Review by Michael Easson of Gideon Haigh, The Brilliant Boy. Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent, Scribner, 2021, for The Workplace Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, December 2021, pp. 49-56
Until now, despite several appealing attempts, the brilliant, complex, exasperating, shrewd, and naïve Herbert Vere Evatt PC, KStJ, QC (1894-1965), Labor politician, judge, and historian, lacked a compelling biography. Gideon Haigh’s The Brilliant Boy largely remedies the deficiency, explaining that in the 1930s and 1940s “no Australian leading the life of the mind was more brilliant, ambitious and ubiquitous. He argued unpopular causes. He brought breadth and warmth to a Bench crabbed and cold. He brought hope to those who yearned for an Australia of more than imperial loyalty, martial gestures, sporting heroism and hand-me-down culture, and walked confidently also in the world beyond.”
If Evatt, Australian Minister for External Affairs from 1941-49, on one of his many flights across the Pacific had crashed he would now be regarded as Australia’s magnificent lost leader, her greatest would-have-been Prime Minister. Consider the rollcall: accomplished academic attainments, a triple first-class honours Arts degree with the University Medal in Philosophy, Master of Arts, Law degree with first-class honours and the University Medal, Doctorates in Law and Literature; former NSW Labor MP (Labor member for Balmain, 1925-27, independent Labor 1927-30) who stood up to the imperious Jack Lang (NSW Labor Leader, 1923-1939, twice NSW Premier, 1925-27 and 1930-32, who expelled Evatt from “official” NSW Labor in 1927); barrister, the “legal Phar Lap”, and significant jurist (High Court Justice, 1930-40); accomplished and interesting historian (including well-researched and influential books on Vice Regal powers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the 1806 Rum Rebellion, and an unsurpassed work in Australian labour history, his assessment of former NSW Premier William Holman, Australian Labour Leader); subsequent to winning in 1940 off the government for Labor the marginal seat of Barton, he was the superb tactician behind the formation in 1941 of the Curtin government; midwife to the formation of Israel in 1948-49; and effective advocate for and friend of Indonesian independence, 1947-49. Evatt’s was the most brilliant mind ever to serve in the Australian parliament.
His last years in politics were particularly tragic. Prudently, Haigh says “…Evatt’s tumultuous political career falls beyond the scope of this book…”, which is to say the period after Labor lost office in December 1949, which, apart from a few side glances, the book mostly avoids.
It is worth appreciating why shyness about covering the period beyond is understandable. Evatt’s record in the 1950s was marred by setback and colossal miscalculation. In 1951 on the death of Ben Chifley, 18 months after Labor lost national office, Evatt was elected unopposed as Leader of the Labor Party, and therefore as Leader of the Opposition, supported across the Labor personalities and factions, destined for seemingly inevitable success: Prime Minister. But it all came crashing down. Narrowly defeated in the May 1954 federal elections, five months later Evatt provoked a devastating Labor Split in 1954/55. Evatt attacked B.A. Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement, which underpinned the ALP Industrial Groups, as determined to “to deflect the Labor Movement from the pursuit of established Labor objectives and ideals.” This surprise offensive ignored Evatt’s previous courting of Santamaria, including seeking his advice on policy through several meetings, and the fact that ALP politicians and unionists had begged the Catholic Church for assistance in defeating communist control of various unions. (The crippling coal miners’ strike in the winter of 1949, run by communist extremists to “expose” the reformist demeanour of the Chifley government, significantly contributed to Labor’s defeat to Menzies later that year.)
With the mid-1950s Split, thousands of erstwhile ALP members were expelled, or cast aside from Labor. Many more, disillusioned, stepped away. Hardliners aligned to communists took over the Victorian Trades Hall Council and their allies controlled the equivalent in Queensland. The far left had the numbers on the national executive of the ALP. The anti-communist Democratic Labor Party (DLP), who preferenced the Liberals (as did Labor against the DLP), was formed and further federal election defeats followed in December 1955 and November 1958, the latter after disgruntled union leaders and the Left, controlling the Queensland ALP machine, expelled the Queensland Labor Premier and most of his Cabinet in 1957. Before the 1955 election, Evatt read into the Hansard a letter from the Soviet Foreign Minister denying the USSR had posted spies in Australia. Evatt thought this conclusively disproved the evidence revealed in 1954/55 by Vladimir Petrov, the Soviet Embassy defector to Australia, that a spy ring operated here. Evatt was laughed at by all sides of the House. Yet Labor kept him on as leader, the Left cynically thinking Labor moderates would leave, consolidating their hold on the party. After three defeats in a row, the most of any Australian Opposition leader, only equalled by his successor, finally in 1960 Labor turned to Arthur Calwell to lead. Beforehand, Evatt’s career was in tatters, still Opposition Leader, headed to another electoral flogging, everyone knowing the game was up. Largely derided and despised within and without the movement, in January 1960 Evatt was appointed by the NSW Labor government as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of NSW for the sole purpose of getting rid of him from active politics. He was not well and retired in ill-health from a stroke in 1962 and died in 1965. Haigh notes that when an articled clerk, Michael Kirby, a future High Court Justice (1996-2009), witnessed Evatt on the NSW bench where he appeared “like Lear, disconsolate”.
