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Professor Judith Brett
27 November 2019
and ideals in Alfred Deakin’s shifting political vocation
Professor Judith Brett
Thank you for inviting me to talk to you again about the remarkable
life of Alfred Deakin, which ended 100 years ago last month. Last time I
focussed on Deakin’s political achievements and the way he handled the
challenges of minority government. Today I will take a more strictly
biographical approach—and ask why Deakin spent his life in politics.
The core challenge of political biography is to answer the
question, why politics? What inner needs did it fulfil? What emotional and
psychological resources were mustered for its accomplishment? How did the
motivation and commitments change across the life course?
Deakin’s was a political life, but it was not one he
consciously set out for when a young man. After he became a politician, he
wondered often if he should have chosen a different path and he repeatedly
flirted with the possibility of resigning and leaving politics altogether. But
he never did.
The answer to the question ‘why politics?’ shifts across
Deakin’s life time, from the accidental taking up of politics at the end of the
1870s when he was in his early twenties, to his devotion to federation during
the 1890s, to his sense of duty to the early Commonwealth, first as the first
Attorney-General and then three times as Prime Minister. By 1910 when he led
the newly fused Liberal Party to defeat at the hands of Andrew Fisher and
Labor, political office had become a burdensome responsibility. He stayed on
after the defeat for another three years as leader of the Opposition, knowing
that his powers were fading as he succumbed to early onset dementia. He was not
yet 60 when he retired in 1913, to be succeeded as Liberal leader by Joseph
As I just said, Deakin did not consciously set his sights on
a political career. He was born in Melbourne in 1856 to gold rush immigrants.
He attended Melbourne Grammar and later studied law as an evening student at
the University. But law did not interest him much. His passions were literature
and philosophy, including theology and comparative religion. On leaving school
he contemplated various futures for himself: as a preacher, an actor, a
dramatist, an essayist. Pursuing the latter he approached David Syme, the
powerful editor of The Age, hoping to write literary essays.
Instead he found himself covering parliament.
Deakin was a good looking, talkative young man, and he and the
much older Syme got on well. When, in 1879, a local Liberal electoral committee
asked Syme to recommend a candidate for a by-election he suggested Deakin. The
Liberals did not expect to win, but they wanted to field a candidate. Thus,
Deakin wrote twenty years later, ‘at the age of twenty two I was suddenly
whirled into politics.’
Whirled into politics. The phrase captures the head-long
rush of events that followed Deakin’s rather impulsive decision to contest the
by-election. He became a candidate on Friday, addressed his first campaign
meeting the following night, and then was off on the campaign trail. To his and
everyone else’s amazement Deakin won the seat. Because of some minor electoral
irregularities he resigned, and fought three more election campaigns before
settling into his parliamentary seat.
The phrase ‘whirled into politics’ though is more than just
a description of the hectic activity of Deakin’s first days in politics.
Whirling is an image of motion and energy, worldly, natural, cosmic and
spiritual. With it Deakin aligned his entry into public life with larger
forces. At the time he entered politics Deakin had been an active spiritualist
for about four years. Spiritualism was one response to the crisis of orthodox
religious belief in the middle of the nineteenth century. It rejected dogma and
sectarian denominational differences for a universal religious faith in a
spiritually meaningful universe and it retained Christianity’s belief in an
after-life. Its distinctive conviction was the belief that the spirits of the
departed could communicate from beyond the grave and that this was provable by
Young Deakin was a member of a prestigious séance circle and
a successful medium. He wrote a book, The New Pilgrim’s Progress, dictated
by the shade of John Bunyan, and was active in the Victorian Association of
Progressive Spiritualists. He was convinced that events in both his personal
and political life fulfilled a series of prophecies, including that he would
marry fellow spiritualist, Pattie Browne, and that he would soon be back in
In his early days as a member of parliament Deakin regularly
sought guidance from the spirits through a suburban medium. The shades of John
Knox, Thomas Macaulay, John Bunyan and John Stuart Mill all appeared and all
were keen to help him become a great reformer. Deakin recorded their advice in
a diary, which survived his regular culling of his papers. The spirits urge him
not to yield to depression; they advise him on reading and on his health. One
reassured him that in a forthcoming speech, ‘[a] grand spirit—will lend my
words weight—so that I shall convince and conquer in spite of opposition—shall
be great Reformer’. The diary returns again and again to the question of
Deakin’s life’s purpose. He will be a great reformer—but whether in law,
politics or the work of the spirit was not yet clear.
