The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (2017) by Judith Brett

I really enjoy (Australian) political biographies. This might seem odd, given my belief that individual agency barely matters in the broad sweep of political history. But done well, biographies offer us a glimpse into a different time. They show how individuals are ultimately products of their environment, no matter how original they think they are. Judith Brett’s timely biography about Australia’s second prime minister, The Enigmatic Mr. Deakin (2017), does this exceptionally well. 

Unlike politicians today, Alfred Deakin was a remarkably introspective person. His inner life was equally, if not richer, than his public life. An extraordinary feat, given that Deakin was instrumental to Australian federation. His contribution to Australian politics went beyond what he could have possibly imagined. Deakin’s legislative achievements survived for roughly seventy-years, until Bob Hawke and Paul Keating replaced the ‘Deakinite settlement’ (as Paul Kelly describes it) with neoliberalism. Tariff protections for domestic industry, White Australia, centralised wage arbitration, state paternalism, and imperial benevolence – the broad contours of Deakin’s progressive liberalism defined Australian politics for several generations. So how did he do it?

Solitude within created stoicism without, argues Brett. Deakin’s penchant for self-reflection, spiritual soul-searching, and philosophical navel-gazing gave him a “still point” from which to navigate politics, creating an immense “will to persist” where others might have failed. In making her case, Brett marshals Deakin’s private letters and notes, revealing the inner depth of Australia’s second prime minister. Despite all this, I do not share her interpretation.

On my reading, Deakin was an immensely self-absorbed individual. Far from being a strength, this was perhaps his greatest weakness. This might seem harsh, especially since I never knew the man, nor have I poured over as many documents as Brett has. Still, I believe it to be warranted.

Despite his progressive sympathies, Deakin’s abstract theorising prevented him from understanding the class politics emerging around him. Class consciousness, with its roots in material self-interest, was anathema to Deakin. Deakin saw politics as a forum for turning the Ideal into reality. Politics began with abstract thinking and ended in perfect policy, bringing about an ever-closer unity with the Ideal. When reality got in the way of perfect legislation, most often due to amendments put up by the Labor Party, Deakin routinely threatened to resign. On one such occasion, Deakin did resign, resulting in the world’s first Labo(u)r government, led by Chris Watson. In the eyes of a middle-class liberal, the working-class represented crude self-interest, whereas the Liberals were noble and objective, governing on behalf of the entire nation. Privilege is the ability to regard your own position as universal.

Deakin was naively blind to the injuries of poverty. Ironically, his own detachment from material concerns vindicates the socialist position: only the rich have the luxury of treating politics as some noble civic duty rather than a struggle for survival. Despite agreeing with the majority of the nascent Labor Party’s policies, Deakin expressed a disproportionate distaste towards them. It is hard not to conclude that he believed politics was better suited to high-minded gentleman, not crass working-class men. His vision of progress was of an enlightened middle-class passing legislation of behalf of the poor, but never the poor governing themselves. In Judith Brett’s own words, Deakin believed that “change would come from awakened middle-class conscience, not aroused working-class anger”. Similarly, although Deakin believed in giving women the vote, he rarely mentioned them in his speeches. His world was conspicuously narrow; he struggled to imagine circumstances too dissimilar from his own.

Parochialism afflicts everyone, to greater and lesser degrees. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too harsh on Deakin, given that his sense of national duty made him persist with politics despite its obvious ill-effects on his health. Deakin passed in October 1919. He was sixty-three. Herbert Brookes, who wrote the first biography of Deakin in 1923, concluded that a quiet literary life would have suited him better. I agree.

Beyond being simply a character study, Judith Brett’s biography is also remarkably prescient about our own political times. For the first decade after federation, Australia was run by minority governments. Today, hung parliaments and minority governments are the boogeymen haunting the major parties and the media class. Australians should apparently be very afraid of the alleged chaos that ensues when no party achieves a clear majority. This, despite the fact that the non-Labor side of politics has always governed in coalition; a necessity which emerged during Deakin’s time in politics. But as they say: never let the truth get in the way of a good scare campaign. True, early Australian parliaments were chaotic. By 1909, Australia had had seven federal ministries in eight years. Deakin himself had become prime minister on three separate occasions. And yet, for all the chaos, the legislative achievements of this early period proved remarkably resilient. It was not until the 1980s, ironically under a Labor government, that the protectionist Deakinite edifice came crumbling down.

Why was the early Australian settlement so robust? Deakin argued that because no single party had a majority, agreement between at least two was required to pass legislation. Necessity bred consensus politics, and it worked. With both major parties seemingly in irreversible decline, perhaps the real lesson of Deakin’s life is that minority government needn’t be bad government.

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