Alfred Deakin was a successful national public figure with a deeply reflective and intellectual inner life. In one of his many notebooks Deakin acknowledged ‘the aloofness brought about by study and musings…always seemed nearer the centre of my life than all else I did.’
Deakin was educated at Melbourne Grammar School and later studied law at the University of Melbourne. He was encouraged to enter politics by the proprietor of The Age newspaper David Syme, and in 1879 won the Victorian state seat of West Bourke. Deakin held a number of ministerial portfolios between 1883 and 1890 including a period as Premier. As Minister for Water Supply he travelled to India and America to study irrigation and was a driving force behind the Murray Irrigation Scheme. Deakin became a prominent figure in the constitutional conventions of 1891 and 1897-98. In 1900 Deakin, along with Barton, was part of the delegation to London that steered the Australian Colonies Government Bill through the British Parliament. Deakin was Attorney-General in the Barton government and succeeded Barton as prime minister. Deakin held office three times between 1903 and 1910, retiring from politics in 1913. Despite his enigmatic qualities, Deakin was one of the central players in shaping the early years of Commonwealth government and successfully merged the anti-Labor parties.
High Court meets
On 6 October 1903 the High Court meets for the first time. The first judges are Sir Samuel Griffith, Sir Edmund Barton and Richard O’Connor. In 1906 the bench is increased to five with the addition of Henry Bournes Higgins and Sir Isaac Isaacs.
The Commerce (Trade Descriptions) Act passed on 8 December 1905 provides the Commonwealth with power to enforce the descriptive labelling of goods and packaging being imported into the country or exported.
Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics
George Handley Knibbs is appointed as head of the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics on 18 June 1906, although the first census does not occur until 3 April 1911.
Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology
The Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology commences operation on 1 January 1908 and is headed by Henry Ambrose Hunt, a former fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society.
Fisheries Director appointed
Harald Dannevig, a fisheries scientist from Norway, is appointed as the first Commonwealth Director of Fisheries on 15 May 1908.
Invalid and Old Age Pensions Act
On 10 June 1908 the Invalid and Old Age Pensions Act is passed to provide for a national system of old age pensions, subject to a means test based on income and property.
Australian High Commissioner
Sir George Reid is appointed as Australia’s first High Commissioner to London after legislation is passed on 13 December 1909.
Deakin’s second period in office from 1905 to 1908 was one of relative stability due to Labor Party support. He was able to embark on establishing some fundamental legislation that extended Commonwealth control over areas previously under state authority. This parliamentary session was dominated by the issue of ‘New Protection’ where local manufacturers would be given a certain level of protection provided they gave their workers ‘fair and reasonable’ wages. The new Conciliation and Arbitration Court, in a case relating to the Sunshine Harvester Company, determined that a reasonable wage should maintain a ‘human being in a civilized community.’ Despite a successful High Court appeal against the decision, the ‘basic wage’ adjusted against cost of living was established. In 1908 the old age pension was introduced, the Seat of Government Bill finally passed and the American ‘Great White Fleet’ visited as part of Deakin’s campaign to pressure Great Britain on the creation of an Australian Navy. During Deakin’s third and final period as prime minister, and leading up to the election in 1910, the Defence Act introducing compulsory military training was passed.
Deakin’s ability to serve three terms as prime minister, against a backdrop of fluid party alliances, illustrated his skill as a political strategist and powerbroker. From the 1903 election until the ‘Fusion’ of Deakin’s Protectionist Party with the Free Trade Party in 1909 there had been what Deakin described as the equivalent of ‘three elevens’ on a cricket field. All three parties, Protectionist, Free Trade and Labor had near equal numbers and could not form a workable majority without creating an alliance. Throughout this period, Deakin governed with the support of Labor. This was not without tension, Treasurer Sir John Forrest resigned in 1907 after advocating a break with Labor. Deakin’s numbers were dwindling and in 1908 he lost office after Labor leader Andrew Fisher withdrew his support. In response to the growing strength of Labor, Deakin negotiated ‘Fusion’ with the Free Traders in 1909, providing him with the numbers to assume office for the final time. Deakin acknowledged the irony of the situation saying, ‘behind me sit the whole of my opponents since Federation’. His political opportunism was not well understood by many colleagues and the electorate contributing to his defeat at the 1910 election.
In May 1908 Deakin secured the approval of Parliament for the creation of the Australian Men of Letters Fund, later renamed The Commonwealth Literary Fund. The scheme provided modest pensions for aged or infirm authors, authors unable to continue working for financial reasons and support for the families of writers who had died in poverty. Deakin was a passionate and voracious reader, he reflected that ‘measuring happiness by quantity, its fullest source for me has come from books.’ He consumed on average 96 books a year, a rate of nearly two per week throughout his public life. His personal library at the time of his death consisted of 1500 books on subjects such as history, philosophy, biography, health, agriculture, poetry, literature and literary criticism. As a younger man, Deakin wrote poetry, dramas and prayers and, after meeting the proprietor of The Age newspaper in May 1878, began to write political editorials. Remarkably, as Deakin was about to become a minister, he accepted an offer to become the Sydney political correspondent for the London Morning Post newspaper. He continued as an anonymous correspondent for 13 years and, on occasion, was critical of himself as prime minister.
Deakin was a persuasive orator, described as being ‘silver-tongued’ and vividly reported in The Australian as someone who ‘can throw a halo of attraction around the orifice of Hades.’ Deakin needed to draw upon all his considerable skills as an orator in addressing a hostile crowd in Brunswick on 4 April 1910, towards the end of the federal election campaign. A large part of the crowd felt betrayed by Deakin because he had entered into an alliance with his former political enemies the Free Trade Party. The address to an audience of 6000 people, was held in what was described as ‘a large iron building, barn-like, rough, dimly lit – a nail factory once…’ Deakin, attempting to address the crowd, was greeted with shouts of ‘Judas, Australia’s traitor and loafer’ along with counting from one to ten that concluded with a cry of ‘out’. This was followed by a refrain of ‘We’ll hang old Deakin on a sour apple tree.’ Deakin was reported as ‘smiling and self-contained’ and, with a voice pushed to its limit said, ‘the decent electors of Australia would assess such conduct as was being witnessed that evening at its true value, and would express their opinion of it at the ballot box.’
Norman Abjorensen, The Manner Of Their Going: Prime Ministerial Exits from Lyne to Abbott, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2015
Al Gabay, The Mystic Life of Alfred Deakin, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1992
J.A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin: A Biography, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1979
Stuart Macintyre, Alfred Deakin, 24 September 1903 – 27 April 1904. 5 July 1905 – 13 November 1908, 2 June 1909 – 29 April 1910 in Michelle Grattan (ed.), Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland Publishers, Sydney, 2000
Walter Murdoch, Alfred Deakin: Prime Minister of Australia, Bookman Press, Melbourne, 1999
R. Norris, Deakin, Alfred (1849-1920) Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1988
John Rickard, A Family Romance: The Deakins at Home, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1996
The Age, Furious meeting at Brunswick – Prime Minister howled down – Bitter feeling and wild talk, 4 April, 1910
The Argus, Rowdyism at Brunswick – Prime Minister’s reception – ‘The Bear Cage’, 4 April, 1910
The Australian, Alfred Deakin. Orator and Statesman, 27 November, 1907