Who’s afraid of Alfred Deakin?

Monday night in Melbourne saw the launch of a new book by LaTrobe politics professor Judith Brett, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m sure it’ll be a good read, and Brett summarises part of her argument in a piece yesterday at the Conversation.

The Liberal Party has never been known for paying much attention to its history, but its current predicament is so awful that one might have thought it would inspire some interest in how it got there. And Malcolm Turnbull’s performance has been so woeful that it’s capable of making almost any of his predecessors look good – including Alfred Deakin.

Nonetheless, I think Brett’s interpretation of the Deakin-Turnbull connection takes us in the wrong direction.

The fundamental political cleavage today, as I (and others) have said many times, is between believers in the open society and those who would retreat into Trumpian foxholes: between cosmopolitans and nativists, if you like. A large part of Turnbull’s problem is that that division runs right down the middle of the Liberal Party.

But if that’s the case, then it’s very hard to see how Deakin represents anything other than the nativist side. Hostility to foreigners was fundamental to his political outlook, informing both his commitment to protectionism and his support for White Australia. He was indeed a pioneer of nation-building, but the nation he helped build was a more narrow and insular place than it might otherwise have been.

Deakin was by no means the worst of the chauvinists, and his liberal instincts, which Brett stresses, were real. But they were subordinated to the illiberal politics of protection, and to Deakin’s personal drive for power, which was both ruthless and effective. As Stuart Macintyre, by no means an unsympathetic critic, remarked, “he was always surprised to find blood on his hands.”

If you’ve ever wondered why the left in the Liberal Party always seem to be such an unscrupulous lot, their spiritual descent from Deakin is a significant part of the picture.

Perhaps more than anyone, it was Deakin that brought to both the “Australian Settlement” and the Liberal Party itself a distinctive fear and dislike of free enterprise, or “the free play of individual choice and energy,” as he called it. Deakin himself might have genuinely believed that this was in aid of the ordinary worker and consumer. His successors quickly cast off that fig leaf and became the champions of business cartels, protected industry and the Industrial Relations Club.

I’m also much less impressed than Brett by Deakin’s supposed attachment to principle (although she admits he “could shift positions seamlessly when the need arose”). He was certainly a tireless campaigner for federation, but the claim that he “always put his conception of the national interest before considerations of party politics or personal advantage” is difficult to sustain. He was also a good hater: his feud with George Reid, a much more cosmopolitan figure, disfigured the first decade of Australian politics.

Narrow, power-obsessed, vindictive, xenophobic, hostile to the free market – that might even remind you of someone. I don’t think they’d ever admit it, but Tony Abbott and his supporters would probably find that they and Deakin had a lot in common.


And a small note of celebration: this is our 700th post! I hope someone’s providing cake.

3 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of Alfred Deakin?

  1. You have to see him in historical context. Who wasn’t xenophobic and protectionist at that time, and not only in Australia?

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      1. Thanks Woop. I agree that people need to be judged in their historical context. It would be completely unreasonable, for example, to criticise Deakin for not having supported a multi-cultural, multi-racial Australia – that just wasn’t on the cards in his day. But his xenophobia was quite marked even by the standards of the time. George Reid and his party were free traders, and free trade was very successful in NSW prior to federation. They were also less enthusiastic about immigration restriction. And both the British Liberal Party and the Democrats in the US were very much free trade at the time. Even Labor, although it strongly backed White Australia, had a number of free traders and also had a sort of rhetorical commitment to international working-class solidarity.

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