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Edmund Leolin Piesse (1880–1947)

by N. K. Meaney

This article was published:

Edmund Leolin Piesse (1880-1947), foreign policy analyst and lawyer, was born on 26 July 1880 at New Town, Hobart, only son of Frederick William Piesse, conveyancer, and his wife Ellen, née Johnson. His father became a successful businessman and politician, resigning in 1901 as a Tasmanian minister to take his seat in the Federal parliament. After leaving the Friends' High School, Piesse graduated in Science from the University of Tasmania in 1900. He abandoned subsequent studies in mathematics at King's College, Cambridge, when obliged to return home following his father's death in 1902, but graduated in law in 1905. He never lost interest in the natural sciences and in 1912-14 was honorary secretary of the local Royal Society.

Both by temperament and training Piesse was at home in the professional world of the official and the lawyer. Above all he was a practical scholar, a man of independent mind who believed that public policy must be based on knowledge and understanding.

In 1909 he joined the newly established Australian Intelligence Corps and as staff officer undertook the first military survey of Tasmania. Following the outbreak of World War I the Defence Department transferred him to the Intelligence section of the Directorate of Military Operations in Melbourne and in March 1916 he was appointed, as a major, director of military intelligence. His duties included drafting and enforcing War Precautions Act regulations, postal and press censorship, counter-espionage, surveillance of enemy aliens and even sometimes of allied aliens, notably the Japanese. Piesse found the collation and analysis of strategic intelligence the most absorbing and challenging of his tasks.

The problem of Japan's intentions, with which he had long been troubled, and Australia's Pacific policy became almost an obsession. Japan had expanded into China, Siberia and the former German North Pacific islands. In October 1918 Piesse warned the minister for defence, (Sir) George Pearce, that the Japanese seemed bent on an imperial course, and that they might drive southward towards Australia.

Just as he refused to defer to British advice and authority, so also Piesse was not impressed by the vague and often racial fears which underpinned much Australian thinking about Japan. Ever the scholar, he had in 1918 collected all the information on Japan contained in official records and, probably under the guidance of his friend James Murdoch, had begun to learn Japanese so that he could read Japanese sources. His research only served to convince him that Australian policy was being formulated 'without a sufficient foundation of knowledge'. He did not think it wise to look to Britain for help: 'some British representatives are not in sympathy with our interests'. Rather he urged that Australia should set up 'a foreign section of its own'. In May 1919 cabinet created a Pacific branch in the Prime Minister's Department to study 'the affairs of the countries of the Far East and of the Pacific' and desirable Australian policy. Piesse was appointed director of, effectively, Australia's first foreign office.

Already, however, he had begun to modify his views, especially on the significance of the White Australia policy for Japan. From the Japanese press and from information from Murdoch, Piesse concluded that the Japanese objected to racial discrimination because of the affront to national honour. He believed that a 'gentleman's agreement', similar to that which the Japanese had signed with Canada, would meet their point while securing Australia against mass migration, and he criticized Prime Minister Hughes's opposition to the inclusion of a racial equality clause in the League of Nations Covenant for strengthening the hand of the ultra-nationalists in Japan and arousing national resentment against Australia.

From September 1919 to March 1920 Piesse visited the Dutch East Indies, French Indo-China, Hong Kong and China as well as Japan and assessed the spread of Japanese activity. He met a wide range of British and Japanese officials and spoke frankly to the Japanese vice-minister for foreign affairs about Australian disquiet over Japan's aims in the Pacific. He returned to Melbourne convinced that Japan had no designs on Australia and that Australia should remove its discriminatory barriers against Japanese immigration and trade. Such views fell on deaf ears. In 1920 Hughes dismissed Piesse's submission seeking concessions for Japan under the White Australia policy with the one word, 'rot'.

Piesse wrote papers on nearly every policy question, from the future of East Timor to the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese alliance. He also addressed himself to the issues of policy-making in the Empire and the prospects for the League of Nations. The records of the Pacific branch are a monumental testament to his initiative, industry and intellect. But Piesse had little influence on policy. His views were only welcome when they reinforced Hughes's own judgements, as in the case of the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese alliance.

Though Hughes did not take Piesse to the 1921 Imperial Conference in London, Pearce included him in the Australian delegation to the 1921-22 Washington Conference on naval disarmament and Pacific security. The Washington agreements, limiting capital ship tonnage and providing for a territorial settlement, put to rest Piesse's remaining doubts about Japan. In 1923 he himself recommended abandonment of close study of Japan and, after years of being ignored and disparaged, he resigned and joined the Melbourne law firm of Davies & Campbell.

He continued, especially through membership of the Round Table group, the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Institute of Pacific Relations, to take an active interest in defence and foreign policy issues. In 'Japan and Australia', published in January 1926 in Foreign Affairs (New York), he denied that, under the existing circumstances Japan posed a threat to Australia, discounted long-standing rumours about Japanese espionage and supported the Labor Party's call for reduced defence expenditure.

In the early 1930s, however, the re-emergence of Japanese imperialism and the rise of fascism in Europe persuaded Piesse of renewed danger for Australia. With the encouragement of the secretary of the External Affairs Department, W. R. Hodgson, and the chief of the General Staff, Colonel John Lavarack, he published his pamphlet, Japan and the Defence of Australia (1935), directed at 'Professors who believe in collective security in the Pacific' and at 'Admirals who believe in Imperial Defence for Australia'. He was impatient with the Lyons government's blind faith in British assurances of naval protection and campaigned in the press and on the radio to secure a greater share of the defence budget for the army and air force. By 1937 Piesse's arguments had to a large extent carried the day in the local Round Table group and his article on 'The defence of Australia' was published in the Round Table (London). This was the only occasion that he attempted publicly to change government policy.

During his legal career Piesse wrote The Elements of Drafting, was Victorian editor of the Australian supplement to the Encyclopaedia of Forms and Precedents, lectured on company taxation at the University of Melbourne, was the Victorian conveyancing editor of the Australian Law Journal, and edited the Victorian Law Institute Journal in 1932-45, contributing many articles anonymously. He was president of the Law Institute of Victoria in 1942-44.

On 3 October 1914 at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Hobart, Piesse had married Christina McRae; they had five sons and one daughter. Though a member of various organizations and clubs, including the Melbourne Club, he was a shy man who sought rest and recreation in the company of close friends and family. In his younger days he was a mountain-climber and later a bushwalker. He died on 16 May 1947 at Kew of cerebro-vascular disease and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • P. G. Edwards, Prime Ministers and Diplomats (Melb, 1983)
  • Historical Studies, no 54, Apr 1970
  • Star (Melbourne), 11 Feb 1936
  • Age, 18-24 Mar 1936
  • D. C. S. Sissons, Australia's Attitude to Japan and Defence, 1890-1923 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1956)
  • D. J. Richardson, The Contribution of E. L. Piesse to Australia's Assessment of her Strategic Position in the Pacific (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1964)
  • A2219, A3299, CP447/2,3, MP 729/2 (National Archives of Australia)
  • University of Tasmania Archives
  • Piesse papers (privately held)
  • Piesse papers, 1915-39 (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

N. K. Meaney, 'Piesse, Edmund Leolin (1880–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 July, 1880
New Town, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


16 May, 1947 (aged 66)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.