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In office

First term 1903–04

Alfred Deakin was 47 years old when he began the first of his three terms as Prime Minister, after Edmund Barton resigned to become a judge on the first High Court. Like Barton, Deakin was sworn in as Minister for External Affairs. James Drake took Deakin’s place as Attorney-General in order to retain a Queenslander in Cabinet, although two Victorian parliamentarians, Isaac Isaacs and Henry Higgins, were the outstanding candidates. Austin Chapman was brought into the ministry to replace Drake as Minister for Defence, and William Lyne (Trade and Customs), George Turner (Treasurer), John Forrest (Home Affairs), and Philip Fysh (Postmaster-General) retained the same portfolios. Richard O’Connor was also appointed to the High Court and another Senator, South Australian Thomas Playford, took his place as Vice-President of the Executive Council.

This was the government Deakin likened to ‘three elevens’ attempting to play in the same cricket match. Deakin’s first government passed no legislation. The second session of the first parliament rose in October 1903, and within two months of the opening of the second parliament on 2 March 1904, the government had fallen. In between, a December general election had increased Labor’s seats in the House of Representatives at the cost of the Protectionists. This meant the Deakin government depended on Labor support to survive. After only three months, the alliance collapsed under a Labor amendment to the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill.

This prime ministerial postcard shows the Union Jack

This prime ministerial postcard shows the Union Jack, then Australia’s official flag, and the Australian red ensign, flown by Australian-registered ships after the British Admiralty granted authority in June 1903. It was another fifty years before the blue Australian flag officially became Australia’s national flag.

NAA: A1719, 3592C

Deakin ended his first period as Prime Minister on 27 April 1904, making way for a Labor government under the leadership of JC Watson. In August the Protectionists split when a group of radical liberals, led by Isaac Isaacs and William Lyne, aligned with Labor against the Free Trade Party led by George Reid. This put four teams into what was now a very volatile state of play. The Watson government became the third casualty of the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, enabling Reid to make history. His was the first and only Free Trade government – in power with a majority of two. The Bill, the most contentious measure of the young parliament, was finally enacted in December 1904.

Second term 1905–08

The three years of the 1905–08 Deakin government were the most important of the first ten years of the Federation. It was in this term that Deakin most clearly earned the tribute ‘the constructor’. The government dealt with defence, federal financial relations, external affairs, the High Court, the location of the seat of government and the transfer of the Northern Territory of South Australia to the Commonwealth.

The Cabinet sworn in on 5 July 1905

The Cabinet sworn in on 5 July 1905. Standing, left to right: TT Ewing (Vice-President of the Executive Council), Austin Chapman (Postmaster-General), Thomas Playford (Defence), Senator JH Keating and Littleton Groom (Home Affairs). Seated, left to right: William Lyne (Trade and Customs), Prime Minister Alfred Deakin (External Affairs), Isaac Isaacs (Attorney-General) and John Forrest (Treasurer).

NAA: A1200, L60717

During this period, the essential building blocks of Commonwealth administration were also put in place. The Bureau of Census and Statistics was established in 1906 and a Meteorology Bureau in 1908. The Copyright Act 1905 began the process by which the basis for a uniform national system for copyright, patents and trademarks was established by July 1906. The Quarantine Act 1908 came into operation in July 1909, providing the basis for a national quarantine system.

Alfred Deakin’s second term as Prime Minister was the result of the resignation of George Reid in July 1905. Like Watson and Deakin, Reid was unable to hold together a majority in the House of Representatives. He sought a double dissolution and general election, but the Governor-General, Lord Northcote, rejected this approach and Reid was forced to resign. Although the Protectionists were in the minority, Deakin formed a government with Labor support. It was returned after the general election on 12 December 1906, but continued to depend on the support of JC Watson’s Labor Party.

Reid and Deakin were opponents in every way, and not only because of their opposing views on the key political and fiscal issue of the day – the level of protection of Australian trade. Deakin made no secret of his view that he believed Reid was untrustworthy. Of Deakin’s often scathing word sketches of fellow federationists, his caricature of Reid was among the most vituperative. Reid was equally happy to hone his rapier wit on Deakin, especially in the parliamentary repartee at which he excelled.

The new nation’s defence policy and military infrastructure was a major preoccupation of Deakin’s second term. The naval agreement Barton secured with Britain in 1902 had never received wide support in parliament. Deakin was among its opponents and had expressed his views in a series of anonymous articles in the London Morning Post. At the 1907 Imperial Conference in London, Deakin challenged the arrangements by which Australia paid for a Royal Navy ‘umbrella’ of protection, making Australia the only British Dominion seeking its own navy.

