Wily statesman all but forgotten
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