Wily states­man all but for­got­ten

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Afew weeks ago I climbed a creak­ing stair­case and walked along the cor­ri­dor to the old ban­quet hall at the ma­jes­tic 19th-cen­tury Sham­rock Ho­tel in Bendigo, out­side Mel­bourne. To­day, it is a pop­u­lar spot for wed­ding re­cep­tions. But it was here in 1898 that Al­fred Deakin de­liv­ered a mes­meris­ing speech that gal­vanised na­tional pol­i­tics.

The Fed­er­a­tion cause was flag­ging. There was con­sid­er­able op­po­si­tion to the ap­proach­ing ref­er­en­dum to be held in four of the colonies, es­pe­cially Vic­to­ria and NSW. In NSW the jellystom­ached premier Ge­orge Reid was so con­fused on the pro­posed con­sti­tu­tion that he was dubbed “Yes/No Reid”.

Deakin, then a Vic­to­rian MP, was in­vited to ad­dress the an­nual con­fer­ence of the Aus­tralian Na­tives As­so­ci­a­tion. Prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal fig­ures cau­tioned de­lay on unit­ing the colonies. But Deakin pledged his full-throated sup­port for fed­er­a­tion with a speech that ap­pealed to the heart and head. “A fed­eral con­sti­tu­tion is the last and fi­nal prod­uct of po­lit­i­cal in­tel­lect and con­struc­tive in­ge­nu­ity,” he said. The classes may re­sist us; the masses may be in­ert; politi­cians may fal­ter; our lead­ers may sound the re­treat. But now is not a time to sur­ren­der. Let us nail our stan­dard to the mast. Let us stand shoul­der to shoul­der in de­fence of the en­light­ened lib­er­al­ism of the Con­sti­tu­tion.

This was “the supreme or­a­tor­i­cal feat of Deakin’s life’’, ar­gues his lat­est bi­og­ra­pher, Ju­dith Brett, in The Enigmatic Mr Deakin. De­liv­ered with­out notes to rap­tur­ous ap­plause as men jumped to their feet, the speech helped “cre­ate a new na­tion”. Much of Deakin’s rep­u­ta­tion is wrapped up in this speech. It ce­mented his stand­ing as an apos­tle for Fed­er­a­tion.

Deakin is one of Aus­tralia’s most im­por­tant and con­se­quen­tial po­lit­i­cal fig­ures. From 1879 to 1900 he was a colo­nial MP, and min­is­ter for much of that time. He was one of the fathers of Fed­er­a­tion, ply­ing the cause at home and abroad. And he served as prime min­is­ter three sep­a­rate times be­tween 1903 and 1910.

He was a lawyer and jour­nal­ist who also dab­bled in busi­ness, not all that suc­cess­fully. He was a mas­ter of par­lia­men­tary pro­ce­dure. He was a su­perb or­a­tor but rarely went for the jugu­lar: his nick­name was “Af­fa­ble Al­fred”. Brett writes that his “two great po­lit­i­cal gifts” were his or­a­tory and charm. A num­ber of times she de­scribes how hand­some he was: six feet “tall and strong” with “thick dark hair” and “mes­meric brown eyes”, and al­ways well groomed.

Brett dis­plays an acute un­der­stand­ing of the Al­fred Deakin de­serves ac­knowl­edg­ment as one of the pi­o­neers of the Aus­tralian na­tion, but many of his ideas have been dis­cred­ited in­tri­ca­cies of par­lia­ment and the po­lit­i­cal and pol­icy is­sues of Deakin’s time. She is equally dis­cern­ing in de­scrib­ing Deakin’s com­plex re­la­tion­ship with Pat­tie Browne, whom he mar­ried in 1882 when he was 25 and she was 19, and their three chil­dren. Deakin’s sis­ter Cather­ine was also a con­stant pres­ence that Brett cap­tures well. The Deakin fam­ily has been ex­plored in John Rickard’s A Fam­ily Ro­mance (1996).

Deakin was born in 1856. His dreamy and rest­less child­hood un­til fin­ish­ing school in 1871 is re­gret­tably dealt with in just 19 pages. Yet there are few sources other than Deakin’s own later-life un­happy me­mories to give read­ers a close ac­count of his early life.

Deakin’s fu­ture opened up in 1878 when he met David Syme, pub­lisher and edi­tor of The Age news­pa­per in Mel­bourne. This was a trans­for­ma­tive time for Vic­to­ria and for Deakin, who be­came po­lit­i­cally en­er­gised. It was Syme who shaped Deakin’s think­ing and en­cour­aged his en­try into pol­i­tics in 1879.

The third strand to Brett’s life of Deakin, af­ter pol­i­tics and fam­ily, is his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the oc­cult. Deakin be­lieved he could com­mu­ni­cate with spir­its. He par­tic­i­pated in seances, mes­merised peo­ple and wrote ex­ten­sively about spir­i­tu­al­ism. This in­ter­est in the para­nor­mal was not un­com­mon but Deakin was spell­bound by it more than most.

This has been the sub­ject of Al Gabay’s The Mys­tic Life of Al­fred Deakin (1992). Brett has again waded through the of­ten te­dious Deakin pa­pers to pull to­gether var­i­ous el­e­ments of this strange fix­a­tion. She ar­gues it was an in­ex­orable part of his quest for mean­ing in life and it re­in­forced his lib­er­al­ism. The in­tro­spec­tive Deakin, of­ten gripped by self-doubt, also dab­bled in var­i­ous re­li­gions and some­times thought about giv­ing up pol­i­tics for the pul­pit.

Brett has pre­vi­ously ar­gued that psy­cho­anal­y­sis should be part of the bi­og­ra­pher’s tool­kit. Thank­fully, she does not fall into the trap of psy­chob­a­b­ble. But she does ar­gue there was method in Deakin’s mad­ness that is some­how rea­soned. I was not en­tirely con­vinced. The “in­tense in­ner world” of Deakin is truly bizarre.

As prime min­is­ter (1903-04, 1905-08 and 1909-10), Deakin helped usher in “the Aus­tralian Set­tle­ment” that es­tab­lished the new

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