The Enigmatic Mr Deakin By Judith Brett

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

  • Text Publishing Melbourne, 2017
  • ISBN: 9781925498660, 9781925410884
  • RRP $49.99 (hb)

For those who have tried to link Australia’s second prime minister Alfred Deakin to the ethos or traditions of the Liberal Party of Robert Menzies, I would recommend they read Judith Brett’s just released The Enigmatic Mr Deakin. And this, not to discover any such links but in fact to realise that there was little in common, politically or personally, between the two leaders – short of both having wives named Pattie.

Judith Brett has brought Alfred Deakin back to life after being, as she puts it, remembered more as a “bearded worthy than a national icon”. In her biography of this father of federation, Brett spends more time than previous Deakin biographers in examining the whole Deakin, through his diaries, letters and writings to draw the portrait of a gifted yet often uncertain (enigmatic?) leader at a time of vast change in the Australian political landscape. It is an absorbing read.

Unlike the scholarship boy Menzies, who became a distinguished constitutional lawyer and barrister, Alfred Deakin studied law but was more interested in the dramatic arts and poetry. Brett writes of him at the age of 15 as having no direction at all. Not trusting his son to decide how to make a living, Deakin’s businessman father invested in a stationery business to help him find a career. The venture cost Deakin senior dearly as the business collapsed.

In the law, Deakin found it difficult to get briefs and was more involved with spiritualism with its stress on bodily control. He came to this after abandoning traditional religion through the influence of mediums William Henry Terry who founded the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualism and George Stow in the circle of Dr Motherwell who had “the chief assembly of the kind in Australia”. Deakin himself became a successful medium and met his wife Pattie Browne after he became her class teacher at the Melbourne Progressive Lyceum or spiritualists’ Sunday School. Pattie’s father was prominent in spiritualist circles.

In these more sectarian times, Deakin disliked Catholics for their loyalty to Rome and for their “superstitions”. This is ironic given the detail Brett offers of Deakin’s reliance on séances and the “shades” who appeared, his consultations with the “sybils” and his regular visits to spiritualists for guidance. This continued throughout his life reflecting his uncertainties and making him seem at many crucial moments a man who was hard to read, even unreliable.

But Deakin had what most successful public leaders develop – a gift for oratory and a love of public speaking. And he could speak at length – his speech in the House of Representatives in 1902 introducing the Judiciary Bill to create the High Court went for three and a half hours; in October 1904 he made a four and a half hour speech justifying his actions at a time of differences with George Reid whose government Deakin’s Liberal Protectionists were supporting. He was also a good negotiator and excelled at the most difficult moments in the meetings leading up to federation.

Deakin’s oratory marked him out as early as 1887, aged 30, when he attended the Colonial Conference in a first visit to England. Brett writes, “Britain’s political leaders were captivated by his charm and his gifted oratory and astonished by his audacity”.

As to Deakin’s penchant for politics, Brett sees him as becoming a politician “almost by accident” and, while appearing to find the commitments of politics wearing and his own desires more suited to a quiet literary life, politics “provided the young Deakin with drama, excitement and a great deal of attention from important older men”.

By 1905, when he realised the burdens of political leadership were weighing on him too heavily and considered becoming a religious preacher, he was in too deep. His wife and family were accustomed to a comfortable life – as was he. Preaching did not offer the sort of financial compensation he required. So, he remained at the helm of the Victorian Liberals, stayed with the law and continued to write regular pieces for the UK’s Morning Post as the anonymous “Australian correspondent”. This was no Bob Menzies, a lawyer committed to organised non-Labor party politics from his days at university.

