Alfred Deakin, Australian Prime Minister, builder of the White Australia policy

Alfred DeakinAlfred Deakin (1856-1919) was Australia’s second Prime Minister. He was a loyal defender of his people, and helped to build the White Australia policy.

Deakin studied law at the University of Melbourne before entering politics. However, he was not just a lawyer and politician, but was also an author, journalist, playwright, poet, and teacher. He first entered parliament, in Victoria, in 1879. Deakin was concerned with the working conditions of the people, brought in the Factories and Shops Act of 1885 to look after the rights of the working class, and was associated with the National Anti-Sweating League (dedicated to combating the problems of “sweatshops”). He chaired an investigation into irrigation problems, sponsored legislation on irrigation, and his work helped to pioneer new methods of irrigation within Australia. Deakin was also a major force in the movement for the federation of Australia. He was appointed Attorney-General in the first federal government in 1901, became Prime Minister in 1903, and later served two further terms as Prime Minister. After leaving office he carried on some public work, but soon retired altogether due to ill health. He died in 1919.1

Deakin was one of the nation’s preeminent statesmen and a firm supporter of a White Australia. He campaigned for restrictive immigration legislation as a member of the Victorian parliament and, after federation, as a member of the Australian parliament.

In the federal parliament, Alfred Deakin spoke eloquently about the nation’s immigration policy:

We here find ourselves touching the profoundest instinct of individual or nation — the instinct of self-preservation . . . No motive power operated more universally on this continent or in the beautiful island of Tasmania . . . than the desire that we should be one people; and remain one people without the admixture of other races.”2

“The unity of Australia is nothing, if that does not imply a united race. . . . Unity of race is an absolute essential to the unity of Australia.”3

“the Commonwealth of Australia shall mean a “white Australia,” and that from now henceforward all alien elements within it shall be diminished. We are united in the resolve that this Commonwealth shall be established on the firm foundation of unity of race”.4

we recognise that racial and national differences are prominent features which we have to take into account in practical life . . . endeavouring to gradually people our land with the descendants of white races capable of blending with advantage and relatively all of about the same grade of culture or possibilities of culture. That is what we generally refer to as the White Australia policy.”5

Deakin, speaking at a meeting in Ballarat, on 29 October 1903, expanded on the ideals of the White Australia policy:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you probably believe that the white Australia is secure. I hope it is, but it will not be secure unless a vigilant watch is kept upon the proposals to tamper with it. No proposal of a serious character has been put forward by anybody in a responsible position, but there are indications that we may have to defend the principle of a white Australia. So far as this Government is concerned, it will be ready for the emergency. (Cheers.) A white Australia does not by any means mean just the preservation of the complexion of the people of this country. It means multiplying our homes so that we may be able to defend every part of our continent. It means the maintenance of conditions of life fit for white men and white women. It means equal laws and opportunities for all, it means protection against the underpaid labour of other lands. It means the payment of fair wages. (Cheers.) A white Australia means a civilisation whose foundations are built upon healthy lives, lived in honest toil, under circumstances which imply no degradation. A white Australia means protection. We protect ourselves against armed aggression; why not arm ourselves against aggression by commercial means. We protect ourselves against undesirable coloured aliens. Why not protect ourselves against the products of the undesirable alien labour? (Cheers.) Unless a white Australia is to have a mere complexion aspect it must go deeper. It must reach down to the roots of our national life, so that we may have things of which we may say they were made by the white man for white men, and are worthy of any white men.6

He also said:

Our civilization belongs to us, and we belong to it; we are bred in it, and it is bred in us. It fits us and is our means of progress and advancement. These people have their own independent development, their own qualities, and also the civilizations, forms of life and government which naturally attach to them. They are separated from us by a gulf which we cannot bridge to the advancement of either. The attitude of Australia is not an offensive one when it becomes understood that it is based upon these principles. It is not based upon any claim of superiority. Where is the standard of comparison just to both? . . . arguments which are used in favour of exclusion do not call for any reflection whatever upon the character or capacity of the people excluded.”7

Deakin considered that the White Australia policy was linked to a number of essential aspects of national life:

To my mind the White Australia policy covers much more than the preservation of our own people here. It means the multiplication of our own people, so that we can defend our country and our policy. It means the maintenance of social conditions under which men and women can decently live. It means equal laws and equal opportunities for all. It means protection. It means social justice and fair wages. The White Australia policy goes down to the roots of our national existence8

Alfred Deakin at a meeting in West Maitland (where he was a featured speaker, along with Edmund Barton), spoke on the inherent connection between Australia’s democratic way of life and a White Australia:

“the second great principle to which Mr. Barton had referred — the principle of the preservation of civilized Australia for the white man, and as a white man’s country — he had expressed a feeling entirely in harmony with the Constitution — (applause) — a measure which provided that Government of the people should be by the people and for the people — by people, too, whose constitutional habits alone would make them capable of carrying on the government of the country on proper and equitable lines. . . . the aim was to have the union formed upon the strong foundations of equity: not to have any particular proposal in the interests of New South Wales, or of Victoria; but that every proposal should have for its object the advancement of the interests of the whole race.”9

Deakin was in favour of a White Australia, but he was not a “race hater” (even though some anti-White propagandists tend to maliciously label all pro-White people as such). In fact, he spoke about the finer qualities of Asian people as a reason for excluding them from Australian shores.

