Alfred Deakin

1856 - 1919    |    VIC    |    Journalist

Australia's three-time Prime Minister was a fine journalist at The Age from 1879 before his political career took off. He was one of the few close friends of David Syme, who moulded Deakin's political thinking in ways that were reflected during Deakin's terms as Prime Minister. Deakin helped persuade a sceptical Syme to support Federation, an important step towards public acceptance. Deakin's gift for words was reflected in his outstanding oratory. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Deakin's journalism career was that for 11 years he was secretly writing Australian political commentary for the London Morning Post under a pseudonym, including while he was Prime Minister.

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Alfred Deakin


Alfred Deakin was born in Melbourne in 1856, the only son of a Cobb & Co clerk William Deakin and his wife Sarah. He was educated at Melbourne Grammar by its inspirational founding headmaster Dr Bromby. He then went to the University of Melbourne to study law.

From his youth he was a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and powerful sense of the romantic. He was branded a dreamer and was not particularly scholastically accomplished. Writing, reading and talking were his major passions.

He was very complex. While he was outwardly affable and renowned for being such, he led his own more remote intellectual life. He became an accomplished debater and developed a verbal fluency and oratorical skills that drew on his reading, making him a potent and convincing advocate.

After being admitted to the bar he came under the influence of David Syme of The Age and started contributing articles. Syme used the papers to push his causes. Syme was a colonial liberal in a city that was riding the gold rush boom. The colony was prepared to adopt quite radical social causes at the time – notably factory acts to prevent sweated labour, high quality secular public education because of its capacity to emancipate and liberal reforms to the system of government broadening the franchise.

Deakin became swept up in politics and was put forward in a by-election for the Victoria Legislative Assembly at the age of 23. It was a critical by-election that he won but, because he felt there had been voting irregularities, he used his maiden speech to resign – much to the astonishment of the party bosses. He was back in parliament the next year. He was in the ministry and party leader at 29. He served in significant roles in various state administrations for much of the rest of the 1880s. He saw great merit in manufacturing and with Syme’s encouragement he too became a protectionist. As a liberal radical he was the scourge of the squattocracy and vilified by many big landowners and city Tories.

One particularly notable achievement during this time was his study of irrigation in the USA eventually causing the Chaffey brothers to come from California to set up the irrigation schemes centred on Mildura. Throughout this highly productive time he was continually writing. While in India he wrote a series of articles for The Age. He later published them as a book, Temple and Tomb in India. It is an elegant analysis of comparative religion on the sub-continent. Deakin was on a continual search for some kind of spiritual certainty or acquittal. He wrote and kept voluminous tomes of personal prayers. He also wrote but did not publish an encyclopaedic work on literature based on his reading in English, German and French.

His darkest days were in the 1890s when Melbourne suffered a major economic crash and he lost much of his father’s savings. For a while he withdrew from public life to work as a barrister to reinstate his father’s affairs. Simultaneously he adopted the cause of federation. He was a member of all the conventions of Colonial representatives that led to federation. Victoria was the strongest colony in favour of federation and Deakin was its most fervent and articulate champion. His role in the achievement of federation was in bringing about the complex compromises between the colonies and the egos of their leaders, and his skills as a journalist and as an orator were fully engaged in proselytising the federal movement. He helped convert a cause that was seen as “dead as Julius Caesar” in 1891 into a reality in 1901.

Deakin was on good terms with most of the key figures. His book The Federal Story – published posthumously – charts the vicissitudes and ultimate victory of federation with an effective, self-deprecating and occasionally sharp pen. Deakin travelled to London as one of the six colonial delegates to persuade the British government to support the federation bill. He fought a dramatic last-minute battle to ensure the Australian High Court not the Empire’s Privy Council would determine Australian constitutional cases. When the British insisted on the Privy Council Deakin led his fellow colonists on a campaign of speaking tours that ultimately caused the British to yield to a compromise.

He regarded himself as a proud native-born Australian who stood for Australian interest – he was distrustful of British security assurances and later, as Prime Minister, disregarding imperial (Churchill’s) objections forged direct relations with the US. He declined imperial honours and other blandishments. He supported Australian artists and writers and established a bush garden, not an English cottage garden at his weekend retreat at Point Lonsdale. He established the Commonwealth Literary Fund to support writers.

On the formation of the Commonwealth Deakin was appointed by Edmund Barton as the first Attorney General. In this role he had a further hand in the architecture of the fledgling commonwealth, most notably by steering through the parliament the legislation establishing the High Court. His second reading speech on the bill was a high point in the formative moments of the Australian federation.

In 1903 he succeeded Barton as Prime Minister. It was the first of three periods that Deakin would serve as Prime Minister. He only fleetingly led a party with a majority of seats. He ruled as leader of a minority government with support from the nascent Labor party or the Free Traders and Conservatives. His second and longest term as Prime Minster from 1905 to 1908 was incredibly productive – establishing the trans-Australian railway, the old age pension, entry to Antarctica, establishing the defence forces and fixing Canberra’s site, to name a few.

The ending of the three eleven’s (three parties) status of the House of Representatives occurred at Deakin’s hand. Deakin complained that the situation was akin to three elevens trying to play cricket in the same pitch. His response was to lead the Protectionist Party to fuse with the Free Traders to create the first Federal Liberal Party. Deakin took exception to the caucus system of binding ballots and the sectionalism of Labor ruling for the unions’ interests.

He lost the post-Fusion election in 1910. He stayed in Parliament until 1913 and retired, knowing that a form of dementia was progressively robbing him of his mind. He died in 1919 aged 63.

Deakin was a compulsive writer and dreamer. He wrote daily to his wife, twice daily whenever they were apart. Throughout most of his time in federal office he wrote anonymously as the Australian correspondent for The Morning Post in London. He frequently took issue with himself and used it as a means to critique his own thinking and decisions. He was a devoted family man in a female household – a wife who preferred social causes to society, three remarkable daughters and a blazingly bright elder sister. His youngest daughter, my grandmother, always complained about the representations of him as an austere bearded figure. She and the few I met who knew him were captivated by his warmth and intelligence and fired by his ambitions for Australia as a new country that could pick the best of the old world and leave the rest behind.

Tom Harley is a Melbourne businessman and a great grandson of Alfred Deakin. He is a vice president of the federal Liberal Party and chair of the party’s Menzies Research Centre. 


'Alfred Deakin for his daughter Vera Deakin White (Lady White)'. Courtesy State Library Victoria


Alfred Deakin by John Henry Chinner, 1910. Courtesy National Library of Australia


'Opening of the first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, May 9, 1901, by H. R. H. The Duke of Cornwall and York. Exhibition Buildings' (AKA The Big Picture) Tom Roberts, 1903. Public domain. 


Alfred Deakin, 1905. Courtesy State Library of Victoria


Further reading


'Deakin, Alfred (1856–1919)', R. Norris, Australian Dictionary of Biography


Alfred Deakin, J. A. La Nauze, Melbourne University Press, 1965. 


Alfred Deakin: A Sketch, Walter Murdoch, Constable, London, 1923.