First Attorney-General
Years active
1 January 1901 – 24 September 1903
Portrait of Alfred Deakin - Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia. A5954, 1299/2 Photo PL765/1.

ALFRED DEAKIN 1856–19191

Born on 3 August 1856 in Collingwood, Victoria, Alfred Deakin was the younger of the two children of English-born William Deakin and his Welsh-born wife Sarah, née Bill. William Deakin, a clerk and shopkeeper, had moved to Victoria in 1851 to prospect for a period during the gold rush. After the family moved to Collingwood he held various jobs before going into the coaching business and later becoming manager of Cobb & Co. in Victoria.

Beginning his formal education at age four, with his older sister Alfred Deakin was sent to a small boarding school located first at Kyneton and then at South Yarra. In 1864 he moved to the nearby Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, as a day-boy. Possessed of quick comprehension skills and a superb memory, he was a prolific reader with a vivid imagination – frequently distracted from the pursuit of academic excellence. Matriculating in 1871, he began studying law at the University of Melbourne at age 16. He attended evening classes while working as a schoolteacher and private tutor during the day. An enthusiastic member of the university debating club and various societies promoting radical thought, he also edited a spiritualist paper. Passing the final examination for the certificate in law in 1877, he was admitted to the Victorian Bar and took chambers in Temple Court.

With his legal practice growing only slowly, most of his income for several years came from journalism. Befriended by the editor of The Age, Deakin was engaged to contribute reviews and articles on politics, literature and miscellaneous topics and in 1880 was editor of The Age's weekly paper, The Leader. He wrote extensively all his life, producing poetry, essays and literary criticism as well as journalistic articles. Remarkably, during the first two decades of the twentieth century he reported regularly on Australian politics for two London papers, the Morning Post and the National Review. Writing anonymously, he was even slightly critical of himself at times.

Developing an interest in politics, along with Protectionist views, Deakin was first elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly in February 1879, when he was 22 years old. After winning the rural seat of West Bourke by a narrow margin he delivered his maiden speech on 8 July, then resigned at its conclusion on a matter of principle, following press claims of irregularity in the poll. He lost the subsequent by-election, but won the seat again in July 1880 and held it for 10 years. On 3 April 1882, Deakin and Elizabeth Martha Anne (Pattie) Browne, the 19 year-old daughter of a wealthy and prominent spiritualist, were married in Melbourne.

From March 1883 to November 1890 Deakin held ministerial office in Victorian coalition governments. At various times responsible for public works or health, he also served as Solicitor-General and Chief Secretary, and became leader of the Victorian liberals in 1885. Causes he espoused included welfare for the underprivileged, significant workplace reforms in factories and shops and prevention of cruelty to animals. A passionate campaigner for irrigation in the wake of widespread severe drought, he chaired a royal commission on the issue in 1884 and undertook a three-month fact-finding tour to the United States. A capable administrator, he was also notable for his capacity to negotiate conciliation and compromise.

Deakin was Victoria's principal representative at the Imperial Conference held in London in 1887. Convened to discuss commercial, social and security ties between the British Government and all its dominions, the conference was attended by at least two representatives from each of Australia's six colonies. Frustrated that competitive divisions between the colonies, in particular antagonism between New South Wales and Victoria, prevented them presenting a united front at the conference, Deakin pressed colonial interests as an individual. Arguing forcibly for better terms in the existing naval agreement protecting Australian waters, he impressed many prominent politicians and intellectuals with his stand for colonial nationalism. The experience fired Deakin's support for federation, already an idea within the Australian colonies for some decades but not yet galvanised by general recognition that no defence of Australia could be effective without centralised control.

Moving to the Essendon electorate in 1889, Deakin held ministerial office in the Legislative Assembly until the government was defeated in October 1890. Still influential on the back benches, throughout the next decade he focused his energies on the movement for federation. He returned to his legal practice to supplement his salary and to repay his substantial debts following heavy personal losses in the financial collapse of 1893.

Victoria's most prominent federationist, Deakin attended all the official conferences and conventions of the 1890s. He was at the Australasian Federal Conference of ministers in Melbourne in 1890, at which it was decided to hold an inter-colonial convention to draft a federal constitution. At the age of 34 he was the youngest delegate to the National Australasian Convention in Sydney in March 1891, and a member of the committee which prepared the draft Constitution Bill. Deakin also served on the constitutional committee for the second Australasian Federal Convention, held in Adelaide and Melbourne between March 1897 and January 1898. While he had a significant role in shaping the Constitution, Deakin's major contribution to Federation was in generating public support for the initially unpopular Bill. An impressive man, renowned as an eloquent speaker and brilliant debater, he addressed meetings throughout Victoria and later in Queensland, persuading people to accept a federated, self-governing Australia still loyal to the British Empire. He formed constructive partnerships with other federationists, especially Edmund Barton in New South Wales, and was involved in the creation of Federation Leagues in various places. Working with Premier Sir George Turner to ensure that the Constitution Bill passed the Victorian parliament, Deakin campaigned assiduously to ensure success at the Federation referenda in 1898 and 1899.

Deakin was part of the delegation of six Australian politicians who went to London in March 1900 to negotiate passage of the Constitution Bill through the United Kingdom Parliament. Compromise eventually reached, the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act was granted Royal Assent by Queen Victoria on 9 July 1900. Before the inauguration of the nation on 1 January 1901, Deakin influenced the selection of Edmund Barton as the first Prime Minister by refusing to serve under Governor-General Hopetoun's preliminary choice, anti‑federationist William Lyne. On 1 January 1901 Deakin, at age 44 the youngest member of the transitional ministry which was put in place from 1 January 1901 pending the first federal election, was sworn in as Australia's first Attorney-General.

