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Judith Brett, award-winning author, leading political thinker and Emeritus Professor of politics at La Trobe University, 28 February 2018

LUKE CUMMINS: Hello, and welcome to the National Museum of Australia for today’s lecture. My name is Luke Cummins, I’m part of Public Programs team here at the Museum, and it’s a real pleasure today to be able to welcome a leading political thinker, Judith Brett. Today, she’s going to explore the political achievements and inner spiritual life of former Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin. I’m sure a few people in the audience have heard of Alfred Deakin. One of my favourite facts about Alfred Deakin is in fact that, in 1908 – so 110 years ago – he actually chose Canberra for the site for the federal capital! So that’s a nice bit of local history there as well.

Today’s lecture is, of course, called the Enigmatic Mr Deakin lecture. And that’s actually the book that Judith has written about the topic, which will also be for sale at the end of the lecture, where Judith is going to a book-signing just outside of the shop. If you would like to get a little bit more detail about it all, head down to the shop. But, to introduce Judith –

She’s an Emeritus Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, and author of the award-winning Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, and Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class. Her latest book, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, explores the life of a charming, gifted, and complicated man, who championed the national interest over short-term political gain.

Today we’re going to have a 40-minute lecture, followed by some Q&A, so do think about what questions you’d like to ask as we go on. And, as I mentioned, it will be followed by a book-signing down in the hall. But, if you’d like to help me welcome Judith to the stage, I’ll hand it over to Judith!


JUDITH BRETT: Thanks very much Luke, and thank you all for coming. I’ve got some PowerPoints, just of photographs, not of words, because I think it helps us imagine what we’re talking about. I’ve put these two up. I presume most people know who the other fellow is? His face is much better known than Alfred Deakin’s.

But they were actually both born in the middle of the 1850s in Victoria. Deakin was born in 1856 and Ned Kelly in 1854. Kelly’s parents were an Irish ex-convict and his spirited, young Irish wife, whereas Deakin was the only son of respectable Gold Rush immigrants, who were one of the thousands of young couples that were leaving England in the late 1940s for a better life abroad. But by 1888, when the centenary of the First Fleet’s arrival was celebrated, and Victoria was leading Australian colony, with Marvellous Melbourne at its height, 32-year-old Alfred Deakin was the Chief Secretary, and Kelly was dead.

Deakin was a political wunderkind. He’d been a Member of Parliament for nearly a decade, and it seemed, when I was thinking about writing a biography of Alfred Deakin, that the fact that everybody would recognise Ned Kelly and very few people would recognise Alfred Deakin, was one of, in some ways, the motivation for it. The differing faiths of these two native sons exemplify the profound shifts that were taking place in Victoria since their births in the mid-1850s. Kelly had been born into rural poverty, and his extended family supplementing their meagre income with horse-thieving and cattle-duffing.

But the lawless devilry of the Kelly gang was way behind Victoria by the time Deakin entered politics. He became a young Member of Parliament for the first time 1879, and then there was a little bit of kerfuffle over that election. He settled into his political career in 1880. But it’s the outlaw, not the politician, who survived the most vividly in popular memory, and his crazy braveries become a symbol of the defiance of authority that so many of us like to think is a part of our character.

Deakin is remembered too, but not as vividly. And although he was Australia’s most important prime minister until World War II, he sits very uneasily as a representative Australian figure. He’s too urbane, he’s too intellectual, too respectable, too middle-class for the sort of larrikin masculinity of the Australian legend in that Kelly represents. Those mates who stride and stagger through our national story.

Deakin was never a mate in that sense. He didn’t swear, he barely drank, he didn’t play organised sport, he didn’t fight in the Great War, he was unfailingly courteous and he always held himself a little aloof. He was also enormously well-read, in philosophy, in theology, in comparative religion, and the world’s literature, including poetry, which was his first love. So he was middle-class, well-educated, urbane, and supremely self-confident, like the city and the continent in which he grew to manhood. And in the 1880s, Deakin was taken at the time as being a representative Australian.

This is a welcome-home banquet. It was his portrait at a banquet that was given by the Australian Natives Association, when he came back from London in 1887. He’d gone over as part of a delegation to the imperial conference. While he was there, he’d audaciously argued with Lord Salisbury, who was the Prime Minister of Britain. Salisbury was astounded at his audacity, but Deakin was offered a knighthood, and he equally astounded the British upper class when he refused it. He said he only wanted an honour that was given by his native land, by Australia. He didn’t want an honour given by Britain. So, although he was sort of a loyal imperialist, he was also a loyal Australian nationalist.

