From Earle Page to turning the page

Julia Gillard

Earle Page's life

Earle Christmas Grafton Page was Minister for Health, from 1949 to 1956, in the government of Robert Menzies. He is remembered for this rather than for his 20 days as Prime Minister in April 1939, when he acted as a caretaker after the death in office of Joe Lyons.

Earle Page was a doctor of medicine who turned his immense energy and skills to the service of the nation and of all Australians. At the end of a parliamentary fortnight in which the Treasurer, Peter Costello, has started to wear the label 'chicken man', it is worth noting that Earle Page was described by his contemporaries as an extraordinary character, who always spoke at a rapid rate, rarely paused for breathe, and juggled his parliamentary files 'like a demented hen scratching for grubs'. Echoed by Alexander Downer, during the 1920s Earle Page was often depicted in cartoons as a 'rather riotous-looking lady'.

More seriously and much more fairly, Earle Page was described as 'a man of boundless energy, fertile in ideas' and as a 'controlled tornado'. He had vision and he knew how to turn his vision into action. Earle Page got off to an early start as a precocious scholar who graduated from the University of Sydney at the top of his class in medicine. He acquired a reputation as a brilliant surgeon while working at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. It was an exciting time in medicine as the microscope was helping to elucidate infectious diseases, aseptic techniques were introduced to make surgery safer, and X-rays had just been discovered.

In 1903, keen to bring modern medicine to the north coast, he returned to Grafton where he built an extensive country practice and opened a progressive private hospital. The battery-operated X-ray equipment he ordered was among the first in NSW. He was also the first person in the district to own a car, which he also used as an ambulance. He had the telephone connected to his surgery. His practice was a model of modern medicine.

Earle Page was elected to Federal Parliament in 1919 at the age of 43. From the beginning, Earle Page saw himself as someone elected to do a practical job of work for the country, and he often described himself as a doctor to the nation. In 1928 he planned to introduce a national insurance scheme, paid for by all Australians, which would finance their medical costs and their old age. Unfortunately this idea did not progress as the economy faltered in the lead-up to the Great Depression, and although he tried again in 1938, again he was unsuccessful. It took the Whitlam Labor government