Review: Greg Lockharton Judith Brett's Alfred Deakin

At The Limits of Liberalism: The Enigmatic Mr Deakin

Australians want reality hushed up. They are fundamentally inspired by a fear of life. — H.G. Wells in Australia, 1939.

Alfred Deakin (1856-1919) was a pivotal figure in Australian political history. He was an architect of Federation and White Australia in 1901 and three times prime minister before he withdrew from public life in 1913. Judith Brett’s important biography, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (2017), which won the 2018 National Biography Award, is only the third biography of Deakin, following those by Walter Murdoch (1923) and John La Nauze (1965).

In the beginning, Brett explains that she ‘wanted to understand the handsome young man with the silver tongue and mesmeric eyes who sought his destiny in the politics of a colony that he believed to be at the forefront of liberal progress.’ Since Duncan Bell explains how formulations of the ‘kaleidoscopic’ western political category of liberalism have pushed and pulled in all directions since the eighteenth century, what Deakin had in mind in colonial Australia might not have seemed to some – then or now – to have been as ‘liberal’ or, indeed, as ‘radical liberal’ as he thought it did. Generally, liberalisms the world over tend to support constitutional government, democracy, rule of law and capitalism, as did Deakin’s version.

But what Brett means by ‘liberal progress’ was the ideology that shaped his life and quest to connect politics with Australians’ ‘lived experience and with the nation’s needs’. She means the ‘liberal’ ideas that validated the quest for a better life in a community compact sometimes referred to as the Australian or Deakinite Settlement:

the politics of White Australia, tariff protection, state paternalism, compulsory conciliation and arbitration, and a foreign policy dependent on a great and powerful northern-hemisphere friend.

To show how this project shaped Deakin’s life and work, but also how he shaped it, Brett has chosen a certain biographical form. She avers that it is ‘a life; not a life and times’. So what is that? A life with no times? A biography with no history? She indicates a desire to draw the world as tightly as possible around Deakin, to close in on his inner life and to chart his political rise and rise through his main civic choices. We may take it, then, that Brett meant to write an intimate biography set in a deliberately limited political, cultural and historical context. As well as clarifying the biography’s acceptance of his liberal progressive orientation in colonial Australia, she describes it as ‘a Melbourne story’.

Within such a partial context, Brett’s use of Deakin’s private archive of notebooks is an expansive feature of her work. These notebooks, which his family only discovered after his death, contain epigrams, poetry, soliloquies, prayers, reading lists and diaries he compiled over forty years. Brett tells us that La Nauze was ‘somewhat nonplussed’ by Deakin’s inner life and did not take much interest in his family relations either. By contrast, her use of the private repository adds depth to her portrait of a complex man. She shows how a narcissistic self-focus overlapped an often despairing, private one with a ‘deeply felt need for an intimate interlocutor’, a spiritual guide to reassure him of his worth and role in life.

Yet customising the historical context for the biography so that it fits a prior psychological conception of Deakin could be problematic. It could for instance weaken the work, if a significant part of his ‘lived experience’ did not conform with or went missing from her narrative. And, indeed, something that was demonstrably part of his ‘lived experience’ and influenced his liberal protectionism tends to be whited out of her narrative. Stated simply, despite its references to ‘White Australia’, her story has no significant Asian context.

Consider some information she provides from Deakin’s private archive when he was parliamentary opposition leader in 1903-1904. To underline the fact that he was in a periodic bout of unhappiness about being a politician and considering an alternative career as a preacher, Brett tells us that in only fifteen months he wrote at least 400 pages of religious prose, including commentaries on the Bagavad-gita and the Koran. Those titles pick up on the biography’s other discussions about his global interest in spiritualism. They also impress us with the intelligence and nervous energy he had left over after his day job in parliament. But, then, as soon as she names those startling ‘Eastern’ religious texts, she makes no comment on them; she drops them when, surely, the fact that a senior Australian statesman was contemplating them in private turmoil and opposition to his political profession c. 1904 is a matter of considerable historical as well as biographical interest.

How are we to understand that exclusion? My answer is as a function of what might be described as the limits of the liberalism that Brett inscribes in The Enigmatic Mr Deakin. By dutifully following Deakin into the ‘East’, an area that fascinated him far more than it fascinates her, my reading is that she can’t avoid such Asian texts as interested Deakin, but then finds that the limitations of her own liberal culture make her unsure about how to handle them.

This raises the question of how the limits of her ‘liberal’ narrative differ today from Deakin’s and, fortuitously, the answer is not difficult to formulate. While seeking sympathetically to explain his ‘liberalism’ – the ‘Deakinite Settlement’ – Brett does so from a contemporary position, in which matters of Asian context for that ‘Settlement’, matters that concerned Deakin seem to her to be settled today, or relatively so. While her ‘liberalism’ is presumably less protectionist than his, her approach to the ‘Deakinite Settlement’ is at least superficially less complex, but also more remote from the historical reality that gave rise to it. Thus it is with understandable defensiveness that she uses the apparently exotic names of those eastern religious texts to ornament her minimal history, while masking the seriousness of what is being minimised: the geopolitical context for their existence in the colonial culture.

By Deakin’s day, British imperial culture transitioned to Australia via the Middle East, Suez and India. Cultural references to that great eastern armature of British imperial power – off which Australia hung like a tear drop – were inevitable; they signified the strategic location of the British-Australian outpost in the Asia-Indo-Pacific region when seen from Britain. The fact that, rather than forget or face those references, Brett’s biography exoticises them also signifies something inherent in Deakin’s liberal-progressive legacy to her: the creation of a dominant British imperial imaginary in upper-crust outpost culture.

To maintain its British identity remote from Britain on a far edge of Asia, Deakin’s nation intensified its Britishness. To maintain its dominance and, indeed, its sovereignty, the imperial imaginary then needed to ossify or to empty local content in elite culture. Local content included the regional geopolitical context for the outpost and the cultural references embedded in it; the Bagavad-gita and Koran are two. Management of such references in outpost culture meant reducing them to ornaments of an antique oriental past — in order to spiritualise them and deny them political-cultural agency in the colonial nation. At the geopolitical level, the regional Asian context for the emergence of that nation then goes missing, as dreams of dependence on the imperial centre in Britain and its Royal Navy for protection against the Asian Other block out the fundamental issue of national sovereignty.

We return to the problem of customising history in a biography to fit a preconceived psychological state or cultural outlook. Deakin’s private interests obviously went well beyond two Asian religious texts. Yet the historical as well as psychological point about his private archive, or about the secret side of his published writings – from 1900 to 1914 he wrote anonymously for the Conservative, ‘Tory-Unionist’ London Morning Post a column on Australian politics, in which he referred to himself in the third person – is that those secret sides provided a home for the closeted selves that Deakin felt politically compelled to excise from his public and, even, family life, as he shaped his liberal nation. Despite Brett’s conventional psychological bent, those closeted selves are ones that her narrative can customise by excising them, defensively, I would say, when they do not conform to her perception of the ‘liberal-progressive’ values of that nation.

Rather than call Deakin ‘enigmatic’, although, as La Nauze also stressed, he was that too, it seems better on the whole to think in terms of his many selves. Explaining ‘the remarkable collage of plural assertions, elisions and paradoxes’ that extend far beyond any interest Deakin had in the ‘East’, the Indian Deakin scholar Ipsita Sengupta describes him eloquently as

a politician who writes privately in order to purge and unmask, but who needs masks …a man who experiments as a medium, fantasises about the potential androgyny and gender fluidity of a higher existence and yet invests in the notion of a hyper-masculine nation. Affable Alfred who closets certain selves and stories and though global in his reading and quest for the sacred, could appear phobic about any “unclean” colour streaking the pure white of Australia.

