It is difficult to understand why Alfred Deakin was on the federation committee which drafted the Australian constitution. He wasn’t a brilliant lawyer and didn’t even graduate from university, but he had become immensely popular with delegates on all sides of politics and was an eloquent, forceful but diplomatic speaker and earned the nickname ‘Affable Alfred’.
He was born in 1856 in Melbourne to what may be termed impoverished lower middle-class parents. His father, who had migrated from England, was a salesman and clerk ending up as a manager with Cobb & Co, a company which ran stagecoaches. For some reason aged 4 years of age he was shipped off, together with his 10-year-old sister, to a country girl’s boarding school run by two elderly sisters. Although not having the affection of his parents at such a young age, living at the academy would have given him a good educational grounding and prepared him for his later schooling at Melbourne Grammar School which, being an indolent child, he later thought was a ‘waste of time'. He attended the University of Melbourne with evening classes, working during the day as a schoolteacher.
Because he only required certain grades to be admitted to the bar, he managed to gain sufficient marks to enable him to become a barrister in 1877 when aged 21. Having been interested in politics from an early age, he joined with the radical Liberal side of politics and found himself elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly two years later when aged only 23.
He later became Attorney-General of Victoria and attended the Australasian Federal Conference which had been convened by Sir Henry Parkes in Melbourne in 1890 as a delegate from Victoria. He was convinced that federation was the only way forward for the six separate Australian colonies. He had later described himself an "independent Australian Briton," favouring a self-governing Australia but always loyal to the Queen and to the British Empire.
He was an elected delegate to all of the conventions and, even though he had little enthusiasm for the law, found himself on the constitution committee alongside Griffith (Qld), Barton (NSW) and Kingston (SA) which, together with Inglis Clark (Tas) gave representation from five of the colonies excluding Western Australia which was still ambivalent about federation. Deakin was the youngest delegate.
In 1900 Deakin travelled to London with Edmund Barton and Charles Kingston to meet with the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and to be on hand during the passage of the constitution bill through the British Parliament.
In 1901 he was elected to the first federal Parliament and was appointed Attorney-General by Sir Edmund Barton, Australia’s first prime minister (see https://www.nationhood.org.au/sir_edmund_barton). Deakin was the youngest member of the cabinet.
On Barton’s move as a judge of the first High Court of Australia in 1903, Deakin became Australia’s second prime minister.
The early governments were engrossed in drafting and enabling legislation for what was a brand-new country in so far as the six colonies coming together was concerned. Each of the early prime minsters left their mark and Deakin’s was mainly the creation of an Australian currency together with many other areas in regard to financing the new nation. He also introduced a federal system of old-age pensions. Amongst the several quasi-government institutions he established were the Bureau of Census and Statistics and the Bureau of Meteorology.
For many years, even prior to federation, he thought that Australia should be able to defend itself without relying on Britain. At the time the Australian government had an arrangement whereby Australia paid an amount to Britain and Britain sent its ships from time to time to show a presence in Australian waters. Deakin felt this was not good enough and established the laws and guidelines for an Australian navy which later became a reality under his successor, Andrew Fisher, in 1910.
Amongst his many lasting achievements would have been the founding of the modern Liberal Party established with progressive and liberal policies. In those early days there were three main political movements, the Protectionists who wanted tariffs on all imported products, the Free Traders who did not and Labor. Deakin sought to unite the Protectionists and Free Traders into one political party.
Throughout his political life, he was short of money (politicians weren’t paid the huge sums and pensions they are nowadays) and took to journalism as a side-line.
Deakin as a young man
His friend David Syme, the owner of the Melbourne daily The Age, gave him work which led to him becoming editor of the Age's weekly magazine. As a cabinet minister, and even as prime minister, he wrote political commentaries for the London Morning Post and also penned a number of works.
He was a deeply religious man and, along with many peoples of the late Victorian age, he dabbled in spiritualism and was President of the Victorian Spiritualists' Union for a time. As far as we are aware, he was the only member of the drafting committee and the only prime minister who was a spiritualist.
In 1888 he had prayed: "Oh God, grant me that judgment & foresight which will enable me to serve my country—guide me and strengthen me, so that I may follow & persuade others to follow the path which shall lead to the elevation of national life & thought & permanence of well-earned prosperity—give me light & truth & influence for the highest & the highest only.”
After retiring from parliament, he tragically developed what is thought to be a form of Alzheimer'sand died in 1919, aged 63.
He is one of only two Australian prime ministers to have had a university named after him, the other being John Curtin (1941-1945).
Amongst his many obituaries, the Daily Mail of Brisbane said this of him “It is perhaps quite safe to say that no great leader in Australian public life has been gifted with the attractive personality, instinctive courtesy and innate gentlemanliness that characterised Alfred Deakin …. None amongst us could be named more worthy of respect. He harmoniously combined all that goes into the making of a fine man. He held and sustained the highest ideals with high standards and worthy practice in all the relations of life” (9th Oct 1919).