Judith Brett: The Enigmatic Mr Deakin

By Dr John Doyle*

A conversation with award-winning political historian Judith Brett about her latest book, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, winner of the National Biography Award 2018 and shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, NSW Premier’s History Awards and Queensland Literary Awards.

Why a new biography of Alfred Deakin? What did you want to achieve?

I felt we needed a new biography to re-enliven Deakin in the contemporary political imagination.

There are two previous biographies. The first by Walter Murdoch was written in the early 1920s soon after Deakin died when his memory was fresh and people knew the context of his political life. The second, a two volume study by John La Nauze was published in the 1960s. It focuses on Deakin’s time in federal politics but struggles to understand his rich intellectual and spiritual life.

I set out to write a one volume biography for today’s readers which integrated Deakin’s political, family and intellectual life. He is a fascinating and gifted Australian, who in his youth was seen to represent all that was most promising in colonial society.

Can you talk us through the huge project of researching and writing Deakin’s life?

I started the writing when I retired from La Trobe at the end of 2012, though I had done some research before that. Contemporary academic life is not conducive to writing big books, so I really only got underway once I had a clear head and oceans of time.

The manuscript took four years to complete. I began my research with a stay in the Deakin’s holiday house at Point Lonsdale. Ballara was built by Pattie and Alfred in 1907 and is still in family hands. I sat on the veranda reading the long diary entries he wrote there after 1910 when his third government was defeated by Labor. Deakin’s papers are in the National Library in Canberra, so the research involved long days there reading nineteenth century hand-writing. A good deal of Deakin’s papers are digitised—so I could also do a lot of the primary research from my desk at home in Northcote or in our holiday house down the coast. Trove was also a great resource, as were the digitised Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates. I prefer to read these in hardback, which was possible when I started the research as they were on the shelves at the State Library of Victoria, but they have since been shifted off site which is a great loss.

The book was six months or so in production, including responding to the detailed old-fashioned edit by Michael Heyward of Text. Michael edited from the perspective of a non-specialist reader, pointing to places where the context needed clarifying or elaborating—such as the confusing use of the term ‘liberal’ in the debates over free trade and protection. To my surprise his edit expanded the length of the book.

What did you find most challenging in writing the book?

There were three main challenges. The first was to give a sympathetic account of Deakin’s religious life for a contemporary secular readership, especially his youthful involvement in spiritualism, some of which is quite whacky. For example, as a young man Deakin published a book dictated to him in séances by the shade of John Bunyan. He  also invested in shares on advice received in séances, later recording that these investments were utter failures!

The second key challenge was writing about Deakin’s commitment to White Australia. I wanted to explain why this could seem progressive at the time—to get the reader to exercise their historical imagination—while not appearing to be an apologist. And the third challenge was narrating the often very complicated political manoeuvrings without losing the reader’s interest. I had to tell readers enough for them to be able to follow Deakin’s thoughts and actions while avoiding getting bogged down in detail.

How did you come up with the title, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin?

This came from an anonymous letter Deakin wrote for the Morning Post, a conservative London daily. Deakin was its anonymous Australian correspondent from 1900 to 1913, which included when he was Prime Minister. When Deakin was negotiating the merger of his Protectionist Party with the Free Traders—known as the Fusion—then led by Joseph Cook, he wrote:

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 pressure brought to bear upon him … appears so strong that some unexpected development must be near at hand. 

I found this remarkable—not only does no one know that this is Deakin writing about himself, but he makes his own actions and decisions the centre of the action.

Does Deakin’s approach to politics and/or policy have relevance to contemporary Australian practice?

Deakin was Attorney General and then Prime Minister in minority governments—which have now become frequent in Australian politics. Political parties were looser than today, and Deakin was able to pursue bipartisan and cross-party support for his legislation. He always put achieving legislation in the national interest ahead of party considerations.

Deakin was not a political warrior—and many of us feel that Australian politics would be better today for fewer warriors. He was always courteous to his political opponents, and civil in parliamentary debates, except once when he was goaded to anger by Billy Hughes. He later apologised.

Is there a new project on the horizon?

I have just finished a book on the history of Australia’s voting system, called From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting. This book was Michael Heyward’s idea. After Brexit and the election of Trump on the votes of minorities of electors, he reflected on the benefits of our compulsory voting and then realised he had no idea of where if had come from, or when. I was not at first sure there was a book in it, but after doing some research I decided that there was, so long as compulsory voting was put into the broader framework of the development of Australia’s distinctive majoritarian electoral practices, which also include Saturday and preferential voting, and our bi-partisan arms-length electoral administration. The book will be published by Text in early March in the lead up to the federal election expected in May.

About the Author

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. She is the award-winning author of The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (2017), Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People (1993) and Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class(2003). Among her many other publications are three Quarterly Essays and the forthcoming From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting. She also contributes regularly to The Monthly.

*Dr John Doyle is an Associate in the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University and an Honorary Associate in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University, where in 2017 he completed a PhD on the political and policy history of Australian telecommunications reform. John has held policy and strategy roles with Optus and is a former board member of the telecommunications sector’s peak industry body, Communications Alliance.

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