Brett’s work does not note Sengupta’s – anywhere. But still, Brett’s writing can be read as a foil against what Sengupta also describes, in relation to Deakin’s plural selves, as the ‘less rational underside to the nation-building project of white Australia’. In fact, Brett’s highly rationalised biography of Deakin effortlessly sweeps the ‘collage of plural assertions’ that Deakin certainly was into his ‘enigmatic’ nature, or submerges it beneath the free-floating British imperial imaginary of his (and still her) ‘nation’ in Australia, i.e., one that remains unanchored in its Asia-Indo-Pacific region.

Why then is Brett’s new biography important? It is important, because, written with conspicuous skill and economy, it is the leading continuation and affirmation of Deakin’s liberal-progressive life and work in our own troubled times of short parliaments and major geopolitical changes – the rise of China at a time of uncertainty about US leadership in the world today. It is important because, in those ways, it offers the most rational defence of Deakin’s nation against the changes he already saw the need to guard it against. But while the biography presents the face of liberal reason and a sharp, though still sympathetic psychological and political portrait, it generates a certain silence. Its greatest importance may indeed be that it takes us to the limits of its liberal comfort zone. For at that limit, it becomes possible to see how the biography’s minimal history represents the ongoing liberal denial of the geopolitical reality that was a mainspring of federation.

The biography begins with a boy who was never quite who or where he seemed to be. Native born, Alfred took after his passionate, sociable, variable and ambitious immigrant father William. At the same time, some ‘stone of unhappiness’, for which an emotionally unavailable immigrant mother Sarah, herself prone to grieve for the loss of ‘home’, may have been responsible, ground away inside of him.

In a few deft strokes, Brett reveals that Alfred’s melancholy feelings and intense emotions were at odds with the image others had of him as a charming little chatterbox. His parents were privileged and overtly loving. When he was aged four or five, however, they decided to send him to a girls’ boarding school with his older sister Catherine. Brett explains that he ‘compensated for his confused loneliness with a vivid fantasy life’ and was entranced by his first gift from his father, which was a calico picture book with pictures of lions and elephants and other ‘exotic’ animals.

Brett’s use of the term ‘exotic’ suggests the vivid allure of the other cultural influences that mingled with British-American ones in Deakin’s British imperial education. In fact, Deakin’s first biographer Murdoch said of him that ‘from his boyhood, his imagination had been fired by the thought of India’. And that is not surprising when British writing on India and Indian religions related what Deakin confirmed in later life were his ‘early enthusiasms’ for India to a more cosmopolitan British-Australian colonial history and education than is usually acknowledged. Australian press references alone to the Vedas exist from at least 1817 and to the Upanishads from at least 1877.

When Deakin was aged seven in 1863, his parents moved him to Melbourne Grammar School, where he was no ordinary student either. He was restless and infuriatingly talkative. Brett tells us that he was drawn to the British pantomimes and Shakespearean performances that passed through Melbourne and later considered an acting career. With access to his father’s library, he was a very precocious reader of British classics, particularly the romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As books become a virtual category of Deakin analysis, the historian John Rickards adds four favourites to Brett’s list. The four, which Deakin loved for their ‘vividness of visualising’ were: John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), The Arabian Nights (first English Edition c.1706-c.1721), Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1735). These were works that we might feel allowed Deakin to relive dramatically the early British imperial trans-locations, that laid the foundation for the British imperial presence in Australia. Though not applying himself to his studies, he was one of only 39 boys who matriculated in Victoria in 1871.

‘Dreamy, speculative and intensely focussed’, as a youth, Brett says ‘Deakin longed to live at the centre of a world filled with meaning.’ Since his law studies at Melbourne University did not supply that, Brett details other reading lists. Some of these contained the leading imperial thinkers, including Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle. Others contained the American transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, whose works he ‘devoured’. Little surprise that Deakin also imagined that he might become a writer.

This ambition was facilitated by what Brett calls ‘the plunge into spiritualism’, and words ‘poured’ from his pen. Spiritualism was a global movement that began in mid-century upstate New York. To move towards the ‘higher unity’ in a spiritual quest for the ‘Ideal’, devotees drew eclectically on Indian and other religions and also saw themselves reaching rationally for scientific proof of the para-normal. Obtaining this proof involved séances with mediums who, in trances and swoons, explored the extra-conscious capacities of the mind and communicated with the dead through ‘the shades’. By positing a higher centre to a perpetual periphery, it might not then be difficult to understand how spiritualism helped Deakin to negotiate a way to himself through the complexity he experienced on personal and other levels living in a remote British colony. Brett assumes that, while he later modified his devotions for political reasons, as some thought spiritualism was diabolical, his politics tended to represent for most of his life a move towards his understanding of the Ideal.

In 1874, he was admitted to the séance circle of prominent Melbourne spiritualist and champion of radical liberal causes Dr Motherwell. Pattie Browne, a young medium in the same circle – ‘O look Mama, my hand is writing!’ – would become Alfred’s wife. He also became a passive medium, a role that later, when championing the masculinised nation, he decided was ‘unmanly’.

‘Restless’ was, in any case, with some characteristic Deakinite irony, the name of the protagonist in the novel Deakin completed in that passive role: A New Pilgrim’s Progress (1877), wherein he claimed to record the words of John Bunyan, revealed to him through the ‘shades’. Brett’s discussion of this work draws out its affinity for ‘the interconnectedness of spiritualism with progressive free thought and political activism’.

Restless leaves home driven by a delirium to become a great prophet. In the only explicit reference Brett’s commentary makes to the ‘East’, she tells how Restless meets the orphan girl Wilful. He also meets the Sage, who represents ‘the spiritual values of the East, as opposed to the materialism of the West’, and who sees in Wilful a gifted medium able to perceive the oneness of the Universe. Restless and Wilful marry – as did Alfred and Pattie in real life – and their spiritual struggles transform them, as both endure persecution at the hands of the forces of tyranny and Restless descends into Hell. But in leading to their rebirth as Redeemer and Redemptress, their martyrdom helps Redeemer to build the new true religion and philosophy of Spiritualism in the struggle. Quoting from towards the end of the novel, Brett emphasises that ‘the spiritual wave of inquiry and reason … had passed on into the political sphere of life.’ Redeemer has become a liberal reformer. Brett’s next chapter is about how Deakin becomes one too.

Since Brett notes Al Gabay’s The Mystic Life of Alfred Deakin (1992) on other matters, she may have seen no need to repeat its specific point that, when ‘in spirit form’ Redeemer beholds a ‘new Avatar’, the inspiration was ‘Hinduism’, which Deakin derived from spiritualist texts. But, whatever happened there, Brett does not appear to have consulted the Indian Deakin scholars Santosh K. Sareen and Ipsita Sengupta, whose 2011 essay provides informed perspectives on the novel’s eastern dimensions.

Certainly, Sareen and Sengupta illuminate the limits of Brett’s liberal account. For those who have not read the novel, they provide the eye-opening detail that, as Restless, Deakin projects himself into the novel ‘as the atmaja (soul-born) of an eastern sage who comes to the City of Reason on a camel, lodges at a bedouinesque caravanserai, and yet in delicious Deakin style paradox, preaches Indian precepts.’ Sareen and Sengupta further detail those precepts: ‘The Sage’s teachings are Upanishadic,’ they explain. Deakin’s borrowings from the Kathopanishad, such as when he comments on the ‘eternal, unchanging and ever-present … self’, are carefully documented. Then, there are his borrowings from the Ishopanishad’s ‘core precept of oneness and innate perfection of soul and cosmos’. Deakin’s incarnations in the novel as a Buddha Bodhisattva and Arjun, the warlord in the Mahabharata, are noted.

Readers may well ask if this level of textual detail, which skirts the edges of the unknown in contemporary Australian liberal settings, is necessary? In fact, it is integral to the unsettling point Sareen and Sengupta are forced to make about the novel – and certainly a novel by a future prime minister is a significant artefact of Australian colonial culture.

