DEAKIN, Alfred (1856-1919)

DEAKIN, Alfred (1856-1919)
was born at Fitzroy, a suburb of Melbourne, on 3 August 1856, the only son of William Deakin, accountant, and his wife Sarah Bill, daughter of a Shropshire farmer. William Deakin was born in Northamptonshire in 1819, and came to Australia immediately after his marriage in 1849. At Adelaide his only daughter, Catherine Sarah, was born in 1850, and not long afterwards the gold-rush took the family to Victoria. He was for a time a partner in a coaching business, and afterwards for many years an accountant in the well-known firm of Cobb and Co. His son described him as "hard working and thrifty, though inclined to lose his savings in mining and other ventures". He was able to give his family a comfortable home and his children a good education. He was sensitive and retiring, honourable in all his dealings, a wide reader, had an excellent flow of good English, and was a ready controversialist. His wife was a beautiful woman who had in the words of her son the domestic virtues in perfection. "Wherever she was, she in herself was a home where taste, order, cleanliness, comfort, discipline and quiet reigned.... She was neither sentimental, devotional, volatile nor frivolous, her chief characteristics being composure and quiet observation." In this gracious atmosphere Alfred Deakin was born and spent his childhood.
In 1864 Deakin was sent to the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, then under the head-mastership of Dr Bromby (q.v.), and remained there until 1871. He did not attain to any special distinction either in sport, though he took part in the games of the school, or in his studies. In the earlier years he spent too much time in dreaming and miscellaneous reading to have a good class record, but in the upper school, coming under the influences of the headmaster and one of the assistant masters, John Hennings Thompson, he did better. He passed the matriculation examination of the university of Melbourne in 1871 obtaining honours in algebra, geometry and history. He had grown into a tall, slender, alert and decidedly handsome boy, still reading insatiably, but not suggesting to his schoolmasters that he was marked for future distinction. In 1872 he entered on his law course at Melbourne university and was admitted to the bar in September 1877. In the intervening years, not wishing to be too great a burden to his father, he taught at schools, was a private tutor, and acted as bookkeeper and representative of his father in a printing establishment; his father had been persuaded to put £2000 into a languishing business. The money was eventually lost, but the experience of the commercial world gained by Deakin must have been very valuable to him. All the time the young man was reading everything that came in his way. In his childhood he had fallen under the spell of the narrative writings of Bunyan, Defoe and Swift, in young manhood Carlyle became his prophet and influenced his whole life. He read French in the original, the great German and classic writers in translation, and found time to do an immense amount of writing himself, both in prose and verse. Most of this he afterwards wisely burned; he found he had written too easily for his work to have any value. One little volume was printed in 1875, Quentin Massys: A Drama in Five Acts. This is mostly in blank verse and is quite a creditable piece of work for a boy of 18. It has been most successfully suppressed and very few copies are in existence, of which one is at the Mitchell library, Sydney, and another at the public library, Melbourne. How he succeeded in also passing his examinations at the university can only be accounted for by the facts that he had a mind which quickly grasped essentials, and a wonderful memory. He was always interested in systems of philosophy and religion. As a boy of 18 he joined, in a spirit of inquiry, a spiritualistic circle that met at the house of a Melbourne medical man, Dr Motherwell. He became much interested and wrote and published in 1877 A New Pilgrim's Progress, purporting to be given by John Bunyan through an Impressional Writing Medium. He had written it so easily that a youth of his age might be forgiven for thinking some unseen force had inspired him. In later years Deakin himself could find no trace of inspiration in this book, nor indeed, any resemblance to the style of Bunyan. He retained his interest in the unseen, but soon abandoned any illusion he may have had about possessing mediumistic powers.
