Australian History: Alfred Deakin

Alfred DeakinAlfred Deakin won his first election for the seat of West Bourke and resigned it immediately afterward because he believed he had had an unfair advantage.  He subsequently lost the seat after voters elected his opponent.  Deakin was educated at Melbourne Grammar and worked as a teacher during the day whilst studying Law in the evenings at the University of Melbourne.  A chance meeting with David Syme changed his life.  He was asked to write for Syme’s newspapers and eventually Syme was able to get him to change his party from Free Trader to Liberal Protectionist.  Syme went on to back Deakin’s campaign for the seat of West Bourke and in 1879 he won back the seat he had given up -and he won it again in 1880. 

In 1883 his talents were recognized and the Liberal-Conservative coalition appointed him Solicitor-General, Commissioner of Public Works and Minister of Water Supply.  These portfolios enabled him to tackle the serious problem of squalor and poverty in Melbourne’s factories in which employees including children were forced to work.  His Factory Act became a model for all of the colonies.  Another problem Deakin faced was how to use the Murray River for irrigation, eventually having some success with this project through his work with the Chaffey Brothers.  Deakin went on to become a keen Federalist because of his fears of interference from Germany, France and Japan.  He advocated a policy of racial discrimination to exclude everyone but Anglo-Celtic immigrants.  His views attracted him to Barton and when Barton became Prime Minister, he appointed Deakin Attorney-General and groomed him as his successor.

His reforms included old age pensions, tariffs to protect Australian industry, laws to control business practices, and the first attempts at conciliation and arbitration between labour and management. His governments established the site of Canberra, began work on the Transcontinental Railway, established several Commonwealth departments and laid the foundations for the Australian Navy and Army. His foreign policy was that of closer ties between Australia and the rest of the British Empire.

He retired from politics in 1913 and died in 1919.