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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.
Page had much experience as a deputy Prime Minister, and had served as acting Prime Minister for SM Bruce in 1923 and 1926, and for Lyons in 1935 and 1937.
After Joseph Lyons died at 10.40 am on 7 April 1939 in St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, Page consulted the ministers who were in Sydney at the time, including WM Hughes. Lyons was the first Prime Minister to die in office, and the procedures to be followed were unclear. The succession was complicated by Robert Menzies’ resignation as deputy leader of the United Australia Party three weeks earlier. After talking with the ministers, Page went to Admiralty House to see the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie. Page advised Gowrie that he could form a government, and would resign when the United Australia Party elected a new leader. Page also told Gowrie that he would not serve in a ministry led by Robert Menzies.
The oaths were administered that same afternoon, and Earle Page became Australia’s eleventh Prime Minister. At Joseph Lyons’ funeral at his home in Devonport in Tasmania, Labor leader John Curtin told Page he would support his government for the 18 months left of the current parliament, on the condition that his government did not introduce conscription.
After Lyons’ funeral, much of Page’s brief term in office was taken up with a concerted attempt, together with Treasurer Richard Casey, to persuade SM Bruce to return to Australia, and the federal parliament, and replace Lyons. Bruce had been in Australia and was on his way back to London when Lyons died. Page cabled him on 12 April 1939 after his ship docked at Los Angeles, offering to resign his Cowper seat to allow Bruce to return to lead ‘national government’. Bruce replied that he would agree as long as the seat would return him as an Independent, with both the Country Party and the United Australia Party behind him.
On 18 April Page and Casey held a radio telephone conversation with Bruce, with a stenographer in Canberra making a transcript of the discussion. Immediately after the call, the Country Party members met to discuss the issue. The parliamentary members of the United Australia Party also met that afternoon to elect the new leader – members in the House of Representatives supported WM Hughes, but the senators favoured Robert Menzies. Menzies won a third round of voting, and held a meeting with Page, after which the Country Party met once more.
The following day Page had another phone discussion with Bruce who was scheduled to go on to San Francisco, then to Washington. He agreed to remain in California to enable him to board a ship leaving on 25 April for Australia if he were summoned.
Page needed an adjournment of parliament so this issue could be resolved discreetly, but John Curtin ‘alive to the political possibilities of a first-class clash on the floor of the House’ declined his request. In parliament on 20 April, Page had to move for an adjournment and give his reasons for failing to support Menzies. Page made a ‘vitriolic’ attack on Menzies in the House, alleging his recent disloyalty to Lyons and his ‘cowardice’ in failing to serve in World War I in 1914–18. The speech split the Country Party and undermined Page’s own leadership. Queensland Country Party members, led by Arthur Fadden, announced they would withdraw from the parliamentary party led by Page and sit as Independents.
Page was left with no alternative but to advise the Governor-General that he should see John Curtin as leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives, but that Robert Menzies as leader of larger non-Labor Party should be asked to form a government. Page phoned Bruce on 21 April, still unwilling to abandon his idea, but Bruce decided to proceed on his journey back to his post as High Commissioner in London.
Page’s speech in the House ‘gave the newspapers a field day’ as he expected. He spent his remaining days as Prime Minister shoring up his own position in his party, and ensuring there would be no coalition ministry. On 26 April Robert Menzies was sworn in as Prime Minister with ministers chosen from his own party.
Bridge, Carl, ‘Earle Christmas Grafton Page’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 11, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne
Page, ECG, Truant Surgeon: The Inside Story of Forty Years of Australian Political Life, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1963.
From the National Archives of Australia collection
19th Commonwealth Ministry, Page Ministry 7 April 1939 to 26 April 1939 [Ministerial oaths and correspondence], 1939–40, NAA: A5447, 35