Recording date:

Public Life, Private Man: Writing the Biography of Alfred Deakin

The core challenge of political biography is to answer the question, ‘why politics?’. What inner need did it fulfil, and what emotional and psychological resources were mustered for its accomplishment?

These questions are harder to answer for Alfred Deakin than for less complex political leaders. Deakin was a gifted orator and successful politician who was a father of federation and Australia’s most significant prime minister until the Second World War. Yet he was also a deeply private man, with an intense intellectual and spiritual life, who wondered often if politics was the right path for him.

The 2019 Seymour Biography Lecture was delivered by emeritus professor and political historian Judith Brett, who will discussed the tensions and synergies between Deakin’s public and private lives. In 2017, Brett published The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, the final addition to her trilogy of books on the history of Australian Liberals. The first full-length study of Deakin in more than 50 years, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin went on to win the 2018 National Biography Award. Brett’s prior publications include Robert Menzies' Forgotten People, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class: From Alfred Deakin to John Howard and this year’s From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting.

The Seymour Biography Lecture is supported by Dr John Seymour and Mrs Heather Seymour AO.

Image: [Portrait of Alfred Deakin seated at his desk] [picture]. nla.obj-136656646

2019 Seymour Biography Lecture - Judith Brett


*Speakers: Brett Mason (B), Tyrone Bell (T), Judith Brett (J), Marie-Louise Ayres (M)

*Audience: (A)

*Location: National Library of Australia

*Date: 3/10/2019



B:        Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, a very warm welcome to the National Library of Australia and to one of our favourite annual events, the Seymour Biography Lecture. I’m Brett Mason and it’s my great joy really to chair the Council of the National Library of Australia but before we begin may I invite Tyrone Bell to welcome us to country this evening. Tyrone.


T:         Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Tyrone Bell, I'm a descendent of the Ngunawal people and it’s my privilege this evening to welcome you to the country of the Ngunawal people. To begin with I would like to let you know that traditional Aboriginal law requires any visitors to the country being made welcome. This customary tradition has been passed on by all our generations. This ritual forms a part of our belief system, its purpose is for visitors to acknowledge whose country it is and then in turn being acknowledged as visitors are made welcome.

This welcome custom has happened for thousands of years and we use it as protection for country against bad spirits. The country on which you stand today is that of the Ngunawal people. Being a Ngunawal traditional custodian gives me pleasure to invite you on the country of my people.

[Speaks Aboriginal language]

In the language of my people means this is Ngunawal country, welcome to our meeting place. Please enjoy. We acknowledge and pay our respects to the elders past and present. We call country the mother because as a mother cares for her children so does the land cares for us. This is why Aboriginal people have such close ties with the land. On behalf of myself and my people I send a warm welcome to everyone here. I’m proud to be Aboriginal and one of the traditional carers of this land. I want you to feel welcome while on our country.

Firstly I would like to acknowledge those that have come to this area for the first time and warmly welcome you. For those that have been here before welcome back and of course for those that live here please continue to enjoy and behave. We want you to feel welcome while visiting Ngunawal country and ask that you respect the land that we have done for 60,000 years plus. So in keeping with our Ngunawal tradition in the true spirit of friendship and reconciliation treat everyone and everything with dignity and respect and by doing so it is our belief that your spirit will be harmonised with your stay on Ngunawal country.

It is our belief that our ancestors will then in turn bless your stay on our spiritual land. May the spirit of the land remain with you today, tomorrow and always. Once again on behalf of the Ngunnawal people I welcome you to our traditional country. [Speaks Aboriginal language]. Thank you and goodbye.


B:        Tyrone, again thank you so very, very much.

It’s a great pleasure to see so many of you here tonight for this year’s Seymour Biography Lecture. I know we have many regular attendees in the audience and the lecture has a very dedicated following and so to all of you welcome back to the National Library. You might think, ladies and gentlemen, that Australia’s spring calendar should be full of football finals and the beginning of the cricket season and the running of the Melbourne Cup but for me the highlight is the Seymour Biography Lecture.

The Seymour Biography Lecture is named in honour of John and Heather Seymour who are both with us this evening and without whom whose support this lecture would not be possible. I reminded John when we had a chat before that he lectured me at the ANU Law School in 1984, a mere 35 years ago, and we both agreed that we hadn’t changed a bit.

The first Seymour Biography Lecture was held in 2005 and since 2009 the National Library had been very proud to be its home and this year’s lecture is in fact of course the 10th presented by the National Library. John and Heather are passionate supporters of the National Library and also the literary forms that we call biography, autobiography and memoir. Many of us share their passion but John and Heather have chosen to express their interest in life writing through their support for the lecture and also for an annual scholarship.

For many years now the Seymours have supported a summer scholarship in biography as part of the Library’s fellowship program for young scholars and in so doing they are helping to develop the life writers, the biographers of the future. Heather and John, to both of you, we thank you so very much for your ongoing support.


Ladies and gentlemen, the Seymour Biography Lecture has been presented by some of the great life writers of our time and tonight’s speaker, Professor Judith Brett, is no exception. Judith Brett is a political historian, her publications include Robert Menzies, Forgotten People and Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class, from Alfred Deakin to John Howard. In 2017 she published The Enigmatic Mr Deakin to complete a trilogy of books on the history of Australian Liberals.

Now Judith must tell me what fascinates her so much about the Liberal Party. I’ve been a member for more than 30 years and I’ve spent 25 trying to get out but Judith, it’s a fascinating organisation and you write about it so very eloquently.