In the House of Representatives in December that year, Labor leader Andrew Fisher praised a speech now regarded as one of Deakin’s best, calling it a ‘luminous survey of the history and present problems of Australian naval defence’. In this speech Deakin outlined the proposals to be put to the Admiralty. It included a scheme for compulsory military training for young men throughout the Commonwealth that was advocated by the Labor Party, particularly JC Watson and WM Hughes. Not that this was a universal view – among opponents were prominent supporters of international arbitration Vida Goldstein and Rose Scott. Scott corresponded at length with Deakin on this issue throughout 1908.

Deakin’s defence policy speech, 13 December 1907

Deakin’s defence policy speech in the House of Representatives on 13 December 1907.

NAA: A5954, 1347/11, p. 1

Deakin cautiously asserted Australia’s independence from Britain in other ways as well. Edmund Barton had concurred with Britain’s wish that Australia welcome Japanese naval ships in 1902. Six years later, after the Japanese naval victory over Russia, Deakin was less accommodating. Against the British government’s view, he secured a visit to Australian ports from the white-painted warships despatched on a promotional voyage by United States President Theodore Roosevelt. The warm welcome extended to the fleet in Australia, including a parliamentary dinner, was a demonstration of a policy developed by Deakin and implemented by his successor, Andrew Fisher.

Alfred Deakin greets the ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1908

Alfred Deakin greets United States Admiral Sperry and the ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1908, in the midst of his challenge to Britain over the establishment of an Australian naval force.

NAA: A1861, 702

On fiscal policy, Deakin’s government passed tariff acts providing tariff advantage to manufacturers in Australia – with a fair wages codicil – and extending protection to British manufacturers.

In 1906 the Deakin government amended the Judiciary Act to restore to the High Court a bench of five judges. Isaac Isaacs and HB Higgins were appointed to fill the two additional seats. Higgins’ responsibilities included presiding over the new Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. His judgment in Ex parte McKay – the Harvester case – in 1907 used the industries protection acts to establish the principle of the male basic wage.

In Deakin’s own portfolio of External Affairs, the Papua Act 1905 established an Australian administration for British New Guinea. The Federation star on the Australian flag was given a seventh point to cover Papua and future territories.

There was not long to wait – South Australia and New South Wales were drafting acts to surrender territory to the Commonwealth. The Deakin government had the acceptance legislation ready and waiting for both. The first was for the transfer of control of the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth, effective in 1911. The second, an agreement with a much less eager state government, was for the transfer of the territory chosen as the seat of government. This matter was well remembered by the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Arthur Hunt, as the occasion of a rare exception to Deakin’s careful drafting of despatches. Hunt recalled Deakin:

gave me his opinion of the writer in the most vigorous language ... When he finished I said ‘Yes, but what shall I reply?’ He then gave me an instruction which, I suppose, is unique: ‘Tell him to go to hell – three pages’.

Though Hunt did not specify, only the Premier of New South Wales, Joseph Carruthers, could have been so irritating to Deakin. Hunt’s implementation of the instruction is probably a three-page letter over the Prime Minister’s name dated 15 November 1905.

A Prime Minister to a Premier – the ‘go to hell’ letter

A Prime Minister to a Premier – the ‘go to hell’ letter prompted by the New South Wales government’s stalling tactics on the transfer of the proposed federal capital territory.

NAA: A18, 5, p. 17

The second Deakin government was defeated on 13 November 1908, when Labor withdrew support over a bill to implement the ‘new protection’ policy. Labor’s Andrew Fisher became Australia's sixth Prime Minister.

Third term 1909–10

In Deakin’s third term as Prime Minister he led a Fusion government comprising the three main parties. This was Deakin’s first alliance with the Free Trade Party, led by Joseph Cook after George Reid’s resignation from the parliament on 16 November 1908.

Deakin’s Fusion government was defeated at the general election on 13 April 1910, with Andrew Fisher’s Labor party victorious. When his final term as Prime Minister ended on 29 April 1910, Deakin had served as Prime Minister for a total of four years and ten months, the longest time served by any of the first six prime ministers to 1915.


La Nauze, JA, Alfred Deakin: A Biography, Vol. 2, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1965.

Souter, Gavin, Acts of Parliament, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988.

From the National Archives of Australia collection

Postcard, Alfred Deakin, 1903, NAA: A1719, 3592C

Speech by Alfred Deakin on Defence Policy, 1907, NAA: A5954, 1347/11

The American Fleet in Australia, 1908, NAA: A1861, 702

Miscellaneous papers relating to the Federal Capital site, 1905, NAA: A18, 5

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