Their point is that, in the novel, Restless’s brown-skinned Sage has to die before Restless can become a liberal reformer. As the Sage lies dying, he encourages Restless to retain some part of the wisdom that helped him to access the deepest dimensions of reality. He suggests that Restless retain his spiritual experience in a small ‘amulet of wisdom’. Describing witheringly that ‘amulet of wisdom’ as a ‘pygmy metaphor’, Sareen and Sengupta are reminding us that, by amplifying in orientalist fashion the classical Indic tradition’s passive status as a spiritual market-place, Deakin’s liberal imperialism requires him to mute the rational dimension of that tradition, and reduce India and its epistemologies – and those of Asia generally – to a tawdry talisman of progress in white Australia.

But still, that imperial reality, which was typical enough, is not the main issue here. The issue is that Brett’s biography resists that historical reality. Her customised history represents a liberal-progressive denial of it. There is no mention of the orientalist construction of Deakin’s novel, wherein the Sage, who has been the source and mainstay of Restless’ spiritual and, in some measure, rational enlightenment, is gently eliminated after sharing his cultural gifts. Her biography blocks out the imperial saga of conquest and plunder that took shape in the eastern empire and inevitably influenced the British imaginary in colonial Australia.

Based on the progressive record of Victorian colonial history, that resistance does not, of course, impede the biography’s account of Deakin’s early career in ‘national’ as distinct from ‘imperial’ politics. It speeds it up.

Characteristically, on completing his degree and going into law, Deakin concluded quickly that a legal career was not for him. In 1878, he began writing a column for the Melbourne Age, edited at that time by David Syme. The Age supported radical liberal causes, the working man, small merchants and landholders. Its conservative opposition, The Argus, represented the Church, large merchants and pastoral estates. Deakin’s political orientation was liberal. Like his father William, he leaned toward the free trade policies of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Cobden and Bright. Syme changed that. He believed that free trade meant the domination of British manufactures, which prevented the colony from developing its own economy and society. In Syme’s terms ‘radical liberalism’ would involve state intervention, or even a dose of state socialism, with protectionist trade policies adopted in the collective interest. Brett concludes in Chapter 5 that ‘this was a nationalist argument that unsentimentally separated the colony’s interests from those of Britain.’ Perhaps it was. Yet that did not mean a thorough-going unsentimental separation from the British Empire.

In 1881, with Syme’s encouragement and financial assistance, Deakin won a seat in parliament.  But, then, he never felt ‘entirely comfortable with his role as a local member, as a broker between government and his needy and aggrieved constituents’. His ‘performative self’ carried him through, especially in early speeches that already appealed to ‘national’ sympathies and aspirations, an orientation that was perhaps modulated by his membership of the Australian Natives Association (ANA) since 1874. The ANA, which had formed in 1871, was in the 1880s transforming itself from a social club into a considerable lobby group for those whose birth made them feel their destiny was to be Australian.

Later in the piece, Brett remarks helpfully of Deakin that:

He was kind and humane by nature, but he lacked the deep sense of political obligation to the suffering or achievements of others which animates most politicians whose politics are intimately connected with their daily experiences. Into this disconnect between politics and his self, Deakin’s opponents would later pour their accusations of his opportunism and chicanery.

He ‘was never a mate’ or a ‘fighter’. His gifts were his oratory, charm and capacity for the political compromise, gifts that he believed would facilitate progress towards the Ideal through federation and liberal protectionism in Australian politics.

After various changes of government, James Service came to the head of a conservative-liberal coalition in Victoria in 1882 and Deakin, aged 26, suddenly found himself appointed to the position of commissioner for public works and minister for water supply. It was around this time that ‘Service bequeathed to him his unrealised dreams of federation and a Pacific empire’. Significantly, also, Brett begins to record vaguely and without comment something that, in matters of state, is undeniable at the level of sovereignty: the incompatibility between ‘nation’ and ‘empire’.

We learn that the term ‘nation’ was often used to refer to ‘Victoria’ or the ‘community’ – and that is why the National Gallery of Victoria was so named. In 1883, she registers an enlargement of the idea of ‘nation’, without seeming to realise that the broadened conception was taking up its place in the long litany of Deakin’s vacillations between ‘nation’ and ‘empire’.

In 1883, from when we may also date the federation movement, the British showed no interest in German plans to occupy the north-eastern part of New Guinea, and in April the Queensland premier, Thomas McIlwraith, took possession of the south-eastern part. Support came from the premiers of all the colonies, particularly from Service, who created our first office of ‘foreign affairs’ in the Victorian government. In September, another issue blew up; news that the French intended to make the New Hebrides (as well as New Caledonia) a penal colony provoked a campaign for Britain to annex the islands. Deakin did not want a French ‘prison sink’ near Australia, in which the natives would be at the mercy of the worst type of white man. He was nonetheless pleased that this peril ‘had sent a thrill of sentiment from one end of the continent to another … a desire for a United Australia. Instead of provincial it made us feel national’.

If these were ‘national’ moments, they were invariably followed by ‘imperial’ ones. After Germany annexed the north-eastern part of New Guinea in 1884, Britain finally responded by establishing a protectorate in the south-eastern part. Brett shows that Deakin’s main concern was the failure of the colonies to persuade the British to take more timely action. This was, moreover, a failure he felt that federation would remedy by giving the colonies a single voice and thus more clout in London.

Brett indicates Deakin’s support for unification of  ‘nation’ within ‘empire’ and, in that way, our dependence upon it. Brett feels that ‘national sentiment’ fuelled Deakin’s startlingly eloquent oratory at the 1887 Imperial Conference. She realises that his speeches on the need for a navy and on Britain’s annexation of the New Hebrides, plus his decision to decline a knighthood, were calculated to make a big splash in Australia. But if ‘national sentiment’ it was, it had little effect. For neither it nor the dashing figure Deakin cut in London, nor his impassioned speeches there, changed British imperial policy on the Pacific. Neither did they change the colonial status of the Australian colonies in relation to Britain, as the British spokesman Lord Salisbury dismissed Deakin’s eloquence as ‘debating club sentiment’.

In fact, Deakin’s powerless passion at the imperial centre indicated a central, historical  weakness in his nationalism. That was the greatly inflated sense of self-importance, which, spiked by a sense of vulnerability in the Pacific, led colonial politicians as intelligent as Deakin and later Billy Hughes and R. G. Menzies to believe they could have significant influence in imperial councils, if only the British government would deign to listen to them.

Not appreciating this colonial fantasy for the false crest it was, Brett writes in relation to the New Hebrides issue that ‘the colonies did not expect to manage their own foreign relations, but they did expect to be consulted on matters in which they had a direct material and strategic interest.’ Elsewhere, she presents variants of the same expectation. The point to stress, however, is that her narrative continues to evade a certain political reality, just as Deakin did, right up to the 1907 Imperial Conference: meaningful consultations on interests of strategic importance to the Imperial Government were almost always an Australian colonial pipedream. The Imperial Government treated British Australia as it was: an outpost on a remote periphery.

How, then, without the idea of sovereignty, does Brett integrate her conception of Deakin’s outpost nation? The answer is in a thin narrative of ‘race’ that minimises its contentious dimensions in order to normalise it. As a form of denial, this normalisation of ‘race’ is also necessary, because she can’t remain entirely silent on the issue; she will eventually have to say something about the unavoidable issue of Deakin’s White Australia.

