In conclusion: only talk

Deakin’s experience of colonial subjection was, by his own account, demeaning and humiliating, yet he managed to transform it, in memory, into a story of potent triumph. Yet his victory over the British Prime Minister, like Atlee Hunt’s impressive speech-making, was largely a consoling fantasy. Even with the achievement of federal union, Australia remained in a condition of colonial dependency, subject to British power, still complaining about French (and German and Japanese) intentions in the Pacific for years to come.

Hence the anxiety that accompanied Deakin’s attendance at the conference in 1907. Hunt noted that Deakin was plagued by over-worry and indigestion.[41] Deakin referred to the conference in 1907 as an imperial conference, a gathering he fantasised as a meeting between equal autonomous governments, the same meaning he would give to ‘Imperial Federation’. He arrived in London determined to remove all power from the Colonial Office, but had to make do with a promise to establish a new Dominions Office, headed by veteran Colonial Office man Sir Charles Lucas (one of the officials who had ignored Secretary Hunt).[42] Deakin’s capacity for oratory, in his view, redeemed Australian manhood, but in the event it also served to consolidate his country’s dependency.

While Deakin raged inwardly at Australia’s humiliation—at being denied the right to contribute to defence and foreign policy, at Australia being treated as an object of negotiation between the great powers—he took consolation in his oratorical powers. Deakin had mastered the art of oratory and oratory had mastered him. Oratory offered Deakin (and in his dreams, Secretary Hunt) the taste of masculine power. But Deakin also knew the limits of ‘talk’. In his first letter home from England on 31 March 1887, he announced: ‘I have made my debut in London society & am prepared to give judgment upon it at once.’ He had attended an ‘At Home’ of Countess Stanhope.

She was very glad to see me she said, tho’ I doubt if she knew where I came from & probably said the same thing to a couple of hundred others. Somebody else was announced right on my heels & so I passed…The dinners are just as our dinners, people dress better & more people talk well. Some brilliantly, but it is only talk & therefore worth nothing.[43]

Oratory was an art and a gift, and it lifted some men above others, but it was, after all, just talk.

In oratory, Deakin sought to redeem Australian manhood, and his own speech-making undoubtedly played a significant role in the achievement of Federation, yet his country remained in a position of colonial dependency, subservient in important matters to the Colonial Office. The strain generated by the tension between that dependency and his republican desire for manly independence took its psychic toll. Biographer La Nauze noted that after the 1907 conference, something was damaged in Deakin and could not be repaired. W. M. Hughes, looking at Deakin across the benches of the House of Representatives on his return, concluded that Deakin had had a nervous breakdown.[44]