Inside Story

A modest democracy

On the hundredth anniversary of the creation of Australia’s modern political party system, Paul Strangio visits two very different landmarks

Paul Strangio 11 June 2009 1714 words

Alfred Deakin (right) and Joseph Cook at Point Lonsdale, around 1909–10. Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library, Deakin University

LAST JANUARY I prevailed on my sceptical family to take time out from a day trip to the Bellarine Peninsula to visit Ballara, the Point Lonsdale holiday home of Australia’s second prime minister, Alfred Deakin. I was working on a book marking the centenary anniversary of the Fusion, the watershed moment in May 1909 when Australia’s party system consolidated into a Labor versus non-Labor arrangement that has remained essentially intact ever since. By his own description, Deakin was “the pivot” around which those momentous events turned, and, like any historian worth his salt, I felt it vital to make a connection with my subject.

A friend with local knowledge of Point Lonsdale guided us to the house. I’d seen photographs of Deakin at Ballara, and when we approached the property along a secluded back street it was instantly recognisable. Nestled in native trees and scrub, the distinctively designed timber house looked remarkably unaltered from when it was built some hundred years before. As we stood at the fence-line it wasn’t hard to conjure an image of Deakin on the verandah pensively gazing back at us through melancholy eyes.

Ballara was Deakin’s refuge from the pressures of national leadership during the first Commonwealth decade. His habit was to inscribe the words “At Peace” at the bottom of the many pages he wrote while there. Yet I wondered whether tranquillity had eluded Deakin over the summer of 1908-09. Though he escaped to the property with his family just before Christmas as normal, he carried with him the burden of perhaps the greatest dilemma he had faced in his three-decade political career.

In November 1908, Deakin’s second and most productive prime ministership had been terminated when the Labor Party withdrew its support from his Liberal Protectionist ministry. That decision was in keeping with resolutions carried at Labor’s July federal conference that stipulated the party was no longer to grant electoral immunity to so-called “good-as-labour-men” or enter into parliamentary alliances with other parties. Labor-supported Protectionist ministries, which had been responsible for the great bulk of the nation-building legislation enacted during the first Commonwealth decade, were to be consigned to the past. Emboldened by its growing electoral might, Labor was no longer willing to play second fiddle to the Deakinites. Instead, it would treat them as electoral prey.

For Deakin and his loyal band of supporters – they called him “the chief” – the alternatives seemed to be either electoral annihilation or to throw in their lot with the other non-Labor Party, their hitherto opponents, the conservative Free Traders. Faced with this Hobson’s Choice, Deakin temporised; but ultimately, in May 1909, he bowed to the seemingly inevitable and agreed on the terms of “fusion” with the Free Traders. For Deakin it was a joyless outcome. During the Protectionist party room meeting at which the union was sanctioned, he told colleagues: “I would have done almost anything to avoid taking the course I now recommend. It has been taken, and is recommended, only as a last resort, and as pure matter of intellectual judgement. I may be wrong, but I can see no other alternative!”

Fusion returned Deakin to the prime ministership for a third time in June 1909. But when the Fusion Party went to the electorate the following April it was trounced, the voting public signalling its displeasure at the expedience of the new political arrangement. For Deakin, that result effectively brought the curtain down on his career. He resigned the leadership of the Liberal Party (as party became known) in January 1913, by which time dementia was already eating away at him. He lived out his remaining years in isolation, spending lengthy periods at his Point Lonsdale hideaway. Even there, however, peace had deserted him. While he still took solace in his family, he was a melancholy witness to the disintegration of his once sublime faculties and haunted by despair at the meaninglessness of existence.

MY VISIT to Ballara left me with mixed emotions. I felt I had communed with the past, but my strongest feeling was dismay at the lack of recognition, let alone reverence, for the nation’s political past. There had been nothing at Ballara to indicate its historical significance. If not for our local guide, we never would have found the place.

