The Enigmatic Mr Deakin: Australia’s second Prime Minister

Text of a Parliamentary Library lecture on 18 October 2017

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Author: Emeritus Professor Judith Brett

Alfred Deakin was born in 1856, two years after Ned Kelly, both native sons of the newly proclaimed British colony of Victoria. Kelly’s parents were an Irish ex-convict from Van Diemen’s Land and his spirited young Irish wife. Deakin was the only son of respectable gold rush immigrants, one of the thousands of young couples leaving England in the late 1840s for a better life abroad.

Ned Kelly was hanged on 11 November 1880 for murdering a policeman. Deakin was at the hanging, most likely reporting for the Age. He had just become a Member of Parliament for the seat of West Bourke and was at the start of his stellar political career. Three years later he was already a minister, and in 1887 he represented Victoria in London at the Imperial conference. This trip turned him into Victoria’s most famous native son. Brimming with self-confidence and free of ingrained patterns of class deference, he had argued with the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, about Britain’s refusal to annex the New Hebrides, telling him that any surrender to France over the islands would immensely weaken the colonists’ confidence in the empire. Lord Salisbury was astounded at the young colonial’s audacity, but Deakin was thrilled with himself, as were other native born men who were even more thrilled when it became known that he had refused a knighthood.  He returned a hero.

By 1888 when the centenary of the First Fleet’s arrival was celebrated, Victoria was far and away the leading Australian colony and Marvellous Melbourne a world-class metropolis. The lawless, frontier daredevilry of the Kelly gang had no place in the respectable society the gold rush immigrants were building for themselves and their children. But it the outlaw has survived more vividly in popular memory and his crazy bravery has become a symbol of the defiance of authority so many Australians like to believe is part of our character.

Deakin is remembered too, but not so vividly. In Victoria’s state library, where young Deakin spent many hours pursuing his passion for reading, there is not even a photo—while school children and tourists troop past Kelly’s armour. Although he was Australia’s most important prime minister until World War II, Deakin sits uneasily as a representative Australian figure. He is too urbane and intellectual, too respectable and middle-class, for the larrikin masculinity of the Australian legend. Deakin was never a mate. He didn’t swear and barely drank. He didn’t play organised sport nor fight in the Great War. He was also enormously well read, in philosophy, theology, comparative religion and the world’s literature, including poetry, his first love. In short, he was middle class, well-educated, and supremely self-confident, like the city and the colony in which he grew to manhood.

By 2001, when the centenary of federation was celebrated, Deakin had faded to a face on an information board, one of the bearded worthies who had made the Constitution and after whom things are named: a suburb, an electorate, a university, a lecture series. He no longer lived in the contemporary national imagination. Amongst the political cognoscenti too he had become more of a cypher than a man, as both parties turned away from the protective policies of the early twentieth century towards racially non-discriminatory immigration and neoliberalism’s faith in open markets. Deakin came to represent the now discarded policies of tariff protection, state paternalism, centralised arbitration, imperial nationalism and the racism of White Australia. These policies which were shaped in the early decades of the twentieth century had all but gone by its closing. In 1992 Paul Kelly in The End of Certainty called this constellation of policies both the Australian Settlement and the Deakinite Settlement.

The turn against Deakin was most evident in the Liberal Party which, under John Howard, remade itself as the joint bearer of the Liberal and Conservative traditions in Australian politics, reclaiming the free trade heritage of George Reid and adopting a reactive social conservatism. Deakin, Reid and Henry Bourne Higgins became counters in ideological arguments which had little to do with the historical context of their actions and decisions.

Yes, Deakin did support protection, White Australia, an active state, centralised industrial relations and imperial nationalism; so to varying degrees did most of his fellow Australians. And if they were not whole-hearted supporters of all these policies, they were prepared to live with them. That is why they became Australia’s shared policy assumptions for three-quarters of a century. Successful politicians in liberal democracies are not original thinkers: their coin is the currency of the age and society in which they compete for support. So it was with Deakin. It is not to the policies he supported that we should look for his achievements and his relevance to today, but to his statecraft and the urgent energy he brought to his political work.

So, what were these achievements?

His first achievement was the federation. Of course he did not achieve this alone, but his contribution was crucial. He led the cause in Victoria with Edmund Barton his New South Wales comrade-in-arms. Deakin was a minister in the Victorian government from 1883 and Chief Secretary from 1886 until 1890 when he resigned from ministerial office and went to the back bench where he stayed for the rest of the decade. Financial disaster was overtaking Marvellous Melbourne, as a speculative land and building boom crashed, along with most of the colony’s financial institutions. Deakin was implicated in some of this, he had not engaged in fraud to keep insolvent companies afloat, although unlike some of his fellow parliamentarians. Nevertheless, his and the government’s optimism and its big spending schemes were shown to have been delusionary. The pressing task was financial repair, something for which he had no appetite, and he contemplated leaving politics altogether. What held him was the prospect of federation and the birth of a new nation. Federation became a redemption project for him and he devoted himself to the cause, bringing to it his organisational skills, his oratory and his sense of dramatic urgency.

Reflecting on the achievement of federation he wrote that, looking back, history can often appear inevitable.  But for those who pursued the cause of federation, it was far from inevitable as time and again its fortunes ‘visibly trembled in the balance.’ Deakin had a sharp sense of the transience of moments of political opportunity – of how fleeting they were and how easily they could be lost—as they were for the Australian republicans. He brought a sense of drama to his political work which at times seemed melodramatic but which focussed the minds of the political class—and his own—on what was at stake if courage failed.

Achieving federation required compromise. The Victorian delegates to the Conventions of the late 1890s that drafted the new constitution were unhappy about its undemocratic aspects, especially the makeup of the Senate, with the small states having the same representation as well-populated NSW and Victoria. But Deakin knew that without this federation would not happen, and he worked hard to broker a compromise.

Achieving federation also required inspiration. Deakin led the movement in Victoria, where his oratory lifted it from the haggling over border duties to a test of men’s souls. Deakin’s speech in Bendigo to the Australian Natives Association in March 1898 was a turning point in a campaign heading for defeat. ‘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,’ he told the listening men. His words filled them with zeal and sent them back to their branches to mobilise the campaign for a new nation.

With federation achieved, the next challenge Deakin took up was to lay the foundations of the new Commonwealth. When the Constitution was finally law and the Commonwealth inaugurated, Deakin saw it as the duty of those who had argued for federation to make it work. Deakin was a first rate administrator and an able and dedicated legislator. The Constitution provided a framework for the government of the nation– but that was all it was—only a framework. Federal institutions had to be built and federal laws passed for areas of federal responsibility. And federal sentiment and a wide federal perspective had to be nurtured. Support for the federal union slumped in the early years, once voters confronted the expense and the states realised how much they had given up.

There was a real danger that if these early Commonwealth governments failed the new federation itself would fail, foundering on partisan differences, parochial jealousies and personal animosities. Western Australia after all was only just in, and thirty years later it would try to secede; and North Queenslanders had not entirely given up their desire for a separate state above the 22nd parallel.

Again and again in his speeches after federation, Deakin conjured up the map of Australia, reminding his audience that they were no longer just Victorians or South Australians or Tasmanians, they were now also Australians. This was Deakin’s great mission in the federal parliament—to make real the promise of a nation carried in the Constitution—and he brought all his gifts, his courtesy and his capacity for unstinting work to the task, and he used the authority of the Prime Minister’s office to project a national interest above and beyond party politics.

None of this was easy. We have become so used to stable majority governments in Australia, that minority governments are treated as disastrous aberrations and sure signs of political dysfunction, but for the Commonwealth’s first decade they were the norm. There were seven changes of Prime Minister after Edmund Barton was sworn in as the first Prime Minster, and only the last of these was the result of the government losing an election—in 1910 when Labor, led by Andrew Fisher, won an absolute majority and a clean sweep in the Senate.

Deakin was Attorney General in Barton’s cabinet, Acting Prime Minister for 6 month in 1902, and Prime Minister three times during this first decade, twice with the support of the Labor Party and once as leader of the Fusion government, which although it had a majority, also suffered from a great deal of internal tension. These governments did not achieve all their legislation, but they did achieve a good deal. Here are some examples:  the federal franchise, immigration restriction and the protective tariff; settling the site for the new capital, Canberra; and establishing the High Court, first with three judges and then with five, despite strong opposition to the expense; passing the Surplus Revenue Act which made possible the first Commonwealth welfare measure—the Old Age and Invalid pension. His governments laid the foundation of Australia’s system of naval defence; assumed Commonwealth control of the former British New Guinea, began the transfer of the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth and established a pro rata system for the dispersal of Commonwealth funds to the states. And much more—the detail is not the main message here—rather it is that although leading minority governments, he was able to achieve a great deal.