Haigh crosses unfamiliar territory to hopefully say: “It is not clear, John Murphy argues plausibly in Evatt: A Life  that another leader would have met greater success.” In contradistinction, the then NSW Labor Premier Neville Wran in his 1979 introduction to Evatt’s reprinted William Holman. Australian Labour Leader (first published in 1940) comments on Evatt’s summation of the 1916/17 Split “that ‘the spirit of disinterestedness was absent’ — may apply as well to the protagonists of 1955 as to those of 1916.” Wran goes on: “…it is difficult to see that there was any inevitability about the Split of 1955… splits may be inevitable and may even be necessary if deep and insoluble issues of principle arise, although skilful leadership should always strive to the limit to avoid the final tragedy.” In Hayden. An Autobiography (1996), Bill Hayden, Labor leader from 1977-83, subsequently Foreign Minister, thereafter Governor General, says of Evatt: “The remarkable thing is that for having left a legacy of political ruin and desolation, where he was supposed to have created a government, he became canonised as another martyred hero of Labor, an enduring party icon.” It is wise that Haigh mostly sticks to his timeline, avoiding Evatt’s last decade.
In doing so, Haigh has produced a classic work of intellectual biography. This beautifully written book does three things: first, it explains, so far as that is possible, the complex person Evatt became, including the reasons he was suspicious and out of his depth in Labor factional schisms. Second, it convincingly establishes that Evatt was a pioneering, great lawyer/jurist. Hence the sub-title of the book, addressed later in this review. Evatt’s creative method and reasoning have continuing relevance. Third, in the field of foreign policy, Evatt was Australia’s most accomplished, intriguing, and successful Foreign Minister. There were four occasions in Australia’s 120 years where Australians made an appreciable impingement on the world. First were the positions taken during and in the aftermath of World War I. Prime Minister William Morris Hughes had an impact on international post-Great War policy, including the Treaty of Versailles: “I speak for 60,000 dead” as he riposted and leveraged with the US President in 1919. Second was Australia’s contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II. Third was Australia’s crucial and instrumental support for the creation of Israel in 1947-49; and fourth, Australia’s manoeuvrings in favour of independence for Indonesia in the same period. Evatt was in the thick of the last three.
To digress momentarily, it is interesting to consider the first instance, as two of the dead 60,000 were Evatt’s brothers. Hughes’ boisterous, finger-waving performance in the Treaty negotiations not only led to Australia acquiring German territory but also to the reshaping of north-east Asia.
During the Great War, China was aligned with the Allies. Though no Chinese troops fought directly, from 1917 almost 100,000 Chinese labourers temporarily joined the war effort in Europe. They freed-up allied soldiers for the front line. Japan also joined the war effort on the side of the Allies, attacked and seized German possessions in China and in the Pacific. Unbeknown to China, Japan and the British secretly agreed that if Japan joined the war, they could keep those German possessions once the war finished. In 1919 the Chinese refused to sign the Treaty (the only delegation to do so) and walked out of negotiations. Demonstrations erupted among the Chinese living in Paris, and students in China and triggered the May Fourth Movement, the anti-imperialist, cultural, nationalist, and political movement which grew out of student protests in Beijing and across the country on 4 May 1919.
The Treaty of Versailles was the first political treaty negotiated with direct participation of Australian government delegates and the first signed by Australian officials. At the negotiations, Australia and New Zealand opposed assigning former German possessions in the Pacific to Japan but acceded to those in China. In Australia, the Treaty needed to be ratified by the Australian parliament. It was. Hughes stressed the benefits: reparations (compensation payments) from Germany, mandates over New Guinea and Nauru in the Pacific, and the removal of the racial equality clause from the founding document of the League of Nations.
In China a young Mao Tse-tung, along with many others, was radicalised due to the arrogance and pretensions of western and Japanese imperialism. A few years later, some of the leading activists involved in May Fourth formed the Chinese Communist Party. In this very indirect way, Hughes might be said to have had the single greatest, global impact of any Australian on the world.
