It is popular to look at today’s political challenges through the prism of prime ministers past. But when it comes to former liberal leaders it’s usually Robert Menzies, not Alfred Deakin, who comes to mind.
However, Judith Brett, emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University and author, says we have much to learn from Australia’s second prime minister. Her new biography, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, reveals the intense inner world of one of the most important fathers of Australian federation, who led the fledgling nation for three separate stints.
Brett says Deakin was something of a puzzle – even to himself. As prime minister he had an unusual double life, anonymously penning political columns for The Morning Post in London – a well-kept secret at the time.
He was a gifted orator, but above all he harnessed his optimism to operate a government of compromise at a challenging time. “He saw himself as between the ultras – the ultra tory obstructionists and the part of the Labor Party that was firming up as more ideological in his terms.”
Brett argues that despite Deakin’s undeniable charisma and skills in persuasion, his tendency towards great introspection and solitude means he would find the intensity of contemporary politics and media overwhelming.
For today’s two major parties “brand differentiation has become more important than actually solving problems”, Brett says, while Deakin advocated “policy before the needs of the party”.