As it happens, many of the book’s central chapters – 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16 and 19 – make ‘race’ a pervasive theme and integrate it with ‘nation’. They explain that the terms ‘race’ and ‘nation’ were often used ‘interchangeably and ambiguously’, (which is not surprising when both terms are possible translations of the Latin root natio). At the same time, her own generally understated presentation of ‘race’ is itself ambiguous.  She offers little clarification of a concept that is as notoriously difficult to define as ‘nation’, which she all too simply says, with a nod to Benedict Anderson’s beautiful title Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983, 2006), was an ‘imagined community’. She also seems unaware that ‘race’ had special salience as a justification for conquest and political control in the empire. One of the clearest things we can say about ‘race’ in that political context is, indeed, to note how readily ideas of it were indistinguishable from what Anderson called ‘colonial racism’. In seeking defensively to iron out ‘racism’ as a problem, of course, the biography rarely, if ever uses that term.

Brett’s minimal interpretation of ‘race’ then affects the most important ‘patterns of connection’ her work establishes between Deakin’s inner and public lives. I am thinking particularly of Brett’s perceptive passages in Chapter 10, wherein Deakin’s progressive interest in irrigation lead him in 1885 to take a research tour of the United States. Travelling with some Australian experts, he investigated irrigation works in arid areas of California. He also visited Mexico to inspect irrigation and see the floating gardens in Mexico City.

This side-trip unsettled him. He became disoriented in a Spanish-speaking land, which he described in his notebook as being ‘at once civilised and savage, amiable and bloody.’ He admired the Catholic cathedrals and reflected piously at the burial site of some victims of the Inquisition that the site made him proud to be a liberal. He doubted the Mexicans would be able to help themselves ‘until the Anglo-Saxon invasion comes’. Brett feels these reactions were ‘staged’ compared with his ‘raw and agitated’ response to a bullfight. For there, at the sight of the bull, goaded and bloodied by the picadors, he could hardly look or bear to hear its bellowing: ‘My faith in humanity was badly shaken that day.’ Still, the self-conscious liberalism and racism staged in his notes indicates the indispensable props they were for him.

Back in America, he regained his focus. On a trip to the east, he made a personal literary pilgrimage from New York to Boston and to nearby Concord, a village where, in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, he visited the tombs of the American Transcendentalists, Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. Then, describing Deakin’s journeys back in the west, Brett presents us with a most revealing passage from Deakin’s private notebooks. Riding in a Pullman car and looking out at the Rockies through the shutter speed of the train windows, Deakin was jolted suddenly into the realisation that:

Religion and many of my beliefs are hereditary, not immediately from my parents perhaps … but rooted in me by the influence of race and the bias of disposition. I had my hour of freedom in which I scoffed and flouted at the confirmed credulity of doctrine, as if Reason and knowledge were created by myself, but it was a short time.

In Brett’s neat summation, Deakin came to a vital recognition, perhaps even a revelation, that ‘he is not author of himself.’ This followed closely upon his trip to Boston and Concord, which she describes as ‘one of the sources of the liberal thought and culture, which had shaped him’. He realised that strong Anglo-British cultural identification following the trip to Mexico, where the intensity of Latin American Catholicism – so very un-English – repelled him.

Back home in June 1885, Deakin delivered a competent irrigation report and, as Brett suggests, did some uncharacteristically perfunctory work on Factory Acts to regulate working hours and sanitary arrangements. He had also been ill and out of sorts. In October 1885, he apparently offered up a ‘bleak prayer of despair’. Then, through Chapman’s translation of Homer, he consulted the Sibyls, the prophetesses of ancient Greece, to enquire if he should remain in politics. They indicated he should.

When nominated leader of the Liberal Party in early 1886, he worried that the appointment might lead ‘me farther and farther from my goal – in God I trust.’ He accepted the appointment.

Later in the year, his well-intentioned but disastrous Half-Caste Act (1886) was passed. This Aboriginal reform legislation was the first in Australia to be based on so-called ‘racial’ criteria, according to which some people were categorised ‘full-blood’ Aboriginals and others ‘half-castes’. Letting her angst at the imposition of such primitive racism show in relation to Aboriginals, although not calling it racism, Brett refers to the ‘terrible consequences’ of Deakin’s policy, namely ‘the beginnings of child abductions by the state’.

Still, Mexico shadowed his thoughts. ‘Everything is shaken’, he wrote in November 1866:

We have pulled down the roof on our head and live in thought this hour… in a medley of countries, a contest of creeds and forms of creeds – a wrestle of philosophies and an expansion of the actual known world corresponding to that of the ideal so that all peoples, places, events pour in upon us & we are everywhere losing our identity and gaining chaos.

The centre was not holding. Was some anxious antipodean sense of alien otherness doubling his experience of Mexico? In any case, the spiritualist Ideal of progress towards universal truth and oneness was not corresponding with his experience of the material world.

To return to ‘race’ and ‘nation’: Brett also uses those terms to try to pull Deakin together. Chapter 13 explains that, while ‘race’ did not explain everything for him, the idea of ‘a race-based community did provide a psychological hook into what was becoming a leading concept of his age.’ And ‘the idea of race helped Deakin to answer deep existential questions…’. Enlisting more than once the support of Anderson’s Imagined Communities to amplify and validate her remarks, she continues: ‘The political historian Benedict Anderson was later to argue that nationalism performed the same function by … giving us objects of loyalty and service beyond ourselves.’

Still, Brett reminds us in Chapter 19 that ‘nations are inherently limited’, because ‘without invisible bonds of sympathy they could not exist’. There is also her comment in Chapter 22 that ‘liberal nationalism has an inherent contradiction’; that the sympathies that bind, sympathies Deakin narrowed cloyingly ‘to my kind, to my race, to my nation, to my blood’, actually fractured the universal notions of liberty and brotherhood, to which the nation also aspired.

This line of argument is not, however, persuasive. Brett’s minimal approach to ‘race’ and ‘nation’ defuses and deflects attention from the links between ‘race’ and the strong sense of Australian dependence on the ‘white’ imperial centre in Britain and its Royal Navy. Those links were indeed expressed through ‘blood race patriotism’ that was commonly felt in Australia, so conscious of its vulnerability as a far-flung British outpost facing Asia.  On the other hand, her analogies with Anderson’s work on the ‘nation’ are forced. Anderson was also an historian of Indonesia and the Philippines. His Imagined Communities is unequivocal about the ‘colonial racism’ of the British and other Western Empires. There he demonstrates that, by contrast, the nation is not racist; that ‘from the start, the nation was conceived in language not blood’; that it ‘presents itself as simultaneously open and closed’. As long as a newcomer is, among other reasonable requirements, prepared to take the time to learn the national language, that newcomer may be ‘invited in’.

While normalising ‘race’, Brett’s narrative of it ambiguously absents Asia from the federation story. Indeed, from 1888, when she tells us that ‘federation was starting to take shape as the guiding purpose of Deakin’s political life’, her narrative of that movement, which Deakin himself stressed was initiated by ‘foreign affairs’ in 1883, has no significant regional context. And this leaves us with a resounding silence at the centre of that story.

Another historian with that problem was John Hirst, the author of the standard work on federation in outpost culture today and to whom Brett dedicates her work – along with Alan Davies, who inspired her interest in political psychology. Hirst’s book The Sentimental Nation: The Making of the Australian Constitution (2000), argued that there was no practical necessity to federate, that idealists – poets, patriots and politicians – made federation possible by encouraging national feeling: ‘it was a sentimental nation’. Yet some idea of the colonial anxiety that goes missing at the centre of that argument can be recovered if we see how Brett  minimises two important parts of the Asian context for federation in Australia: China and India.

Brett’s Chapter 13 gets the ‘Chinese problem’ in Australia under control in a few pages. Deakin is shown dealing pragmatically with ‘pockets’ of anti-Chinese feeling in Victoria, particularly in the Anti-Chinese League formed in 1887 and in the Victorian furniture trade. He too ‘spoke easily’ of the dangers of the ‘invasion of our country by Chinamen’ and believed that white and coloured people could not live in civic harmony, so that Australia had to be kept as a white man’s land. But if, as Brett suggests, his attitudes were unremarkable by the standards we have come to expect of that era, we should not forget the far-reaching importance of those commonplace thoughts for the constitution of the Commonwealth.