So this had made him into a real celebrity, and he was seen as being, if you like, the coming man, a representative of all the best that the Australian colonists were producing. He was native-born, he was well-educated, he was handsome, he was confident. During the 1890s, the idea of the representative Australia shifts to the country and to the Australian legend, and the sort of larrikin masculinity I was talking about.

By 2001, when the Centenary of Federation was celebrated, Deakin had faded, I think, to a face on an information board. He may have been better known up here in Canberra, where people are a bit more historically informed than in the rest of the country. But my sense was that he’d become just a ‘bearded worthy’, one of the men who’d made the constitution and then after whom we name things. Suburbs, an electorate, the university. He no longer lived in the contemporary national imagination. Amongst the politically engaged, too, I think he’d become more of cypher than a man.

As both Labor and Liberal turned away from the predicted policies of the early 20th century toward racially non-discriminatory and immigration, and neoliberalism’s faith in open markets, Deakin came to represent these now-discarded policies of tariff protection, state paternalism, centralised arbitration, imperial nationalism, and the racism of White Australia. These are the policies which were shaped in the early decades of the 20th century, and that all but gone by its closing. Many of you may have read Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty, where he characterises the politics of the 1980s as … that their task being to unwind those settled policies of the early Federation.

Now this turn against Deakin was particularly evident in the Liberal party. Under John Howard, the Liberal party was remaking itself as the joint bearer of the Liberal and the conservative traditions in Australian politics. It was reclaiming the free trade heritage of George Reid, the New South Wales Premier, and adopting a reactive social conservatism. So, with material economic issues dominating a political agenda, Deakin, George Reid, and Henry Bourne Higgins, of the Harvester Judgement , became counters in ideological arguments, which, in my view, had very little to do with the historical context of their actions and decisions. So that was another of the contexts I was writing into.

Yes, Deakin did support protection, White Australia, an active state, the centralised industrial relations and imperial nationalism, and so, to varying degrees, did most of his fellow Australians. If they weren’t whole-hearted supporters, they were prepared to live with them. That’s why they became Australia’s shared policy assumptions for three-quarters of a century. Successful politicians in liberal democracies and not particularly original thinkers. They work with the shared assumptions of the people they’re representing.

And so it was with Deakin. My argument really is that it’s not to his policies, that we supported, that we should look to his achievements and for his relevance today, but to his statecraft, and to the energy he brought to his political work, and the ways in which he managed minority governments, which are, as we know, something that we … a bit becoming more common in Australian politics. So I wrote this book about Deakin, in order to bring him back into our contemporary political imagination, and to understand how he shaped the country were living in today, and also for what he could teach us and our political representatives about how to handle unstable parliaments.

In saying that his relevance, for us, is not so much in his policies as his statecraft, what were the achievements of this statecraft? Well, the first was Federation. Now, of course, he didn’t achieve this alone, and that’s him with Edmund Barton, the New South Wales leader of the Federation movement. That portrait’s taken in about 1898, when the Federation movement, the arguing for the referenda, is still under full-swing.

But Deakin’s contribution, as I said … He doesn’t achieve this alone, but his contribution’s crucial. He was a minister in the Victorian government from 1883, and he was Chief Secretary from 1886 until 1890. That point, Victoria was heading in for a pretty bad period. The land boom was crashing, the banks were crashing, and Deakin resigned from his ministerial office and went to the back bench. Financial disaster was overtaking Marvellous Melbourne, and the land and building boom crashed and took with it most of the colony’s financial institutions. An economic depression was also in sway caused by decline, mainly in the price of wool.

Now Deakin was implicated in some of this, and I explore that in the book. But the crucial thing, I think, about this crisis in Victorian politics, for Deakin, is that, at that time, he really doubted whether he wanted to stay with politics. He wasn’t a pessimist. He was a person whose politics was best when it was optimistic, and he felt that it was moving with the tide of progress. The pressing task was financial repair, for which he had no appetite and actually no particular skill. What held him in politics was the prospect of Federation, and the birth of a new nation.

Federation, I think, became for him a redemption project. It became something which would redeem what he felt was some of his implications in financial crash. He’d been involved with some building societies, which had brought, you know … He lost his own money. He lost a lot of other people’s money as well. And so, he stayed in there because of the Federation. He devoted himself to the cause, bringing to it his organisational skills, his oratory, and his sense of dramatic urgency.

Reflecting on the achievements of Federation when it looked like it was in the bag, he said, ‘When you look back on history, it can appear inevitable.’ To us, I think it often can appear inevitable, particularly because it coincides with the end of the century, and it thinks it all looks very neat. But, for those who pursued the cause of Federation, like Deakin, it was far from inevitable, as time and again, he wrote, its fortunes visibly trembled in the balance.