The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is the first full length study of Deakin in more than 50 years and it won the 2018 National Biography Award. In March this year Judith published From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, a timely study of Australia’s voting system or as The Australian Book Review described it, a paean to the Australian election.

Tonight we’re looking forward to hearing Professor Brett speak about the public and the private lives of Australia’s father of federation, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Professor Judith Brett to present the 2019 Seymour Biography Lecture.


J:          Thank you very much and I’d like to also thank John and Heather Seymour whose generosity supports these lectures. Biography’s a difficult craft and this support is much appreciated and I’m honoured to have been invited to deliver this year’s lecture. I’d also like to thank the National Library for hosting the lecture and for the support it gives to historians and biographers through the collections. Now I actually am going to give a slightly different talk to the one that’s advertised. I’m going to talk about Alfred Deakin but in order to say I think a bit more at a general level about the craft of political biography, I'm also going to talk a bit about Robert Menzies because in having sort of two case studies I can I think illustrate a little more clearly what I see as the key challenges of writing political biography.

So I’m going to talk about Robert Menzies and Alfred Deakin, both of whom have their papers here and I’ve spent many, many hours reading them in the Manuscript Room in this building where the staff have always been courteous and helpful so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank every one of the National Library who’s basically helped my work.

So what I want to do tonight is to use the lives of these two Prime Ministers to illustrate what I see as the core challenge of political biography which is to answer the question, why politics? Why did this person become a political actor? What needs did it fulfil? What emotional and psychological resources did they muster for its accomplishment? What were its costs and what were its rewards?

In popular understandings of politicians, particularly amongst cynical Australians, the answers are obvious, ambition, a sense of destiny, immense self-belief, the will to power. For some lesser players, material self-interest. Australians are typically cynical about politicians’ motives and the pushing, shoving types who inhabit our Parliament. Deakin, I’m sure is exceptional.

But if you ask politicians themselves why they go into politics you’ll get a very different answer. They will talk about the desire to give back, to contribute, to serve the Party, the class, the faith, the community, the people or the nation. Both of these answers are true. There is ambition in a political life but there are also ideals and especially in the political lives that attract biographers, the lives of the men and women who win high office and have a lasting influence on the polities they lead.

So ambition and ideals, these are the two poles of political motivation and biography is essentially a narrative art. It tells the story of a life but in ways that make that life intelligible. The biographer works within a time producing a chronology of events in their historical context, it narrates a plot but we also work with interior time, with our subjects in our lives. This is described by the English biographer, Richard Holmes, as patterns of impulse and imagery, repetitions and recollections, constellations of self-myth and self-understanding, links between childhood and adult experience which obey the quite different unhistorical or dream laws or memory and imagination.

Now the patterns that Holmes is describing there only reveal themselves when a biographer lifts their attention from the moving edge of time, from the chronicle of events, the sequence of people and of issues which make up the subject’s outer life to an essentially spatial contemplation of the whole, to the life spread out like a landscape with the biographer’s life roving back and forth for patterns and disruptions.

For me as a political biographer the key pattern that I’m looking for is to find the balance between ambition and ideals in that political subject’s life and to chart how they interact and shift over a lifetime. It means that it’s actually not ‘til you in some ways get to the end of the life that you can go back and see the patterns. So tonight what I want to do is say a little about the patterns that I found in my work on Alfred Deakin and Robert Menzies and I'm going to begin with Menzies even though he’s later in history, he’s psychologically less complicated than Deakin and he’s no doubt a bit more familiar to people here.

Now in many ways Menzies was the quintessential man of ambition. He was born in 1894 in the small and very new Wimmera town of Jeparit which is up in the northwest of Victoria. Jeparit at that stage was only five years old. His parents had moved there to open a store and 50 years earlier and its surrounds had been part of the hunting grounds of the dispossessed Wotjobaluk tribes. Now here’s a description that Menzies wrote of his childhood home that I want to say a little bit about. He wrote this in 1948 in a piece that was called What the Empire Means to Me.

To me the British empire means, he wrote, a cottage in the wheat lands of the northwest of the state of Victoria with the Bible and Henry Drummond and Jerome K Jerome and Burns on the shelf. The passage went on, the empire means the cool green waters of the Colne as they glide past the church at Fairford, the long sweep of the Wye Valley above Tintern with a Wordsworth in my pocket. King George and Queen Mary coming to their jubilee in Westminster Hall and so on it goes for two pages of associations about what the empire means to him. He didn’t publish it until 1949 and he had to change it to Commonwealth, the empire had gone but the emotional pattern stays the same.

Now what I’m interested in here is the way Menzies is placing his childhood home securely inside the British empire. He’s associating it with its landscape and literature and with the monarchy he loved so well. His first trip to England was for the coronation of King George.

Notice his description of what was actually a weatherboard and iron dwelling behind a shop, the general store, as a cottage and the books on the shelf. The Menzies home may have been in the outer empire, as he sometimes talked about Australia, but it was in the empire nevertheless and this gave meaning to his and his family’s limited and difficult lives on the edge of settlement as it did to the lives of so many like them. They may have been at the very edge of the circle of light emanating from London but they were still inside its glow as members of the British race living out its historic destiny.

Now these books on the shelf appear in most descriptions of Menzies’ childhood. For him the closeness and security of his childhood home seem best expressed in the family activity of reading together. Through these books the family created and shored up its sense of belonging, of being part of something greater. Books were the links, the lifelines from the remote, alien place of Menzies’ birth to another world and Menzies quickly learned that if he could master the knowledge they contained they would provide a way out of Jeparit and perhaps pave the way to the centre.