Deakin fell into politics, Brett writes, as he was “whiling away his days in his chambers off Collins Street writing a treatise on the History, Philosophy and Principles of Poetry”. Influenced by his favourite university lecturer Charles Pearson – a Liberal of the day – who won the seat of Castlemaine in 1878, Deakin soon after also came under the direction of David Syme, editor of The Age and a firm believer in protection as a progressive policy to ensure the jobs of Victoria’s working class, swelling from the gold rush expansion into fledgling manufacturing industries. Syme not only taught the young Deakin to write without flaccid prose (“flights of fancy” and “excesses”), but also converted him to a left liberal view of politics. Syme was strong in his convictions and used The Age to shape public opinion.

Working with Syme, Deakin learnt about politics and became Syme’s “special protégé”, invited for weekends to Syme’s country house at Mount Macedon and a regular guest at Syme’s Melbourne residence. It was Syme who facilitated Deakin’s entry into Victorian politics but it was also Syme who converted Deakin to a “progressive” basket of policies. In federal politics, Deakin’s Liberals, who were nothing more than a loose collection of like minded gentlemen, would prop up a Labor government. This was not the Liberal Party or even the United Australia Party of Bob Menzies.

Brett’s misunderstanding is to evaluate Deakin’s “progressive” support for protection, secularism and a better deal for the working man as a “middle ground” and thus in the Menzies mould. But this was not what Menzies and his non-Labor side of politics ever represented in their sense of “middle”. Menzies, in his articulation of what his party stood for, championed the self-supporting professional and small entrepreneur who, to Menzies, were being fleeced by big brother Labor with its union dominated left leaning politics draining the individualism of those who made their own way.

In an age where fledgling Labor and the likes of Joe Lyons, then an aspiring Tasmanian Labor Party member, were arguing the rights of labour against capitalism, the progressive platform Deakin signed up to had far more in common with Labor ideals than the conservative side of politics. He supported the amendment of the 1873 Factories Act and in 1884 he introduced a bill to legalise trade unions. Deakin’s Liberals were really just a more fashionable force for much that Labor was seeking. George Reid and his NSW free traders, whom Deakin was forced to align with against a strengthening Labor, were never a natural fit. To Deakin, the personally indulgent Reid, albeit a John Stuart Mill liberal in his philosophical bent, represented the capitalism Deakin despised.

Deakin’s rhetoric at times could rival Labor’s in its condemnation of wealth – he hoped to wake up the middle classes not for their own deserved material gain (a la Menzies) but for a public conscience that the working class needed an easing of their burdens: “Let them see that the clothes they wore and the bread they ate did not come to them stained with the blood from the martyrdom of the toiling masses”. It was the best of noblesse oblige from a leader who went home each day to his South Yarra mansion. In a contemporary political world, Deakin was not unlike a South Yarra Greens voter.

Undeniably, Alfred Deakin’s greatest contribution to Australia was his part in the movement to federate the Australian states – or colonies as they were then. As talks for federating the Australian colonies gained pace in the mid 1890s, and as the dark financial days following the banking collapse took hold, Deakin showed less and less interest in Victorian politics – in spite of the Victorian Liberals winning a majority to govern in the 1894 election. Deakin refused a portfolio. Increasingly his only interest was federation. Some thought he did not want to give away his by now lucrative law practice; others believed he was not interested in governing in a crisis. Brett’s account of Deakin’s influence and practical facilitation of the many differences among colonial interests as the constitution was developed and ratified by Britain is well told – the personality of the enigmatic Alfred Deakin adding zest to the tale.

It is hard to imagine Alfred Deakin as part of any Robert Menzies political party. Brought back to a political stage more than half a century on, Deakin might resemble a Gough Whitlam or Gareth Evans. Professionally educated and part of the middle class but seeking a conscience driven progressive policy for the ordinary citizen.

In reality, the Liberal Party of Australia was forged from the merging of nationalist and financially responsible sentiment, much of it moulded in the days of Billy Hughes and Joe Lyons, and brought eventually to an articulated and structural form in 1944 by the remnants of that under the leadership of Bob Menzies. It’s time, really, to leave Alfred Deakin to his own, very enigmatic place in pre-World War I Australia.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History