At the inaugural election on 29 March 1901 he won the seat of Ballarat, Victoria, and became one of the 31 Protectionists among the 75 members in the House of Representatives. Again appointed Attorney-General, Deakin also served as leader of the House. He dealt with a massive workload during his term as Attorney-General, developing policy and legislation to regulate all aspects of the new government and its administration. Financial, public service, customs and excise, immigration, electoral and defence laws were among those put in place. After considerable debate following a highly acclaimed introductory speech from Deakin in March 1902, the Judiciary Act was finally passed in September 1903 and the High Court was established, albeit with only three rather than the five judges envisaged in the Constitution.

The hundreds of advices contributed by Deakin to the Opinion Book during his terms as Attorney-General reflected the wide-ranging activities of the new Commonwealth administration. His first entry, on 1 January 1901, dealt with the collection and control of customs and excise duties. Departmental Secretary, Robert Garran recalled lively discussions with Deakin in the course of drafting difficult opinions, remembering:

He would take the role of counsel for the other side and attack the opinion from every angle, pinking it with rapier thrusts and putting me to desperate shifts in it defence. His sallies were sometimes fantastic, but always enlightening. At last he would say, "I think you are right, but redraft it and let me see it again." The rewritten opinion, with the joints mended where he had pierced them, might reach the same conclusions, but would be more satisfying to myself and, I hope, more convincing to others.2

Passage of the first Conciliation and Arbitration Bill – taken up by Deakin in July 1903 after proposed amendments precipitated the resignation of the Minister for Trade and Customs, Charles Kingston – proved particularly problematic. Two governments resigned and political alliances changed during contentious debate on the issue. Made Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs from 24 September 1903,3 when Barton was appointed to the High Court, Deakin relied on Labor support to stay in government after the second general election on 16 December 1903. The alliance collapsed on 27 April 1904 over a Labor amendment to the Bill. Later that year the Protectionists split, creating a fourth political group in a very unsettled parliament. On 17 August 1904 Labor Prime Minister Chris Watson also resigned when his government was defeated in a vote on the Bill, leaving the Free Trade and some Protectionist members to form a coalition government under the leadership of George Reid. The Conciliation and Arbitration Bill was ultimately passed shortly before the parliamentary session closed in December 1904. During the subsequent six-month recess, the Labor Party, the Protectionist radicals and Deakin's supporters negotiated an alliance which denied Reid a majority in the House of Representatives, and Deakin again became Prime Minister on 5 July 1905.

His second term was extremely productive. Defence, external affairs, immigration, federal financial relations, tariffs, survey of a trans-continental railway-route, expansion of the High Court bench to five judges, a quarantine system, meteorology, wireless telegraphy, copyright, census and statistics, old age pensions, electoral boundaries, Australia's involvement in the Antarctic, administration of British New Guinea, the location of the seat of government and the transfer of the Northern Territory of South Australia to Commonwealth control were all dealt with. Retaining power once again with the support of Labor members, who significantly outnumbered Deakin's followers after the December 1906 election, Deakin resigned when the alliance broke down and Andrew Fisher became Prime Minister on 13 November 1908. During the parliamentary recess early in 1909 a 'Fusion' alliance of the three non-Labor groups was negotiated, with Deakin as its obvious although somewhat reluctant leader. Commissioned to form his third government on 2 June 1909, Deakin succeeded in maintaining some equilibrium between the disparate members of the government while continuing to shape Commonwealth administration until the next election on 13 April 1910. Then Labor won a decisive victory, giving it the first absolute majority in federal parliament.

In Opposition, Deakin promoted more formal unification of the non-Labor parliamentarians, contributing to the founding of the Commonwealth Liberal Party4 and the introduction of a two-party preferred system. Gradually increasing in severity after it first afflicted him in 1908, a form of dementia which diminished his memory and his ability to speak, forced Deakin to resign. He retired from politics when the fourth parliament expired in May 1913. His mental state worsened from the stress of undertaking two further government services – he chaired a Royal Commission on Food Supply in 1914, and acted as president of the Australian Commission at the International Exposition held in San Francisco in February 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. A trip to London and New York late in 1916 also proved unduly onerous.

Living as a recluse at Port Lonsdale, Victoria from 1916, Deakin was unable to enjoy the retirement filled with books and writing that he had planned. Survived by his wife and their three daughters he died at age 63 on 7 October 1919 at South Yarra. He was given a state funeral at Queen's Hall in Parliament House in Melbourne and was buried in the St Kilda Cemetery next to the graves of his parents. The Federal Story, his account of the federation movement, was published long after his death, in 1941. While he refused many honours and awards, including a knighthood, during his lifetime, his memory was honoured with the naming of the federal electoral division of Deakin in Victoria, Deakin University, Deakin House at Melbourne Grammar School, Deakin Avenue in the rural city of Mildura, and in Canberra the suburb of Deakin and Alfred Deakin High School.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
  2. Sir Robert Randolph Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1958, p. 155.
  3. James Drake replaced Deakin as Attorney-General.
  4. The Commonwealth Liberal Party merged with National Labor in February 1917 to become the Nationalist Party of Australia. The modern Liberal Party of Australia, which was founded in 1944, evolved from the United Australia Party and its predecessors.

Opinions by this author

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