Very early on young Menzies set his sights on high office. A visiting phrenologist foretold phrenology is reading the future and your character by feeling the bumps on your head. It was very popular in the late 19th century. Deakin also consulted a phrenologist. But this one I think the family took him along, it was a bit of entertainment, I guess, and the phrenologist said that he would be a public speaker and a barrister. Menzies was a very young boy, he was very pleased with this and he said he wouldn’t just be any old barrister, he told his family, he’d become the Chief Justice of Victoria. The way out of Jeparit for him was through education and as the family was not well off and at that time there were no government secondary schools this meant he had to win scholarships and his mother made that pretty clear to him early on.

Menzies was hardworking and he was clever. He matriculated, studied law and he was soon a successful barrister. In 1920 while he was a relatively junior member of the Bar and only 26 he argued the engineer’s case which reshaped federal state relations and brought him sudden fame. After a brief stint in the Victorian Legislative Assembly he won the federal seat of Kooyong in 1934 which he then held for the rest of his political life and Prime Minster Joe Lyons made him Attorney-General. So at 40 the boy from Jeparit was now Australia’s chief law officer.

On his own account Menzies gave up his successful legal career and entered politics in order to serve. Democratic politics, he often wrote, was the noblest and highest of civil vocations. The one mar on his reputation at the Bar had been his air of superiority, sometimes put a jury offside. In politics this air of superiority was an even greater liability for this young man in a hurry. He was impatient to test his skills against the demands of high office, he was very conscious of his own considerable gifts and he was not too tolerant of the inadequacy of others.

This is I think - it’s taken in 1940, it’s a little later but it gives you a sense of a man who’s pretty pleased with himself. He was tall and imposing. When he won federal preselection for Kooyong the Victorian Premier, Stanley Argyle, reputedly told one federal Minister, thank God we got rid of him, you’re welcome to him. Argyle had felt the pressure of Menzies’ ambition and soon Joe Lyons would feel it too. When Lyons died suddenly of a heart attack at Easter in 1939 Menzies, who had resigned from Cabinet, was accused of contributing to the pressure that killed him.

Although Menzies was consciously choosing a life of service to his ideals his ambition often got the upper hand and led him into actions which contemporaries saw as expressing his own competitive urge to succeed rather than as the principled actions he wanted them to be. Despite some opposition Menzies did succeed Lyons as Prime Minister and five months later he was the Prime Minister when Australia entered World War 2.

Now early in 1941 as the Prime Minister of Australia Menzies went to England where he sat while he was there in Winston Churchill’s Cabinet. Here are Menzies and Churchill at the time in 1941. There he is at the centre of empire and Menzies was very critical of Churchill. He was critical of the great man’s dictatorial methods and of the subservience of his Ministers as well as of Churchill’s disregard for wider imperial defence as Churchill focused on defeating Germany.

Menzies was angling for a permanent dominion presence in the Cabinet so that the war would be seen as an imperial war, not so much as sort of just a national defence of England. He thought he would be the best person to take up this position. At least he wanted a lot more consultation with the dominions on war strategy. If he had have been able to persuade Churchill to this it would have been the pinnacle of his political ascent, a position of power in London helping to defend the empire which was the source of the cultural and political values which had shaped him. But this was not to be. Churchill didn’t want a permanent dominion presence in his Cabinet and he certainly didn’t want Menzies staying in London and after four months abroad Menzies had no choice but to return to Australia.

Now I’m sure as most of you know a short time later Menzies resigned the Prime Ministership in the face of continuing carping and disunity in his party and in his government. The disunity though needn’t have been fatal. Menzies himself initiated his resignation and some thought he folded too easily. But this moment in his political life, his ambition and his self-confidence deserted him. Soon Labor’s John Curtin was Prime Minister and Menzies didn’t become Prime Minister again until 1949.

Now Menzies’ loss of the Prime Ministership at this time has been generally attributed to his personality, his air of superiority, his lack of the common touch, his inability to rub shoulders in the party room and the humiliation of the defeat there has been seen as teaching him a necessary lesson in human relations after which he was a wiser man and a far better politician.

My reading of Menzies’ loss of the Prime Ministership and the subsequent mellowing of his political personality is a little different. It places the decisive defeat not in the party room in Canberra but in London at the hands of Churchill. This was the most absolute defeat of Menzies’ political life, all others had been temporary setbacks after which his career resumed its upward path.

The pattern of his first 40 years was of easy success. To be sure he worked hard and he was able but he was also ambitious and to me it seemed that this ambition was not so much to reach the top but to reach the centre. The metaphor I had in mind wasn’t sort of ascent of a ladder that you get in lives that are essentially about upward class mobility but it was the movement from the outer edge of a circle to the centre of that circle and at the centre was London, Westminster and the monarchy. In 1941 his movement to the centre was decisively checked by Churchill. He, Menzies, would not be the man to save the empire. What political future he had would be in Australia.

Out of office and on the back bench he did contemplate leaving politics altogether and returning to the Bar but he stayed and in staying he had to find new answers to the question, why politics? This ushered in the most creative period of his political life as he rethought his reasons for staying in politics and discovered new purpose and new energy for his political life.

