The borders of fanaticism

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EJ Brady has served Australian historians well. His sea shanties and bush ballads might now be forgotten, but Brady lives on as the eager champion of Australian development, the oft-quoted author of that ‘profusely illustrated doorstopper’, Australia Unlimited. 1 No account of Australia’s developmental dreams seems complete without a colourful phrase or two lifted from Brady’s hefty tome. 2 And why not? While some critics may have felt that he tended to the ‘purple’, there is no doubt that his ‘celtic effervescence of adjectives’ makes him eminently quotable. 3 The colour and confidence of his vivid sloganeering is irresistible.

Invested with Brady’s considerable verve and style, the phrase ‘Australia unlimited’ captures still the sense of national destiny that prevailed in the early years of the twentieth century. Published as the First World War was nearing its end, Australia Unlimited’s spirit of optimism and opportunity nourished the nation’s new-found pride. A people proved in battle might finally take full possession of their land, control of their future. ‘The breed that stormed and held the heights of Anzac’, Brady asserted, ‘will grow stronger and more self-reliant as their generations follow’. 4 The belief that progress lay in the fulfilment of Australia’s idle, empty lands was hardly new. The ethos of development had been a familiar strand in the country’s political culture from at least the time of self-government. 5 But the interwar years brought a surge in confidence and activity, culminating in Prime Minister Bruce’s formula for national achievement, ‘men, money and markets’. 6

But land settlement schemes failed and the economy faltered. In the 1930s, visions of ‘Australia unlimited’ gave way to depression and doubt. The deserts had not succumbed to the will of a hardy yeomanry; instead, overgrazing and soil erosion had set them on the march. An ever-growing chorus of experts spoke out against the ‘boosters’, offering a more modest and rational appraisal of Australia’s potentialities. Where opportunities once blossomed, limits were found. Australia Unlimited seemed increasingly naive as passion drained from the developmentalist crusade. A peak had been passed. Australia’s future would be portrayed henceforth in increasingly sober hues.

EJ Brady, however, never wavered. What historians perceive as a peak in developmentalist rhetoric, was for Brady a brief moment of success in a life-long battle for recognition. It was 1906 when he first approached the Commonwealth government for assistance with Australia Unlimited. 7 Forty years later, at age 76, he was writing to Ministers Calwell and Dedman seeking their support for the publication of an updated ‘Victory’ edition. 8 ‘I hope that the present edition, like the parent volume, will fulfil a useful purpose as a source of information and reference for many years to come’, he remarked in the foreword. 9 Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Brady continued to state his case with vigour and wit, rebutting ‘knockers’, ‘pessimists’ and ‘dervishes of the Desert Theory’. 10 What was lacking was not resources, he maintained, but commitment, leadership and a ‘firm faith in Australia’. Brady’s own faith in his country, he admitted, carried him ‘to the borders of fanaticism’. 11

Historians have little use for the EJ Brady of 1937 or 1946. Situated in 1918, his enthusiastic outpourings are assumed to reflect the spirit of the age, but, in 1937, they seem out of place, maybe even eccentric. It’s as if time had passed him by. And yet Brady was, to the end, intelligent and alert, a voracious reader who eagerly devoured news of the latest scientific discoveries. 12 Rather than being left in the wake of history, Brady no doubt believed himself in the vanguard of progress, and perhaps he was, for when he died in 1952, a new swell of national optimism was building. In the 1950s, Geoffrey Blainey notes, ‘almost everything seemed possible—Australia was again unlimited’. 13 If Brady had lived but a few years longer, he could have read a detailed survey of Australia’s developmental prospects, published in the Sydney Morning Herald under the title ‘Australia Unlimited’. ‘Confidence’, the 32-page supplement declared, was the ‘theme for the future’—‘no pessimism sours the conviction that confidence can prevail’. ‘At last’, the old man might have sighed, ‘at last…’.


  1. Joseph Michael Powell, Griffith Taylor and ‘Australia Unlimited’, The John Murtagh Macrossan Memorial Lecture, 1992, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1992, p. 9.
  2. Powell, Griffith Taylor and ‘Australia Unlimited’, p. 9; Stuart Macintyre, 1901-1942: The succeeding age, Oxford history of Australia, vol. 4, Oxford University Press, Melbourne,1986, pp. 198-9; William Lines, Taming the great south land: a history of the conquest of nature in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1991, p. 168; David Day, Claiming a continent: a history of Australia, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1996, p. 253; Geoffrey Blainey, This land is all horizons: Australian fears and visions, 2001 Boyer Lectures, ABC Books, Sydney, 2001, p. 5; Tom Griffiths, Hunters and collectors: the antiquarian imagination in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p. 186; Warwick Anderson, The cultivation of whiteness: science, health and racial destiny in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002, pp. 163-4.
  3. Bertram Stevens, ‘Australian writers – Edwin J Brady’, Herald, 16 August 1919.
  4. Brady, Australia Unlimited, p. 101.
  5. Lenore Layman, ‘Development’, in Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 184-6; P Loveday, ‘Liberals and the idea of development’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 23, no. 2, 1977, pp. 219-226; Beverley Kingston, Glad, confident morning, 1860-1900, Oxford history of Australia, vol. 3, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 57-62.
  6. Macintrye, The succeeding age, p. 201; WH Richmond, ‘S. M. Bruce and Australian Economic Policy 1923-9’, Australian Economic History Review, vol. 23, no. 2, September 1983, pp. 238-257.
  7. Letter from JC Watson to EJ Brady, 17 March 1906, Brady papers, NLA: MS 206, Series 10b.
  8. Letter from EJ Brady to Calwell, 30 March 1946, Brady papers, NLA: MS 206, Series 10b.
  9. ‘Australia Unlimited 1946 – Victory Edition – Foreword’, draft in Brady papers, NLA: MS 206, Series 10a.
  10. EJ Brady, ‘Faith in Australia: solving the national problem’, Life Digest, vol. 9, no. 1, April 1946, p. 2. See also: EJ Brady, ‘Can the dead heart of Australia be revived?’, Australasian, 12 June 1937, p. 5; EJ Brady, ‘What is to be done with our vast north?’, Australasian, 3 July 1937, p. 5; EJ Brady, ‘“I’s” for Australia – irrigation and immigration’, Australasian, 21 August 1937, p. 5; EJ Brady, ‘A map and some pins’, Bank Notes, vol. 21, September 1938, pp. 10-13; EJ Brady, ‘Brady replies to Shaw—”the arch legpuller of Whitehall Court”‘, Life Digest, vol. 8, no. 10, January 1946, pp. 8-10.
  11. Brady, ‘Faith in Australia’, p. 1.
  12. John Broughton Webb, ‘A critical biography of Edwin James Brady, 1869-1952’, PhD, University of Sydney, 1972, pp. 28-9, 269, 440.
  13. Blainey, This land is all horizons, p. 11.

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