Deakin had a sharp sense of the transience of moments of political opportunity, of how fleeting they were, and how easily they could be lost, as they were, we saw, for the Australian Republicans. He had brought a sense of drama to his political work, and at times it seemed a little melodramatic, but it focused the minds of the political class, and of his own, on what was at stake, if courage failed. He knew that, if they didn’t federate, then, at the end of the 19th century, it may be one or two more decades before it happened again.

Deakin led the movement in Victoria, where his oratory lifted it from the haggling over border duties to a test of men’s souls. His speech in Bendigo to the Australian Natives Association in March 1898 was a turning point in the campaign that was heading for defeat. He said, ‘Let us recognise that we live in an unstable era, and that if we fail in the hour of crisis, we may never be able to recall our lost national opportunities.’ His words filled the listening men with zeal, and he sent them back to their branches to mobilise the campaign for a new nation.

With Federation achieved, the next challenge, as Deakin saw it for the political class, was to lay the foundations of the new Commonwealth. When the Commonwealth was finally law, and the Commonwealth inaugurated, Deakin saw it as the duty of those, who’d argued for Federation, to make it work. As well as being a virtuosic orator, Deakin was first-rate administrator, and he was an able and dedicated legislator. The Constitution provided a framework for the government of the nation, but that was all it was. It was only a framework. Federal institutions had to be built, federal laws passed for areas of responsibility. And federal sentiment, and a wide federal perspective had to be nurtured. People had to be a taught to think of themselves as ‘Australians,’ not just as ‘New South Welshpeople’ or ‘Victorians’ or ‘Tasmanians.’ That is, the sort of parochial state legacies, which is still with us today, he felt had to be transcended, and people to develop a real national consciousness.

In those early years of the 20th century, support for the Federal Union actually slumped, once voters confronted the expense, and the states realised just how much they’d given up. So, there was a real danger that, if these early Commonwealth governments had failed, the new Federation itself would fail, foundering on partisan differences, parochial jealousies, and personal animosities. Western Australia, after all, was only just in, and thirty years later it would try to secede. There were still people in North Queensland, who wanted a separate state above the 22nd parallel. So this federal sentiment, as I said, had to be nurtured.

Again and again in his speeches about federalism, and after Federation, Deakin conjures up the map of Australia to remind his audience that that’s what they now are. I think this was Deakin’s great mission in the Federal Parliament, to make real the promise of a nation that was carried in the constitution. And he’d brought all his gifts and his courtesy and his capacity for unstinting work to the task.

It wasn’t easy. Until 1910, no party had a majority in the House of Representatives. At the first Federal election, there’s essentially three party blocks: there’s the Deakinite Liberals; the New South Wales free-traders, turned anti-socialists, centred on George Reid; and the New Labor party. There was seven changes of prime minister after Edmund Burke was sworn in as the first prime minister. So, in that decade, they had this sort of revolving door that we’ve been having lately. Only the last of these was the result of the government losing an election, so the revolving door tended to happen with governments losing votes with no confidence on the floor of the House. Wasn’t till 1910 when Labor, led by Andrew Fisher, won an absolute majority in the House of Reps that things stabilised.

Deakin was the Attorney General in Barton’s cabinet, and this is a portrait – I think that might’ve been the one they used before, that’s often seem of him, when he first becomes Prime Minister. It’s taken about 1903. So he’s Prime Minister three times in that first decade, twice with the support of the Labor Party, and once when he’s leading a fusion government, which did have a majority, but also suffered from a great deal of internal tension. These minority governments didn’t achieve all their legislation, but they did achieve a good deal as they laid down the policies on immigration and tariff protection, arbitration, defence, and Commonwealth state financial relations, which would last for much of the 20th century.

Not all of this legislation was finalised when Deakin lost office in 1910, but Labor didn’t repudiate it and start again. Deakin had worked, generally, to try to keep Labor on board with much of this. So Labor had supported the initial stages of this legislation, and when one government, it completed it within those already-established board outlines.

As I’ve indicated, the party system was looser than it is today, and the Parliamentary votes were more fluid. Until the fusion of 1909, Deakin’s Liberal protectionist party was the centre party. It was in between the new Labor Party, that was rapidly increasing in electoral strength, and the Free Traders, anti-socialists, led by George Reid. Deakin shared ideas and values with both left and right, and he worked hard to create a centre for the new Federation. He was very reluctant to finally have to join in, take his party in with what he saw as the New South Wales base’s conservatives.

[Points to slide] This is a photo of him in 1909 with Joseph Cook, who had replaced George Reid as the leader of the Free Trader conservatives, when they’re talking about, in early 1909, they’re discussing the terms of this new, fused party. Deakin had a very deep antipathy for George Reid, which is a little hard to understand in some ways, and Reid knew that until he was out of the way, Deakin was very unlikely to bring their parties together. So George Reid skipped off to London, to be the High Commissioner and Cook became the leader.

Now, to get his legislation through, Deakin took support from wherever that he could get it, and he compromised to achieve outcomes he believed were in the long-term national interest. He was unfailingly civil, and determinately optimistic. He turned what others would have regarded as handicap into an opportunity. He argued, for example, that his dependence on Labor to pass legislation didn’t make his government weak, but actually strengthened his achievements, because it meant it had broader support. He claimed that it made his government’s legislation not just the achievement of one party, but organic Australian policy, and the fruit of white Australian experience. That is, Deakin assumed the existence of a consensual centre, which it was the job of politicians to realise in institutions and legislation. In that sense, he always said he put his policy before the party.

He wasn’t a political warrior, and he never returned fire with fire. He had the nickname of ‘Affable Alfred,’ and I’ve looked for photos that might capture this aspect of his personality. This is from the U.S. Department of Congress website. Peoples’, in those days, photos were pretty formal. People are not smiling, but there is a little hint of a smile and a little twinkle in the eye, I think, in this one, which perhaps captures something of what comes through in all the written records, that Deakin was extraordinarily charming and courteous, and that he used his charm and his skills to keep Parliament civil. He got on well with many of the Labor men, especially with the first Parliamentary leader, Chris Watson, that he liked a great deal. And, as I said, he did have some personal antipathies, notably with George Reid.

But he hid them well, as he did most of his private thoughts and feelings. If he were insulted, he’d just pretended not to notice. If he had to compromise, he acted as if this is what he’d intended all along. If tempers were rising, he relieved the tension with a joke, or a self-deprecating remark. That is, he always tried to prevent the escalation of conflict so as to keep open possibilities of cooperation and agreement.

Deakin was also a skilled journalist. He’d been working as a journalist for the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, when its proprietor, editor David Syme, whorled him into politics at the tender age of 23. He continued to write for various dailies and weeklies until the end of his political career. The most remarkable of these activities is the 13 years of anonymous letters about Australian politics that he wrote for the London Daily, the Morning Post. Deakin began writing letters in 1900, and he signed himself the Australian correspondent, that is, he wrote them anonymously. He continued them until 1913.

It wasn’t uncommon for politicians to write anonymously for the press. But it was uncommon for prime ministers to do so, commenting on their own actions and wondering about their own motivations. He pretended he was a Sydney Free Trader, and he even interviewed himself. I must admit, I don’t quite understand the reasons for this playful double life, but it was a remarkable achievement. The end of a very busy day in Parliament, you’d sit up at one o’clock in the morning, writing these letters.

He also wrote two accounts of the events of his political life, one on his early years in Victorian politics, and one on the Federation movement. These were intended for publication. At his best, Deakin is a great prose stylist. He has a sharp eye for the personal quirks and special gifts of his colleagues, and so wherever I could, when I was writing the book, I drew on Deakin’s own writing to convey events in which he took part.

But politics wasn’t Deakin’s whole life. He was also a devoted son and brother, husband and father, who liked puttering about the garden with his dogs and cycling with his daughters. This is a photo of him. First, I thought he was dressed up to do a bit of handyman work around the house, but I showed this at another talk I was giving and somebody helpfully came up and said, because he’s holding dynamite sticks, that he was probably going rabbit-shooting. And he did sometimes record in his diary how many rabbits he’d shot in any particular day. It was something he liked to do when he was down at Point Lonsdale or visiting in the country.

[Points to slide] Here’s a photo of the family at the end of the 1890s. That’s Deakin in the middle. Going from left to right, the woman at the back, the girl, is Ivy. Then, at the front, is his second daughter, Stella. Then his mother. The little girl at the front is Vera. Then his wife, Patti, and between Patti and Alfred is his sister, Catherine. This family photo was taken while he was away, probably one of the Federation conferences. His photo, which was an official photo, was inserted later, so it’s this sort of early Photoshop.

Deakin’s father, William, had died in 1893, but he’s surrounded here by garland of women. The book also includes a portrait of his marriage, which had its joys and its disappointments, but which retained its romance. This is a beautiful portrait of his wife, Patti. Deakin wrote a poem for Patti every wedding anniversary and every birthday. She nursed him devotedly in his final, sad years. Many of you may know that, from about 1907–1908, Deakin started to suffer from problems with his short-term memory. By the time he’d died in 1919, he was totally demented. He’d lost any sense or knowledge of who he was, or of his memory. He could still talk, but it was no longer particularly meaningful. And the family stuck by him.