Between 1941 and 1949 I'm suggesting the balance between Menzies’ ambition and his ideals shifted decisively. His most substantial achievement in this period was the formation of the Liberal Party. In the wake of the United Australia Party’s disastrous election result in 1943 he worked indefatigably to bring the splintering non-Labor organisations together into a new non-Labor party and he worked hard to rethink and reshape non-Labor ideology to give this new Labor Party a set of ideals to guide its pursuit of political power in the post-war world. To do this he had to be able to speak convincingly to Australians of the ideals that were embodied in Australian life and Australian political actions.

We can see him doing this most clearly in his 1942 radio broadcast to the forgotten people. It was one of a series of radio broadcasts that he made at this time in which he was exploring his core political beliefs but for a biographer it’s the most revealing because it’s got the most sort of personal content. It was reading this speech in fact that first sparked my interest in Menzies. At an obvious political level he was arguing for individualism against the collectivist values of the Labor Government which looked set to dominate Australia’s post-war reconstruction, 1942-43, Curtin’s Labor Government is immensely popular. Against these collectivist values Menzies set the home and the family and the thrifty hardworking middleclass.

Now what interested me as a biographer was the way the speech drew on his own family of childhood. He cited Robert Burns’ poem, the Cotter’s Saturday night to illustrate the virtues of humble family piety and this taking him back to the cottage in the field with Robert Burns on the shelf. At this low point in his political life what you can see is Menzies re-mooring his sense of political purpose in this close childhood home and his relation with his parents, the lives of his parents which embodied the values of hard work, independence, service and frugality for which he praised the Australian middle class.

There he is in 1950 just after he’s won the Prime Ministership for the second time after the 1949 election. He went on to become the most successful 20th century representative of the values of the Australian middle class and he was only able to do this, I would suggest, to become such a convincing representative of shared group goals when he accepted the inevitable limits of being Australian and the limits that these placed on his political ambition. He could still adore the empire turned Commonwealth and he could adore the monarch – there he is – but this was now more of a sentimental attachment than a focus for personal ambition.

What I now will do is talk about Alfred Deakin as promised in the title of the lecture who became Australia’s second prime minister in 1903 when Edmund Barton went to the High Court. He was Prime Minister three times in the early Commonwealth’s first decade. In this decade key institutions were built and he was actually instrumental in this and in laying the foundations for the protective policies that underpinned Australian politics until the advent of neoliberalism in the 1970s and ‘80s. Deakin died 100 years ago next week on October the 7th at the age of 63 so very pleased in many ways on the centenary of his death to be able to talk about his political life. When Menzies retired in 1966 he nominated Deakin as Australia’s greatest Prime Minister and in many ways Menzies saw himself as Deakin’s heir. He named the new Liberal Party that was founded in ‘44/’45 after Deakin’s party of that name.

Now most politicians leave very few intimate papers. Their life is lived in the public world. They make speeches, they do deals, they win and lose elections, they suffer public triumphs and public humiliations. They live politics day and night and it is there that the biographer must look for answers to the question why politics? Menzies was a man like this. There were some memoirs written late in life, a couple of diaries from his trips to Britain which were very revealing, some occasional personal reflections in speeches but as private papers his papers are not rich. I looked for the pattern of his life as much in his public words and actions. I mean obviously you’re using both but that’s where there was much more material.

Deakin is very different. After his death his family found in his study notebooks filled with his private writings mainly on literary and religious topics but also manuscripts including two on politics. There was one about his very early period of his political life when he first becomes a Member of Parliament and one on federation. There are autobiographical reflections and there’s a prayer diary which he kept from 1884 ‘til his retirement from Parliament in 1913. Such a voluminous record of a rich inner and spiritual life is a rare resource for a political biographer even if it’s a little daunting. Some of it was typed up by his children later but there are pages and pages of 19th century handwriting.

Deakin became a politician, he wrote, by sheer force of circumstance rather than by independent choice and he repeatedly flirted with the possibility of resigning and leaving politics altogether to do something different but he never did. Despite this disavowal his is again an intensely political life. But he always disavowed simple political ambition which was a challenge for a political biographer. But as with Menzies the answer to the question why politics shifts across his life, though as I said it’s harder to answer initially. I mean Menzies went into politics because he was ambitious and he consciously sought political office. Deakin didn’t consciously seek political office, he entered politics almost accidentally when David Syme, the powerful editor of The Melbourne Age suggested his name to a committee of electors who were living for a candidate to contest a byelection. They couldn’t find anybody and Syme said try Deakin.

At the time Deakin was 22, there’s a photo of the intense young man he was at the time. He was born in Melbourne in 1856. He was the only son of goldrush immigrants. The family was of modest means but they only had two children and because of this he could afford to educate them well so for a son of the lower middle class Deakin was extraordinarily well educated. He attended Melbourne Grammar and he later studied law as an evening student at the University. But he wasn’t very interested in law. His passions were literature and philosophy including theology and comparative religion.

He contemplated various futures for himself, perhaps he could become a preacher or an actor or a dramatist or an essayist and pursuing the latter, becoming an essayist, he approached David Syme hoping to write literary essays for his papers but instead Syme sent him to cover Parliament and then on Syme’s suggestion he was whirled into politics. Whirled into politics is a phrase that Deakin himself uses to describe the beginning of his political life. This phrase captures the headlong rush of events that followed his rather impulsive decision to contest the byelection. He became a candidate on Friday, he addressed his first campaign meeting the following night and then he was off on the campaign trail and to his and everyone else’s amazement he won the seat.

This phrase though, whirled into politics, is more than a description of the hectic activity of Deakin’s first days in politics, whirling is an image of motion and energy. Worldly, natural, cosmic and spiritual. With it Deakin aligned his entry into public life with larger forces. At the time he entered politics Deakin had been an active spiritualist for about four years. He was a member of a prestigious séance circle and he was a successful medium. He wrote a book, The New Pilgrim’s Progress, that was dictated by the shade of John Bunyan and he was an office-bearer in the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists.

