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Alfred Deakin: The Only Politician Who Could Write His Own Headlines

Updated on August 7, 2009

How many politicians have wished that they could write their own headlines and report on their own doings in and out of Parliament as they saw fit. Alfred Deakin, three times Prime Minister, had his wish answered. For 14 years Deakin was the clandestine Australian correspondent to the London Morning Post and he was in the unique position of being both author and subject under discussion.

Double Life

Alfred Deakin, Prime Minister of Australia between 1905 and 1913, led an amazing double life. For years he secretly freelanced as a journalist for a London newspaper, reporting on - and even criticizing - his very own political actions.

The anonymous Australian correspondent of the influential London Morning Post was obviously puzzled by the actions and attitudes of his Prime Minister. 'For reasons known only to himself, which are a perpetual subject of controversy in our Press, Mr Deakin pursues his enigmatic methods of action ...' the journalist noted in a lengthy report on 10 May 1906.

He continued: 'But in spite of Mr Deakin's persistent elusiveness the pressure brought to bear on him, from within his own party as much as from without, appears so strong that some unexpected development must be at hand.'

Stranger than Fiction

Little did the readers of the conservative Fleet Street daily dream that the reporter was none other than Alfred Deakin himself, reveling in his secret role which he described to one of the Morning Post editors as a 'situation fit for fiction rather than real life'.

A child of the gold-rush era, Alfred Deakin was born in Collingwood, Victoria, on 3 August 1856. He qualified as a barrister but soon turned to journalism, serving an apprenticeship under David Syme of the The Age. He entered politics in 1879 and rose to Cabinet rank within four years, serving with distinction as Victoria's Commissioner of Public Works, Minister of Water Supply and Solicitor-General.

The land bust of 1890 cost Deakin both his own and his father's savings at about the same time as the government fell and he lost his Cabinet position. Struggling financially on a backbencher's salary, he continued working hard for the ideal of federation, which he had embraced several years earlier.

This led to his appointment as a Victorian delegate to the 1891 National Australasian Convention in Sydney. A man of imposing stature, flashing dark eyes and fashionable full beard, his eloquence and abilities as a conciliator won him respect in many quarters and he soon became chairman of the Federation League of Australia.

After the referenda campaigns of 1898-99, Deakin was one of the Australian colonial representatives who went to London to negotiate details for the passing of the Australian Constitution Bill through the Imperial Parliament.

Clandestine Correspondent

It was during this visit that Deakin met Lord Glenesk, owner of the Morning Post. This resulted in an offer to become the conservative newspaper's Australian correspondent, writing a weekly report on Australian affairs for an annual payment of 500 pounds. Deakin eagerly accepted and wrote his first 'letter' on 29 November 1900. Because it had to be sent to England by sea, it was published on 3 January the following year.

By the time that report appeared, Deakin had already been sworn in as Attorney-General of the Commonwealth. After serving briefly as acting Prime Minister in 1902, he took over leadership of the government a year later when Edmund Barton was elevated to the High Court. Deakin's ministry fell in 1903, but he again served as prime minister from July 1905 to November 1908, and from June 1909 to April 1910. He finally retired in 1913. Deakin died on 7 October 1919.

Writes With 'Forked Tongue'

Deakin's reports for the Morning Post covered many aspects of Australian political life, including discussion of his and his party's actions. Yet, as one of his biographers, Professor J. A. La Nauze, points out, 'the historian who lightly assumes that the views expressed in them are reliable guides to Deakin's own motives or intentions is likely to mislead himself and his readers. The opinions of the Australian Correspondent of the Morning Post and those of Minister, Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition were not always identical.'

Surveying the results of the general election in 1903 which lost him government, Deakin wrote:

'Mr Deakin may well rue the position before him with rueful solitude. His own party in his own State, in spite of his appeals, flung away half a dozen seats and imperilled as many more. If his organization had been half as effective as Mr Reid's, he could almost have retained his numbers. As it is, the losses of the campaign are all on his side.'

In 1905 Deakin the journalist wrote of his other self: 'A short visit to Melbourne does not explain the situation or the meaning of the Prime Minister. Though he has lived all his life in that city, and has been prominent in politics for many years, there is no consensus of opinion regarding him or his policy. To some his course of conduct is thought to be taken always on the line of least resistance, while to others he is a bookish theorist recklessly pursuing impossible dreams. His leadership has been imposed on him rather than desired, unless, perhaps, by his personal friends.'

'...the Trade Unionists have not forgotten and are not likely to forget Mr Deakin's ruthless criticisms of their tactics, doctrines, and organization. Yet, perhaps because he is not identified with any section and has a curious aloofness even from his political intimates, he is accepted without question as at present the only possible leader of the conglomerate party, whose main principle is Protection and Preferential trade.'

In June 1906, while Deakin the prime minister was on the campaign trail in Queensland, his journalist alter ego wrote to the Morning Post:

'Queensland politicians outside the Labour ranks have never been friendly either to Federation or to the Protectionist Party which has been in power almost ever since our union. Yet Mr Deakin's meetings in that State were evidently successful throughout his tour, and whatever the sentiments of his hearers may have been, only the Labour element was openly hostile. Perhaps this circumstance is the most significant testimony to the nature of his speeches...

'Mr Deakin ... continues to rally his forces against the Labour Leagues, so that all present indications are that any coalition to be formed which desires his support but does not adopt his complete programme will not include him, though it must depend upon his allegiance.'

Risky Business

Throughout his political prime, Deakin continued his clandestine work for the Morning Post, writing one long report a week for the first 11 years, and then one every three weeks from late 1911 to 1914. Even now, no one knows for sure what inspired him to pursue such a risky occupation, for had he been found out it could well have ended his political career.

However, there is some indication of his purpose in a reply he received from the editor of the Morning Post after submitting his first report from Australia. 'What is wanted,' wrote the editor, 'is admirably expressed in your private letter - that you should enable Englishmen to follow political, social and material development all over Australia in a general way so as gradually to bring them in touch with that part of the Empire'.

To protect Deakin's political career, extraordinary secrecy surrounded his 'part-time' job. The only people who knew about it were the Morning Post's editor and publisher, some members of his own family, a few very close friends - and the taxation official to whom Deakin declared his payment from the newspaper!

Right or Wrong

Of course, since Deakin's reports took months to reach Britain, they had little, if any, direct influence on local politics. Historians have various views on the moral rights and wrongs of his secret work as a journalist. But perhaps the fairest judgment comes from Professor La Nauze, who spent many years researching and tracking down the elusive man behind the politician's mask: 'The Australian Correspondent often criticized Mr Deakin's party, its leader and its individual members, but he never gave the impression that the country was or would be better served by its rivals. If it was improper for a Prime Minister, writing anonymously for the information of readers in another country, to be anything but neutral about local politics, then he was guilty of impropriety.'

Quotations Source

Alfred Deakin: A Biography, La Nauze, J.A., 1965, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, VIC.

Photo Credit

Photo of Alfred Deakin by TightCollarMan.

Comments

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    • Wrath Warbone profile image

      Terry Chestnutt 

      6 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

      Very well written. Thanks. What a story! I never heard of such a double life in real life before. Amazing!

    • profile image

      aquaseaCreative 

      8 years ago

      Thanks Nemingha, I had no idea that Deakin was a writer as well (as a politician).

    • MindField profile image

      MindField 

      8 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      What an excellent and fascinating article, Nemingha - and what a daring man you've chosen to write about!

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