With Curtin then Chifley as Prime Minister, Evatt played a vital role negotiating support arrangements, including weapons, materiel, air support, logistics, and the development of support industries, with the British and Americans in the conduct of World War II and Australia’s engagement. Evatt contributed to the formation of the Pacific War Cabinet based in Washington to better co-ordinate the campaign to defeat Japan.
Evatt was an internationalist, a lawyer who had faith in ‘rules-based’ organisations, the United Nations Organisation (UNO), successor to the League, being pre-eminent. From 1945, he chaired formative sessions in San Francisco and elsewhere, played a role in the drafting of the Human Rights Charter, led discussion about the settlement of the League of Nations’ British Mandate in Palestine, and envisaged the need for world institutions to protect small nations from the strong. As President of the UN General Assembly, 1948-49, and as chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question, Evatt was positioned to shape events.
His navigation of the UN to create Israel, arguably his greatest achievement, has been told before, notably in Daniel Mandel’s book H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel. The Undercover Zionist (2004) and in Evatt’s own account ‘Australia’s Part in the Creation of Israel’ published in the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal in 1961, to which Haigh refers.
The third example, not really discussed in the book, is Australia’s support for Indonesian self-determination immediately after the war. On 17 August 1945, the Indonesian nationalists proclaimed their independence with Sukarno as President (in office to 1967) and Mohammad Hatta as Vice President (1945-56). Australia behind the scenes and sometimes publicly, always actively, with Evatt at the helm, played a positive role in peacefully resolving tensions. “Jaw-by- jaw” diplomacy with the British, the Americans, the Dutch, the Indonesians, being part of the determined Australian effort. The Dutch were proposing a commonwealth with parts of Indonesia “enjoying” varying degrees of autonomy. In 1947 the United Nations Security Council formed a Committee of Good Offices, to guide the future negotiations between The Netherlands and the representatives of the Republic of Indonesia. A good deal of this story is told in Steven Farram, Indonesia, 1947: Australia and the First United Nations Cease-fire Order (2019). If Evatt had done nothing more after his period leading Australian foreign policy, his place as one of the great Australians was forever assured.
The power of Haigh’s book lies in the author’s novelist-like knack for interpreting situations, evaluating motives, and telling a story. His scholarship, and surety about sources, is exceptional. Admiring, critical, respectful, and sometimes perplexed, Haigh says of Evatt: “He does not fit easily into a national pantheon that exalts bravery in war, popularity in culture, electoral success in politics. He was an indifferent orator, an abrasive colleague, even a careless dresser… His remaining admirers, who usually accent his achievements at the United Nations, are ardent rather than widespread.”
As a barrister, in 1917 Evatt acted for the unions contesting the introduced management fad of Taylorism, an American-inspired method of routinising work on so-called scientific efficiency-principles, dogmatically pushed at the Randwick tram sheds and the NSW railways. Workers were required to clock on with cards to record the tasks each worker was assigned and the time it took to complete tasks. The unions protested and went on strike. Thousands were sacked. For a time, the “minimally militant” train-driver Ben Chifley was “busted to shovelling coal”.
Evatt played a major role as a barrister, wading through the ambiguities discovered in the Australian Constitution, in trade, commerce, industrial relations and arbitral power. The Constitution envisaged a central Commonwealth government with limited powers and six state governments with plenary powers. The High Court of Australia, in its early constitutional interpretation (originalism) strove to give effect to the framers’ intention. But judicial interpretation and practical “necessity” challenged this construct.
Evatt was sometimes ranged against Robert Menzies before the High Court, two of the leading senior barristers of their day. In 1920, in the Amalgamated Society of Engineers v Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd (‘Engineers’), the High Court advocated a method of constitutional interpretation (literalism) which favoured a broad interpretation of Commonwealth powers. Literalism, in this case, refers to a literal and expansive reading of Commonwealth legislative powers subject only to express limitations found in the constitutional text. The union sought the right to seek a Commonwealth industrial award for state government employees. The case went to the heart of the issue of Commonwealth versus state rights. Ironically, perhaps, Menzies was the sole advocate for the Engineers union before the High Court. Evatt was on the other side of the argument. In this matter, as readers of this journal know, the Engineers case extended the scope of what constituted a federal dispute and therefore the applicability of federal law to resolving industrial disputes.
Seeking to extend federal powers was a constant theme in Evatt’s approach to the law, particularly when serving as Attorney-General in the 1940s. Menzies referred to “the idea that the Commonwealth in international concerns could enact legislation in subject matters normally the preserve of the states as ‘the Evatt doctrine’.”
The book covers and uncovers aspects of Evatt’s life. But it is his ideas that are most of interest, and Haigh presumes enough is written on the private side, such as his marriage to Mary Alice Sheffer in 1920, the couple’s adoption of their two children, Peter and Rosalind, though this is warmly, if briefly, discussed.
