In 1915, at the age of 35, Earle Page was already a mover and a shaker. He was a successful surgeon. As well, he and a group of likeminded friends were starting or reviving a string of lively newspapers in rural NSW and they engaged in spirited debate with the State Labor Government.
But the men in Page's medical partnership had other pressing duties to attend to. Although all four of them would eventually go off to the First World War, they tossed for priority, with the winner getting to join up immediately. Page set sail for Egypt and the Army Medical Corps in February 1916.
There was an eagerness to do his bit, fighting overseas to defend Australia's liberties and way of life in the war against Germany. Page understood that a free press, freedom of association and political liberty are interdependent, along with all the other liberties that are part of the British heritage. The only way of preserving your freedom was to fight for it.
In the 1930s, in the build-up to the Second World War, Page was a consistent advocate of "the efforts for peace which Great Britain and the British Empire have been making since the conclusion of the last Great War".
They included the League of Nations' interventions in the Spanish civil war and the Covenant which the Italians had defied by invading Abyssinia, today known as Ethiopia.
Page saw the League as "the creation of the English-speaking peoples" and the Covenant as the great hope of an end to "the era of isolationist policies and secret diplomacy" which might "bring enduring peace and understanding to war-shattered Europe by free discussion".
When diplomacy failed in 1939 he committed his party unequivocally to the fight. He told Parliament "we in Australia … have no alternative but to join with the other parts of the Empire, for the sake of our honor, and, indeed, of our existence, in the prosecution of this war …
“There are two reasons why Australia should not isolate itself from this conflict. The first and higher reason is that it is our duty to fight for the preservation of world freedom, and for what real democracy stands for. The second is a more selfish reason but a very important one, namely, our own preservation …
“Just as our ancestors fought for their liberties, and for the right to worship in the way they wished, so we must fight now for freedom of thought and action, and for the right of … small nations to exist free from threat of aggression."
Page, like many of his generation, was all-too-familiar with the horrors of war, but he had a clear understanding of geopolitical reality. He rightly understood "the evil force that holds so much of Europe in thrall and is now directed at the Empire”. As he said: "Australia cannot afford to isolate itself at this time."
At the time Page had reached a political impasse over forming a wartime coalition with Menzies, who wouldn't accept him in Cabinet. He resigned as a Leader of the Country Party and declared: "In the face of common danger, I personally am willing to serve in any position - in the field, in hospital, in Parliament or in Government - anywhere my experience and special knowledge can be of public service."
Page's unselfish response was in marked contrast to John Curtin's and the Labor Party's. Curtin declined to serve - or bring Labor into - a government of national unity. Curtin had chosen from 1935 on to placate the international socialists, pacifists and anti-conscriptionists within his own party.
This is an edited version of a speech given to the Earle Page College's Annual Politics Dinner at The University of New England, Armidale. Read the full text here.
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