Putting to one side the bizarreness of his beliefs in
spirits, we can ask, what psychological role did these regular séances play for
Deakin? The answer, I think, is that they reassured him and gave him
confidence. And they fed his conviction that he was special, singled out by
destiny for great work. The political world he entered in 1879 was small and
intense as democrats and conservative fought over the powers of the upper house
to block progressive legislation. Finding himself in it by chance, Deakin felt
himself to be a player in world history, an agent of progressive reform engaged
in a life and death struggle with the obstructionists for the colony’s future.
Had Victorian politics in the early 1880s been calm and procedural, it is
unlikely to have held him for long.
But more than the belief that one is special is needed to
succeed in politics. One also needs skills and aptitude. In his early political
campaigns Deakin revealed his extraordinary gift for oratory. In the middle
decades of the nineteenth century, political oratory was at its height in the
English-speaking world and Deakin was brilliant at it. His oratorical powers
drew in part on his phenomenal memory and in part on the internalisation of the
rhythms of English from his wide reading, particularly of poetry and verse
drama. Words, phrases, images, arguments, quotations, examples streamed from
his mouth with great rapidity in complex, well-shaped sentences. On the
platform or on his feet in parliament, mind and body working in unison, senses
alert to the audience response, Deakin was fully alive and present in the
moment. It was an exhilarating experience.
Twenty years after he began his political career, Deakin
himself answered the question ‘why politics?’ in a short book on his very early
political career. He judged his younger self to have had insufficient talent or
originality for the theatre, for poetry or for literary prose and these were
unlikely to return the yearly income of three to five hundred pounds to which
he aspired. His attempt to become a preacher and replace the retiring first
minister of Melbourne’s Unitarian church, Martha Turner, had been rebuffed. He
had rejected commercial employment because it was directly involved with making
money, which seemed unworthy of a free man; teaching was drudgery; journalism
was too concerned with the transient and superficial. He does not even mention
the law for which he had qualified, and concludes that he became a politician
‘by sheer force of circumstance rather than by independent choice’.
Deakin is remembering here his youthful reluctance to
knuckle down, to put on the yoke of adult responsibility and routine, but he is
also revealing his need for variety and action, for work which will pick him up
and carry him along, in which his own excitable, restless energies could be
aligned with the movements of the cosmos. Politics was not just the one door
still open. It held deep attractions for him, far deeper than he ever admitted
or perhaps even realised.
Politics provided the young Deakin with drama, excitement,
and a great deal of attention from important older men. And with his political
successes apparently prophesied, it satisfied his yearning for work that served
a higher purpose. As his life in politics unfolded, he did have periods of
doubt; and he soon learned that public life had its fair share of tedium and
repetition. But by then he was too deeply in to leave easily.