Consider one pervasive, though unobtrusive aspect of that large subject: the cultural link between race and gender; as David Walker does in his major work Anxious Nation (1999). Therein, Walker makes with a light touch the significant observation that ‘the meeting between “Asiatic” and European in the Australian colonies was often seen as an encounter similar to that between a “clever woman” and “an average and slightly stupid man”.’ ‘Would not the clever woman outwit and dominate the man?’ And: ‘Was the Western male, the former lord and master, threatened by an increasingly claustrophobic future in which “Asian” and female “otherness” formed a collusive partnership?’ At a time when the issue of women’s suffrage was also controversial across the Anglosphere, Brett’s biography simply suggests that Deakin was a slightly stupid male. He was not altogether against women’s emancipation, but he was not exactly for it either.

We come to Deakin’s daughters, Ivy, Stella and Vera. Chapter 15 of the biography tells us how in 1890 Deakin wrote ponderously, and in the third person, his ‘Testament for the guidance of his daughters in the event of his death.’ He instructed them to stay within the home, within the confines of God (although a non-sectarian one) and of the household. ‘Dark fears lurk in this strange obsessive document about the fates [of] … women abroad in the world,’ Brett writes. Her account thus reminds us of Melbourne’s moral panic at the time over prostitution and, in relation to this, over the translation of Emile Zola’s naturalist novels from French into English editions that were cheap enough for any shop girl to buy. Deakin once asked the Police Commissioner to seek out copies in the city with a view to prosecuting booksellers.

So, all this blends with the ‘woman question’ of the day: would she remain the ‘Angel in the home’? And here I think that Brett misses something important: the underlying anxiety in colonial culture that tended to create a subtle sense of insecurity, which in turn triggered federation as a defensive political development within a wider sense of alien otherness. There is, in fact, little sense in her narrative that the layered insecurity around those gender issues in Deakin’s life and society had anything to do with the unsettling projection of ‘Asia’ into Australia. We must remember the significant factor of Chinese immigration – some 100,000 Chinese migrated between 1840 and 1900 – and the masculine fantasy that women were, as Walker also reminds us, the ‘weak link’ in white Australian security.

Again, in Chapter 16 Brett quickly squares away Deakin’s visit to India. On 30 October 1890 the Gilles-Deakin Government lost office, largely because of its mounting public debt and inept handling of the maritime strike. Encouraged by Syme, who initially suggested Deakin take advantage of the defeat by going to Egypt to report on irrigation, Deakin picked up on his longstanding enthusiasm for India and decided to go there. Brett’s account of his trip is built around its related journalism, which was finally compiled in two books, Irrigated India (1893) and Temple and Tomb in India (1893). Falling back on the language of the British Raj, however, she remarks with surprising sarcasm that those books have long made Deakin a hero among ‘Australia’s India-wallahs.’

Frankly, Brett’s especially thin pages on Deakin in India compound that surprise. Nowhere does her biography note Ipsita Sengupta’s exceptional essay ‘Entangled: Deakin in India’, which David Walker and Agnieszka Sobocinska published in their edited volume Australia’s Asia (2012). This is a pity, because Sengupta’s profound piece forces us to consider how, in her words, ‘Deakin’s multivalent engagement with India’, as ‘ethnographer, orientalist, pilgrim, translator and journalist’, ‘exceeded’ the ‘stereotypes’ that gripped the imaginations of Deakin’s biographers. Those biographers obviously pre-date Brett. But still, Sengupta’s essay draws attention to such ‘stereotypes’ as Brett still uses to discuss Deakin in India.

Brett says: ‘Deakin was the first politician to see Australia’s proximity to Asia as an opportunity as well as a threat.’ We may observe, though, that such ‘proximity’ is neither an opportunity nor a threat; it is simply a marker for an adjacent geographical relationship. In fact, her idea of ‘proximity’ still signifies an outpost consciousness, in which identity is not yet embedded in local geography, but is in some measure still separate from it. For her, the perceived alien or racial Otherness of the peoples proximate to the outpost, for whom ‘Asia’ is a synecdoche, is producing the radical sense of ‘opportunity’ as well as ‘threat’, not the peoples themselves. Brett continues to make the unhelpful assumption that white Australians  are colonial visitants who, as Walker (February 2019) puts it, can at best contemplate Asians as ‘customers’.

Brett also says ‘India didn’t unsettle Deakin as Mexico had. The British Raj was familiar, and he was far more at ease with the mysticism of Hinduism and Buddhism than with … Latin-American Catholicism.’ This is somewhat misleading. Far from Mexican Spanish and bullfights in British India, he had the pleasure of conversing in English with the Marquis of Lansdowne, Viceroy of India, Colonel Forbes, the chief engineer of irrigation to the Central Government, and selected Indians. There were other advantages too. For just as Deakin used his private diaries to contain ideas and personas that he wished to banish from his public image, Sengupta shows in ‘Entangled’ how India was the ‘unwieldy polyglot site’, which released his multiple personas. The federalist in him admired the nation-building successes of the British Raj in taming ‘native’ ‘disorder and turmoil, colour and chaos’. He wanted to emulate that success to overlay Australia’s troubling Aboriginal and convict pasts with the rational enterprise that was Federation. At the same time, the essay explains that his writing was caught up in something less rational that would eventually have to be discarded or remain secret in White Australia: an ‘attraction to the sensuality of “native” India.’

This ‘closeted seduction’ comes out in the orientalism of especially Temple and Tomb. Therein, Sengupta observes that his writing not only ‘veers into fantasy’, but the ‘fantasies too are second-hand’. Deakin peddled Max Müller- inspired paeans to the ‘now vanished generous, warlike, intellectual Aryans’ and to ‘romantic archetypes of a predictably voluptuous Oriental past’. These included the ‘savagely grand Rajput city of amber with its stylised frescoes and memory-haunted palace.’ Thus posed, India was ‘an infinitely fluid Other to Deakin’s dream-Australia’, as home and nation. We are reminded that Deakin’s fun-park fantasy, with lessons on irrigation was indeed an aspect of the political purpose of his presence in the subcontinent:

Irrigated India deals with the ‘real’ subcontinent conjured by the Midas touch of the Raj, with its railways, canals and charity; Temple and Tomb as twined co-text, foregrounds ‘unreal’ Indians from the past that slink into the colonial present. Both are part of an identical project of annexing the colony to personal, national and transnational dreams and ambitions. Temple and Tomb would not have featured as a separate text, had it not been for the publication politics of exclusion. The text in its turn builds on exclusion of nineteenth-century India that looms beyond the Raj.

While neither his few weeks in India nor his ‘mysticism’ got him far into India, Sengupta argues convincingly that, in 1890, ‘India prefaced his Federation investment’ over the next decade and ‘provided the ideal womb to gestate Deakin’s dreams for … a United Australia’. As well as such a ‘womb’, India would also be an ‘anti-body’, because before that investment was made, ‘he needed to inoculate his dream against the unbreakable spell of India, metonymic of the Other’ – or a synecdoche for Asia.

To confirm that ‘unbreakable spell’, let me draw as Murdoch’s biographical sketch did in 1923 on Deakin’s recollection of his childhood fascination with India in the Introduction to Temple and Tomb. For referring there to the associations that names had for him, Deakin wrote that some ‘are enriched with historic memories and the reflection of early enthusiasms so that they present themselves before us with a glamour greater than that of romance. Such a magic name is India, before which the throng of unimpressive words fall back as if outshone by a regal presence, clothed “with barbaric pearl and gold”’.

