by By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
Published in Church & Life (1832) 22.3.2012 – 4.4.2012 No 6 Pg 2
Alfred Deakin is often described as being Australia’s greatest Prime Minister. One of the chief architects of the process of Federation, Deakin’s three terms in office would see him introduce such critical legislation as the Judiciary Act that brought into being the High Court, as well as some of the most advanced social legislation of the world of his time; such as: pension schemes and arbitration systems. In fact, Deakin’s legislative impetus was a great part of the reason, that Australia became known as the world’s ‘social laboratory’. For such strong pioneering leadership Deakin will have an unrivalled place in the history of the Australian nation. Yet there is also much more to Deakin’s life story that is worthy of mention and honour, than mere politics.
Before even the nation of Australia existed – Deakin was a proud Australian. Such a comment may seem incongruous, for how can some-one be some-thing, when indeed that ‘some-thing’ has not yet come to be. This may sound true in essence, at least for most people; however in Deakin’s heart, Australia existed; for he had set his entire being on the course of establishing such a nation. This inexorable drive, to build a new nation, would eventually break Deakin’s health. Such was his nation-building enthusiasm, that when Deakin travelled to the United Kingdom in 1887 to be the state of Victoria’s representative at the Colonial Conference, Deakin refused a knighthood from the Queen, arguing that he was grateful for the honour of being so esteemed, but as an Australian he thought he must decline the offer. (Gaby, 1992, p. 58). In Deakin’s mind, to accept a knighthood from an English monarch, would send wrong messages to those in political power in the United Kingdom, signals that Australians were not yet ready to stand as adults in their own right. Ironically to this day Deakin is often misnamed as ‘Sir Alfred Deakin’ a common error based on the fact that few of his Federation colleagues, when offered such titles from the Queen, refused. Deakin even remarked later how Lorimer, who was then the Victorian Minister of Defence: “accepted the knighthood I refused.”(Ibid). A yet still less known fact is that Alfred Deakin was the first individual in the long history of the University of Oxford to refuse an honorary doctorate from the English speaking world’s oldest university. Deakin’s refusal was polite – if he had in any way contributed to the intellectual life of Oxford, he would have accepted the honour, but this he had not done – so he felt he had to decline. (Gaby, 1992, p. 66).
Such snippets into Deakin’s life might indeed be interesting, but none of these more so, than what lay at the core of Deakin’s being; his intense love of God and his rich spirituality.
Although a very public figure, Alfred Deakin was a very private man. Few visitors came to his house, other than close friends. There in the study of his home, his intellectual sanctum, Deakin would sit, frequently late into the evening, and in journal after journal, put prayers and spiritual thoughts to paper. As Gaby notes: “Deakin always took pains to obscure the creative and spiritual dimensions of his being from the gaze of others”. (Gaby, 1992, p. 2). The same author also adds that this privacy extended to not sharing these spiritual writings with his wife, Pattie. (cf. Gaby, 1992, 63). Deakin would write, and then keep his journals locked away. Scholars today are privileged and able to read and examine a life hidden from the public eye; a life of intense prayer. Taking one example, Deakin writes: “Almost always I realise the existence of God. Always I believe in Him with my intellect & turn to Him with my heart. But I am anxious for a closer & more permanent relationship. Almost always, I believe in the spiritual efficacy of prayer, & often I am inclined to pray. Sometimes the power to put my cry in words will come. Sometimes it will not come. I shall write those prayers I can express so as to open the channel wider, & enable me to recall past prayers when I cannot uplift fresh appeals. Let me know my wants if I can know nothing else”. (Gaby, 1992, p. 40).
The German word for what we in English know as ‘imagination’, is ‘einbildnungskfraft’. Breaking this word down to the three words that comprise it, we have: ein (one), bildnungs (shape), kraft (power or ability). Hence the German word for ‘imagination’, means the power to shape into one form. Alfred Deakin’s vision of an Australian nation was germinated from his personal view of the world, acknowledging his and all of humanities place in it, under God. The world only made sense to Deakin if there was a Divine Being who was living and active in it. God required from those made in His image, that they be also active in carrying out the Divine purpose. Springing from such a world view, the young man who was born in the suburb of Fitzroy, had an idea, that those who occupied the vast island continent could in fact make something more of themselves, than being members of various colonies. After his return from the Colonial Conference in London, where he was lauded as the ‘silver-tongued orator’, Deakin felt “his faith in a Divine Providence dramatically confirmed”. (Gaby, 1992, p. 62). Shaping the Australian colonies into one nation, was for Deakin no longer a dream, it was a workable reality; it was a matter of vital importance, for in unity lay the prospect of peace, and what better service could one offer God than to be part of establishing peace on earth by sculpting a unified nation.
As a consequence of the physical and mental strain that Alfred Deakin suffered in order to build the Australian Dream, Deakin’s political career was cut short. In the last decade of his life, Deakin increasingly lost his memory. Part of this tragedy of his final years, was that he was unable to write his memoirs. Throughout the course of his life, Deakin not only helped build a nation, he also exemplified what Australians tend to most value: a humility, that does not lead to servility; a gentleness that does not lead to cowardice; a faith that is private, authentic, and honest.
Alfred Deakin the man who had rejected honours and knighthoods, who had lived a life of service to God and others, a man known to be one of Australia’s greatest statesmen, lies in a simple grave in St. Kilda. There is on his headstone no indication of his many achievements; there are no marble statues to help visitors find their way to his final resting place; all that is written on the head stone is what the passer by most needs to know – his name.