During the next decade Deakin’s political fortunes rose with
those of the city of his birth. The colony of Victoria was riding a wave of
prosperity and Marvellous Melbourne was in full swing. He was soon in the
Ministry, and by 1885 he was the leader of the Liberal Party and Chief
Secretary in a coalition government. He visited California to explore
irrigation and invited the Chaffey brothers to establish an irrigation colony
on the Murray. In 1887 he visited London for the first time, as a member of the
Victorian delegation to the Imperial Conference. This trip too he believed had
been prophesied. In London he boldly challenged the British Prime Minister,
Lord Salisbury, over Britain’s reluctance to annex the New Hebrides, and he
refused a knighthood. It was a thrilling series of triumphs, and he returned
from it a local celebrity, especially among the young native-born men of the
Australian Natives Association (ANA) who saw him as representing the future of
young Australia as a proud federated nation. The spirit of the emerging nation
seemed embodied in this brilliant native-born man with his upright and
independent public persona. The bush legend was still in the making: the
sun-bronzed, laconic, unruly outback shearers and drovers had not yet captured
Australia’s imagination. Deakin was the harbinger of a different Australia that
was metropolitan, urbane and sophisticated and he could hold his own on the
In 1888, as the Australian colonies celebrated the centenary
of the arrival of the first fleet, cracks were starting to appear in their
prosperity, especially in Victoria where a speculative land and housing boom
was in full swing and government debt was mounting as it borrowed to build the
infrastructure to support the growing population. The Gillies-Deakin government
was defeated at an election at the end of 1890, and the following year the boom
came to a shuddering end. Soon banks and building societies were closing their
doors, bankruptcies and unemployment were soaring, and people were leaving
Victoria. Deakin had been persuaded onto the boards of some of these building
societies and so felt implicated in their failures and the loss of depositors’
savings, including his own and his father’s. Deakin’s sins were undue optimism
rather than fraud and chicanery, as with some of his parliamentary colleagues,
and the crisis shook his faith in the inevitability of progress.
The late 1880s, when Deakin’s colonial career was at its
peak, were the last, dying days of Australia Felix and the gold rush
immigrants’ dreams of a prosperous society free from the entrenched class
differences and constrained opportunities of the Britain they had left. And it
was the mid-point in Deakin’s life, when a man realizes he has stopped growing
up and started to grow old. Opportunities remain for achievement and success,
but the limitless horizons of a fortunate youth are gone, and with them youth’s
reckless energies. As the colony’s prosperity plummeted over the next few
years, so did Deakin’s spirits and his conviction that politics was his
In 1884 Deakin had started a prayer diary, which he
maintained on and off until he finally left parliament in 1913. Written late at
night and early morning, the prayers are of two main types: ‘Thank you for my
many blessings’, when things are going well, and ‘Oh Lord, show me the way’,
when they are not.
In the early 1890s things were definitely not going well and
O God, once more the waters have gone over me, I am drowned ...
Strip my lethargy, scorch my wavering faith so that I may accept my part and
perform it without the endless questioning and weary round of iterated
unrealities. Make me real.
But what was his part? Friends and colleagues were urging
him to return to the leadership to help calm the panic that was turning the
financial crisis into a disaster. He told his supporters he was staying out of
office until he could be sure he could realise his Liberal principles but his
prayers tell a different and more psychologically interesting story. In 1892 he
confessed to his God:
I even dread the influence I seem to possess because
uncertain of it being exercised for good and still more dread to increase my
responsibilities, blind as I am how should I lead the blind.
Deakin did not take the leadership at this time because he
did not have a clue as to what could be done to restore the colony to financial
and economic health. Deakin was a facilitator of the spirit of progress when
times were good, but he was not the man for a crisis. The spirit had proven a
poor guide to both public and personal finances and, like most other Victorians,
he saw the crisis as well-deserved punishment for greed and indulgence. He
stayed on the back bench and returned to the law to rebuild his finances, but
he did not leave politics.
Why not? And so we come to his second answer to the question
‘why politics?’ The answer was the promise of federation and for the rest of
the 1890s this promise held him in political life.
Australia’s six colonies had been talking seriously about
federating since the early 1880s and Victorians were especially keen but the
process was going nowhere, swept aside by the political crisis. In 1893 a
people’s conference in Corowa revived the cause and came up with a plan. Voters
in each colony would elect representatives to a convention, which would
determine a Federal Constitution Bill, which would then be submitted to
referenda in every colony. Federationists could now move beyond talk to start
mobilising support for the forthcoming popular votes. To Deakin it seemed that
providence had shown him the path ahead, that his political energies could
again be aligned with the forward movement of the cosmos, in this case towards
the birth of a new nation.
For the rest of the 1890s the achievement of federation
became the focus of his political energies. He was instrumental in forming a
federation league in Victoria, and he gave countless speeches on the necessity
of federation, many of them to branches of the ANA which had taken it up as
their special cause. In 1896 he was elected as one of Victoria’s
representatives to the second constitutional convention which met in Adelaide.
While there Deakin prayed:
Subordinate the personal, the selfish, the aggressive, the
obstinate in us that we may fulfil thy larger purpose. For myself O God
obliterate me thoroughly, shut myself and my interests from my sight, or
consciousness, in my surrender to Thy will as thine instrument.
Deakin went to the Convention not as a representative of
Victorian interests, nor even as a liberal advocate, but as a facilitator of
destiny—and the destiny was the birth of the Australian nation.
In March 1898, on the eve of the first series of referenda
on the new Constitution, prospects of success were not looking good.
Neither the premiers of NSW or Victoria had yet endorsed the Bill. The Age
looked set to oppose it on democratic grounds and Syme was pressuring Deakin to
do the same. Instead Deakin made a speech which turned the tide. Delivered
without notes to the ANA banquet at the Shamrock Hotel in Bendigo, this is the
supreme oratorical feat of Deakin’s life as he told the men of the ANA that their
‘hour has come’:
“These are the times that try men's souls.” ... Let us nail our
standard to the mast. Let us stand shoulder to shoulder in defence of the
enlightened liberalism of the constitution. ... 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.
The coincidence of the birth of the new Australian
Commonwealth with the start of a new century can invest federation with
retrospective inevitability. But this is not how it looked to Deakin as
federation’s fortunes ebbed and flowed on the ‘cross currents of
provincialism’. When it was all over and the Australian Constitution an
Act of the British Parliament, he reflected that ‘if ever anything ought to be
styled providential, it is the extraordinary combination of circumstances,
persons and most intricate interrelations’ which led to the Commonwealth. To
those who followed the fortunes of federation ‘as if their own, and lived the
life of devotion to it day by day, its actual accomplishment must always appear
to have been secured by a series of miracles.’
With federation achieved, Deakin became Attorney-General in
the first Commonwealth Government, and after Edmund Barton retired to the High
Court, its second Prime Minister. He was 47 when he became Prime Minister for
the first time. So we come to his third answer to the question ‘why politics?’:
a sense of duty and service. 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, a compact between the people who had voted ‘Yes’
and their elected representatives.
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. 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, for example, fierce resistance to the establishment of the High
Court because of the expense entailed. Deakin fought hard for the Court, arguing
that its establishment was ‘a direction from the people from whom the
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. Federal sentiment
and a wide federal perspective had to be nurtured. 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.
But it was not easy and he was often downhearted.
Until 1910 no party had a majority in the House of
Representatives. 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. The main
cause of this instability was growing electoral support for the Labor Party
which turned the two-sided conflict between a ministry and opposition into a
three-cornered contest in which no party could attain a clear majority.
The rise of Labor was unsettling for Deakin’s belief in the
coincidence between his liberal political beliefs and the spirit of progress.
Deakin shared many of Labor’s aims to improve the lives of working class
people, and he saw the conservatives as enemies of progress. But he baulked at
Labor’s demands for members to give up their independence of judgement in the
pledge, and he was critical of the scope of their ambitions for government
control of the economy.
Mid-way through the Commonwealth’s first decade, Deakin
almost left political life again. When the conservative George Reid became
Prime Minister in 1904, Deakin retired again to the back bench and seriously
explored becoming a preacher. In the end he concluded that his open-ended
approach to religious faith made him unsuitable for the preacher’s vocation. He
returned to his political last and was soon Prime Minister again. This was in
1905. Deakin governed for the next three years with the support of the Labor
Party. This alliance laid the foundations for what we now know as the
Australian Settlement in which manufacturers got tariff protection in return
for higher wages for their workers. When Labor withdrew its support at the end
of 1908, Deakin reluctantly accepted the inevitability of a fusion between his
Liberal Protectionists and the NSW-based conservatives.
