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The Enigmatic Mr Deakin: a biography for our times

Let us not ask what makes a politician, but rather, what makes a good politician. Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin goes some way towards answering that question.

This is biography for our times.

Those for whom the standard remains the academic-style biography with its apparently invisible writer and authoritative tone may disagree but, in the wake of brilliant books by Brenda Niall on Mannix and John Murphy on Evatt, the general reader can find sustenance in this new addition to political history.

Accessible and informative, this style of biography layers facts over questions that draw in readers curious about what makes human beings do the things we do. How do we explain ambition, and how is belief, including self-belief, developed in an individual? What makes a good life?

Judith Brett has devoted many years to researching the “liberal” mind and social morality in Australian politics. In Alfred Deakin, who was in many ways not suited to politics and also, by contemporary standards, stuck in a moral code grounded in 19th century bigotry, she has found a richly rewarding subject.

Brett begins by saying that to forget the role of a man such as Deakin in our nation’s post-invasion history is stupid, although she puts it more elegantly.

Perhaps any public figure who has played a big role in social history is richly rewarding in the hands of a competent writer but the trick is to bring the character to life before us, and to let us hear the thoughts behind the actions. It’s not about telling history like novelists do (see Tom Griffiths’ wonderful The Art of Time Travel for why they’re not the same) but about allowing respectful, cautious empathy to infuse the writing.

If a biography is done well, the reader has ample information to come to a conclusion about the worth and legacy of the subject – and what kind of person he or she was.

While Judith Brett makes no bones about her admiration for Deakin, it is very possible to finish reading her biography and decide that he was bold, courageous and clever, but also sometimes hypocritical, rigid, self-indulgent (not physically, but emotionally) and even possibly a bit dull at times. Was he decent? To a point, and maybe as much as a man of his background, education and experience can be.

Brett begins by saying that to forget the role of a man such as Deakin in our nation’s post-invasion history is stupid, although she puts it more elegantly. Pointing out how vividly Ned Kelly’s life and behaviour has survived in popular memory, she suggests it’s time to rethink the “bearded worthy” who was “Australia’s most important prime minister in its first ten years after federation”.

“Too intellectual, too respectable”, Deakin’s middle-class affability, his moderate behaviour and his humility, says Brett, have all worked against us liking and commemorating him (Deakin University notwithstanding).

“Enigmatic” he may well be (he described himself thus, as he believed others perceive him), and that is perhaps why he was an unlikely politician. It’s not a “Deakin was a hero: vote-yes-or-no” case Brett is arguing, but she does want us to listen to her conclusions about his character and influence before we judge a man who was credited, incorrectly according to Brett, with saying “I have lived and worked to help you keep Australia white and free”.

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Judith Brett. Photo by Jill Harvey.

Brett deals without fuss with Deakin’s role in the creation of the White Australia policy, and his famous speech about the “unity of Australia”, adding a paragraph exhorting contemporary readers to “exercise our historical imagination to understand why Australians at the beginning of the twentieth century could regard it as an expression of high ideals”.

And yet, Deakin’s own lack of historical imagination as regards the first inhabitants, as well as his inability to imagine his way into the lives of women or the poor, does have to be seen as a shortcoming. What’s interesting, I think, is how this lack of imagination is related to his mysticism and rather excitable spirituality. Brett makes good use of Deakin’s own writings (including some extraordinary short stories and a prayer diary) which show how stolid, almost banal, but perplexing for him were his beliefs.

What was exceptional about Deakin was his superb memory and his impressive rhetoric. So good was he at delivering speeches, he was aware of – and frightened by – his power to whip up an audience into a mob.

Deakin was neither saint nor visionary, but he wasn’t prepared to compromise his own ideals or justice – for the sake of staying in power.

Deakin was one of those orators capable of swaying public opinion and subsequent behaviour. He used his skills to procure Federation, and it was this, rather than power per se, that kept him coming back into parliament, time and again, even when his health was failing.

I can see why Brett wants him remembered, and appreciated, and considered. He certainly was neither saint nor visionary, but he wasn’t prepared to compromise his own ideals or justice – for the sake of staying in power.

We tend to look back at politics with nostalgia for a time that was supposedly more polite and less vicious than what we have now, but Brett reminds us that parliament was, in fact, just as brutal. Animosities played out both privately and publicly with a virulence worthy of the nastiest Twitter feed.

When Deakin was defeated at elections, his response was not bitterness, but sometimes relief that he was freed a little from the “indiscriminate obliviousness” of politics to “the living world of facts and individuals around me”.

It’s a reminder of the cost of a political life.

The Enigmatic Mr Deakin by Judith Brett is published by Text.

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