In their beginning, as in their end, Deakin’s Indian books set up Sengupta’s view of them as foundation texts of his political commitment to the federation project. His Introduction to Irrigated India could not indeed be more explicit about this, when he links the duty to think responsibly about future Australia-India relations with ‘a high ideal for the coming Commonwealth’. With federation clearly in mind, his conclusion to Temple and Tomb rounds out that idea. Referring to Kipling’s famous line, ‘What should they know of England who England only know’, he asks: ‘what can we know of Australia if we limit our inquiries within our borders, to neglect … those Asiatic empires which lie close to us, with whose future our tropical lands might yet be partially identified?’

Deakin did have a regional context for federation. Yet there was also a darker strand in Deakin’s thinking about Asia. I think he would have understood Sengupta’s profound thought that Asia was for him an ‘anti-body’ as well as a ‘womb’ of his federation. When he mentioned Asia in the penultimate paragraph of Temple and Tomb, the brooding anxiety, which suddenly entered his text, was only partly assuaged by the orientalism in his sentence about how ‘A people of yesterday, sprung of a Western race, we find ourselves settled under the shadow of the antique Orient, and its swarming myriads of coloured peoples.’

Brett’s account of federation typically evades Deakin’s complex sense of the regional geopolitical context for it. Nonetheless, her command of the Deakin material returns when she recounts how, on his return from India, he went back to work unhappily in the law in Melbourne and how the ‘gross failures of the material realm’ led to his ‘redemptive’ role as ‘the artificer of Australian nationhood’ (Murdoch’s phrase).

His financial losses and his implication in related scandals during the land crash in the ‘tangled’ early 1890s were refracted through his prayer diary, which showed him ‘seeking a new way’. Deakin’s family life also seems to have encouraged such a prayer. Pattie’s relations with his sister Catherine, who was devoted to her brother’s reputation and to tending the record of his coming greatness, were cool. Neither was Pattie Alfred’s intellectual equal. She was often ill, didn’t appear much with him in public and spent a good amount of time in bed. In the 1890s, their relationship apparently caused him ‘silent pain’. Such was the situation in which we find that a revival of interest in federation in 1893 encouraged his turn ‘from the Real to the Ideal’.

Federation leagues were forming along the Murray River, and Edmund Barton was leading the movement in New South Wales. In July, a small conference, which convened at Corowa, included supporters from Victoria and New South Wales. It met to determine a Federal Constitution Bill that would be submitted to a referendum. Deakin was unable to make the Corowa meeting. But he now threw himself into the movement and devoted his oratory to the cause: ‘no question should be put second to federation’ and ‘from either the local or national standpoint … the best remedy that could be applied to all the ills, political, social and financial, from which Australia was suffering was federation.’ Brett’s Chapter 19 reminds us that agreements on the many troublesome matters of customs revenue, tariffs and equal representation for the small states within the prospective federation were, after years of discussions, still anything but foregone conclusions at the 1898 Constitution Convention.

As Deakin went about constructing the federal ‘centre’ that he imagined as a ‘higher unity’ for Australian colonial politics, events in Asia provided definite context for his nation. The Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Spanish-American War (1898), which gave rise to the first Asian Republic in the Philippines (1899-1902), were most relevant. These events were canvassed in the press and show faintly in Brett’s work. In March 1898 Deakin gave a brilliant speech to the Australian Natives Association to help redress doubts about the success of the upcoming referendum on the constitution. In the speech, from which Brett quotes at length, Deakin referred to the ‘unstable era’ and ‘moment of crisis’ that, far from suggesting the interior monologue of the conventions, embodied his global reckoning of federation. At no time in a century, he said, ‘has the situation of the great empire to which we belong been more serious. From the far east and far west alike we behold menaces and antagonisms’.

Brett does not identify the regional events to which her quote alludes. The Sino-Japanese War had begun to focus concern about the rise of both China and Japan in Australia and about the related need for ‘defence’, even when it incorporated a liberal economic opportunity: Australian wool sales to Japan boomed, as Japanese soldiers in China needed padded clothes in winter. She cannot explain any more than John Hirst could, how, in the interests of protection from what has been whited out, Australia’s leaders would settle for a dependent place in the British Empire. This halfway house was exactly what Deakin’s new Commonwealth wanted. Forgetting the fundamental issue of national sovereignty, Brett also mutes the fact of the matter: White Australia was coming out defensively against the world around it. 

Brett provides us with a splendid description of how, on 1 January 1901, the new nation came into being. Chapter 22, ‘Celebrations and Beginnings’, shimmers with ‘the fulfillment of divine purpose’ for both the nation and Deakin, its humble instrument. He shared a carriage with Barton in the ‘grand procession of more than ten thousand dignitaries, floats, mounted imperial troops and contingents representing various trades along the eight-kilometre route from Sydney’s Domain to Centennial Park’. And there a one thousand-voice choir helped sing in the new nation. Yet this magnificent moment could not for long cover the unease that had been the mainspring of it. Neither could it cover the reality that the new federation was grounded in a race-based sense of political dependence.

The biography does not make much of the fact that, on 28 May 1901, as the Commonwealth’s first Attorney General, Deakin asserted its colonial as distinct from its national status:

The Empire as a sovereign, independent state possesses full contracting powers which are exercised by the Imperial Government alone. The Commonwealth has no Treaty powers of any kind under its constitution and being a dependency can acquire none save those with which it may be endowed from time to time.

The empire, not the nation was ‘sovereign’, an issue that we have seen was inseparable from ‘race’. Then, indeed, on 12 September 1901 Deakin went on to give his famous second-reading speech in support of the Immigration Restriction Bill. When enacted in October, the Act was the first one passed in the Federal Parliament and the legislative foundation for the so-called White Australia policy.

Deakin’s keynote in the second-reading, which Brett asks us to consider, was this: ‘Unity of race is an absolute essential to the unity of Australia.’ She wants us to exercise our historical imaginations to appreciate how strong that ideal of unity was for most Australians of Deakin’s generation. She is unhappy with the ‘devious and hypocritical’ Dictation Test that was used to implement the legislation’s racist exclusions. But still, with no clear context for her attempts to explain the racist exclusions in her thinned-out racial narrative, her discussion of the matter in Chapter 23 shades into little more than a sentimental defence of what proved to be indefensible.

It is possible to understand the wrongheaded Immigration Restriction Act in terms of the colonial insecurity and arrogance in the face of the Asian ‘anti-body’. The legislation was enacted at a time when the small white population, which had largely come to Australia to escape poverty in Britain, did not feel sure of being able to hold its continental land grant in the face of ‘teeming millions’ to the north.

Brett does not, however, ask us to consider this. She re-intones without significant scrutiny the old mantras of western liberalism that Deakin and others used frequently to defend the legislation: the inability of different races to live harmoniously; the problems of interracial violence and civil war in the United States; the perils of Asian demographic and economic competition; and the horror of ‘inter-racial marriage’ – an imagined community of ‘loathsome copulations’ (Anderson’s phrase) – something those who lean on his work to legitimise White Australia do not realise he related to the way ‘racism dreams of eternal contamination’. Brett simply asserts that in the face of those alarming prospects, the imperative of racial unity in a nation was something, ‘most Westerners at the time regarded as self-evident.’

Except for South Africa, no other comparable country – Canada, the United States or New Zealand – placed ‘racial purity’ so squarely at the heart of national identity as did ‘White Australia’. There is no mention of Deakin’s own fine, though paradoxical social imaginary in The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1877) of a polity ‘of the most opposite nations and creeds … [in which] its children were to be found thinly scattered through the whole world, wherever they would consent to the prevailing custom.’ Ernst Renan’s celebrated 1884 discourse at the Sorbonne on ‘What is a Nation?’ is also relevant: ‘The truth of the matter is that there are no pure races; making politics depend on ethnographic analysis is to have it repose on a chimera.’ We should remember that ‘the negro problem’ in the US had its origins in the forced inter-continental transportation of slaves, not immigration. Things could have been done differently in 1901. While maintaining the integrity of Australian national borders, immigration quotas could have resolved many of the anticipated economic and social problems. Brett stamps a series of defensive remarks with a culminating cliché: ‘Yes, boundaries keep outsiders out, but they also enable those inside to co-operate to achieve common goals.’