Haigh sees Evatt’s contemporary, the increasingly radical Marxist archaeologist and historian, Vere Gordon Childe, private secretary to Labor Premier John Storey between 1920-21, and Evatt’s university teacher, the Sydney University liberal, Idealist philosopher Francis Anderson separately impacted on Evatt’s evolving outlook on politics and society, as he synthesised and formulated his own perspective. Evatt’s Liberalism in Australia (1918), accounting for the evolution of Australian democracy, owes part of its inspiration to Anderson.
Evatt admired Holman for his pioneering, organisational flair in creating from the 1890s onwards, a viable Labor party. He sees Holman’s career ending in tragedy, ostracised from the movement he was instrumental in establishing.
In 1920 Holman was defeated as NSW Premier by John Storey, the sickly NSW Labor Leader who died in office in September 1921. Haigh mentions Childe’s “remarkable prescient” book How Labour Governs (1923), an overly generous reference to Childe’s mix of diatribe, critique, over-simplification, and complaint about the ALP’s failure to embrace red-blooded socialism.
Elected to the state parliament in 1925, hoping to become NSW Attorney-General in the first Lang government that year, Evatt “sampled the full sourness of rejection.” As Haigh comments, in NSW particularly: “The political left in this period was a mess of overlapping vendettas.” In 1927, Lang purged many of his ministers, reforming his Cabinet, replacing colleagues with “complaisant mediocrities.” Evatt wrote an article in protest in the Sydney Truth newspaperand was expelled from the ALP on Lang’s orders. Haigh says a theme of Evatt’s life was the motto “Let truth and falsehood grapple”, as Milton’s said in Areopagitica (1644), written during the English Civil War, in defence of the right to free speech. For Evatt, there was the presumption that truth was the stronger in the contest but had to be fought for.
There are interesting bon mots, illuminating expressions, and observations on events — too many to recall in this review. One example: On Evatt’s The Rum Rebellion (1937), Haigh tributes that “Bligh emerges as closer to saintly Albert Schweitzer than slavering Charles Laughton”, a reference to the 1935 movie.
In the decade Evatt served on the High Court, 1930-40, Labor tore itself apart. The federal Scullin government lost office after Lang Labor MPs voted in favour of no-confidence in 1931. In NSW, Lang expelled opponents, with national and state Labor operating two distinct, rival Labor parties.
The “brilliant boy” refers both to Evatt, his doting mother’s assessment, and to Maxie Chester, the son of Polish-Jewish migrants Chaim and Golda Chester, who in August 1937 fell into a cursorily marked, flooded Council trench, 12.0m by 0.5m, at Waverley. Haigh writes: “A seven-year-old boy had died on a clear day in the quiet suburb of a peaceful nation while his father had been out, his mother at home, his siblings at the movies.” Golda’s jagged wail sounds through the pages, her particularly brilliant boy, the hope of her family, drowned. A lawyer, coincidentally a friend of Evatt, Abram Landa, advised the family to sue for damages, £1,000 for negligence and loss. After defeats in lower courts, in 1939, the case proceeded to the High Court, where Evatt issued a dissent to his fellow judges.
Haigh’s book includes one acute Chapter, ‘Who Is My Neighbour?’, which brings to life the controversy about the common law catching up with advances in science and medicine, and the constant tension between preserving and updating precedent in the light of new facts. It is a recurring theme. “Law insisting that harm required lesions and lacerations ignored the march of science,” Haigh says. In the 1930s, the Australian courts thought the place of ‘nervous shock’ and its location in the tort of negligence was so esoteric and ungraspable “that some were not even sure it should exist”. As “…the law hemmed and hawed about” how best to decide, an English ruling, propounded by Lord Atkin – “a liberal with a pronounced sense of the law’s social dimensions” – espoused the good neighbour principle. Evatt thought this concept was applicable to the case before the High Court in Chester in 1939.
In Haigh’s words, Evatt “…placed[d] himself alongside Golda Chester at the side of that trench without abandoning the analytical faculties necessary…” In his judgment: “Through the patina of judicial restraint, a fine fury can be felt.”
Evatt wanted to apply principles espoused in the American and British courts that shock, psychological injury, associated loss, were meaningful and compensable. Lord Atkin in Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932) construed the test of “reasonable foreseeability” in negligence and advanced the Good Samaritan analogy that the principle of loving your neighbour requires taking reasonable, foreseeable steps to prevent harm to them. With that insight the law advanced. In Australia, however, the High Court majority in Chester rejected such reasoning.
Haigh’s excellent, discursive summary of the law places him in rare company. In some respects, he is the layman’s Philip Ayres, that great Australian legal historian who died this August. