The Enigmatic Mr Deakin by Judith Brett

‘Deakin was forty-four when he moved from colonial to federal politics and into the full glare of national history.’

Alfred Deakin (3 August 1856 to 7 October 1919) was Australia’s second prime minister. He was prime minister three times within the first ten years of Australia’s federation (as the second, fifth and seventh prime ministers). He served from 24 September 1903 to 27 April 1904; from 5 July 1905 to 13 November 1908; and from 2 June 1909 to 29 April 1910. The first two times Mr Deakin served as prime minister, it was as leader of the Protectionists. The third time, he became prime minster after his Fusion Party withdrew support from Andrew Fisher’s Labor Party. But who was Alfred Deakin, and what did he stand for?

Ms Brett writes:

‘I wrote this book to bring Deakin back into Australia’s contemporary political imagination, to understand how he shaped the country we live in today, and for the lessons he could teach us about how to handle unstable parliaments.’

Alfred Deakin was born in Melbourne. He studied at Melbourne University, and was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1879, aged twenty-two. During this time, he contributed to a number of reforms and was also involved in developing irrigation in Australia.

During the 1890s, Mr Deakin participated in the conferences established to draft a constitution for the proposed federation of the Australian colonies. Compromises were required, as was campaigning in the colonies: not all colonies were equally in favour of federation. Mr Deakin also fought hard to have the proposed constitution accepted by the Government of the United Kingdom. In 1887, he was offered and declined a knighthood.

While the history of Australia’s federation fascinates some of us, it’s the context Ms Brett provides which makes her book so valuable. And this context becomes even more important once federation has taken place. For example, it’s difficult for many of us to understand (from the viewpoint of being Australian in the twenty-first century) why this bill was considered so important:

‘On 7 August 1901 Edmund Barton introduced the Immigration Restriction Bill to Federal Parliament. The achievement of a White Australia had been one of the motivations for federation.’

It’s also difficult (for me at least) to appreciate Mr Deakin’s interest in non-conventional spirituality. By including quotes from Mr Deakin’s diaries, and writing about the times in which he lived, Ms Brett provides information which gives me a better understanding of how (and perhaps why) this was so important to Mr Deakin.

On one level, it is difficult to understand why such a man was drawn to politics. And there’s no shortage of evidence that Alfred Deakin considered life outside politics (for example as a preacher). But it seems to me, after finishing this biography, that his high ideals and sense of public service were greater motivation.

Ms Brett’s biography has better informed me about both the man and the politician. While some of his ideas seem out of place today, many of the challenges he faced as prime minister are contemporary. He was an effective leader in minority governments and, as well, Ms Brett writes that:

‘Deakin was the first politician to see Australia’s proximity to Asia as an opportunity as well as a threat.’

So, who should read this biography? I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia and the first ten years after federation. I’d also recommend this book to anyone interested in a well-written book about the life and times of one of Australia’s founding fathers.

‘Watt noted that, though he might have had many honours, ‘he had died plain Alfred Deakin’.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith