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25. APPENDIX II: The Speech at Bendigo, March 1898

[This speech, delivered in the circumstances briefly related on p. 96 above, was one of the most celebrated of Deakin's career, often referred to by his contemporaries and by writers up to the present time. Yet Murdoch lamented in 1923 that ‘though it was perhaps his very highest flight of oratory, and certainly the most decisive in its results—only a few sentences are given in the Melbourne newspapers next day; without any indication that it was anything more than a commonplace perfunctory after-dinner utterance, and with no hint of the wild and fierce enthusiasm it aroused in those who listened to it.’ This is not quite correct. Deakin's speech came late in the evening, and was rather briefly reported in the morning papers, but an evening paper (Herald, 16 March 1898) had a good summary and an account of the immense enthusiasm of the audience. The speech itself, however, can be fairly accurately reconstructed from other sources, notably from the Bendigo Advertiser (16 March 1898) and from a booklet, Text Book, A.N.A. National Fête Elocutionary Competitions (Melbourne, [1898]), pp. 3–7. The late Mr J. J. Keenan of Sydney, a skilled shorthand writer, told the present editor that he had been engaged by the A.N.A. to report the speeches at the Bendigo banquet, and if his recollection was correct (he reported several federal gatherings about this time) the text in the booklet may be from his notes. The date is wrongly given as 1897 but it is certainly the speech of 15 March 1898. Comparison with the report in the Bendigo Advertiser shows that after the second paragraph of the version given here from the booklet there was a passage directed against delegates who should now desert the constitution they had framed, and explaining that detailed criticism in the convention by the lawyers, though essential, had confused the public mind. Towards the end of the speech Deakin expressed his pride in hearing that the Association had spontaneously decided to endorse the Bill. The poet referred to at the close was William Gay, who had died in Bendigo in December 1897, aged thirty-two.]

MEMBERS OF THE A.N.A.—We have heard much tonight of politicians and a good deal from them. We have also heard something of the Federal Convention and addresses from some of my fellow-members; but it is in neither capacity that I propose to speak, because I recognise that the united Australia yet to be can only come to be with the consent of and by the efforts of the Australian-born. I propose to speak to Australians simply as an Australian.

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You are entitled to reckon among the greatest of all your achievements the Federal Convention just closing. The idea of such a Convention may be said to have sprung up among you, and it is by your efforts that it must be brought to fruition. One-half of the representatives constituting that Convention are Australian-born. The President of the Convention, the Leader of the Convention, the Chairman of Committees and the whole of the drafting committee are Australians. It remains for their fellow-countrymen to secure the adoption of their work.

We should find no difficulty in apprehending the somewhat dubious mood of many of our critics. A federal constitution is the last and final product of political intellect and constructive ingenuity; it represents the highest development of the possibilities of self-government among peoples scattered over a large area. To frame such a constitution is a great task for any body of men. Yet I venture to submit that among all the federal constitutions of the world you will look in vain for one as broad in its popular base, as liberal in its working principles, as generous in its aim, as this measure. So far as I am concerned, that suffices me. Like my friends, I would if I could have secured something still nearer to my own ideals. But for the present, as we must choose, let us gladly accept it.

I fail to share the optimistic views of those to whom the early adoption of union is a matter of indifference. Our work is not that of an individual artist aiming at his life's achievement, which he would rather destroy than accept while it seemed imperfect. What we have to ask ourselves is whether we can afford indefinite delay. Do we lose nothing by a continuance of the separation between state and state? Do not every year and every month exact from us the toll of severance? Do not we find ourselves hampered in commerce, restricted in influence, weakened in prestige, because we are jarring atoms instead of a united organism? Is it because we are so supremely satisfied with our local constitutions and present powers of development that we hesitate to make any change? The governments from which we take the powers with which the federation is to be endowed are without except less liberal than the government provided in this constitution. We are not to fall into the hands of foreigners. It is not to tyrannical rulers that we propose to remit federal authority. Those to whom we propose to entrust the sole creation and control of the new government are the Australian people.

At a time like the present this association cannot forget its watchword—Federation—or its character, which has never been provincial. It has never been a Victorian, but always an Australian Association. Its hour has now come. Still, recognising the quarter from which attacks have already begun, and other quarters from which they are threatening, we must admit that the prospects of

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union are gloomier now in Victoria than for years past. The number actually against us is probably greater than ever; the timorous and passive will be induced to fall away; the forces against us are arrayed under capable chiefs. But few as we may be, and weak by comparison, it will be the greater glory, whether we succeed or fail. ‘These are the times that try men’s souls.' The classes may resist us; the masses may be inert; politicians may falter; our leaders may sound the retreat. But it is not a time to surrender. Let us nail our standard to the mast. Let us stand shoulder to shoulder in defence of the enlightened liberalism of the constitution. Let us recognise that we live in an unstable era, and that, if we fail in the hour of crisis, we may never be able to recall our lost national opportunities. At no period during the past hundred years has the situation of the great empire to which we belong been more serious. From the far east and the far west alike we behold menaces and antagonisms. We cannot evade, we must meet them. Hypercriticism cannot help us to outface the future, nor can we hope to if we remain disunited. Happily, your voice is for immediate and absolute union.

One word more. This after all is only the beginning of our labours. The 150 delegates who leave this Conference, returning to their homes in all parts of this colony to report its proceedings, will, I trust, go back each of them filled with zeal and bearing the fiery-cross of Federation. Every branch should be stimulated into action, until, without resorting to any but legitimate means, without any attempt at intimidation, without taking advantage of sectionalism, but in the purest and broadest spirit of Australian unity, all your members unite to awaken this colony to its duty. You must realise that upon you, and perhaps upon you alone, will rest the responsibility of organising and carrying on this campaign. The greater the odds the greater the honour. This cause dignifies every one of its servants and all efforts that are made in its behalf. The contest in which you are about to engage is one in which it is a privilege to be enrolled. It lifts your labours to the loftiest political levels, where they may be inspired with the purest patriotic passion for national life and being. Remember the stirring appeal of the young poet of genius, so recently lost to us in Bendigo, and whose grave is not yet green in your midst. His dying lips warned us of our present need and future duty, and pointed us to the true Australian goal—

Our country's garment
With hands unfilial we have basely rent,
With petty variance our souls are spent,
And ancient kinship under foot is trod:
O let us rise,—united,—penitent,—
And be one people,—mighty, serving God!