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Posted on 19 Jun 2018 in Non-Fiction | 2 comments

JUDITH BRETT The Enigmatic Mr Deakin. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, the new biography of Australia’s second, fifth and seventh Prime Minister, is a magnificent sweep of a book that demanded to be written.

Deakin has been the subject of previous biographies and author Judith Brett quickly establishes her points of difference. Walter Murdoch published the first, Alfred Deakin: A Sketch, in 1923, which emphasised the possibility of an alternative literary life for the subject. ‘But,’ (Brett writes), ‘we have to judge a man’s life not just by what he says, but by what he does.’ John La Nauze published Alfred Deakin: A Biography (1962), which Brett admires greatly for its work on Deakin’s role as a nation-builder but overlooks his inner life. Further studies in the 1990s examined Deakin’s religious and spiritualist beliefs and family relationships but remained partial. Her aim (as she states in her introduction) is much more ambitious:

I have tried to give each of the three strands of Deakin’s life its due: his intense inner world, his public life in politics and his family relationships, following the daily, weekly and yearly rhythms, as well as the arc of his life’s physical and psychic energies. My quest has been for the changes and the enduring patterns, the moments of decision and the paths not taken. The book is a life, not a life-and-times; its starting questions are what events meant to Deakin rather than what he contributed to events, though I hope I shed light on that too.

Deakin was born in 1856. He was a Gold Rush child, an immigrant’s child and a loved child whose father, William, prospered as a coach operator between Melbourne and Bendigo. But he was also a lonely boy who lived a vivid fantasy life. From the age of eight he attended Melbourne Grammar School and books become a sustaining influence in his life, so sustaining that years later when holding major roles in public life he still managed between 30 and 40 hours a week private reading.

At Melbourne Grammar headmaster Dr Bromby provided a model of ‘vigorous, disciplined manhood’ and eloquence as a public speaker. Deakin’s addiction to reading and writing hinted at a future as a writer and actor. When he left school, Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus guided his mind towards an active life, but although he studied law no absolute vocation was apparent.

Aged 20 he published a verse drama and fell under the influence of historian Charles Pearson, who led him towards liberal causes and a second, greater, mentor, David Syme, the proprietor of The Age newspaper, which was a powerful force shaping public opinion. At this point Deakin’s spiritualism united with his growing liberalism in a search for life’s meaning and he had met the girl, Pattie Browne (eight years his junior) who would become his wife. With The Age espousing such causes as protectionism, state socialism and free, compulsory and secular education, Deakin, as a high-minded young man with oratorical skills, who read widely and possessed an amazingly retentive memory, was offered work as a journalist. It was the beginning of his political education.

Brett suggests that Deakin’s experience was:

… more like many of today’s parliamentarians, whose young adulthood is spent in political work, than he was like his contemporaries, whose politics was grounded in early hardship and grievance, or in defending their wealth and social position.

There may be some truth in this assertion, although Deakin was drawing on a more diverse and richer intellectual background. Far more impressive is Brett’s discussion (in negative terms) of the future he weighs for himself at age 25 and later writes about in an autobiographical passage in The Crisis in Victorian Politics:

He had insufficient talent or originality for the theatre, for poetry or for literary prose, and these were unlikely to return the annual income of three to five hundred pounds to which he aspired. His attempt to become a Unitarian preacher had been rebuffed. He did not want commercial employment because it was directly involved with making money, which seemed to him ‘as to the ancient Greeks unworthy of a free man and inconsistent with independence’. Teaching was drudgery, with its endless repetitions. Journalism was too concerned with the transient and the superficial, a mechanical mode of earning one’s living which reduced ‘the mind to a machine and one’s pen to that of a press hack’. As he runs through his options, he does not even mention the law, for which he is qualified, and concludes that he became a politician ‘by sheer force of circumstance rather than by independent choice’.

Politics becomes the main game. Deakin serves for 20 years in the Victorian parliament, frequently in coalition governments, gains early promotion to ministerial rank, adopts protectionism, shows sympathy for liberal causes (Factory Acts), pushes state socialist agendas (especially irrigation and railroad building), leading to a compelling interest in federation and the promotion of an Australian Pacific empire, before his election to the inaugural Commonwealth parliament in 1901.

Brett argues that the young men of the Australian Natives Association, a political pressure group, were the ‘drivers of federation’ and were Deakin’s ‘special constituency’ like Robert Menzies’ forgotten people, Gough Whitlam’s baby boomers and John Howard’s battlers. And as she adds, ‘Identification with the experience of a group nurtures the leader’s sense of purpose, and its support secures his place in history.’

The battle for the Australian nation is hard won and remains so in the first decade of the Commonwealth through a succession of coalition governments. With three main parties – Protectionist (led by Edmund Barton and then Deakin), Free Trade (George Reid) and Labor (Chris Watson and Andrew Fisher) – there are no absolute majorities and each has to work with the other to pass legislation. It is not until the fusion of the Free Traders and Protectionists as a non-Labor party that Australia’s so-called two-party system evolves.

As Attorney-General under Barton in the first federal government, and then as three-time prime minister, Deakin is a figure open to compromise, as had been his experience in the Victorian parliament. While this is a strength, it is also a weakness. With respect to the diminution of the Factory Act and the Aborigines Half-Caste Act, Deakin had ‘no emotional capacity for lost causes, no matter how just’. He could sympathise with the plight of the working man but could not empathise with him and he accepted the view that Aborigines were doomed to extinction.

An impressive aspect of this book is that Judith Brett is able to fulfil her promise of conveying Deakin’s inner world and family life along with his public life. His wife, Pattie, and spinster sister, Catherine, emerge as important figures in their own right. We feel for Pattie’s neglect at times and yet recognise a fullness of the marital relationship on other occasions. Catherine is an emotional rock and intellectual support for her brother throughout and a mentor to his daughters, although this role creates tensions with Pattie. Deakin himself never gives up his philosophical, religious or mystical musings despite operating energetically in the service of the nation.

I heard Judith Brett speak at Adelaide Writers’ Week in March this year and she began with discussion of the book’s title, which draws on a phrase Deakin used about himself when writing his anonymous column as an ‘Australian correspondent’ for the London Morning Post in 1909. Deakin might have despised journalism for reducing ‘the mind to a machine and one’s pen to that of a press hack’ but it did not prevent him accepting 500 pounds a year for a weekly letter throughout his main political career. He was enigmatic in other respects too, as a man driven to achieve results in political office, not simply to hold it for its own sake. When it became inevitable that his party was in danger of dissolving he fused with his long-time free-trade opponents, an action which brought fierce denunciations from William Lyne from his own side and Billy Hughes from Labor. Of course (as Brett notes) Hughes would rat on Labor as prime minister just a few years later.

Brett makes a further point in her introduction that should not be overlooked:

I wrote this book to bring Deakin back into Australia’s contemporary political imagination, to understand how he shaped the country we live in today, and for the lessons he could teach us about how to handle unstable parliaments.

When the Fusion Party was formed in 1909 Australia might have had two main parties but it was not the end of coalitions. When Hughes and his pro-conscription allies in the Labor Party joined ranks with the Commonwealth Liberals (a Deakin-led grouping which had been a major partner in the Fusion) to form a Nationalist Party government, he maintained office in the conservative interest for six years. When the Country Party was formed in 1920 it was a second non-Labor party and it has governed in coalition with conservative allies for all of its history. After the Bruce-Page coalition government lost the election to James Scullin’s Labor party in 1929, a new conservative United Australia Party was formed with former Labor treasurer Joe Lyons as prime minister in 1932, and led by Robert Menzies after Lyons’s death. In Opposition the UAP was subsequently led by Billy Hughes (at the age of 79) until Menzies’ creation of the modern Liberal Party in 1944. Criticism by modern conservatives that Julia Gillard’s government was somehow illegitimate because as a minority it formed a coalition with Independents in the House of Representatives and the Greens in the Senate is not only nonsense but hypocritical, given their own party’s coalitions in office.

Apart from its other qualities, Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin reminds us of what can be achieved by politicians of purpose, with or without absolute majorities. It is a magnificent sweep of a book and is highly recommended.

Judith Brett The Enigmatic Mr Deakin Text Publishing 2017 PB 490pp $34.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is Adelaide Sporting Sites.

You can buy The Enigmatic Mr Deakin from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.


  1. Excellent review- thank you. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

    • Thank you, Janine
      It’s always nice to get a response.
      Regards, Bernard.