Prayers of a Prime Minister
By Alan Currie
In 1860 when Alfred was four years old, the public decided to show their anger towards the countries inequalities in a violent demonstration. The Argus newspaper reports “the crowd, now transformed into a mob, came rolling up Bourke-street in a disorderly and defiant manner.. began throwing stones at the police and the wall of the House” so the armed mounted police were forced to charge 3 times at the crowd with batons swinging to finally disperse the angry mob.
It would be a fore taste of what Deakin faces years later when he calls out the militia during the 1890 Australian maritime dispute.
Walter Murdoch who wrote the first authorised biography of Deakin in 1923 only 4 years after Alfred’s death noted in his book that the newspaper reported “it was a period of violent tension…during which even civil war seemed possible” The conservative newspaper even hinted at a possible assignation of the Victorian Premier Graham Barry.
Alfred Deakin in 1890
In the middle of this tension Deakin is elected in 1879 to the Victorian Assembly and immediately makes a significant impression at his inaugural speech by promptly resigning his position over an electoral mistake to do with missing ballot papers.
1879 to the Victorian Assembly
Deakin recounts the experience:
“Always highly nervous, no matter how small the gathering to which I spoke, on this occasion my condition was so agonising as to seem to threaten mental paralysis. This was mitigated by the circumstance that I gave little or no indication of the tremors that thrilled me, dried my palate and robbed me of control of my voice and knowledge of my movements"
Premier Graham Berry 1898
Premier Berry was annoyed at Deakin’s decision to resign but in the eyes of the colony he did the honorable thing and as expected opposition members applauded his decision.
By this and many other unselfish decisions Deakin made in the coming years, endeared him to the colony and showed that he was a humble man of the people.
However not all political leaders held to Deakin’s standards and the house was divided by wealthy and powerful self-interested members who were fighting over issues like land distribution that was linked to a new land tax bill, constitutional reform, free trade verses tariff protection between colonies, Chinese immigration and working conditions.
Banjo Paterson one of Deakin’s favorite Poets complains about land distribution in 1889 saying:
"Our land system is bad: it drives men into the cities; it causes good land to be locked up; it enables some men to live at the expense of others ... Five hundred and fifty-two persons in a population of over a million own upwards of seventeen million acres of free-hold; they possess over one-half the alienated lands of New South Wales."
Deakin supports the land tax bill that is designed to break up the large squatter landholding in the colony to favor the urban middle class and upper classes who wanted to acquire country land of their own.
Banjo Paterson 1890
A land boom had begun which would cause a significant speculation that eventually ended in a bust in 1891 where Deakin was to loose much of his family wealth and damage his reputation. Unfortunately, it was the banks that ended up owning much of the land once the inevitable bankruptcies and depression played out during the 1890’s.
Prior to Deakin’s political career, and after his brief term practicing as a lawyer, he meets one of Melbourne’s most influential businessman, David Syme owner of the Age Newspaper.
When Alfred is first introduced by George Syme the Age editor in 1878 David’s comment is “Aha! so this is your genius”. His comment indicates the high esteem Alfred had with David’s brother and soon was to have with Melbourne’s leading businessman.
Alfred and David go on to develop a close working relationship as Alfred becomes an accomplished Age journalist and confidant of David Syme. In Walter Murdock’s superb biography of Deakin there is an illustrative story of the two men walking home together discussing the pro’s and cons of free trade and protectionism.
Both men, Syme being Deakin's 29 year senior, were highly intelligent and capable debaters which must have encouraged many lively conversations as they walked along the busy streets of Melbourne. One day as they crossed the Princes Bridge, Syme convinces Deakin to change his mind on free trade and Alfred becomes a lifelong staunch advocate of trade protectionism.
Syme must have calculated that Alfred would become a powerful ally if he had political power, which would have been part of his motivation when he decided to put Alfred’s name up for the Legislative seat of West Bourke.
So, on the 27th February 1879 the young twenty two year old Deakin is elected to government.
A few years later in 1882 after resigning the seat and being re-elected as member for West Bourke he decides to marry Elizabeth Martha Anne Browne affectionately known as Pattie. They are to enjoy a loving and devoted married life until Alfred’s death in 1919.
Leading up to and during the year that he begins his prayer journals in 1884, Deakin becomes the Commissioner of Public Works and Water Supply and then Solicitor General and Minister for Public Works, plus Chairman of a Royal Commission into Irrigation until he steps down from cabinet to focus on the long 10 year struggle towards Australian federation.