About the letters

In January 1901, the London Morning Post newspaper published ‘The Australian Union’, the first piece from its new ‘Special Correspondent’. Datelined ‘Sydney, Nov. 29’, the article offered the Post’s readers an intimate, engaging and remarkably well informed commentary on Australia on the eve of Federation. The anonymous correspondent was Alfred Deakin who had, only two days before the article’s publication, been appointed the first Attorney-General of the Commonwealth of Australia.

A leading federalist, Deakin dominated national politics until 1910, serving as Prime Minister no less than three times (September 1903–April 1904, July 1905–November 1908 and June 1909–April 1910) before finally leaving politics in May 1913. Throughout this period, he continued to write as the Morning Post’s correspondent on Australian affairs, offering purportedly ‘frank commentaries … on Australian politics and politicians, including himself’.[1]

Deakin had been introduced to the Morning Post’s proprietor, Algernon Borthwick, Baron Glenesk, and editor, James Nicol Dunn, when in London from March to May 1900 to help smooth the passage of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act through the British Parliament.[2] It was a happy meeting of minds. Lord Glenesk was considering ‘the appointment of a regular Australian Correspondent, now that the new federation … was about to be inaugurated’.[3] Deakin, for his part, had long lamented the ‘absolute though innocent ignorance’ in England of the ‘aspirations of the colonies’, its press chronicling ‘very little regarding the colonies save cricket matches and other like matters, while the colonial press was full of information regarding every political or social movement of the mother country’.[4]

The terms of engagement were subsequently brokered by Philip Mennell, Deakin’s friend and the contributing editor of the British Australasian and New Zealand Mail. In November 1900, Deakin, who had worked as a journalist at The Age before entering the Victorian Parliament, accepted Glenesk’s invitation to contribute a weekly letter on Australian affairs for £500 a year.[5] His appointment was formally confirmed in March 1901.[6]

While the arrangement was originally to last a year, Deakin continued to write for the Morning Post until the end of 1914, notwithstanding the concerns of its editor that the first letter ‘was a little too straight in its hits at’ NSW Premier William Lyne:

I know that in the colonies and in America plain speaking about public men is the rule. Here we are more accustomed to diplomatic phrases, our golden rule being that no matter how severely you attack a man you should so express it that you could dine with him immediately afterwards…

What is wanted is admirably expressed in your private letter–that you should enable Englishmen to follow political material & social development all over Australia in a general way so as gradually to bring them in touch with that part of the Empire’.[7]

Evidently the Morning Post quickly applied itself to the task of ensuring that diplomacy prevailed, for in May 1901 Mennell wrote to Deakin complaining:

I do not believe in your being a curbed force. What people here want to know is Australian opinion, not Australian opinion as manufactured and interpreted to suit the M.P.[8]

Mennell went so far as to recommend Deakin find another outlet for his letters.[9] However, Deakin did not act on this advice and his letters appeared in the Morning Post (generally) weekly until August 1911, tapering then to one every three weeks.[10] Over this period, some 600 letters, amounting to around one million words of commentary on contemporary Australian life and politics were published, variously titled ‘The Australian Union’, ‘The New Commonwealth’, ‘Federated Australia’ and ‘the Commonwealth of Australia’.[11]  It is worth noting that, between 1904 and 1905, Deakin also wrote anonymous monthly feature articles for the National Review. Both papers had an Australian readership.

Deakin took pains to ensure that knowledge of his role as ‘special correspondent’ was limited to a small circle in Australia and London. This tight group included Thomas Bavin, a future NSW Premier and former Private Secretary to both Deakin and Edmund Barton. Bavin collaborated in the writing of the letters between 1907 and 1911.[12] The letters generally bore a Sydney dateline, and adopted a Sydney, Free-trade, point of view (our city', 'our Premier');[13] and included criticism of Deakin himself and of his policies. They were ‘often written, as is apparent when we know the authorship, with a certain ironical enjoyment.’[14] Deakin adopted a pseudonym (‘Andrew Oliver’) and sometimes a cypher for his cables to the Post.[15] Necessary precautions were also taken in posting the letters, one of his daughters recalling she was at times asked to ‘address an envelope to the Morning Post and to post it, with strict injunctions to secrecy’.[16] Deakin seemed to relish such elaborate machinations, writing in 1907:

The situation is fit for fiction rather than real life and that is one of its attractions though its responsibilities are hazardous in the extreme.[17]

Remarkably, the arrangement remained private for several years after his death. Deakin’s authorship of the letters was finally revealed in 1923 by Walter Murdoch in Alfred Deakin: a sketch[18]

While the remuneration would have been a welcome addition to his income as a Member of Parliament and minister, Deakin claimed a two-fold motivation for his role as special correspondent:

I write always for a double purpose.—First to inform English readers of the inner meaning of Australian politics so far as it can be told now and in that way.—Next as a series of notes for study of the origin and growth of the Commonwealth in its earliest years.—Not a big book, but a short and simple summary of its facts and lessons.[19]

