The Deakin Puzzle

1 December 2017
The Deakin Puzzle - Featured image

When Alfred Deakin quit politics in early January 1913, the initial press assessments of his contribution to public life were not particularly effusive. This even applied to The Age, the newspaper that had done so much to promote Deakin’s career. His hometown newspaper acknowledged his earlier achievements, but had not forgiven him for taking his Protectionist Party into ‘Fusion’ with traditional foes, the Free Traders, in 1909. The merger of the two parties had also not appealed to many members of the Australian public, as at the 1910 election the Labor Party won an outright majority for the first time, bringing to an end Deakin’s third spell as Prime Minister. Thus Deakin ended his career as an Opposition Leader, with electoral defeat fresh in critics’ minds.

It did not take long for a much more positive interpretation of Deakin and his legacy to take hold, an interpretation which went on to dominate the history books of the twentieth century. Mostly these works were authored by those who liked the ameliorative brand of liberalism which Deakin had preached, often when their own politics were further to the left than his.

In recent decades, free-market critiques of Deakin’s philosophy and policies became more prominent, but few have argued against his significance. The inward-looking, protectionist Australia that had been put in place in the first decade after Federation and was not finally dismantled until the 1980s has most commonly been called the Australian Settlement, but the fact that it is sometimes referred to as the Deakinite Settlement highlights how much it has been seen as Deakin’s personal creation.

Given the ongoing recognition of Deakin’s influence in both delivering Federation and then establishing its form, it is somewhat surprising that political scientist Judith Brett’s new study of his life, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, is the first full Deakin biography since John La Nauze’s twin volumes in the mid-1960s. It is not as if Deakin is not an appealing subject for a biographer, with copious source material not only in relation to his political career but also his personal, intellectual and spiritual life. And few biographical subjects provide such an intriguing source as Deakin’s anonymous columns in London’s The Morning Post and National Review, cataloguing events in Australian politics and reflecting on his own actions in the third person. Brett has made adroit use of all this material to produce a very readable account full of fresh insights.

Deakin spent almost his entire adult life in politics, contesting a seat in the Victorian colonial parliament when still in his early twenties and after his retirement he only lived for a further six years, in rapidly declining health. His political outlook was shaped by the proprietor of The Age, David Syme, described by Brett as ‘the colony’s one-man political think tank’, who was the major influence in converting Deakin from mild support for free-trade, to staunch protectionism.

Yet, it would be a mistake to see Deakin as a purely political animal. In fact, his career is notable for his constant ambivalence, whether about taking leadership positions, or even continuing in politics at all. Of one of these periods of doubt, Brett observes that Deakin was ‘going through another periodic crisis of his political vocation’.

This doubt about the suitability of politics as his ideal career was not really because Deakin felt any inadequacy about his capacity to fulfil the role, but rather he worried that whatever he could achieve in politics might not be of sufficient significance. The pursuit of Federation had the potential to satisfy that need, but the daily grind of political life, of debate about the exact figures in the tariff schedule and the like, held less appeal. Deakin’s first biographer, Walter Murdoch, suggested that Deakin may have been better suited to a literary life, but it is important to recognise that Deakin was a skilful politician, often managing to leverage the maximum possible advantage for his party out of some not particularly promising ingredients.

Deakin’s literary bent has undoubtedly magnified his appeal to subsequent generations of writers. Brett is no exception. However, after some early touches of hyperbole, such as when she suggests that by Deakin’s early twenties ‘he was as well and widely read as any young man of his age in the Englishspeaking world’, Brett settles down to a sympathetic, but quite balanced, telling of the Deakin story, which recognises flaws in both his public and private lives.

An obvious political flaw, becoming more common in Deakin’s time in politics, was to introduce race into legislation. As Chief Secretary in the Victorian government in the 1880s, it was Deakin’s amendments to the Aboriginal Protection Act which Brett argues introduced ‘the first piece of Australian legislation to use race as its operative criterion’.

In contrast to some other historians who have exonerated Deakin from any blame for being a director of four companies which collapsed during the 1890s Depression, Brett is a tougher judge, finding cause for concern in several aspects of his behavior through this period. As well as detailing many positive aspects of Deakin’s personal relationships, she also relates some occasions when Deakin showed a striking degree of insensitivity to his wife Pattie. In 1885, he left her, with their baby daughter, to fend for herself in a Los Angeles boarding house for five weeks, while he travelled extensively around other parts of the United States.

Deakin had a particular blind spot when it came to his great rival, the leader of the Free Trade Party, George Reid, with Brett observing that Deakin’s description of Reid was a ‘grotesque caricature’ of the reality. The animosity Deakin felt towards Reid was a factor in delaying the realignment of the three parties of the first decade after Federation, three parties famously described by Deakin as akin to having three elevens on a cricket field.

As Deakin entered adulthood in the 1870s, it had been easy for him to place himself on what he saw as the progressive side of politics, with any opposition in his mind from conservative obstructionists. However, the rise of the political wing of the labour movement created a new situation. On most policy matters, Deakin and his Protectionists had significant agreement with Labor, but where they differed was on the approach to politics, in particular the caucus system binding Labor MPs to collective decisions by the party. This was magnified in the case of Deakin as he saw the Labor Party’s focus on the material self-interest of a particular class as taking political life away from the higher spiritual place where it should reside.


Deakin continued to see himself as a liberal, with conservative Free Traders to the right and the Labor Party to the left, and that paradigm has been one that most historians have accepted. Brett acknowledges that ‘many free traders who regarded themselves as Liberals were pushed to the right by the popularity of protection and labeled pejoratively as Conservatives by protectionist Liberals’, but she still largely accepts that this was reasonable treatment.

Just how misplaced the conventional description of Australia’s Federation-era political parties has been is highlighted by Brett’s own account of Deakin’s trip as Prime Minister to the 1907 Imperial Conference. Deakin went to London as an advocate of imperial preference in trade policy. Imperial preference had been taken up by Joseph Chamberlain in the previous Conservative Unionist Government in Britain, which had then lost the 1906 general election in large part because of its stance on this issue. The new Liberal government was committed to free trade, still maintaining its link with cheap food which had been established by the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

Brett comments that by campaigning for imperial preference Deakin was ‘effectively taking sides in a contentious domestic issue’. His speeches on the topic were given extensive coverage in conservative British newspapers and helped boost the morale of the Unionist party. In fact, so impressed were some Tory imperialists with Deakin’s ability to promote their policy prescriptions that they approached him with the suggestion that he might move to British politics, even holding out the prospect that he might become their party leader.

Brett analyses whether Deakin seriously considered the offer, but does not make any comment on what must surely seem extraordinary to those who have always espoused the standard paradigm of Deakin and the Protectionists being liberals and Free Traders being conservatives. In British terms, Deakin’s protectionism and imperialism ruled him out from the Liberal Party, but made him appealing to the Tories.

The fact that Deakin could be seen in such a different guise in Britain is one of many reasons why The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is an appropriate title for Brett’s excellent biography. Her work goes some way towards deciphering aspects of that enigma, but I doubt it will be the last word on her awed, but fascinating, subject.

Support the IPA

If you liked what you read, consider supporting the IPA. We are entirely funded by individual supporters like you. You can become an IPA member and/or make a tax-deductible donation.