The title for my biography, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin,
comes from something Deakin wrote about himself at this time. Since 1900 Deakin
had been writing an anonymous letter for the London daily newspaper, the Morning
Post, 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 Deakin’s case even
interviewing himself. In 1909, as negotiations with Joseph Cook were proceeding
over the fusing of the two non-Labor 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
Notice here how Deakin makes himself the centre of the
action. When he wrote it, did he know what he would do? Deakin’s political
enemies saw him as opportunistic, cunning and inconstant. After the Fusion,
when Deakin had abandoned Labor and thrown in his lot with his erstwhile bitter
enemies, Billy Hughes attacked him in the parliament for his inconstancy:
What a career his has been! In his hands, at various times,
have rested the banners of every party in this country. He has proclaimed them
all, he has held them all, he has betrayed them all.
There is surely some moral obliquity about a nature such as
his. No act that he commits, no party that he betrays, no cause that he abandons,
affects him at all. He regards himself as the selected and favoured agent of
Hughes turned Deakin’s enigmatic passivity into the cunning,
self-justifying steering by the chances for power that would mark his own
future political career, but even so he recognised a recurring pattern. Hughes
was right. Deakin did see himself as an agent of Providence, it is just that
often he was often not at all sure where Providence was heading. ‘Oh Lord show
me the way.’ In the Commonwealth parliament, he no longer sought occult help
with séances and divinations. Instead he would step back, let events unfold and
wait for Providence to show its hand.
Fusion ushered in Deakin’s final term as Prime Minister. An
election was due in 1910 and Deakin hoped that the new united non-Labor party
would sweep the polls. He was wrong. Labor won a decisive victory to become the
first Commonwealth government with a clear parliamentary majority. At a
personal level, though, Deakin was relieved. Since 1907 Deakin had been
complaining about failures of memory, insomnia had become chronic, and he had
periods of what was then described as nervous exhaustion. Politics was taking
an increasing psychological toll. In 1910 he wrote to his sister Catherine:
A continent was strapped to my shoulders ... I had come to a
dreadful state of mind ever vibrating in different keys, always planning always
apprehensive and always being switched on and off suddenly to a variety of
calls that robbed me of everything that makes the inner life steadfast and
Deakin stayed in parliament for another three years, leading
a shell-shocked Opposition, and he fought a successful campaign against Labor’s
referendum to give the Commonwealth power over trade and commerce, industrial
relations, and monopolies and corporations. He stayed in politics because he
did not want to let his colleagues and supporters down, but it was becoming a
struggle. He was in the early stages of dementia, and his commitment to
politics was fading along with his formidable intellectual capacities.
As his health deteriorated, Deakin lost all zest for public
life, trudging on from a sense of duty and because there seemed no obvious
successor. He retired at the beginning of 1913. Without the work habits and
routines of a lifetime, his mental deterioration accelerated. For a time he
watched and recorded the slipping away of his mind but by the time he died on 7
October 1919 he no longer knew who he was.
While he still could Deakin too tried to discern the
patterns of his life. He believed that his resilience in public life arose from
his reliance on ‘the unseen in a spirit of faith at time indistinguishable from
fatalism ... that whatever happens is the best under the circumstances’. Without
some such belief ‘my worrying, anxious temper, always fretting lest I should
fall short ... or miss the one right moment to act or speak ... would have made me
incapable of doing even the little I have been able to accomplish,’ he wrote in
All his actions were done under the eyes of his loving God.
This God could be let down and disappointed, but he was not a wrathful God and
in his presence Deakin felt no fear. In his occasional low moments Deakin would
reflect that without the belief in a divine purpose for the universe and
without faith in the soul’s immortality, it would be easy to live selfishly and
in the moment. Deakin did not presume to know what the divine purpose was, only
to believe that it existed, and when the way through events was unclear he
would wait for providence to show its hand. His faith gave him an imagined
still point from which to view the small struggles and personal vanities of the
political world and the detachment to contemplate the long view of Australia’s
historic opportunities and strategic challenges. And it gave him the will to
9 August 1891, 14 August 1891, 4 November 1891, 20 September 91, 2 November
CLXXIX, 11 December 1892.
CCXXIV, 4 April 1897.
27 May 1909, 132–3.
29 May 1909, 176–7.
Spine Notebook, 4 November 1910, 56–8.
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.
The copyright remains with the original author and
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