What were these ‘common goals’ in Australia? They were, tautologically, to achieve a White Australia.

How did Brett’s insiders approach this common goal? Her accounts of Deakin’s three prime ministerships between 1903 and 1910 describe, with her usual mastery of political process, how cooperation prevailed over complexity in the Federal Parliament. This time, however, her normalised narrative of race and its hesitations in the face of Asian history largely eliminate the main driver of that cooperation: the desire for a White Australia.

Deakin observed that party relations in the first parliament were ‘far more complex’ than he had anticipated. Chapter 22 thus shows how fifteen conservative free-traders in New South Wales constituted the main parliamentary opposition to the liberal protectionists in Victoria, as parochial jealousies between the States hardened. The rise of labour parties, with discipline imposed on working-class politicians by a collective decision-making body in caucus, added other complications. Sixteen Labor men had won seats in the first election for the Representatives, five for protection, six for free trade and five undeclared. Yet in his first prime ministership (1903-04), Deakin began to get a surprising amount done, as he introduced much foundation legislation – judiciary, external affairs, conciliation and arbitration and fiscal bills – much of it with the support of Labor.

Turning back to Deakin’s personal life, the biography persuades us that his political successes were never without their toll on him. Perhaps he had a small stroke in 1902 before becoming prime minister in September 1903. After he lost office in April 1904 and before he returned to it in July 1905, Chapter 27 ‘Another Path?’, shows Deakin feeling crushed at the core. That was when he thought about a religious career and wrote copiously on religion, including eastern ones. In the first half of 1905, he was not well.

Still, the question is posed: whence the cooperation? Reflecting in 1909 on how much the early federation parliaments achieved, Deakin put that success down to the ‘organic Australian policy’ of his Liberal Protectionist Party. Of the hundred acts passed since 1901, he noted that none belonged to one party; since none had a majority, passing them had always required two. There was undoubtedly a widespread desire to create a better, more equitable society than those most had come from in the old world. Arguably, however, free trade as well as protection could achieve that outcome. And what gave Deakin’s protectionism the salience it had  brings us to Japan.

Brett calls Deakin’s second term in office (1905-1908) his ‘apogee’. Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), particularly its sinking of a Russian fleet in the Straits of Tsushima in May 1905, is presented as a ‘seismic shock’. Brett emphasises that not since the Napoleonic Wars had there been such a challenge to British naval power – although the Anglo-Japanese Naval Alliance of 1902 unsettles that formulation. Japan was moreover the nearest of all great naval powers to Australia. Nothing less than a ‘new conversation’ had begun about Australia’s place in the world. Chapter 30, ‘Defence and the New Protection’, links chronologically the primary policy areas: on 13 December 1907, Deakin made a ‘major speech’ in Parliament on defence and tabled an explanatory memorandum on the New Protection.

These effects of the ‘seismic shock’ are, however, rather staged. They are not well assimilated into Brett’s discussion of the ‘new conversation’, from which Japan goes quickly missing, and in which, as a result, the main policy concerns about New Protection and Defence lack integration. Many major bills – some to encourage British migrants,  preferential trade with Britain, bounties for new primary products and a commitment to link tariffs with improved wages for workers – were clearly enacted with the rise of Japan in the background and a desire to enhance the defensive capacities of the country. There is, however, no discussion of those important links.

Neither, taking the New Protection separately, does the White Australia policy register in Chapter 30, even though its shadow falls across it. Queensland sugar planters, who claimed their production depended on cheap black labour, were given a rebate on the sugar excise if they employed white workers only. The 1905 Sugar Bounty Act was the first legislation to apply the principles of the New Protection, since it required producers who received the benefits of protection to pass it on to their white workers in the form of higher wages. ‘Repatriation’ of black workers began in 1906. In those years, the New Protectionism had also been used to protect Australian manufacturers of agricultural machinery, especially harvesters, from dumping by American and Canadian manufacturers. Before the benefits could be passed on to workers, however, Mr Justice Higgins had to determine, as he famously did in the ‘Harvester Judgement’ delivered in the Arbitration Court on 8 November 1907, a fair and reasonable wage based ‘on the normal needs of an employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilized community.’ We won’t ask what a human being was. But what was a ‘civilised community’? Brett does not ask that either. In Australia, the answer was all too clear anyway: one in which the exclusion of coloured, particularly Chinese or Japanese labour, meant that it was white.

Taking defence separately, Brett’s main commentaries in Chapters 29, 30 and 31 then make no mention of Deakin’s conception of ‘racial defence’ – a term that was used in high-brow circles to praise Deakin’s policies in that area. Certainly, an intense interest in ‘whiteness’ pops out in Chapter 31, ‘Great White Fleet’, which deals with the 1908 visit to Australia of the large US fleet of sixteen warships then on a world voyage to show the US flag. Brett says Deakin invited the American visit in the hope that it ‘might encourage Britain to take Australian security more seriously.’ Also quoting original encomia to the ‘crimson thread of kinship’ and to the sailors visiting from a great Republic ‘native to our race’, she describes the wildly euphoric Australian reception of the American fleet. Despite all this, however, her work evades the self-serving, race-based construction of the threat from Japan, on which Deakin’s defence thinking was based.

Consider a perfect example of how what was going on beyond the limits of Brett’s Melbourne story disrupts the hometown bias she has nurtured within them: the largely groundless summation of Deakin’s perception of the threat Japan posed to Australia. Japan, she says, was ‘a major power in the Pacific, close enough to invade and potentially hostile, given Australia’s immigration policy.’ After Britain farmed out Pacific security to Japan in the Anglo-Japanese Naval Alliance (1902) and the two were allies, Japan was by 1905 ‘a major power in the Pacific.’ Yet no other part of that summation can be sustained.

According to the Alliance, Japan was also an ally of Australia and acted repeatedly on that basis. For instance, Brett makes no mention of two goodwill visits to Australia by Japanese fleets in 1903 and 1906, which Walker (1999 and 2012) shows received remarkably warm welcomes. Her assertion that Japan was ‘close enough to invade’ is also very debatable. It forgets that great distances were still involved and that, between 1902 and 1941, Japan’s foreign and defence policies were pointed at China and Russia. It forgets that, even in late 1941, when Japan did attack south, it was incapable of invading Australia. Since there is, moreover, no evidence that any Japanese government ever intended to invade Australia, the notion that Japan was ‘potentially hostile, given Australia’s immigration policy’ is as seriously self-fulfilling as it is misleading. That comment is, indeed, an unwitting continuation of the original Commonwealth defence thinking, according to which Deakin’s White Australia policy floated the racist sense of menace it most dreaded to itself. Or, the policy floated a geopolitically unanchored binary opposition between ‘whiteness’ and ‘yellowness’ –  or ‘blackness’ – on the irrational assumption that skin colour per se was a strategic category. Meanwhile, the putative non-white attackers knew nothing about their coming attacks.

Chapter 32, ‘Fusion’, which deals with Deakin’s third prime ministership (June 1909-April 1910), does not set out to show how his politics helped to institutionalise such unanchored defence thinking in policies of imperial protection. But that is an implication of Brett’s fine discussion of how, in opposition, he thought of himself as an indispensable political agent, as the ideal centre around which federal politics was changing in mid-1909 from a three to a two-party system. Unexpectedly, on 1 June, Deakin broke with the Labor Party because he felt that the longstanding alliance between it and his Liberal P rotectionist Party no longer served his protectionist goals. At the head of the ‘Fusion’ government, he had suddenly opted for a re-alignment alongside his longstanding former enemies in the conservative Anti-Socialist Protectionist and Free-Trade Parties.