[Points to slide] So this photo is around 1915, when he’s out of politics. He retired in 1913. He still has periods of lucidity. But you can see, I think, in Patti’s demeanour, a sort of sadness in her face. That’s Vera, Ivy, and Ivy’s husband, Herbert Brooks. At the front is Wilford Brooks, and then Dave Gravette, who’d just got engaged to Stella, the middle daughter. Vera, the youngest daughter, is at this stage overseas in London, working for the Red Cross because it’s the middle of the war.

Catherine is missing, the sister. There was a great deal of tension between Catherine and Deakin’s wife, Patti, and she was no longer included automatically in family gatherings and family photos. There was, by this stage, a rift between Patti and Catherine, and Catherine recorded her hurt in her diaries, which are here at the National Library, in Canberra, and Patti, her perspective, in some notes she left for the family. Both women loved Alfred, and supported him in his political life, and he loved them both. But he was peculiarly obtuse to the causes of the tension between them.

Deakin had an active intellectual life. After he died, his family found notebooks that were filled with epigrams and observations, verses, prayers, soliloquies, religious writings, and records of his voluminous reading. They were in locked cupboards of his study, and they weren’t intended to be read by others. If dementia hadn’t overtaken him, he most likely would’ve burnt most of them, as both too intimate, but also of little long-term interest. But they survived.

In 1884, he started a prayer diary, which he maintained intermittently until 1913, talking to his God about his innermost doubts, and expressing his gratitude for his fortunate life. He only rarely refers to political events in this prayer diary, but together with other of his introspective, private writings, it does provide remarkable access to his intimate inner life and his mood, because all the prayers are dated, so it’s possible to line the prayers up with what was going on in that day. If it’s a day that things have not gone particularly well, there’s often a prayer which chose him in a sort of confused mood, as sort of, ‘Oh Lord, show me the way, what should I be doing?’ He doesn’t actually say, ‘What should I be doing about X or Y?’, but more just an expression of a degree of doubt. It gave me, as a biographer, terrific material to explore the connections between the private man and the public world of events and actions.

Deakin was generally hostile toward organised religion, which he saw as a vehicle for superstition and dogma. He was an active spiritualist in his late-teens and 20s. He attended séances to probe his destiny. He wrote a book dictated by the spirit of John Bunyan, and he became an office bearer in the organisation of the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists. In fact, he met Patti, who was herself a gifted medium, at the Spiritualists’ Sunday school. Patti’s father, Hugh Juno Brown, who is a very dogmatic spiritualist, and so she was brought up in a sort of spiritualist household.

Later on in his life, he was sceptical about much spiritualist phenomena, but he did retain the spiritualism’s core belief in the immortality of the soul, and the possibility of communication from the dead. As he grew older, his religious beliefs deepened, and they took on greater ethical content, particularly during the 1890s, when he was a member of Charles Strong’s Australian Church, and active in the anti-sweating campaign to reform the Factory Acts. Anti-sweating campaigns were particularly concerned with the long hours worked by women in factories, but also in shops.

This prayer diary, I think, shows the depth of his religious sensibility. In the popular imagination, if people know anything about Deakin, they tend to know that he was a spiritualist, and then think that this was a bit of a joke. It was a bit of a challenge, in writing the book, to work out how to present the spiritualism. Some of what he wrote, I have to say, is pretty mad. When he was in his teens, he went to a séance once a week, in which people like the spirits of John Stuart Mill and Charles Macaulay, would come in and give him advice about how to handle, how to respond to events in Victorian politics, and there was also a stockbroker from Ballarat, who would give him advice on which shares to buy, what prices and all that, and he kept a ledger of which predictions came true and which ones didn’t, and you’ll be probably not surprised to know that most of these predictions about the shares were not very helpful. Completely wrong. He lost money by trusting the spirits.

That being said, they’re being this slightly sort of … What we see as ‘irrational,’ New Age-y sort of faith in spiritualism. It was part of actually a very genuine and deep religious sensibility, and so it was one of the challenges I gave myself in the book, was to try to think about what that spiritualism meant, and how it developed over his life. And I think there, the relationship with Charles Strong, who was a Presbyterian minister who came out from Glasgow, as sort of a Liberal Presbyterian who actually got thrown out of the Presbyterian church for heresy in the early 1880s, and set up a sort of non – … It was like a sort of ecumenical church in Melbourne, and Deakin was associated with that. I think that was a really crucial part in that experience for Deakin, or a crucial relationship of Deakin in his religious life, and helping give it a sort of ethical purpose which underpinned his politics.

In the book, I try to give each of the three strands of Deakin’s life its due: his public life in politics, his family relationships, and his intense inner world. In the writing, I follow the daily, weekly, and yearly rhythms, as well as the arc of his life’s physical and psychic energies. I was looking for the changes and the enduring patterns, the moments of decision, and the paths not taken. Insofar as it’s got a psychological underpinning, it was Eric Erickson’s theory of the psychological tasks and challenges of the different stages of life, and his thinking about the mid-life crisis in the early 1890s, propelling Deakin into the achievements of his later life, Federation and the policy achievements of the early Commonwealth, that point in mid-life when one realises that actually you’ve only got a limited time left and a limited capacity to achieve things and, to some end, that the paths were already set. That all of that sort of sense of the openness and possibility of youth has narrowed in.

To conclude, I just want to say something about the title and cover. This is the cover of the hardback. The paperback, here we are, it’s only just come out. I feel, on the paperback, he looks like a bikie. I’ve got them to put the whole of the thing on the back, and we now might see he’s not a bikie, no bikie wears a frilly bathing suit. The title is inspired by one of these anonymous letters that I mentioned to the morning post. In 1909, when he’s negotiating with Joseph Cook, that photo I showed you of them at Ballarat in Point Lonsdale, when they’re negotiating the fusion of the two non-Labor parties, he writes this: ‘For reasons known only to himself, which are a perpetual subject of controversy in our press, Mr Deakin pursues his enigmatic methods of action. In spite of his persistent elusiveness, the pressures brought to bear upon him appear so strong that some unexpected development must be new at hand.’

I find that a remarkable statement. Not only does no one know that Deakin’s writing about himself, but he makes his own actions and his own decisions a sender of the action. And when he wrote it … I mean, we don’t even know whether he knew what he was going to do. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. The cover photo was taken in 1910 on the front beach at Point Lonsdale. He and Patti had been having family holidays, summer holidays there, since the 1890s. They built a house there in 1907 which is still in the family’s hands.

I chose the photo for many reasons. It unsettles the image of Deakin, ‘The Bearded Worthy.’ I didn’t want to put one of the official portraits on the front because I thought people already knew that photo, if you like. It’s unusual, unlike today, for us to see the early politician togged out for swimming. It shows, too, what a strong and handsome man Deakin was, and his belief in the virtue of exercise. Politics is physically arduous, and he was built for it. It puts him on the edge of the sea, just inside the heads at Port Phillip Bay. Deakin was a Romantic. For him, nature held religious meanings. The infinity of the sea and the sky were intimations of immortality, and of the divinity of the universe. Standing there on the edge of eternity, he looks back over his shoulder at us. Thank you.

LUKE CUMMINS: So, ladies and gentlemen, now it’s your opportunity to ask some questions. We’ve got one straight up here, we’ll start with that one.

QUESTION : Thank you, Judith, very much. You’ve certainly whetted my appetite for the book.

JUDITH BRETT: That’s good. [Laughs]

QUESTION: You referred to Patti, Mrs Deakin, as being a skilled medium.


QUESTION: Can you explain what you mean by that?

JUDITH BRETT: Ah, yes. Her father was converted to spiritualism when he was about 40, and he started holding séances in the house. He discovered that Patti, who had been about 10, was a very good medium, and so she had to sit there with the pencil, waiting for the messages to come from beyond. So she actually, later in her life, said she was very boring.

The Spiritualist past became a bit of a source of embarrassment for the two of them. When Deakin went into politics, there were sometimes political jibes made at him. He’d say something, and someone would say, ‘Oh, you know, if the spirits told you that …’, sort of undermined his credibility a bit so, they tried to distance it. He published this book called The New Pilgrim’s Progress, which was dictated to him by John Bunyan.

That was published in the 1870s. Then, he and Patti tried to buy up all the copies and destroy them, so they wouldn’t fall into people’s hands. A few survived. But later on, in the 1890s, when he was reviewing all the evidence of spiritualism that had come, that he’d experienced, and trying to assess what was real and what was delusional, he decided that it wasn’t the case that New Pilgrim’s Progress had been dictated to him by John Bunyan, because the person in New Pilgrim’s Progress seemed to be thinking about all the things that he, Deakin, was thinking about at the time that he wrote it, and that it didn’t have John Bunyan’s style, nor his pithy characterisations. So, he claimed ownership, authorship. Yeah.

QUESTION: G’day, it was an amazing book, thank you so much. I would love to hear you talk a little more about the dilemma you referred to in 1908–1909 for Deakin. You talk about how he’s torn between Reid as a conservative obstructionist, and the Labor machine, which is ‘death to the spirit.’ I thought that’s a very poignant and very live question for lots of people who live in Deakin’s suburbs of Deakin’s youth, for instance. You also talked about his inability to emphasise really with the post-Watson leadership of Labor with their resentments and solidarities, and all the rest. That was really interesting, and I’d love to hear more.

