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Alfred Deakin (August 3, 1856 - October 7, 1919), intellectual leader of the movement for Australian federation and second Prime Minister of Australia, was born in Melbourne, Victoria, the son of English immigrants. He was educated at Melbourne Grammar School and graduated in law from the University of Melbourne, but he made his name as a journalist, working for the Melbourne daily The Age and its autocratic owner, David Syme . He was active in the Australian Natives Association and was also a lifelong spiritualist.
Deakin was elected to the colonial Parliament of Victoria in 1879, as a liberal protectionist and a supporter of the radical Premier, Graham Berry . Between 1883 and 1890 he held office in several ministries. He could probably have been Premier himself, but from 1890 he devoted his attention to the movement for federation. Furthermore, he was nearly ruined in the Crash of 1891, and had to return to the bar to restore his finances.
Deakin was a delegate to the Federal Conventions of 1891 and 1897-98, and federation became the greatest cause of his life. His early radicalism had become tempered by realism, and he accepted the rather conservative draft constitution which emerged from the conventions, even though it led to a break with some his old colleagues.
In 1900 Deakin travelled to London to oversee the passage of the federation bill through the Imperial Parliament, and took part in the negotiations with Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, which nearly derailed the whole process. Deakin defined himself as an "independent Australian Briton," favouring a self-governing Australia but loyal to the British Empire: he certainly did not see federation as marking Australia's independence from Britain.
In 1901 he was elected to the first federal Parliament as MP for Ballaarat, and became Attorney-General in the ministry headed by Edmund Barton. No-one doubted, however, that Deakin was the real leader of the government, and when Barton retired in 1902 Deakin automatically succeeded him.
But Deakin's path as Prime Minister was far from smooth. His Protectionist Party did not have a majority in either House, and he held office only by courtesy of the Labor Party, which insisted on legislation more radical than Deakin was willing to accept. In April 1904 he resigned. The Labor leader Chris Watson and the Free Trade leader George Reid succeeded him, but neither could form a stable ministry.
Deakin resumed office in mid 1905, and retained it for three years. His government passed much of the foundational legislation of the Australian Commonwealth, including bills to create an Australian currency and an Australian Navy. In 1908 he was again forced from office by Labor. He then formed a coalition, the "Fusion," with his old conservative enemy Reid, and returned to power in 1909 at the head of Australia's first majority government.
The Fusion was seen by many as a betrayal of Deakin's liberal principles, and in April 1910 his party was soundly defeated at the polls by Labor under Andrew Fisher. Deakin retired from Parliament in 1913 and withdrew from public life. He suffered a progressive mental collapse (probably due to Alzheimer's disease) and became an invalid, dying in 1919 aged only 63.
Deakin continued to write prolifically throughouit his career. He wrote anonymous political commentaries for the London Morning Post even while he was prime minister. His account of the federation movement appeared as The Federal Story in 1944 and is a vital primary source for this history. His account of his career in Victorian politics in the 1880s was published as The Crisis in Victorian Politics in 1957. His collected journalism was published as Federated Australia in 1968.
Alfred Deakin was almost universally liked, admired and respected by his contemporaries, who called him "Affable Alfred." He made his only real enemies at the time of the Fusion, when not only Labor but some liberals such as William Lyne reviled him as a traitor. He had a long and happy marriage to Pattie Deakin (nee Elizabeth Browne), and had three daughters who all married influential men. His descendants are still active in Melbourne political and business circles, and he is regarded as a founding father by the modern Liberal Party.
- John A La Nauze, Alfred Deakin: A Biography, two volumes, Melbourne University Press 1965
- Alfred Deakin - Australia's Prime Ministers / National Archives of Australia
- Guide to the papers of Alfred Deakin held by the National Library of Australia
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