On this day: former PM Alfred Deakin was born

By Madeleine van der Linden 3 August 2015
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Among the things you might not know: is that Alfred Deakin helped create the first minimum wage and was prime minister three times

ON 3 AUGUST 1856 Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second, fifth and seventh prime minister, was born in the suburb of Collingwood in Melbourne, Victoria.

Deakin grew up in a family of modest means and became a lawyer in 1877. He was, according to his personal writings, quickly and thoroughly bored. So he turned his writing hobby into a small career in 1878 when he began penning political opinions for Melbourne’s Age newspaper, dividing his time from then on between journalism, law and politics.

In his early 20s Deakin’s political career began to gather force. He was elected at 23-years-old to the seat of West Bourke, a rural area 30km west of Melbourne (abolished in 1904).

But he surprised everyone when he immediately and publicly resigned from the seat, claiming there had been irregularity in the polls. Nonetheless, he was re-elected shortly afterward and held the seat from 1880 to 1890, during which he laid the foundations of the system of state owned irrigation schemes we have today.  

Known as a forceful orator, he rose quickly to the cabinet and then became chief secretary while still in his mid-20s. Throughout the 1890s, Deakin sat on the parliamentary back benches but, as one of the most charismatic speakers within the federation movement, he was often featured in its debates.

Alfred Deakin and Federation

As a strong voice within the federation movement Deakin ultimately became the lead negotiator at the Federal Conventions of 1891, which produced a draft constitution that contained much of the Constitution of Australia enacted at the turn of the century.

He was also a delegate to the second Australasian Federal Convention in 1897–1898 and spent much of his time campaigning for public support for the move. A series of referendums in each colony between 1898 and 1900 ended in a majority vote in favour of federation by the public.

In 1900 Deakin travelled to London with Edmund Barton to oversee the passage of the federation bill through the imperial parliament.

When federation came about in 1901, Deakin’s Protectionist Party became the minority government and he became the first Commonwealth Attorney-General.

Deakin had joined the Protectionist Party (1889–1909) before federation. Its focus was on keeping Australian-produced goods competitive with imported ones.

The Protectionist Party and Deakin as Attorney-General would be responsible for many attempts to mould the nation in one way or another and alongside the Free Trade Party drafted and passed the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901 (the foundation of the White Australia Policy, which would favour British migrants over all others for the next half century. The Labour Party was in favour of an even more overtly restrictive version of the act.)

Following federation in 1901, Deakin was elected to the seat of Ballarat, Victoria, 100km west of Melbourne.

Alfred Deakin: the Great Builder

It was a tumultuous start to the nation with three popular parties – Labour, Protectionist and Free Trade – vying for power. There were seven ministries in the first nine years of the commonwealth. 

In 1903, Deakin succeeded Edmund Barton to become Australia’s second prime minister. Between 1903 and 1910, he headed three ministries and was the architect of many of the long-lasting institutions and policies of twentieth-century Australia: the High Court, the industrial arbitration system, the protective tariff system, self-reliance in naval defence, minimum wage and the Australian administration of Papua New Guinea.

Dr David Stevens, a naval historian from the University of New South Wales, says that without Deakin, Australia might never have had its navy.

“In terms of forming Australia as an independent, sovereign nation, he was very important. He pushed the line that we needed to be able to do things by ourselves,” David says.

In 1908, Deakin invited the Great White Fleet, America’s naval show piece, to come to Australia in order to drum up support for an independent navy. He also organised for Britain to train Australian navy personnel in order to ensure that the new navy was highly and efficiently trained.

“He realised that the threat would come from the sea for us, as opposed to other land-based nations,” David says.

The Commonwealth Conciliation Act of 1904 and the customs tariff (on agricultural machinery) also led to the concept of the ‘basic wage’ that stipulated a fair and reasonable wage would provide “the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being in a civilised community”.

In 1913 Deakin retired from politics and died on 7 October, 1919, aged 63. He was given a state funeral and is buried in St Kilda Cemetery.