Deakin began his career as a barrister in February 1878, and had as little success in obtaining briefs as most Young barristers in their first year. He became acquainted with George Syme the editor of the Leader, who introduced him to his great brother David (q.v.) editor of the Age. Deakin was anxious to write for the press and served a severe apprenticeship under George Syme, but David Syme soon came to the conclusion that the young writer must be given more liberty. For the next five years Deakin did a large amount of varied journalistic work for both papers, and became very friendly with David Syme. In January 1879, when he was only 22, it was suggested that he should stand for Parliament in the Liberal interest. Feeling at this time ran very high, and a professional man allying himself with the so-called radical tendencies of the day risked not only social ostracism but professional ruin, and it was not easy to get suitable candidates. Deakin was quite inexperienced but full of energy, with all the arguments of his opponents quite familiar to him. He had been brought up in a conservative household, but contact with the fine minds of Pearson (q.v.), George Higinbotham (q.v.) and Syme had widened his outlook. Laissez-faire meant mere negation to him. It was felt that the legislative council had been a barrier to progress and must be reformed, protection must be brought in to encourage manufactures, there must be a land tax to break up the big estates. With less than a fortnight before the election Deakin fought a whirlwind campaign and beat an experienced opponent by 97 votes. But unfortunately at one polling booth the supply of ballot papers ran out before the end of polling day, and a small number of people was disfranchised. Deakin felt he could not hold the seat in such circumstances, and resigned it immediately parliament met. It created a great sensation and he was much praised, but at the re-election his opponents fought hard and succeeded in defeating him by 15 votes. In February 1880 there was another general election and though Deakin polled more votes than before he was again defeated. His party went into opposition and the new premier James Service (q.v.) prepared a reform bill. It was considered unsatisfactory, a public meeting was held in a Melbourne theatre by the opponents of the bill, and Deakin was the first of the speakers. It was a very large audience and he was exceedingly nervous, but the young orator had a triumph. It was realized that a new leader of the people had appeared. The bill was defeated, there was a fresh election, and on 14 July 1880 Deakin was elected head of the poll for West Bourke. He was still under 24 years of age, and the day before he reached that age the new premier (Sir) Graham Berry (q.v.) offered him the post of attorney-general in his ministry. It is true Berry was having difficulties in forming a ministry, but it was a great tribute to so inexperienced a politician that he should have made the offer. Deakin declined the position feeling that he was not yet fit for it. He became a private member and did not come into notice again until June 1881, when the perennial quarrel between the two houses reached another crisis. A reform bill had passed the assembly and had been sent to the other chamber where it was much amended. A caucus meeting was held and it was decided to abandon the bill. Deakin felt, however, that if a conference were held between the two houses the council might make concessions and a useful act might be the result. He announced he would not be bound by the caucus, and there was a storm which threatened to engulf him. It was a courageous stand, for his employer Syme was against him, but eventually the conference was held, concessions were made, and for many years there was reasonable harmony between the two houses. Deakin was still working as a journalist and though not yet very prominent in parliament was steadily learning to be a statesman. In 1881 he became engaged to Martha Elizabeth (generally known as "Pattie") Browne, daughter of a well-to-do Melbourne merchant. Both were young, but in spite of some opposition they were married in April 1882. He was to go through many anxieties, the bonds of newspaper writing and party politics can be very trying to an honest man who is also an idealist, but in his wife he found a worthy help-mate for the remainder of his days.
In 1883 the Service-Berry coalition government was formed, and Deakin accepted office as commissioner of public works and minister of water supply. To these offices he added that of solicitor-general, but found he had too much to do and resigned the portfolio of minister of water supply. Probably his connexion with this department led to his interest in irrigation, for he was a sound and painstaking minister, anxious to know all about his departments. There had been much suffering from drought years, and a royal commission was appointed with Deakin as president. In December 1884 he went to America to see what was being done there. He returned in May 1885 and presented his report, Irrigation in Western America, in June. This report was a remarkable piece of accurate observation, and was immediately reprinted by the United States government. In 1886 he again became minister of water supply and succeeded in passing his irrigation bill. It was the beginning of a great movement in Australia, which it may not be too much to say has proved to be the salvation of the country. Deakin retained his interest in the subject for many years, publishing in 1887 his Irrigation in Italy and Egypt, and in 1893 Irrigated India.
Irrigation had not been Deakin's only interest. In 1885 he had been responsible for the first Victorian factory act. The bill was much amended by the legislative council and in its final form must have been a great disappointment to him. But a foundation had been laid on which to build later on. What constituted a factory was defined, hours were regulated, and there were regulations dealing with child labour. Later acts have included many of the things fought for unsuccessfully in 1885, and in another factory bill he introduced in 1893. It took long to convince the conservative upper house of those days that the conditions of employees could be improved without ruining the country then apparently so prosperous. The Gillies (q.v.)-Deakin ministry which had succeeded the Service-Berry coalition swam on the tide of prosperity, and there was a general feeling of confidence in the air.