The party system was looser than today—and parliamentary votes more fluid. Deakin Liberal protectionist party was the centre party—between the new, Labor party that was rapidly increasing its electoral strength, and the Free traders/anti-socialists led by ex-NSW premier George Reid. Deakin shared ideas and values with both left and right, and he worked to create a political centre for the new federation—practical policies in the national interest which had wide support.

To get his legislation through, Deakin took support from wherever he could get it and he compromised to achieve outcomes he believed were in the long-term national interest. But he took it more often from Labour than from the Conservatives, and when Labor won government in 1910 it completed much of his unfinished legislation within the already established broad outlines.

When he retired in 1913 Deakin was criticised for his weakness as a party leader, but Deakin only ever saw party as the means to achieve policy outcomes, not as an end in itself and he was untroubled by the imperatives of brand differentiation.

The looser party system helped Deakin manage minority government, but so did his personality and political style. Nick-named ‘Affable Alfred’, with bright eyes and a ready smile, he was charming and courteous to men from all parties, and he used his charm and his skills to try to keep parliament civil. He got on well with many Labor men, especially with Labor’s first parliamentary leader Chris Watson whom he liked a great deal. He did have some personal antipathies, most notably towards the NSW Free Trader George Reid, but he hid them well, as he did much of his private thoughts and feelings

With almost unfailing civility and determined optimism, Deakin turned what others might have regarded as a handicap into an opportunity, arguing that his dependence on Labor to pass legislation, and sometimes on members of the Opposition or on independents, had strengthened rather than weakened his achievements. He claimed that it made his government’s legislation not just the achievement of one party, but ‘organic Australian policy’ and the fruit of wide Australian experience. Deakin assumed the existence of a consensual centre which it was the job of politicians to realise in institutions and legislation. And as Prime Minister he confidently spoke for that centre—for the interests of the nation as a whole not just the part of it which voted for him and his party.

Deakin was not a political warrior and he did not use anger and denigration as political weapons. If he were insulted he pretended not to notice, if he had to compromise to achieve his ends, he acted as if this is what he had intended all along, if tempers were rising, he relieved the tension with a joke, trying to prevent the escalation of conflict so as to keep open possibilities of cooperation and agreement. Faced with relentless personal attacks after Fusion, he adopted what he described as ‘Fabian tactics’ after the Roman Commander Fabius Maximus, who avoided pitch battles with the invading armies of Hannibal in favour of a war of attrition.  ‘By studied moderation of tone, refusal to resent insult and by the strict suppression of my own speech and that of my friends so far as I could influence them,’ he wrote, I let the storm beat upon us ‘until it died of inanation while we meekly and patiently waited until their wrath melted away.’

I want now to say something about Deakin’s handling of external affairs, where he could act without the support of parliament. When Deakin and Barton were working out how to divide up ministerial responsibility in the first cabinet, Deakin was adamant that the Prime Minister should take external affairs, and this was the norm until WWII. As Australian foreign policy was then contained within imperial foreign policy, this role was mainly confined to dealings with the British government through the Colonial Office.

When he became Prime Minister Deakin was already aware of potential tensions between imperial strategic interests as seen from London and the view from the edge of the Pacific. He was a young MP in the early 1880s when Australian colonists were pushing Britain to annex the New Hebrides to forestall the French and the eastern half of New Guinea to forestall the Germans. In neither case, however, was Britain interested in acquiring new territory in the Pacific. The British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, thought the Australians the most unreasonable of people, wanting ‘us’ to incur all the danger and cost of a war with France for a valueless group of faraway islands. Deakin had confronted Salisbury on this 1887, and it had continued to rankle with him.

Deakin was always a loyal imperialist, but the annexation crisis brought home to him the reality of the differing priorities of London and Australia and laid down a life-long distrust of the Colonial Office. Twice in his second prime ministership Deakin initiated diplomatic negotiations with a foreign power without going through London. The first was when Deakin negotiated directly with the Japanese consul-general over the administration of the immigration act in relation to Japanese nationals. The Japanese did not object to the government’s desire to control their immigration but to being lumped in with other coloured people’s whom they regarded as uncivilised. It was agreed that they would be exempted from the dictation test and instead the Japanese government would issue them with a visa which prevented permanent settlement. The Colonial Office reminded Deakin that it expected Australia to conduct any dealings with a foreign power through London. Deakin replied that, though he agreed with this in principle, he reserved the right to conduct preliminary and unofficial discussions.

He used the same defence in 1908 when he ‘unofficially’ invited the American Great White fleet to visit Australia as part of its round the world trip. He made sure that the American government received his unofficial invitation before the British government heard of it, and after he unofficially announced a likely visit from the fleet, the furious British government had little choice but to agree.

Deakin hoped that the visit of the American fleet would encourage Britain to take Australia’s security needs more seriously. And he used the occasion to celebrate ‘the invisible ties’ between the two nations. Australia was not in a positon to make its own alliance across the Pacific, but it could strengthen its friendship with the United States. As Prime Minister, Deakin was determined to develop Australia’s naval capacity and to claim some ‘unofficial’ independence of action in dealing with foreign powers in Australia’s part of the world.

In these independent diplomatic dealings Deakin was establishing the first outlines of Australia’s international personality. And significantly they were in matters relating to the Pacific. Deakin early recognised the strategic importance of the Pacific to Australia, and the possibility that Australia’s defence needs may not always be the same as Britain’s or the empire’s.

Deakin’s assertion of independence in relation to the Colonial Office is relatively well-known. Less well-known is the clarification when he was acting Prime Minister of the exclusive power of the commonwealth in relation to external affairs. Some Dutch sailors had deserted in Adelaide from a ship called the Vondel. When the Dutch consul requested assistance from the South Australian government to apprehend them under the Anglo-Dutch Convention, it refused. The Dutch government complained to the colonial office, which in turn asked Deakin to intervene. All perfectly straightforward it would seem, except that the SA government objected to receiving communications from the colonial office through the Commonwealth. It was a belligerent assertion of the states’ rights to maintain the direct lines of communication with the Colonial Office they had previously enjoyed. This was the first test case of the scope of the CW’s external affairs power and Deakin stood his ground. The matter was finally resolved by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain: ‘the people of Australia form one political community,’ he said, ‘for which the government of the Commonwealth alone can speak, and for everything affecting external state or communities with takes place within its borders that Government is responsible.’

I’ll conclude with an explanation of the title and the cover. The title, ‘The Enigmatic Mr Deakin’, was based on one of Deakin’s anonymous letters about Australian politics in the London daily, The Morning Post. Deakin began writing these letters in 1900, signing himself the Australian Correspondent, and he continued them until 1913. It was not uncommon for politicians to write anonymously for the press, but it was uncommon for Prime Ministers to do so, commenting on their own actions, and wondering about their own motivations. In 1909, as negotiations with Joseph Cook were proceeding over the fusing of the two non-labour parties, he wrote: ‘For reasons known only to himself, which are a perpetual subject of controversy in our press, Mr Deakin pursues his enigmatic methods of action ... in spite of his persistent elusiveness the pressure brought to bear upon him ... appears so strong that some unexpected development must be near at hand’.  I must admit that I don’t quite understand the reasons for this playful double life, but it gave me the title.

The cover photo is of Deakin in 1910 on the front beach at Point Lonsdale where he and Pattie had been having their family summer holidays since the 1890s, and where they built a house which is still in the family’s hands. I chose this photo for many reasons. It unsettles the image of Deakin as a bearded worthy—unlike today, it is not usual to see our early politicians togged out for swimming. It shows what a strong, handsome man Deakin was, and his belief in the virtue of exercise. Politics is physically arduous, and he was built for it. And it puts him on the edge of the sea, just inside the heads to Port Philip Bay, looking back over his shoulder at us.


This paper has been provided by a presenter in the Parliamentary Library’s Seminar and Lecture Series. The views expressed do not reflect an official position of the Parliamentary Library.

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