1: The beginningThe veteran federal parliamentarian Earle Page never knew his 42-year hold on the New South Wales electorate of Cowper was finally broken by the Labor Party at the election on 9 December 1961. Page, the member since December 1919, a founder of the Australian Country Party in January 1920, and to this day the party’s longest serving leader, knew from the outset of the campaign that he had a serious political fight on his hands. What he did not know was that another battle loomed on his horizon, one that he could never win.The Coalition government had ruled uninterrupted under the prime ministership of Robert Menzies since December 1949. Its popularity now was not as solid as it had been at the election in 1958, even though communism and communist influences in the Labor Party still provided fertile political clout in the electorate. Treasurer Harold Holt’s stringent economic announcements a year earlier to curb inflation had produced a credit squeeze and seriously aggravated unemployment, especially in the eastern states and in the automobile industry. There would be electoral casualties in the Coalition’s ranks.In Cowper, Page’s main opponent, Labor’s Frank McGuren, a factory inspector and former Grafton City Council alderman, had a significant advantage: he was a relatively young 52, while Page was 81. There was some consternation, even resentment, within the local Country Party that Page had not retired at the end of the last parliament, but politics was something he simply could not give up and the party felt it could hardly withdraw its endorsement of its most famous representative and long-standing inaugural president of its federal organisation. Moreover, up until shortly before the close of nominations on 14 November it looked as though Page would be unopposed. Ultimately, apart from McGuren, a third candidate, publican Neville Weiley, entered the field as an Independent.Page seemed fit enough when the last session of the twenty-third parliament closed on 27 October, signalling the start of the campaign, although many who knew him privately commented that he looked tired, old and worn-out. He toured the electorate, speaking at various functions and public meetings. Then his health failed dramatically.He often used to drop in to the home of Ian Robinson and his mother, Jean, at Bungawalbyn, near Coraki. Robinson had been the Country Party Member for Casino in the New South Wales parliament since 1953. Two weeks before the election, Page and his wife visited the Robinson home after a function in Casino. Page complained of stomach pains and rested for an hour or so before continuing to another commitment. Worried about their friend’s health, Mrs Robinson rang her son, who was in Sydney attending state parliament, and voiced her concern. When Page returned to his Grafton home that evening, his son, Iven, a surgeon, examined him and suspected cancer. Page was flown to Sydney on 26 November and admitted to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. A party spokesman in Grafton said there was ‘absolutely no suggestion’ that Page would withdraw his candidacy for Cowper. He underwent surgery for ‘an acute bowel condition’ the following day. While a hospital spokesman said the operation was successful and Page’s condition good, rumour spread around Cowper that he was, in fact, grievously ill.
Paul Davey (Author)
Paul Davey is a former journalist and and a former senior staffer for the National Party at federal and state levels. He is the author of Politics in the Blood: The Anthonys of Richmond and The Nationals: The Progressive, Country and National Party in New South Wales 1919–2006.