On 7 September 1941, the former prime minister Sir Earle Page was appointed by Arthur Fadden’s UAP-Country Party coalition as Australian minister resident in London; a position he retained when John Curtin’s Labor Party came to power four weeks later. The sixty-one-year-old Page travelled to London in late September via Southeast Asia, the Pacific, the United States, Canada and Portugal before arriving in England in late October 1941. He was in England for eight months, when the fortunes of the British Empire were at their nadir and Anglo-Australian relations reached an all-time low. Ill-health forced him to return to Australia via the United States in late June 1942, but not before he had undertaken two months of extensive travel in America exploring and commenting on this burgeoning industrial giant.
The remit of Page’s mission was twofold: firstly, to make an urgent case for improved defences in the Pacific; and, secondly, to design a machinery of representation for Australia in the British war cabinet that would allow Australia a distinct voice in policy making. The genesis of Page’s mission to Britain is complex, mired as it was in the intrigues of Australian domestic affairs. On the eve of the Second World War federal politics was tumultuous, often bitter, and extremely personal. Paralysis had occurred in the domestic arena when prime minister Sir Robert Menzies was evicted from office in late August 1941. Menzies, who some have claimed was trying to engineer himself a place on the British war cabinet and even succeed Winston Churchill as Britain’s wartime leader, failed. This left the door open for the enterprising Page who thought he was the best candidate to continue on with the mission and safeguard Australian diplomatic and commercial interests. Imperial defence and the need for closer consultation are themes which dominate the diary. These themes are also central to the introduction, especially with the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia, the fall of Malaya/Singapore and the machinations between the two erstwhile allies after Singapore’s humiliating surrender when Australian troops are withdrawn from the Middle East. Hence, Page’s involvement at the centre of power and reportage of the decision making process in London provide several corresponding themes in the diary.
Running throughout the diary is another crucial theme which historians tend not to pay particular attention: the politics of food, wartime production and post-war reconstruction. Despite the fact that Britain and the Commonwealth were locked in a titanic struggle with the totalitarian regimes, Page was looking to the future. As the former leader of the Country Party (1921-39), safeguarding Australian rural life, promoting agricultural development, and marketing Australian produce world-wide were core planks of this party’s manifesto. As federal treasurer (1923-29) and twice minister of commerce (1932-39 and 1940-41) Page was fundamental to the protection and promotion of Australian primary products. The diary reflects these deep-seated interests, the need for Australia to be given more wartime shipping to get her produce to Britain; and moreover the need to establish post-war agencies to guarantee international markets for Australian products once the war ended. His obsession with hydro-electric projects is a case in point. For him, hydro-electricity was pivotal to the future development of farming and the maintenance of rural life in Australia.
Finally, the diary offers an intriguing insight into the man himself: his own thoughts about Australia during the war; his hopes for its future after the war; and the personal relations Page had with leading figures of the day, especially Churchill. Page was an Australian imperialist. He believed in the empire as a force of good. Australia had a key role to play in maintaining the empire because Australia’s future prosperity depended upon it. But that did not mean that Australia could not be critical of ‘mother’. Page was a man of the British World and his diary reflects the immense number of contacts, connections, and long-standing networks with a host of personalities, professions, businesses, and industries which offer additional insights into the life and character of this man.
Fedorowich, K., & Gifford, J. (2021). Sir Earle Page's British War Cabinet Diary, 1941-1942. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (CUP)