Alfred Deakin — statesman, orator, and seer [by Professor Ernest Scott, 29 July 1939]

[Editor: This is part eleven of the “Men who made Australia” series written by Professor Ernest Scott.]

Men who made Australia — No. 11

Alfred Deakin — statesman, orator, and seer

The name Deakin has long been synonymous with eloquence. The silver-tongued orator lives in the memory of everyone who heard him speak. But Professor Scott brings forward a stronger claim for recognition of Alfred Deakin’s outstanding merit. Great orator he was, but greater still in the long-sighted vision which actuated his politics. He looked always towards the future with a discernment “practical and wise, and singularly true to the later shaping of events.”

By Professor Sir Ernest Scott

On a sunny day in or about the year 1874, a group of students in the University of Melbourne stood listening to one of their number, a thin, lanky youth, who sat on the top rail of a fence dangling his long legs and giving them the benefit of his views. The subject upon which he was discoursing with impetuous volubility was the iniquity of the regulations in compelling him, a law student, to pass examinations in Latin. Those who chose to waste their time swotting up Greek verbs and poring over the pages of Cicero’s orations should not be prevented, of course; but why should those who were convinced that the dead languages were very dead indeed, be obliged to consort with classical corpses?

A fellow student who took the contrary view reminded Alfred Deakin of this incident years later, when he frankly confessed that he had been seriously mistaken. He had spoken at an age when, as George Meredith prettily observed “ideas come to us affecting the embraces of virgins and swear to us that they are ours, and ours alone.” Just before he denounced Latin and Greek studies he had been reading Herbert Spencer’s four “Essays on Education,” wherein that philosopher, in a tone of dogmatic infallibility which the most masterful of the Popes might have envied, contended that “the real motive” for giving boys a classical education was simply “conformity to public opinion” and conferring a “badge marking a certain social position and bringing consequent respect.” Deakin no longer entertained that opinion, and was sorry for what he had missed.

From his earliest years Deakin was a prodigious reader, in both French and English. Hardly any branch of literature came amiss to his voracious appetite. I remember his excitement when Alfred Zimmem’s translation of the first two volumes of Ferrero’s “Greatness and Decline of Rome” appeared just thirty years ago. He devoured them during a week-end, and was enthusiastic about the freshness of the viewpoint and other features which stood in high relief in the Italian historian’s brilliant work.

Another instance. He told me that he took with him Sainte-Beuve’s “Causeries du Lundi” to read aboard ship on one of his visits to England. There are 30 volumes in that collection. Whether he took the whole set I do not know; but the voyage occupied 30 days, so perhaps he did. He said that at a London dinner party he sat beside A. J. Balfour, who told him that he had just finished reading Sainte-Beuve’s “Causeries” “slap-through,” and thought they gave a perfect picture of French history because they dealt with biography, memoirs, letters, philosophy, drama, poetry and criticism throughout the centuries. I objected that the eminent critic wrote his weekly articles upon these various subjects without any regard to periods and sequences, and that a reader would be likely to get from them a confused rather than a consistent and logical view of the historical development of France. He agreed that there was force in that consideration, but still Sainte-Beuve was a very good companion on a voyage; which was undeniable.

In parliament at 22

After being called to the bar, young Deakin occupied his briefless period by writing a thousand foolscap pages of a philosophical treatise which was apparently intended to fuse into one great synthetic amalgam his ideas on poetry, art, and philosophy. A sketch of this ambitious project, with Deakin’s own criticisms upon it in later life, is given in Walter Murdoch’s biography of him. Between-whiles he wrote leading articles, and endured the merciless criticism of an exacting editor — a valuable disciplinary process.

Deakin was only 22 years of age when, in 1879, he was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly. From that time till the achievement of Australian Federation he was a member of Parliament, except for a year’s interval. He was, almost as of right, elected to the first Federal Parliament in 1901, and retired owing to broken health in 1913. Thus for 33 years he was a Parliamentarian. During seven years he was a Victorian Minister; he was Attorney-General in the first Commonwealth Ministry, and was thrice Prime Minister of Australia. That is an unexampled record for a public man in the politics of this country.

Most of Deakin’s contemporaries, if asked what was the most remarkable thing about him, could probably reply that oratory was his strongest line. A minority would demur — and would be right. That he possessed a rhetorical gift is of course true, and there is plenty of evidence of it in the Parliamentary reports. He commanded so copious a vocabulary and used it with such facility that public speaking appeared to be easy to him. Yet he never depended upon this faculty except on occasions when a speech had to be made on the spur of the moment. He preferred to prepare his speeches with care, so far as related to their plan and line of argument, and even as to their wording in salient passages. But the speech elaborated on paper did not always get itself delivered. He once told me, as to a speech on an important occasion, that a run of interjections near the commencement threw him off the track, and he never got back to it, finding that his hearers were emphasising points requiring reply, whereas he had regarded them as comparatively unimportant. But when it was suggested that it had scarcely been worth while to prepare the speech, he did not agree. The preparation had given him a grip of the whole subject which he would not have had unless he bad carefully thought it out.