Similarly, writing to Fabian Ware (then the Morning Post’s editor) in 1909, Deakin declared

The Australian letters in the M.P. may have all possible defects but however numerous they are no one who wished to write the history of our last 8 years can go elsewhere for a continuous record.[20]

Deakin’s letters to the Morning Post paint a broad canvas of Australian life and experience in the early years of Federation, ranging widely from drought, railways and tariffs to defence, imperial politics, and white Australia. At their heart, however, they are commentaries on Australian politics and political leaders—including himself[21]—and the shifting fortunes of the Protectionist, Free Trade and Labour movements.[22] The letters chart the course of early Commonwealth governments and parliaments as they ‘[put] into actual operation the intricate provisions of the Constitution’[23] and build the new nation.

Deakin seemed untroubled by the conflict of interest intrinsic to what is truly ‘one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of journalism’:[24]  His biographer and editor La Nauze, having grappled with the motivation for, and the propriety of, this anonymous journalism,[25] concludes, plangently, that historians would regard it as ‘in some degree an improper activity for a man holding responsible office for much of the time’:[26]

An English reader would have been made aware of Reid’s political skill and platform ability, but would have been led to mistrust him. He would have seen Watson as a remarkable man of great integrity … but he would constantly have been reminded of the perils of ‘machine-politics’ and of the extreme aims of the ‘ultras’. The Australian Correspondent often criticised Mr Deakin’s party … but he never gave the impression that the country was or would be better served by its rivals.[27]

Related manuscript material

Copying and publishing the following (digitised) manuscript material from the Deakin Papers at the National Library of Australia is subject to copyright restrictions. The Parliamentary Library would like to thank the copyright holders for giving us permission to publish it on this site.

To see the complete series of letters in each correspondence, click on the image to navigate through the pages.

[1]     JA La Nauze in the Introduction to his selected edition of the letters to the Morning Post. (A Deakin, Federated Australia: selections from letters to the Morning Post 1900–1910, JA La Nauze, ed, Cambridge University Press, Carlton, 1968, p. ix.)

[2]     Federated Australia, ibid., p. vii.

[3]     Ibid., p. viii. See also: JA La Nauze, ‘Alfred Deakin and the Morning Post’, Historical Studies Australia and New Zealand, 6(24), May 1955, pp. 361–275, and JA La Nauze, Alfred Deakin: a biography, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1965, 2, pp. 347–361.

[4]     ‘Banquet to the Colonial Delegates’, The Argus, 25 May 1887, p. 5.

[5]     Philip Mennell cable to Alfred Deakin, NLA MS 1540/7/8–10.

[6]     E. Peacock letter to Alfred Deakin, NLA MS 1540/7/14.

[7]     J Nicol Dunn  letter to Alfred Deakin, MS 1540/7/12–13.

[8]     Phillip Mennell letter to Alfred Deakin, 10 and 26 May 1901, NLA MS 1540/1/613–6, quoted in J Brett, The enigmatic Mr Deakin, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2017, p. 252.

[9]     Ibid.

[10]    Federated Australia, op.cit., p. viii.

[11]    ‘Alfred Deakin and the Morning Post’, op. cit., p. 361 and p. 373.

[12]    Federated Australia, op. cit., p. viii.

[13]    ‘Alfred Deakin and the Morning Post’, op. cit., p. 369.

[14]    Ibid.

[15]    J Nicol Dunn to Alfred Deakin, op. cit.

[16]    Brett, The enigmatic Mr Deakin, op. cit. p. 242.

[17]    Quoted in Federated Australia, op.cit., p. x.

[18]    W Murdoch, Alfred Deakin: a sketch, Constable & Co., Ltd, Sydney, 1923, p. 252.

[19]    Alfred Deakin to Richard Jebb, 29 May 1907, quoted in Alfred Deakin: a biography, op. cit., p. 353.

[20]    Alfred Deakin to F Ware, 4 January 1909, NLA MS 1540/7/45–48, quoted in Alfred Deakin: A biography, op. cit., p.358

[21]    Morning Post editor J Nicol Dunn had at the outset urged Deakin not to put himself ‘too much in the background’ but, rather, to mention [his] own part in affairs as fully as any other body’s’. J Nicol Dunn to Alfred Deakin, MS 1540/7/12–13.

[22]    Federated Australia, op. cit., p. ix.

[23]    H Tennyson, ‘Prorogation’, Senate, Debates, 22October 1903, pp. 6436–37.

[24]    Alfred Deakin: A biography, op. cit., 1,  p. 199

[25]    Federated Australia, op. cit., pp. ix–xii; Alfred Deakin: A biography, op. cit., 2, pp. 360–61.

[26]    Federated Australia, op. cit., p. x

[27]    Alfred Deakin: A biography, op. cit., p. 361.