Later on when he reread the book when he was a bit older he decided it hadn’t been dictated by John Bunyan, he said it didn’t have Bunyan’s style and it seemed to be preoccupied with all the things he was preoccupied with as a man at the time he wrote it so he had some insight. But he still held onto some of spiritualism’s core beliefs, in particular the divinity of the universe, the immortality of the soul and the possibility of communication across the grave.

As well as consulting a phrenologist he went regularly to seances, not ones in which he was a medium but in which he was seeking guidance from the spirit world as to what he should do with his life. There was a series of prophecies made and Deakin believed that these prophecies were actually fulfilled in the events that unfolded over the next few years and they included that he would marry his fellow spiritualist, Pattie Browne, and that he would soon be back in Parliament and it turned out he did marry Pattie Browne and he was soon back in Parliament and so this shored up his spiritualist convictions.

Now in these early days as a Member of Parliament, as I said he regularly sought guidance from the spirits through a suburban medium. The shades of John Knox, Thomas McCauley, John Bunyan, John Stuart Mill all appeared and all were very keen to help him become a great reformer. Deakin recorded their advice in a diary which is held here in the Library and it’s a pretty astonishing document. Deakin regularly culled his papers but this survived.

The spirits urged him not to yield to depression and they advised him on reading and on his health and on shares and his share investments on the spirits’ advice were not good, he lost quite a bit of money so that was some prophecies that weren’t fulfilled. But the diary as well as the share advice returns again and again to the question of his life’s purpose. The spirits tell him he will be a great reformer but he’s not sure whether that will be in the law, in politics or religion. The spirits weren’t entirely clear about where this great reforming work would take place.

Now if we put to one side the bizarreness of his belief in the spirits we can ask what psychological role were these seances playing for the young Deakin? The answer I think is that they reassured him and gave him confidence and shored up in him a sense of destiny. They fed the conviction that he was special, singled out for great work. But more than belief that one’s special is needed to succeed in politics, one needs skills and aptitudes and in his early political campaigns Deakin revealed his extraordinary gift for oratory and this I think is one of the reasons he actually stayed in politics, that words, phrases, images, arguments, quotations, examples streamed from his mouth with great rapidity. He didn’t have written scripts like today’s politicians, he extemporised. He could do this on his feet for an hour at a time and he would work the crowd. So it was very similar to evangelical preaching of the time, there was a sort of call and response structure where people would cheer and boo and the orator and the crowd would in a sense work up their emotions together.

On the platform or on his feet in Parliament with his mind and body working in unison like this, his senses alert, Deakin was fully alive and present in the moment and it was an exhilarating experience for him. He is at various times plagued with a sense of depression and of lassitude and I think that this exhilaration of the political platform is crucial for understanding in a sense why he got into politics and stayed there initially. Because politics provided him with the drama, excitement and a great deal of attention from important older men and with his political successes apparently prophesied it satisfied his yearning for work that served a higher purpose. As his life in politics unfolded he did have periods of doubt and he soon learned that public life had its fair share of tedium and repetition.

But during the next decade his political fortunes rose with those of the city of his birth. The colony of Victoria was riding a wave of prosperity and marvellous Melbourne was in full swing. He was soon in the Ministry and by 1885 he was the leader of the Liberal Party and Chief Secretary in a coalition government. He visited California to explore irrigation and he invited the Chaffey brothers to establish the irrigation colony on the Murray that became Mildura.

Now in 1887 he visited London for the first time as a member of the Victorian Delegation to the 1887 Imperial Conference. This trip he believed had been prophesied and while he was there he boldly challenged the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, over Britain’s reluctance to annex the New Hebrides. The Victorians were very keen that the New Hebrides be annexed and he refused a knighthood. It was a thrilling series of triumphs and he returned from it a local celebrity, especially among the young native-born of the Australian Natives’ Association and this is from the banquets that they gave him when he returned. He’s surrounded by wattle but it’s the hero come back from abroad as a local celebrity.

In 1888, though, as the Australian colonies celebrated the centenary of the arrival of the first fleet cracks were starting to appear in their prosperity, especially in Victoria where a speculative land housing boom was in full swing and government debt was mounting as it borrowed to build infrastructure to support the growing population. The Gillies-Deakin Government was defeated in 1890 and the following year the boom came to a shuddering end. Soon banks and building societies were closing their doors, bankruptcies and unemployment were soaring, people were leaving Victoria.

Now as the colonies’ prospects plummeted so did Deakin’s spirits and his conviction that politics was his destiny. He was being urged to return to the leadership to help calm the panic that was turning the financial crisis into a disaster. He told his supporters, though, that he was staying out of office until he could be sure that he could realise his Liberal principles but his prayers tell a different and more psychologically interesting story. In 1892 he confessed to his god, I even dread the influence I seem to possess because uncertain of it being exercised for good and I still more dread to increase my responsibilities. Blind as I am how should I lead the blind?

Deakin didn’t take the leadership at this time because he didn’t have a clue what to do with it and what could be done to restore the colony’s finances. He was a facilitator of the spirit of progress, a leader for when times were good but he was not a man for a crisis and he stayed on the back bench and returned to law to rebuild his finances. He was seriously thinking of leaving politics at that point but he doesn’t leave so the big question for the biographer is why doesn’t he leave at this time? Things have really gone pear-shaped for him.

The answer was the promise of federation and for the rest of the 1890s it was this promise that held him in political life. Australia’s six colonies had been talking seriously about federating since the early 1880s and in 1893 the Corowa Plan made it much more achievable and so from 1893 onwards Deakin basically throws himself into the cause of achieving federation. So for the rest of the 1890s he refused all pleas to return to the Ministry and the achievement of federation became the focus of his energies and here he is with Edmund Barton, Barton led the movement for federation in New South Wales and Deakin becomes its leader in Victoria.

The achievement of federation and the birth of the Australian nation became for Deakin a redemption project after the humiliation of the financial crisis and was his second answer to the question, why politics? The sense of destiny which had carried him through the first decade of his political life had found a new focus in the birth of the nation and he believed that destiny was behind the federation movement, that it was the destiny of the colonies to form into a nation and that he would then be an agent of that destiny. So there was sort of now a much more achievable focus compared with the rather diffuse sense of destiny that he had in the first decade of his political life.

Once federation was achieved Deakin became Attorney-General in the first Commonwealth Government and after Edmund Barton retired to the High Court he was the second Prime Minister and this is a photo of him in 1903 when he becomes Prime Minister. He was 47. Over the next decade the answer to the question why politics shifts from his belief in his special destiny and the destiny of the achievement of the nation towards a sense of duty and service.

When the constitution was finally law and the Commonwealth was inaugurated Deakin saw it as the duty of those who had argued for federation to make it work. It was a compact he believed between the people who had voted yes and their elected representatives and this compact he believed was something of a sacred compact and to be served. The constitution provided a framework for the government of the nation but that was all, it was only a framework. Federal institutions had to be built and federal laws had to be passed for areas of federal responsibility. Federal sentiment and a wide federal perspective had to be nurtured. Again and again in his speeches in this period Deakin conjured up the map of Australia and he reminded his audience that they were no longer just Victorians or South Australians or Tasmanians, they were now Australians.

This was his great mission in the federal Parliament now, to make real the promise of the nation carried in the constitution. But it wasn’t easy and he was often downhearted and not at all sure what to do. The rapid rise of the Labor Party’s electoral support had turned federal Parliament into an unstable three-cornered contest with a series of minority governments and recurring political crises. Deakin’s Liberal Party was the middle party, between Labor on the left and the conservative free traders antisocialists on the right.

Its most productive period of government from 1905 to 1907 was in alliance with Labor. The end of the decade in 1909 Deakin reluctantly joined with the conservatives to form a united non-Labor Party in what became known as the fusion. He was abandoning his erstwhile Labor allies. Labor’s Billy Hughes furiously attacked Deakin in the Parliament for his inconstancy and this is Billy Hughes.

What a career his has been. In his hands at various times have rested the banners of every party in this country. He has proclaimed them all, he has held them all, he has betrayed them all. There is surely some moral obliquity about the nature such as his. No act that he commits, no party that he betrays, no cause that he abandons affects him at all. He regards himself as the selected and favoured agent of providence.

Now here we can see Hughes attributing to Deakin the cunning self-justifying steering by the chances for power that would mark his, Hughes’, future political career but even so Hughes recognised a recurring pattern. Deakin did see himself as an agent of providence. It was just often he wasn’t quite sure what providence had in mind for him and where it was heading.

His prayer diaries, mostly the prayers don’t have much political content but they’re dated which is immensely helpful for the biographer because you can line up when the prayer is written with the events that are happening and they’re of two main types. One prayer is thank you God for my many blessings, for my fortunate life and the other is oh Lord, show me the way, I don’t know what to do, what is it that you want me to do?

So in the Commonwealth Parliament he’s no longer seeking occult help with seances and divinations as he was in the early 1880s but he would step back and let events unfold and he’d wait for providence to show its hand while all around speculated as to what Mr Deakin would do.

Fusion ushered in Deakin’s final term as Prime Minister. An election was due in 1910 and Deakin hoped that the new united non-Labor Party would sweep the polls. He was wrong. Labor won a decisive victory to become the first Commonwealth Government with a clear Parliamentary majority.

At a personal level though Deakin was relieved. Since 1907 he’d been complaining about failures of memory, his insomnia had become chronic and he has periods of what was then described as nervous exhaustion. Politics was taking an increasing psychological toll on him and as he trudged on he felt, he wrote to his sister, Catherine, that a continent was strapped to his shoulders.

Deakin stayed in Parliament for another three years leading a shell-shocked opposition as his once brilliant mind slipped away in what was most likely early onset Alzheimer’s. For a time he watched and recorded the deterioration of his mental capacities but by the time he died he didn’t know who he was and he was only 63. This is a photo of him taken only a few months before he died. You can see he’s still handsome and he’s very well cared for. Pattie was devoted to him in the last years of his life but it’s a very sad end that he had.

Now Deakin and Menzies are very different biographical subjects. The absence of conventional ambition made Deakin the more challenging, I found, as a biographer as did his deeply religious nature. Particularly when you’re writing for a largely secular readership it’s quite challenging to convey the role that religion played in the lives of earlier generations. It’s not just the spiritualism which was pretty challenging to work out how to write about because some of the material was really bizarre and what I decided to do was often to just provide the primary material and to minimise the comments and as I said there to look for the psychological role that this was playing. But even with what became a more conventional Christianity and with a politician who is at the end of every day praying – now he doesn’t always record prayers but it’s quite hard to convey what that meant when you know that many of the people interested in political biography are essentially secular.