Despite his abundant practice in speech-making, he was often nervous before beginning, and did not feel easy till he warmed to his subject. At his best he spoke with fiery energy, emphasising the swift flow of language with gestures, and using all the tones of his voice to give color to the phrases. An instance of his moving effect upon an audience occurred at the close of his first speech at the Adelaide session of the Convention in 1897. It was delivered in a white heat of passion, and impelled the “strangers” to an uncontrollable burst of cheering. The president (Mr Kingston), as it was his duty to do, checked this “disorderly” conduct with the reproof that “order must be maintained in the gallery however eloquent the provocation,’’ but was himself thrilled: and a reader of the passage in cold print now, more than 40 years after the event, can realise how stirring it was:—

“Rather than that any word of mine should have chilled or have deterred any of those who have come here in the hope that by mutual concessions an acceptable Constitution may be framed, I would that my tongue should have been withered at its roots. If any word of mine can have brought discord where there should be harmony, or can have repelled when it should have attracted, it is my bitter misfortune; it has been farthest from my intention. The Constitution we seek to prepare is worthy of any and every personal sacrifice, for it is no ordinary measure, and must exercise no short-lived influence, since it preludes the advent of a nation. Awed as I feel by the fact that we come from, that we speak to, and that we act for a great constituency, awed as I feel in the presence of those who sent us here. I am more awed by the thought of the constituency which is not visible, but which awaits the results of our labors. We are trustees for posterity, for the unborn millions, unknown and unnumbered, whose aspirations we may help to fulfil and whose destinies we may assist to determine.”

But the outstanding characteristic of Deakin in practical statesmanship was not his oratory but his foresight. Though he was not the first politician to take up the subject of irrigation in Victoria, he dragged it out of the discussion stage and made it a matter of Government policy. He travelled to study irrigation in California and India, and upon his return inaugurated the fruitful policy which led to the settlement of Mildura and the construction of hundreds of miles of irrigation channels in northern Victoria, carrying fertilising streams to over 14,000,000 acres of land.

The same foresight marked his conclusions after attending the first Imperial Conference in London in 1887. The Colonial Office had habitually controlled the Australian colonies in the same manner as it controlled Crown colonies like Jamaica and the Bermudas.

Deakin told the statesmen in London, as he told the Victorian Parliament after his return, that the period of Downing street tutelage must come to an end. “It will be impossible in the future,” he said, “for any English Government assuming the reins of power, to do anything which could affect the interests of the colonies without consulting them on the subject.” The Australian colonies were entitled not only to the complete control of their own affairs, but also to be consulted in all matters affecting their interests. This was a strange gospel in 1887, when Lord Salisbury had thought that there was no obligation to consult the Australian Governments about islands so near to their shores as the New Hebrides, and drew from Deakin the scorching comment that his speech might have been made by a foreign Minister.

It was Deakin, too, who insisted that the relations between Great Britain and the Dominions ought not to be under the management of the Colonial Office at all, but of a special department of State; and the Imperial Governnent, after digesting the startling proposition, adopted his suggestion by establishing the separate Dominions Department.

He spoke of himself as a Radical Imperialist, by which he meant that he had faith in the unity of the British Empire as a political organism wherein the self-governing countries recognised the sovereignty of the Crown whilst maintaining their autonomy; and he believed that the strength of the Empire lay in the fact that its vital interests, outside the geographical limits of its component States, were one and indissoluble. His fervent advocacy of Australian Federation was professedly pursued in the belief that it would make the Empire stronger. His Imperialism was not of the kind which was fashionable at Primrose League meetings in post-Disraelian England, but it was the Imperialism which gained vogue thirty years later. Here, again, his prescience was manifested.

Personal attributes

That he was, in Australian politics, an ardent Federalist long before Federation became a vital issue, is a fact too well known to need emphasising. When the Federation movement took shape, he was the unquestioned leader in his own State, and a member of the two Conventions which hammered out the framework and details of the Constitution. He was at the height of his great powers at that time, and excerted himself with untiring energy to bring the Commonwealth into being.

It may confidently be said, in short, that in the three fields of State, Federal, and Imperial politics, Deakin’s gaze was constantly lifted above the happenings of the day and directed towards the future. He was one of the most gifted long-sighted statesmen of his age, and his vision was anything but “visionary” in the conventional sense. It was practical and wise, and singularly true to the later shaping of events. He was before his time in respect to many important questions as to which time caught up to him during his own life.

Withal Deakin was one of the friendliest of men, kindly, humourous, the liveliest companion in any company, as well as being uncommonly sagacious in council. His oldest friends have never tired of instancing his readiness to aid. One of them recalls that, changing his residence he had to remove a library. Deakin insisted on giving him a hand. So, early one Sunday morning, they packed the books upon a truck and the pair pushed it from one Melbourne suburb to another, arguing as they went like Milton’s rebel angels about “fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,” and whatever other subject cropped up. The intimate friendliness of Deakin necessarily cannot have been known to the large public to whom he was the advocate of great causes, but it is one of the characteristics which keep his memory radiant amongst those who had the privilege of knowmg the man at close quarters.

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 29 July 1939, page 22

[Editor: The editorial introduction to this article has been italicized, so as to distinguish it from the text written by Professor Scott.]

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