Although Brett does not suggest defence was a part of Deakin’s motivation for that realignment, the defence implications of the realignment were far reaching. In fact, with the conservatives in power, the Fusion fatally undermined the defence scheme Deakin himself had announced with Labor support in 1907 for a ‘National Guard of Defence’. Given the perceived threat from Japan, that National Guard was to be designed to stay in Australia to undertake continental defence. With the rise of Deakin’s Fusion government in June 1909, however, imperial conservatives were able, by the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, to usurp the local, continental role of the National Guard and replace it with the expeditionary role of the future Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

Best practice in Australian military history now shows that the AIF was specifically designed in those years as a Commonwealth contribution to the support of British forces in defence of the empire anywhere in the world. The development of this force was secretive, because most Australians perceived a threat from Japan and the idea of troops serving outside the country was politically unpopular. Based irrationally on race fear, the point of the Commonwealth’s commitment to imperial policies was nonetheless discernible. We are talking about the anxiety-ridden understanding that the only possible defence of Australia in the face of the perceived threat was the Royal Navy. The point was that the AIF would be sent on long-range expeditions to support British forces anywhere in the world in the hope that they would encourage the protection of Australia by the Royal Navy from what was believed – on the basis of no real evidence – to be an inevitable Japanese invasion.

I agree with Brett that, after the Fusion, ‘it would be harder than ever to discern the progress of the Ideal in Deakin’s political work’, and that when his Fusion government fell in April 1910 ‘the progressive spirit of Young Australia had deserted the Liberal Party and it had become a party of reaction.’ But still, in association with Deakin’s ideas of federation, an understanding of his New Protection as a whole cannot be separated from the White Australia policy and the metaphorical chain of race-based global associations that took shape in Commonwealth defence thinking under the weight of its own anxieties.

Remember Deakin’s realisation after his trip to Mexico that the sources of his own cultural outlook were by way of heredity and race, Boston and Britain. By the end of Deakin’s public life, race-based anxieties had spun a cocoon of New Protection around the self-conscious outpost in Austral-Asia, while its arms reached far and wide to hold on to its imaginary saviours: the kindred ‘Great White Fleet’ of emerging American power and the ‘White Ensign’ of Britain’s Royal Navy. It was not, indeed, coincidental that, as Brett informs us, Deakin made his last public utterance in December 1917, supporting a ‘Yes’ vote in then Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ second unsuccessful referendum on the need to conscript men to fight in France with the AIF during the Great War.

After recording that Deakin’s death on 5 October 1919 occurred in a society traumatised by the madness and destruction of the Great War, Chapter 36, ‘Afterlife’, includes this observation: ‘The nation-building moment of federation, which was Deakin’s triumphant achievement, had been pushed from popular memory by Australia’s second birth on the Gallipoli Peninsular and the Western front’. New heroes, John Monash, William Birdwood, Harry Chauvel and others had come to the fore. Brett reasonably says that Deakin played no part in the events that traumatised the nation. But we should note that he had already foreshadowed the tradition that those events established: Anzac.

If Brett had chosen to consult and build upon Sengupta’s work, she would have realised that Deakin had foretold the Anzac tradition in his 1893 book Temple and Tomb in India. Sengupta (2012) draws out from that text the ‘absolutely indispensable mythology … provided by the 1857 Mutiny and its white heroes, to whom Deakin devotes his penultimate and longest chapter.’ Noting that the term ‘Mutiny’ is obviously an imperial one – the event is known today as ‘The Indian Rebellion’ – she reminds us that there was some Australian participation in that epic battle of British imperial heroism against Hindu treachery. Sir Henry Norman, the Governor of Queensland, she specifies, quoting Deakin, ‘was in the struggle from the commencement, and took part in many of its most striking events.’ Following these points, Sengupta concludes: ‘in an original twist, Deakin inserts India as the surrogate site for the Australian secular sacred based on Anglo-Saxon military prowess.’ He foreshadowed the ‘sacralisation of the Anzac campaigns: white Australia’s very own creation myth and a repeated motif of invasive valour in someone else’s homeland in the east’ – a reference, of course, to the Gallipoli landing and its successors in later wars.

Brett’s suggestion of the nation’s ‘second birth’ in the Great War is most unfortunate. It overlooks the important constitutional reality that Deakin’s nation was not sovereign. Since Commonwealth defence policy was authorised by imperial sovereignty, the deeds of the Australian Imperial Force, which embodied the Anzac tradition of long-range military expeditions outside Australia, could not have led to ‘Australia’s second birth’ as a nation. This is especially so when the widespread suffering caused by the high casualties of the AIF in the Great War tended to intensify the society’s imperial allegiance post-war. Another problem with Brett’s sense of the nation’s ‘second birth’ is therefore the cultural desire to deny the race-based justifications for the new nation’s continuing dependence on imperial defence policies in the first place: Deakin’s White Australia.

Since Brett intended a ‘life; not a life and times’, it may seem that she could not have been expected to deal with such major unresolved issues in Australian history as sovereignty and race. An intimate portrait of an important public figure certainly has its place. In portraying such a figure, however, a reluctance to interrogate the elemental issues his career raised does not mean she can avoid them. To the contrary, a weak and incomplete treatment draws all the more attention to them.

Rather than think of the enigmatic Mr Deakin, it makes better sense to imagine him as a plurality of private and public selves that were not infrequently in conflict over the large existential issues of life and of their implication in his understanding of the nation. At the same time, we are indebted to Brett’s work for allowing us to make that point. We are grateful for her close accounts of his political vision and private withdrawal from at least the practical side of it into chronic insomnia, depression and illness, as well as into his prayers and philosophical speculations and meditations on world religions. Much family and domestic detail further enhances the work. Altogether, she shows us how, in many ways, and despite himself, he was ‘whirled’ into politics by the use others had for his intelligence, prodigious oratory and capacity for compromise – or by the want he had of some more appropriate outlet for his gifts.

Deakin died peacefully in 1919 from indeterminate causes accompanied by memory loss and what Prime Minister Billy Hughes called ‘the great strain of public duty … [and his doing] great things for Australia’. Whether those great things approached the Ideal of a dependent, half-British imagined community, or an independent Australian imagined community is another matter, which Brett’s biography leaves for others to consider.

Thanks to Douglas Newton, Martin Edmond, Graham Walker, Trevor Fuller, Ross Sydney and Howard Dick.


Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, London, 1983, 2006.

Duncan Bell, Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire, Princeton University Press, 2016.

Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, Yale, 2018.

Al Gabay, The Mystic Life of Alfred Deakin, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992.

John Hirst, The Sentimental Nation: The Making of the Australian Constitution, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2000.

Walter Murdoch, Alfred Deakin: a sketch, Constable, 1923.

John La Nauze, Alfred Deakin: A Biography, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1965.

—, ed., Federated Australia: Selections from Letters to the Morning post 1900-1910, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1968.

John Rickard, A Family Romance: The Deakins at Home, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1996.

Santosh K. Sareen and Ipsita Sengupta, ‘India Explored and Jinned: Alfred Deakin’s Responses to the Subcontinent’, Antipodes, 15, June 2011, pp. 15-21.

Ipsita Sengupta, ‘Entangled: Deakin in India’, in Walker & Sobocinska eds, Australia’s Asia, pp. 50-72.

David Walker, Anxious Nation, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1999
—, ‘Significant Other: Anxieties about Australia’s Asian Future,’ Australian Foreign Affairs, Issue 5, February 2019.
—, Stranded Nation: White Australia in an Asian Region, UWAP, Crawley, 2019.

David Walker & Agnieszka Sobocinska eds, Australia’s Asia: From yellow peril to Asian century, UWAP, Crawley, 2012.