But there are some striking similarities between the two lives. Both men were gifted and hardworking and they experienced early success and an effortless rise to political office, though Deakin’s early triumphant celebrity were greater and more heady than Menzies’. Both left office voluntarily in midlife after experiencing setbacks and losing confidence. They had achieved little at this time when they left office and their early promise was unfulfilled but both stayed with politics. Now midlife, and in both cases this happens if you like at midlife, the point when a man realises he has stopped growing up and started to grow old. It’s a very confronting moment for men of ambition and destiny. Opportunities remain for achievement and success but the limitless horizons of youth are gone and with them youth’s reckless energies and unquestionable self-belief.

Both Menzies and Deakin hit limits at mid-life. Menzies, the limits to his political ambition imposed just by the fact that he was Australian, and Deakin, the limits to the optimism which had buoyed up his political career as his self-belief and faith in progress as the financial crisis engulfed the colony. They both withdrew from a time from high political office to sit on the back bench during which they rediscovered their political purpose with more limited and achievable goals. This tamed and focused their ambition and grounded their commitment to service in something tangible. Menzies founded the Liberal Party and took it to electoral victory. Deakin was crucial in the achievement of federation and the shaping of the new Commonwealth and both went on to become great Australian Prime Ministers.

So what I hope to have shown you tonight is that political biography can do more than chronicle the events of a political life. By asking the question why politics it can explore a politician’s deep motivations and the way these change across their lives and so help to explain their achievements. It can I think also help us understand failure but that’s another story for another time so thank you.


M:        Oh thanks, Judith, and it’s lovely to have Judith back in the Library because of course she has spent a lot of time in the Reading Rooms over the years. I’m Marie-Louise Ayres, Director-General of the National Library. As I was listening this evening I was thinking about how Judith’s juxtaposition of Menzies and Deakin around the poles of ambition and ideas has kind of given me a shifted focus myself. When we think about both interior time and spatial contemplation I think it allows us to also move between that kind of centre and the edge rather than taking that linear approach so I’m really glad that you brought the two together. We never keep people to say what they’re going to talk about.

J:          Well it was a long time ago.

M:        So thank you. I think tonight perhaps if Judith was asking herself why politics we might have also had some insights into why for people like Judith, why political biography? The Library’s really proud to be the custodian of Alfred Deakin’s personal papers including all of those diaries from 1804 until 1973 including correspondence and diaries, photographs and official documents during his three terms as Prime Minister. These papers of early political figures are a real strength of our collections, especially around federation.

Deakin’s papers sit alongside those of Sir Edmund Barton, Billy Hughes and later Sir Robert Menzies. They are joined by the papers of three dames, Enid Lyons, Ivy Wedgwood and Mary Gilmore as well as much more recent political figures, Jim Killen, Fred Chaney, Bob Brown, Margaret Reid and together they’re such a rich source of information about the history of politics in Australia as well as the many events that have shaped the nation that we call Australia.

Now we have time for a few questions from the audience. Those who are frequent visitors know the drill. Because we have a hearing loop in place if you want to ask a question please raise your hand and wait until the microphone comes to you, don’t be shy.

A:        Thank you for a wonderful talk. I’m just wondering whether the articles that I gather people didn’t realise had been written by Deakin published in Britain in The Morning Post, whether those articles are of any weight in your mind in terms of detecting Deakin’s sort of inner drive given that as I understand it, and you may be able to contradict this, but that really no-one bar maybe one or two people knew during his Prime Ministership that he was writing these sort of articles that were published in Britain, some of which were quite critical of Deakin which I guess was part of the foil.

J:          Thank you. The title, actually, of the book that I wrote on Deakin, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, comes from one of those. In the lead-up to fusion Deakin wrote an article in which he said Mr Deakin pursues his enigmatic methods, some great announcement is surely at hand but we’re not quite sure what it’s going to be. People may not know but he began in 1901 writing these anonymous letters from Australia for the conservative London Morning Post. He adopted a Sydney persona, he pretended to believe in free trade which he hated, he interviewed himself when he became Prime Minister. So that’s where I got the The Enigmatic Mr Deakin.

Now it’s a very good question, I mean I puzzled a lot, what was he doing with this? Now at an immediate level he was earning some money, he’d lost money in the financial crash and it was quite well paid. But he was also hoping to write a history of the new Commonwealth and that these letters – he was recording that happening. He’d always been very critical of the British press for not giving enough attention to the affairs of the Australian colonies so here was a chance for him to put his money where his mouth - he could do that. But at a psychological level there was something he really enjoyed about this sense of detachment from himself. I mean he enjoyed the anonymity of it and he would get his daughters to address the envelopes so his handwriting wouldn’t be recognised in the post office because George Reid might have a spy in the post office.

But at a deeper level there’s some way in which that detachment – one of the common metaphors he uses about political life is that of a stage and politicians as actors on a stage. So I think that was very attractive to him to in a way stand back from himself as the political actor but it also in a sense reveals that that’s what he did, that he had often this sense of detachment from his own outer actions. So thank you for that question, and as I said it gave me my title, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin because people saw him as enigmatic and when I was talking about Billy Hughes it’s often I think because Deakin wasn’t sure what he was going to do. He was waiting to see what would happen and he would often only move at the very last minute.

But the other thing about it is in those accounts he makes himself the centre of the action. It’s when Mr Deakin moves that the next constellation of parties in the Parliament will fall into place. He does see himself as a dramatic actor in these events.

