An exhibition celebrating the life and achievements of one of Australia's most significant yet enigmatic prime ministers, Alfred Deakin, is now showing at Parliament House.
Deakin, whose courteous manner earned him the nickname of "Affable Alfred", became prime minister on September 24, 1903 when Edmund Barton resigned to become a judge on the nation's first High Court.
"He was an extraordinarily complex man," says curator Anne Sanders. "He had a tremendous dedication to the realisation of Federation, and was an incredible negotiator to be able to navigate those complicated early days of Australian politics."
A member of the Protectionist Party, Deakin's first term as Prime Minister, at age 47, was brief, lasting only seven months, but he was to serve again in the top job, from 1905 to 1908, and once again from 1909 to 1910. It was in his second term that Deakin earned the title of "the constructor" with his government establishing the building blocks of Commonwealth administration, including the Bureau of Census and Statistics and Meteorology Bureau, the nation's defence policy and military infrastructure. He also played a significant role in Canberra's history - introducing legislation for the establishment of a site for the nation's new capital.
Sanders' favourite piece in the exhibition is the bible upon which Deakin was sworn in as Attorney General, in which he collected signatures from the first cabinet. It has become a record of important events and includes signatures from "Albert" and "Elizabeth", the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother), and other notables who later attended the opening of the Provisional Parliament House in 1927.
Deakin had a passion for the written word, begun with the purchase of his first book at age 16 - Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle's satirical Sartor Resartus (The Tailor, re-tailored). The story of a man's journey from aimless barrister to writer to one founded upon spiritual duty to a higher purpose, the book was to closely resemble the fortunes of a young Deakin. He would later describe it as 'the foundation stone' of his library.
The exhibition features Deakin's original barristers wig from the Deakin University collection, along with the sterling silver inkstand and pen which were presented to Deakin at the end of his first term as prime minister by members of the Press Gallery. It would be some years before the gallery would discover that Deakin was himself the anonymous author of a weekly column in the London Morning Post under the nom de plume "Australian correspondent" about the goings on in Australia's federal parliament. When he died in 1919, Deakin's home library housed more than 1,500 books on subjects as diverse as French literature, agriculture, poetry and comparative religions.
One object from the Parliament House collection, seen in a new light, is a golden casket presented to the Prime Ministers of the self-governing colonies at the 1907 Imperial Conference in London. "Conservators from the Parliament House Art Collection staff have painstakingly unrolled the illuminated manuscript that sat in the globe atop the casket," Sanders says, "and it is probably the first time in many decades this has been on display."
Deakin's portrait by Frederick McCubbin is on permanent display adjacent to the Main Committee Room at Parliament House.
- Alfred Deakin: Creating A Nation is now showing at Parliament House until February 2. Admission Free.
- Cris Kennedy is Director of Visitor Experience at the Department of Parliamentary Services.
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