JUDITH BRETT: Okay, yes. So Deakin, as a centre party … I mean, Deakin essentially sees himself coming out of Victorian colonial liberalism, as sympathetic to the experiences of the working man. They see themselves as on the side of equality, not on the side of the rich and of privilege and conservatism. However, once the Labor party gets under way, and I think it’s quite for us to really realise … You know, we’re so used to the Labor party now … What a sudden rise it had from being the smallest party in, really, only formed in the 1890s, it wins power in 1910. It would be like the Greens, having been formed in 1980, leading the government by the year 2000. It was a phenomenal rise, and it really took the existing parties by surprise. It was a particular challenge to the Liberals, who, as I said, saw themselves as friends of the working man.

For Deakin, I argue – The question is: well, Deakin sympathises with pretty well, I would say 90 per cent of Labor’s platform, but yet he won’t join his party in with the Labor party. I think there’s two reasons. The first is really the pledge. That Labor’s organisational methods are much more disciplined than the 19th century parties had been. People have to sign a pledge to abide by policy as determined by the Labor conference, and to vote in caucus as the majority decides.

We’re pretty used now to these disciplined parties, because Labor’s discipline forced non-Labor into becoming much more disciplined. But in the 19th century, and into the 20th century, a lot of members of parliament retained their independence. When, in those minority governments, there would be people who would’ve said to Deakin as prime minister, ‘We’ll support you on supply and we’ll support you on confidence motions, but on other pieces of legislation, we’ll make up our own mind.’ They had to sort of compromise. So I think it was an immensely difficult issue for Deakin.

I also think that, as I said, he is a middle-class man sympathetic to the suffering of the workers, but he never himself suffered from inequality. He wasn’t born into a particularly rich household, but he was born into a family which only had two children. I think that’s absolutely crucial in understanding Deakin’s achievements, because it meant his father could afford to pay for a very good education for him, even though he’s only a clerk, whereas somebody like Henry Bourne Higgins is born into a family with ten children, you know? Big difference in terms of their options.

So Deakin doesn’t really understand the anger and grievance that drives much of Labor’s politics, and because of that, I don’t think he understands the sort of passion behind the need for organisation and for solidarity. Is that sort of … ? The other thing I think is that by 1909, Deakin knew that his mind was going. Nobody else knew. He kept it pretty much to himself, and because he’d been in Parliament for so long, he could perform in that there was habits and skills that were deeply ingrained. I think he knew that he was wanting to get out and the strain of politics.

But, as well as that, electorally they didn’t have much option. Labor was winning, the Liberals had previously held inner-city seats like Melbourne, the inner-city seats of Melbourne, because it was Melbourne where they had their strength. That’s where Labor was determined to hold seats, and Labor wouldn’t do a deal of not challenging Liberals in those seats. They wouldn’t provide what’s called ‘electoral immunity,’ so he was also under electoral pressure.

QUESTION: Thank you for a really interesting address. Just interested in your thoughts about what Deakin’s legacy as prime minister is. He obviously played a major role in Federation. But you said earlier on, I think, that he had sort of a respect for, and was able to work with, institutions. So I was just wondering your reflections on what his legacy as prime minister is. Is it sort of about being able to, or working to try to, unite the anti-Labor forces to show that they could work together and those sorts of things?

JUDITH BRETT: Yeah, I mean, after Deakin leaves office, there’s a bit of criticism of him. People say, ‘Oh, he wasn’t a tough enough leader.’ That Deakin wasn’t a political warrior. He didn’t see the survival of the political party as being the primary thing. He saw the achievement of particular policy outcomes as being what he was in Parliament to do.

The legacy, in a way, has been a bit lost. I think he has quite a big influence on Robert Menzies, actually. When Menzies used to say, when he was winning yet another election, ‘I want to say to all of you, not just those of you who voted for me, that I will govern for all Australians’, I think, that notion of trying to govern for a sort of political centre – I think that Deakin worked to construct – He positioned himself in the political centre, so insofar as the political centre’s been important in Australian politics, I think that’s where I think I’d see much of his legacy. I mean, I think it’s unfortunate that the current Liberal party doesn’t value him more. But I think that’s got something to do with power having shifted to the New South Wales branch, away from the Victorian branch – [Laughter] Being a Victorian myself. There’s also a question just down at the front, there.

QUESTION: Thank you again for your lecture. You had spoken about his decision to decline the honour while he was in Britain, in favour of only wanting to be awarded one from his native Australia, and that that increased his kind of notoriety back here. Is there a sense that that was a deliberate decision to that end? That is to say – I know you say he isn’t a political warrior, but was he a political strategist in the sense that he did something like that in order to carry some political capital, and in order to kind of raise his stakes with the working classes he was trying to identify with?

JUDITH BRETT: That’s a good question. I think what happened was that he thought he wasn’t old enough, and he wasn’t dignified enough, because he says – He writes to James Service, who was like his mentor, who had been the Premier of Victoria, ‘I think you should’ve been given that, a knighthood, not me.’ But then it becomes a sort of part of his identity. Also, there were precedents. George Higginbottom, who was a leading Victorian Liberal, had also declined a knighthood. There might’ve been another one – I can’t really remember. And he greatly admired Higginbottom.

So I think it was something he sort of did, and then, because it became part of his celebrity, he was stuck with it, is my sense. I don’t think it was deliberately manipulative in that sense, though I also do think he does have a bit of an eye for publicity, because actually the Melbourne papers found out about it quite soon – Well, he was sending reports, he was writing for The Age, sending reports home, you know?

QUESTION: Thank you, it was a great lecture. Deakin once said that politics from 1901–1910 were like three cricket teams on the one pitch at the same time. And he had a hand in the changing of the seven prime ministers, virtually. To what extent do you think he was motivated by tactical advantage? Or did he have a bigger picture, that the only way for Australia to pursuit, in Parliamentary terms, is to have two parties?

JUDITH BRETT: Look, I think he thought that we needed, that cricket can only be played with two teams, that the Westminster model of Parliamentary politics only works with an opposition and a government. The question of how tactical he was during that period is a good one. I argue in the book – Well, I don’t argue – I mean, I put the evidence down. What I tried to do with the book was – Sometimes it’s very hard to know, you know? It’s to provide what I see as the telling evidence and let people make up their own mind.

I think, at times, he actually was thinking of leaving. It wasn’t that he knew the outcome and he was manipulating it from the beginning, because you can see from his diary, from his prayer diary in particular, that often he really doesn’t know what to do. Should he resign? Should he stay? People project onto him, I think, often, more certainty than he felt himself, and that gave him actually quite a lot of political power, which in one sense he sort of knew. He sometimes is like, sort of, two or three people there. He’s not a unity – Well, I suppose none of us are, really. [Laughs]

LUKE CUMMINS: I think we’ve got time for one more question. Is there another question?

JUDITH BRETT: One of the women got a question?

QUESTION: I was just curious about the comment you made about Patti and her daughter, Catherine.


QUESTION: Sister, and how a rift developed. Do we know what caused that, and whether they were ever reconciled?

JUDITH BRETT: They were never reconciled. Look, Catherine was his older sister by six years. After he died, she wrote, ‘When he was born, I adored the baby and I adored him for the rest of his life.’ She never married, and I think basically what happened – I mean Deakin was very close to her. She was much more intellectual than Patti. Patti wasn’t particularly the intellectual. She wasn’t particularly interested in politics, except in that she wanted to be a supportive wife to her husband, who happened to be in politics.

Catherine was a confidant of Deakin’s. I think there was jealousy on Patti’s part, and I think she found Catherine sort of irritating. She was always there. Deakin always included her in everything. Then, Catherine was involved quite closely with the education of the daughters. Deakin wanted them educated at home when they were young, and he gave that role to Catherine, I think, without much consultation with Patti. So I think Deakin saw Catherine as this much more intellectual person than his wife.

I think he was very unconscious of it, and so Patti felt that Catherine had too much influence over the girls, and there were a couple of spectacular fights. After Deakin died, I don’t think Patti ever spoke to Catherine again. It’s rather sad actually, and Catherine records all this in her diary in a great deal of detail, which, again, I’m sure she didn’t ever expect would be sitting in the National Library, where we can all go and read it, and see the rift in the family.

QUESTION: Do you know what happened to the swimsuit?


JUDITH BRETT: No, but I do know that Tom Harley, one of Deakin’s great-grandchildren, said that it was in their dress-up box when he was a boy. [Laughs] But actually, when the designers, the publishers, said they wanted to change the cover for the thing, they said they wanted to get rid of the frills on the suit. So that’s when I said, ‘Oh but, you know, he just looks like a bikie!’ [Laughs] So we got it on the back, so I was happy about that.

LUKE CUMMINS: Well, ladies and gentlemen, that does draw us to the close of the lecture. If you would like to put your hands together and thank Judith Brett one more time for a fantastic lecture on Alfred Deakin! If you would like to join us down in the hall, there will be a book-signing and the book is available for purchase from the shop. So hopefully we’ll see you down there.


LUKE CUMMINS: Worth every penny.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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