In 1887 Deakin made his first visit to England, being one of the four representatives of Victoria at the colonial conference. His colleagues were Service, Berry and James Lorimer. He made his mark at once. Salisbury, the British prime minister, had confined himself to generalities in his opening speech, and the delegates from the various colonies who spoke before Deakin, also appear to have kept largely to polite generalities. Deakin took a much bolder tone and spoke of the difficulties the colonies had in dealing with the British ministry, and instanced the dispatches relating to New Guinea and the New Hebrides. His criticism was not resented, indeed within a few days he was offered and declined the honour of K.C.M.G. At private meetings subsequently held he fought Salisbury on equal terms; his courtesy was remarkable, but that did not prevent him from speaking plainly when the occasion demanded it. He made a great impression in London, and if the conference did nothing else it brought home to the delegates of various Australian colonies the advantages that would accrue if they could speak with one voice. But federation was still a long way off.
In the year 1888 everything seemed prosperous in Victoria and the government like everyone else spent money extravagantly. Deakin in this respect was no wiser than his fellows, and there appears to be no evidence that he ever raised his voice against this extravagance. Gillies the premier was considered to be a shrewd hard-headed financier, and probably Deakin felt that it was his business to look after his own department and trust his colleagues. In 1889 the land boom began to break though the seriousness of the position was not realized for some time. In November 1890 the government was defeated, James Munro (q.v.) became premier, and Deakin was not in office in a Victorian government again. The federation of the Australian colonies had long been his dream. If it could become more than a dream there was work to be done, and much of his time during the next 10 years was given to this cause. During the bank crisis of 1893 he suffered heavy financial losses and he found it necessary to build up a practice as a barrister. He had scarcely the type of mind that makes a great barrister, but he was persevering and conscientious in his work, and succeeded in making a good income. He still kept his interest in social legislation, his factory act of 1893 has been already referred to, but all the time the question of federation was in his mind, and at the conference of 1890 and the conventions of 1891, 1897 and 1898 he was a leading figure. To him often fell the task of reconciling differences, and of finding ways out of apparently impossible difficulties. But this was not all—he travelled through the country addressing public meetings, and it may truly be said that he was responsible for the large majority in Victoria at each referendum. There was great doubt as to whether a majority could be obtained in New South Wales and again Deakin had to smooth out the innumerable difficulties that were raised. At last only one obstacle remained, Joseph Chamberlain the colonial secretary thought it would be necessary to amend the Commonwealth bill before submitting it to the house of commons. He asked that representatives of the colonies concerned should be sent to London to confer with him, and Deakin was selected to represent Victoria. The other leading delegates were Barton (q.v.) and Kingston (q.v.). The three were determined to consent to no amendments, and Chamberlain said the bill must be amended. The real difficulty was clause 74 relating to the high court, which was thought to go too close to cutting the painter. It was a long struggle but eventually a compromise was found, and it was decided that appeals from the high court should be by consent of the high court itself. The Australian representatives were greatly pleased that they had been able to get the act passed with so little amendment.