It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance, and low standard of living that make them such competitors.”10

As far as Deakin was concerned, the White Australia policy was not about superiority or inferiority, but was about racial survival. Speaking in the Australian parliament on the Immigration Restriction Amendment Bill, he said:

assertions of superiority are neither conveyed nor implied in this Bill, which simply recognises the incontestable fact that, despite the unity of humanity, its diversity is more operative in fact. The branches and families into which the human race is divided have followed different paths for ages. They have developed in different directions to such an extent that it is now found that any attempt to suddenly blend their blood, unite them in institutions which are foreign to them — or in politics or economic relations — leads to disruptions and disturbances of a serious kind.”11

He also spoke highly of the Hindu and Japanese peoples.

“It is an imperative necessity at the present time that, in pursuance of our great national ideal, we shall exclude the people of the East, of whom two races in particular possess claims upon our respect and admiration. Within the Empire, we have an empire — Hindustan — some of whose races are amongst the most intellectual that the world has known. They rank amongst the intellectuals to-day, and enjoy many heritages comparable with those of most advanced peoples. . . . I wish only to safeguard those who support legislation of this character against the assumption that their action is derogatory to any people. . . . Then there is the nation who have recently sprung into such prominence, attracting the admiration of the world for their ability and patriotism, by their achievements in arms, science, and industry. They are the allies of the Empire to which we belong. Before they won their recent successes many people, including myself, bore tribute to their standing and promise. Now the whole world realizes that it is confronted by a young and virile people, whose possibilities cannot be gauged, although we know that they are of a very high order.”12

For Deakin, and many other political leaders, the struggle for a White Australia was a long process. He explained how the issue of non-White immigration was a matter of prime importance prior to the federation of Australia.

“we sat on the conference which met in Sydney in 1888 to consider the then threatened invasion of the continent by Chinese immigrants. It was then that we drafted a programme, which was followed thereafter, not only in regard to the Chinese, but which was, in 1896, adopted by a conference of Premiers in regard to coloured aliens generally. My right honorable and learned friend drew the Bill, and I drafted the declaration for submission to our colleagues, which was wired to the British Government. This informed them of the vital importance that Australia as a whole attached to this question of purity of race, and that we relied upon two means to protect us. The first was the diplomatic action of the mother country, which we invoked, and did not invoke in vain, and the other was uniform legislation throughout Australia”13

Alfred Deakin believed that the White Australia ideal was an essential foundation of the Australian nation.

“the first plank in the Government platform, as submitted at Maitland, and emphasized at every opportunity since, was the plank which for ease of reference was called the declaration for a “White Australia.” . . . At the very first instant of our national career we are as one for a white Australia. . . . It is no mere electioneering manifesto, but part of the first principles upon which the Commonwealth is to be administered and guided.14

It was due to the foresight and patriotism of statesmen like Alfred Deakin that Australia became one of the greatest nations in the Southern Hemisphere. With the growing threat of various immigration problems, the Australian nation needs men like Deakin once again.

See also:
Alfred Deakin speaks in support of the Immigration Restriction Bill, 12 September 1901

Alfred Deakin speaks on the Immigration Restriction Amendment Bill, 10 November 1905

1. R. Norris, “Deakin, Alfred (1856–1919)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

2. Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Immigration Restriction Bill, Second Reading, 12 September 1901 [0022]

3. Commonwealth of Australia, op. cit., 12 September 1901 [0022]

4. Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Immigration Restriction Bill, Second Reading, 12 September 1901 [0024]

5. Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Immigration Restriction Amendment Bill, Second Reading, 10 November 1905

6. “Mr. Deakin’s speech: His great responsibilities”, The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 30 October 1903, p. 8

7. N. B. Nairn, “Growth of the White Australia concept”, in: A. T. Yarwood (editor), Attitudes to Non-European Immigration, North Melbourne: Cassell Australia, 1968, pp. 76-77 [republication of the latter part of the article “A survey of the history of the White Australia Policy in the 19th Century”, in: Australian Quarterly, vol. xxviii, September 1956, pp. 24-31]

8. W. T. Gill, “Australia Futura”, The Northam Courier (Northam, WA), 2 December 1910, p. 6

9. “The Policy of the Commonwealth”, The Maitland Daily Mercury (Maitland, NSW), 18 January 1901, pp. 2-3

10. Commonwealth of Australia, op. cit., 12 September 1901 [0022]

11. Commonwealth of Australia, op. cit., 10 November 1905

12. Commonwealth of Australia, op. cit., 10 November 1905

13. Commonwealth of Australia, op. cit., 12 September 1901 [0022]

14. Commonwealth of Australia, op. cit., 12 September 1901 [0022]

[For further reading, see the Wikipedia entry: “Alfred Deakin”]