as the people of Australia give to Labour in this Parliament a minority of members we shall accept the duty cast upon us, that of opposition. But, when the people of Australia, as I hope and think they will, cast on us the responsibility of government, then we shall accept the responsibility of governing on our own policy, a policy which the people will first have approved, and we shall not be involved in struggles for portfolios and leadership.

The Prime Minister, as Leader of the Country party, says that what is required is a leader of courage, loyalty and judgment; he has, by implication, said that the United Australia party had a leader of that kind in the deceased Prime Minister; in effect, he says that the present choice of the United Australia party does not possess those attributes. Otherwise his speech was meaningless. The Country party accuses the United Australia party, its political collaborator for years, of having reached the stage of complete bankruptcy in leadership. That is the charge implicit in everything said by the Leader of the Country party against the United Australia party. I repeat that the leaders of both parties have convicted each other of unfitness to be leaders of this coalition. Therefore, as the leaders of this coalition cannot agree, and because of the divergence of policy and principles which emerges from the discussion between these collaborators, it must be palpable that separately or together they are no longer fitted to be entrusted with the government of this Commonwealth.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Report from the Sydney Morning Herald, April 21, 1939, page 11.

SMH

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