In November 1900 Deakin was elected for Ballarat in the Commonwealth house of representatives, and held the seat until he retired about 12 years later. It had been thought that Barton would be the first prime minister, but to everyone's surprise Sir William Lyne (q.v.), then premier of New South Wales, was sent for, and Lyne offered a seat in his cabinet to Deakin. Had he accepted it is probable that Lyne would have succeeded in forming a ministry, but Deakin felt that in loyalty to Barton he could not do so. Barton became prime minister and Deakin attorney-general in his cabinet. There was much to be done and there were few precedents. The position was not easy for there were three parties in the house, and in the ministry itself five former state premiers. In 1903 the high court was constituted and Barton became one of the first three judges. The ministry was re-constructed, Deakin became prime minister and took up a very difficult task. Reid (q.v.) was leader of the free-trade group and J. C. Watson (q.v.) led the Labour party. Deakin was really more in sympathy with Labour aims than Reid, and for a time progress was made with Labour party support, though Labour members said that he gave them nothing in return. But it was not the time for petty bargains between sections of the house. The first task had been the working out of the machinery of the new government. Next, a broad fiscal policy had to be agreed upon. Unfortunately the election of December 1903 did not improve matters. When this parliament met Deakin, possibly by design, courted failure by bringing in an arbitration bill which did not meet with the approval of the Labour party. He was defeated and Watson as leader of that party became the new prime minister. With parties as they were this government might not have lasted a week, but Deakin insisted that it should be given an opportunity of governing. Watson brought in another arbitration bill which was defeated on the preference to unionists issue, and Reid formed a coalition government which included three of Deakin's followers. Their leader had already stated that whatever government might be formed he would not take office. His support to the new government was based on a memorandum signed by Reid and himself, agreeing that there should be a fiscal truce until May 1906, but Reid was to declare his policy by then. With a bare majority of two Reid kept his ministry going until the recess which ended in June 1905. On 24 June Deakin made a speech at Ballarat which the Age next morning reported under the title "Notice to Quit". All the members of the cabinet agreed in this interpretation, the policy speech which had been prepared was abandoned, and the speech from the throne simply proposed electoral business. By many people Deakin's action is considered to be the one blot on his career, but the statement of one of his biographers that "dislike of Reid and anxiety lest a truce should prove harmful to protection induced him to break his compact" scarcely covers the whole ground. Reid in his Reminiscences admits that when the house met "Deakin disclaimed any hostile intention", and in an eloquent speech said he had no intention to upset the ministry. Allan McLean (q.v.) in his speech claimed that the ministry had not departed "a hair's breadth from the understanding which had been entered into" . . . and that "the prime minister has never upon any occasion sought to take advantage of the fact that free traders predominated among the government supporters". Walter Murdoch in Alfred Deakin: a Sketch devotes six pages to a defence of Deakin's action, and possibly tries to prove too much. It is not unlikely that the much worried Deakin in his Ballarat speech, meaning only to issue a general warning, suggested a little more than he had intended. When the Age took it up the whole matter got out of hand.
Deakin formed a new administration from his own supporters who were the smallest of the three groups in parliament. He had the general support of the Labour party. Progress was slow, but among the acts passed were the "contract immigrants act", a "trades mark act", one to constitute British New Guinea a territory, and the "Australian industries act". At the 1906 election his preservation party came back reduced in numbers but Deakin still carried on, and early in 1907 went to London to attend the Imperial conference. Here he worked with consuming energy, and following on the anxieties of the previous six years it shattered him. Contrary to Deakin's wishes the conference met in private, he had to arrange public meetings to bring his views before the people, and he spoke untiringly. He had great popular success as a speaker, but he was more than a popular speaker, he greatly impressed some of the finest minds of the time.
Deakin came back to Australia a weary man and carried on his difficult task. It was not made more easy by the resignation of Sir John Forrest (q.v.) who had been his treasurer. There was an immensely long debate on the tariff bill, the session lasted from July 1907 to June 1908, and the strain on the leader must have been great. Among other acts passed was one authorizing the survey of a route for the transcontinental railway. In November 1908 Andrew Fisher (q.v.) the new leader of the Labour party withdrew his support, and the first Fisher ministry came in and lasted seven months. Reid had resigned the leadership of the opposition and had been succeeded by Joseph Cook. In June 1909 Deakin and Cook joined forces, the Labour government was defeated, and the so-called fusion government came into being with Deakin as prime minister. The first session was a stormy one and Deakin was bitterly attacked by his former follower Sir Wm Lyne, and by W. M. Hughes on the Labour side of the house. The bitterness extended from parliament to the next election, and Deakin was actually refused a hearing at more than one meeting. Labour scored an unexpected victory, and in April 1910 for the first time took office with a clear majority in both houses. Deakin had succeeded in passing an invalid and old age pensions act, the question of the federal capital site had at last been settled, and the beginning of an Australian navy had been built. His defence bill was to be adopted in its essentials by a later ministry. He remained a private member until 1913 when he retired. He had for some years felt that his powers were failing. His last effective battle was the campaign before the referendum of 1911. The Labour party asked for two amendments of the constitution. One would have given the federal government full power over trade, commerce and industry, the second was relating to the nationalization of monopolies, and it might have been expected, in view of the Labour vote in 1910, that they would have succeeded in their objects. Deakin travelled many thousand miles and addressed many meetings, and partly as a result of his efforts the proposals were defeated. In 1912 he found difficulty in keeping his mind clear, and his wonderful flow of words began to fail. In 1913 he retired from parliament and sought shelter in his home. A friend, A. D. Strachan, had left him a legacy sufficient to free him from money worries. At the beginning of the war he accepted the position of chairman of the royal commission on food supplies and on trade and industry during the war, but found it almost impossible to carry out his work. In 1915 he represented Australia at the Panama-Pacific exposition held at San Francisco, and was thankful to get through his duties without disaster. After that he lived quietly at home, quite conscious of his failing powers, and died on 7 October 1919.
