The British Prime Minister trounced

It was in the closed session of the 1887 conference, after Holland’s business-like opening address, that Deakin engaged in his legendary confrontation with the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, who was recognised as ‘a great master of expression’ and hence a worthy opponent. The issue was the future of the New Hebrides. Salisbury told the colonials that they had no business interfering with imperial policy in the Pacific Ocean and that France had made a good offer in promising to cease sending convicts to New Caledonia, in return for recognition of its sovereignty over the islands. The colonial premiers responded with due deference and ‘whispering humbleness’, but Deakin would have none of it. Of his speech that day, the Age reported: ‘The remarks of the junior delegate from Victoria were brightly delivered and bolder in tone than those of the preceding speakers, and enabled him for the second time since his arrival to carry off the palm of oratory from all his compeers.’[34] In a letter to his family, Deakin wrote:

Then [the turn for the colonial representatives came] & one vied with another in congratulations felicitations & glorifications—I took quite a different key & gave them the Victorian view with some energy—It satisfied my friends & won me some praise & some declared it the speech of the day—I might and ought to have done much better.[35]

This encounter between Lord Salisbury and the junior delegate from Victoria would become central to Deakin’s later account of the ‘federal story’, a founding moment in his history of Federation, an account in which he would transform an experience of imperial domination into a fantasy of powerful masculine triumph. Of the British Prime Minister, he wrote: ‘His tone breathed the aristocratic condescension of a Minister addressing a deputation of visitors from the antipodes whom it became his duty to instruct in current foreign politics for their own sakes.’ His Australian colleagues, he wrote, responded ‘with bated breath and whispering humbleness, apologising for the strong feeling which had been expressed in the colonies’.[36] Then Deakin rose to his feet and, according to his own third-person account: ‘He broke quite new ground not only with unrestrained vigour and enthusiasm on the general question as his colleagues had before him, but because he did so in a more spirited manner, challenging Lord Salisbury’s arguments one by one and mercilessly analysing the inconsistencies of his speech.’[37]

Rising to revolutionary rhetoric, Deakin

went on to declare in an impassioned manner that the people of Victoria would never consent to any cession of the islands on any terms and that the Australian born who had made this question their own would forever resent the humiliation of a surrender which would immensely weaken their confidence in an Empire to which hitherto they had been proud to belong.[38]

The effect of such a bold statement, he reported, was ‘electrical’. ‘Lord Salisbury several times stared at the speaker, as well he might…[in] considerable amazement at his plain speaking and in some discomfort at the stern debating retorts to his inharmonious contentions.’[39] The British Ambassador in Paris was promptly informed that nothing was to be ceded to the French. Deakin was undoubtedly pleased with his performance, but the lesson he drew from his experience at the Colonial Conference was that had the colonies spoken in unison, with one voice, their achievements would have been all the greater. In union lay power. Small wonder that the next year Royce concluded that Deakin liked power and that separation from Britain was inevitable.[40]