History on the side of Barnaby Joyce
by ROSS FITZGERALD
The ambush on Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison at his Canberra Press Club address last week was extraordinary. So too was the subsequent leaking of a damaging text message from Deputy PM and leader of the federal Nationals, Barnaby Joyce, who allegedly called Morrison a ‘hypocrite and a liar’.
The deputy Prime Minister’s attack on Morrison certainly added fuel to the fire, coming as it did from the second highest level of the federal Coalition government.
But as scathing as were Mr Joyce’s comments, they were nowhere near as damaging as the bitter assault in late April 1939, by the then leader of the Australian Country Party, Sir Earle Page, on the then leader of the United Australia Party, Robert Gordon Menzies.
Leader of the Country Party from 1920-39, Earle Grafton Christmas Page was Prime Minister for a brief period in April 1939, immediately following the unexpected death of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons on Good Friday, April 7, 1939.
Lyons’ sudden demise left Page as caretaker Prime Minister until the United Australia Party was able to elect a new leader.
April 18, 1939 saw a contest with three other candidates – which included the ex-Prime Minister W.H. (Billy) Hughes – from which Robert Menzies was elected as the leader of the United Australia Party (UAP).
On the conservative side of federal politics, Page was the strongest and most bitter opponent of Robert Menzies, who was UAP Prime Minister of Australia from 1939-41 and then, much more successfully, as Liberal Party Prime Minister from 1949-66.
Page was Australia’s 11th Prime Minister, holding the office for 20 days from April 7, 1939 until April 26, 1939 – at which point Menzies was sworn in as Prime Minister.
On April 20, 1939, Page had denounced Menzies in a speech to Federal Parliament. This venomous onslaught is one of the most savage personal attacks ever witnessed in Australia’s national parliament.
However, because some of Page’s utterances were sanitised in the parliamentary record, contemporary newspaper reports of his speech are actually more accurate.
Hence, according to a lead article in the Melbourne Weekly Times dated April 29, 1939, Page had based his attack on three main issues:
1. That Mr Menzies had resigned from the Lyons Government at a time when Australia was preparing for mobilisation.
2. That before he had resigned, he made a speech interpreted as an attack upon his leader, Joseph Lyons.
3. That in 1915 he resigned from the Australian military forces and thereby avoided overseas war service.
After his inflammatory speech, Page then withdrew the Country Party from the coalition.
The Weekly Times article from April 29, 1939 reported that Sir Earle Page began his speech by noting ‘three incidents’ of Menzies’ public record:
‘One 24 days ago, one 24 weeks ago, and one 24 years ago, which give me no basis of confidence that he possesses the maximum courage or loyalty or judgment.
‘24 days previously, Mr Menzies was Attorney-General, in the Lyons administration, and this country was spending untold millions in getting ready for war. At that time … he insisted on resigning (from) the Government.’
Sir Earle Page continued, ‘About 24 weeks ago, Mr Menzies went to Sydney and made a speech on leadership, which was taken by a large section of the people of Australia as an attack on his own leader. I spoke to his leader (Joseph Lyon), and he was very disturbed.’
The newspaper reported that, ‘There was a general uproar, and the Speaker had to call for order.’
Page later made an even more incendiary statement about Menzies’ failure to enlist. ‘When, 24 years ago, Australia was in the midst of the Gallipoli campaign, Mr Menzies was a member of the Australian Military Forces and held the King’s Commission. In 1915, after being in the service for some years, he resigned his commission and did not go overseas.’
It was a statement that elicited cries of ‘Shame!’ from Labor benches and the United Australia Party.
Page responded by adding, ‘All I say is that if the right honourable gentleman cannot satisfactorily and publicly explain to a very great body of people in Australia, who did participate in the war, his failure to do so, he will not be able to get that maximum effort out of the people in the event of war.’
Later, Menzies explained his position that he was one of three sons, two of whom were already serving at the front. It was the family’s decision that he should not enlist.
In the House, Menzies is reported as responding to claims that he failed to enlist as, ‘Why do you say-’ before the rest of his remark was drowned in the uproar.
Sir Earle Page finished his attack on Menzies by advocating what he termed ‘a non-party Government’:
‘I make this offer on the floor of the House as leader of my party that if the three leaders of the three parties can agree to the choice of a national leader inside or outside Parliament (my emphasis), I am prepared to co-operate in the administration of the Government … I am prepared to discuss with the House means whereby such a leader can be found.’
Sir Earle Page’s speech produced shock and disbelief from both sides of the House.
Along with three other Country Party MPs, political heavyweight Arthur Fadden publicly dissociated himself from Page.
Fadden became leader of the Country Party in March of 1941 – a position he held until 1958. As with Page, Fadden served as the Country Party Prime Minister of Australia from August 29 to October 7 1941.
It is a matter of record that, for the sake of a united war effort, Robert Menzies and Sir Earle Page reconciled politically.
But astute observers believe that Sir Robert Menzies never forgave Page.
Menzies’ beloved wife certainly did not. After his 1939 speech, Dame Pattie Menzies never spoke to Page again.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University. Professor Fitzgerald’s most recent books are the Grafton Everest adventures, The Dizzying Heights and The Lowest Depths, co-authored with Ian McFadyen and a memoir, Fifty Years Sober : An Alcoholic’s Journey, all published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
The Spectator Australia, 9 February 2022.