In addition to the volumes already mentioned Deakin published in 1893 Temple and Tomb in India, a collection of excellent newspaper articles, and some of his speeches and reports were published as pamphlets. An enormous amount of writing was unpublished at the time of his death. His The Federal Story, which appeared in 1944 [sic], has vivid portraits of many of his political contemporaries.
Deakin was a great Australian and a great man. He began as a dreamer, he was always an idealist, yet he realized that he was in a world of men who had to be lived with. His greatness as a statesman had been questioned because he so often had to make alliances with men with whom he must have been out of sympathy, and to make compromises when there should have been no compromise. But it has not been fully realized how often his policy was adopted by his associates, and how often by accepting a part it was made possible that the whole might eventually be obtained. His political career began in a period of bitterness, and the last 10 years in federal politics with its intriguing and plotting must have irked his very soul. Yet his wisdom was always shaping the policy of parliament. He was a great orator. He never wanted a word, he had always the right word, and behind all was a fine mind, a wealth of reading, a great grasp of essentials. Sometimes he spoke so fast that he became the despair of reporters, and ordinary minds had difficulty in keeping pace with him. Even then his exuberant enthusiasm and his passion for the right would stir men to such an extent that the success of the movement he was advocating became certain. His unselfishness and patriotism made him a model for all his countrymen.
His widow, born in 1863, survived until December 1934 and continued to take an interest in all social movements. She was the first president of the free kindergarten union of Victoria and held many other offices. The eldest daughter, Ivy Deakin, married Herbert Brooks, B.C.E., the second daughter, Stella Deakin, M.Sc., married Sir David Rivett, K.C.M.G., M.A., D.Sc., and the third daughter, Vera Deakin, O.B.E., married Lieutenant-colonel the Hon. T. W. White, D.F.C., M.P. There were children of each marriage. A bust of Deakin by C. Web Gilbert is at state parliament house, Melbourne.
Walter Murdoch, Alfred Deakin: A Sketch; A. Jose, Builders and Pioneers of Australia; Sir George Reid, My Reminiscences; Henry L. Hall, Victoria's Part in the Australian Federation Movement; Henry Gyles Turner, First Decade of the Australian Commonwealth; Quick and Garran, Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth; J. A. Alexander, The Life of George Chaffey; The Argus, Melbourne, 8 October 1919; The Age, Melbourne, 8 October 1919; Alfred Deakin, The Federal Story.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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  • Deakin, Alfred — ▪ prime minister of Australia born Aug. 3, 1856, Melbourne, Vic., Australia died Oct. 7, 1919, Melbourne  prime minister of Australia (1903–04, 1905–08, 1909–10), who shaped many of the policies of the new commonwealth, especially those dealing… …   Universalium

  • Deakin — /ˈdikən/ (say deekuhn) noun Alfred, 1856–1919, Australian Liberal politician; prime minister 1903–04, 1905–08 and 1909–10. Born in Melbourne, Alfred Deakin became a barrister and journalist before being elected to the Victorian Legislative… …  

  • Deakin — /dee kin/, n. Alfred, 1856 1919, Australian statesman: prime minister 1903 04; 1905 08; 1909 10. * * * …   Universalium

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