A:        Can I ask a question? Thank you for the parallels between the two personalities but both had a flaw that I want to just discuss which is really highlighted in your talk but just touched on. Both had rapid early success, various places but both failed the big test, the depression in the 1890s in Melbourne with Deakin and the second world war with Menzies, both weren’t leading during those two testing periods which has tested a lot of other people. Then they were ready to come back when everyone else was worn out. So could you kind of tease that through ‘cause that quick, rapid ambition, early success then a dip and then when everyone’s kind of worn out they’re back again.

J:          I suppose I think that the qualities a leader needs in peace and in war are different and I think you’re right, I mean neither of them were in that sense men for a crisis but that doesn’t mean there weren’t also achievements that then afterwards, I guess is what I’m saying. Certainly in Deakin’s case he didn’t really understand economics or even government finances very well, I mean I think he was aware of his own limitations when he stood back.

Menzies, I think that again in a way the humiliation of the defeat means in some ways then in the peacetime there is a drive for redemption of some sort, I think he knew that he failed at that point but his life wasn’t over. But I do think that war and peace call on different types of leaders, require different attributes.

A:        Judy, I’m interested in the question that Marie-Louise in a sense asked you which is why political biography and what interested you in that –

J:          I don’t know.

A:        - particularly as a historian why you are now doing biography, what difference did that mean in terms of the sort of research that you had to do and the sort of questions you had to ask yourself? So probably too much for one night but I’d be interested if you comment on some of that.

J:          I feel as if it’s a little bit accidental, a bit like Deakin. In the 1980s in my PhD I was very interested in applied psychoanalysis and I was influenced by the professor of politics at the time at Melbourne University, a man called Alan Davies who was interested in applied psychoanalysis and in Graham Little who became a close friend and colleague. I didn’t ever set out to work on the Liberal Party, it sort of happened exactly, really because I was teaching a course on Australian political parties and in my approach to teaching politics what I thought I was trying to do was that I wanted students to be able to inhabit different political positions and understand their inner logic to understand what the world looked like from the point of view of the Labor Party, the Country Party, the Liberal Party, the DLP. If you were going to be a political scientist, political historian, if you’re going to understand politics, not to be a political partisan, you had to see what the inner logic of those positions were.

I couldn’t find anything that I felt explained the Liberal Party or Menzies in a way that I thought would challenge the students to really think hard about it and so I went looking for some stuff and I came across Menzies’ speech to the forgotten people in the basement of the Baillieu Library at the time and I read it and I started to have ideas about it. I think it was the fact that I felt that I had ideas about it and I had insight into it and then I wrote an article about it for Meanjin and from that I started to have more ideas about Menzies. So it was really that that drew me in, that I felt that at the time Menzies, there was sort of the grand old man of the Liberal Party and there was Pig Iron Bob and there was for my generation, The Frozen Edwardian who was meaning we didn’t have the ‘60s like Britain and England, he was holding everything up, sort of Donald Horne’s Menzies.

So none of them actually gave you an explanation of why he was popular and why he was successful and so I got drawn into that. Having done that in a sense I’ve kept moving backwards to understand well where did Menzies come from? What was the political formation there? Then I went back further and worked on Deakin so it’s been a sort of following my nose. Also there’s a way in which once you’ve done a lot of work in a particular area you’ve made a large investment in that and you actually know a lot and in knowing a lot you can sort of move into the same – I think that’s what I’ve felt, that I had some understanding of Australian liberalism. At the time that I was writing and started doing this in the 1980s there wasn’t actually much out there. There’d been a lot of the Labor movement and Labor politics that attracted a lot of scholarly interest from historians but non-Labor politics hadn’t much and I felt it was a sort of vacuum and that I could make a contribution, I suppose.

M:        Probably just got time for just this last question, I think.

A:        Hi, thank you, Judith, for your talk. There’s one point of Australian post-war history that really interests me and it’s that 1949 election and I’m just interested to hear your opinion on what happened in the Australian psyche to reject those values, the collectivist values that Labor and Chifley were putting forward and turn so sharply in a way towards Menzies. Like it seems like that’s a real turning point in our national history and I just want to know what you think, why did that happen?

J:          Yeah look, I don’t think it’s a shift so much in the psyche. I mean I think there was a series of political reasons why Menzies won that election, the overreach with the nationalisation of the banks, the fact that the Liberals promised to end petrol rationing fairly, that Menzies spoke much more convincingly to women. Like if you look at those 1949 speeches the Liberal Party has a section on women which the Labor Party is still very much locked into a sort of masculinist politics, it takes a while. But at that time nobody expected this to be the beginning of 23 years and I think the answer to that is the split in the Labor Party so I think the explanations are at the level of politics as much as they’re at the level of changes in social circumstances.

M:        Okay well we’ve just about concluded for this evening. I do hope that you’ll join us up in the foyer where of course the bookshop is open and now that you know how enigmatic Mr Deakin was you clearly are going to have to go and buy the book and you’ll also of course want to see and perhaps buy Judith’s new book which is of course -

J:          Democratic system is shorter.

M:        - is about our democratic system and it involves the democracy sausage so if that doesn’t get you in nothing can. But as we bring the formal proceedings to a close please do join me in thanking Judith and in thanking John and Heather for their generous support of the Seymour Biography Lecture. It’s through their generosity that we’re able to host wonderful events such as tonight’s lecture. I know that John and Heather, it’s not just that they like reading biographies, they really are very interested in the craft of the biography, in what it is that needs to be engaged with so I’m sure tonight would have been a joy to their heart as well so thank you.


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