Australian Journal of Politics and History: Volume 64, Number 2, 2018, pp.177-193.
© 2018 The Authors.
Australian Journal of Politics and History © 2018 The University of Queensland and John Wiley &
Sons Australia, Ltd.
“All that appears possible now is to mitigate as much
as possible the trials of their closing years”
Alfred Deakin’s Attitudes to Aboriginal Affairs
This article examines Alfred Deakin’s attitudes towards, and impacts upon, Aboriginal people
during the period 1880-1910, drawing on newspaper articles and parliamentary debates as
principal source materials. The discussion begins by charting the long, influential and often
positive relationships Deakin had with several Aboriginal communities during a period as a
Victorian MLA between 1881 and 1884. It then proceeds to document Deakin’s extraordinary
descent into paternalism and racially-based fatalism which pervaded his later association with
Aboriginal affairs whilst Victoria’s Chief Secretary (1886-1890), Victorian MLA for Essendon
and delegate to Federal conventions (1890-1900), as the Federation debates took shape. And
finally, the article outlines the attitudes Deakin expressed towards Aboriginal people in his
various post-Federation political roles, including Attorney-General, Prime Minister and Minister
for External Affairs. In doing so, the discussion draws out the connections between Deakin’s
advocacy of a white Australia and his attitudes towards Aboriginal Australia, and demonstrates
the extent to which the creation of a new nation both informed and responded to socio-racial
ideologies that mandated the exclusion of non-white identities from the nation-to-come.
Alfred Deakin (1856-1919), journalist, barrister and politician, was born in Fitzroy,
Melbourne to British immigrant parents who had arrived in Australia in 1850. J.A. La
Nauze considered Deakin a gifted politician, citing as evidence the fact that from July
1880 he was continuously “a member of parliament in Victoria and later in the
Commonwealth until [his retirement in] 1913”.
Over the course of his career, Deakin
was at various times the Chief Secretary and Solicitor-General of Victoria, the first
Attorney-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, and later three times Prime
Minister, as well as leader of the popular movement for federation. Historians have been
generally effusive about Deakin’s significance in Australian history. Mark Hearn and
Ian Tregenza write of a “general consensus [that] Australia’s second prime minister,
Alfred Deakin […], was the most significant political leader in the decade following
J.A. La Nauze, Federated Australia: Selections from Letters to the Morning Post 1900-1910 (Carlton,