I thought more about that omission a couple of weeks later, when, together with millions of others across the globe, I was absorbed by the history-soaked rituals and pomp and ceremony of Barak Obama’s presidential inauguration. Unlike Australians, Americans are big on revering their political institutions, including the office of president. We never seem quite sure what to do with former prime ministers, whether of the live or dead variety; in the United States the heritage of past presidents is preserved through long established customs such as archival libraries. There, it’s virtually inconceivable that the home of a past national leader would sink into historical obscurity. Google the name of an ex-president and you’ll find a myriad of commemorative sites. For the good and the great, those lists are seemingly endless. In Springfield, Illinois, even the church pew where Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary worshipped qualifies as a tourist attraction. Paul Keating once notoriously suggested that Australia had never been blessed by a truly great statesman, no one who could measure up to a Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt that made or saved the republic. Yet Deakin, whatever other limitations he had, was one of the “fathers” of federation and led the way in putting flesh on the bones of the rudimentary nation in the decade after 1901.

Australia went a small way to redressing the lack of public memorials to its political history with the opening last month of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra. Refurbished courtesy of a substantial Commonwealth grant, the museum features a series of well crafted and accessible exhibitions, films, interactive displays and multi-media presentations. One highlight is the Cabinet-in-Confidence presentation, which allows participants to relive a major cabinet debate, the Fraser government’s 1977 deliberations over whether to admit Indo-Chinese refugees to Australia. Children revelled in the chance to perform a mock “live” interview with a past prime minister in an old ABC radio studio. The building itself is a star, beginning with its resplendent position at the heart of Walter Burley Griffin’s Canberra. But what most enchants is its modesty. King’s Hall sparkles, but cavernous it is not, and the prime minister’s office is compact and unostentatious in decoration. And then there are the rabbit warrens that once housed the press gallery and the parliamentary chambers where the public galleries are so close to the action that it would have been possible to detect the sweat rising on the brow of a besieged minister.

I was among the few thousand citizens, mostly Canberrans, who attended the Museum’s opening on 9 May. The event oozed a quintessential Australian dagginess, for which it was all the more appealing. The official ceremony was preceded by a concert that featured performers as diverse as a local primary school choir, the Canberra Gay and Lesbian choir, John Williamson (who spruiked an alternative flag design) and Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter. While the musicians did their stuff, children were encouraged to chalk messages on the expansive bitumen of King George Terrace, which majestically fronts the building. They took to the task with gusto; although few of their slogans had much to do with democracy, which was apparently the point. The adults, meanwhile, queued patiently for their free egg and bacon roll and clapped the concert performers appreciatively. There was a marquee for VIP guests, but the officials didn’t seem too vigilant in checking who was important and who wasn’t.

Finally, a little after the anointed hour, the formal ceremony got underway. The special minister of state, John Faulkner, spoke of Australia being a progressive yet undemonstrative democracy. He was followed by former prime minister Bob Hawke, whose duty it was to officially open the museum. “Hawkie” has been parodied so extensively – think of Terry Serio’s rendition in Keating! The Musical or further back to Max Gillies – that I half expected him to dance through the front doors of the building in white suit and tug on an ear-lobe. We too easily forget how serious-minded and effective a prime minister he was, even if I wouldn’t put him on a par with Deakin.

Hawke gave a spirited address, notwithstanding hitting a discordant note when he admitted he never been a sentimentalist for Old Parliament House. He was on safer ground with a story, revealing of our casual approach to memorialisation, about how his name came to be on the foundation stone of the new Parliament House, delivered in nice self-deprecating style. Before Labor came to office in March 1983, there had been a lengthy impasse within the Coalition government between Malcolm Fraser and Billy Snedden (two men with an unhappy shared history) about whether the prime minister (Fraser) or the speaker (Snedden) should be immortalised on the foundation stone. After Hawke defeated Fraser, this unresolved dispute was drawn to his notice by department officials. Hawke promptly phoned the newly appointed speaker, Harry Jenkins, to inform him that this was a matter on which he intended to exercise his prime ministerial prerogative – and the honour was to be his. A bemused Jenkins did not demur.

Amid all the diversions of the Museum’s opening, the moment that struck home for me was when one of my companions pointed out what was conspicuous by its absence: security. In the United States, he ventured, the place would have been swarming with weapon-bearing police and soldiers and helicopters would have been relentlessly circling overhead. In Canberra, by contrast, all that filled the sky was the brilliant autumn sunshine and the only thing keeping watch was the remnants of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Suddenly, it didn’t seem so bad being part of a phlegmatic democracy. •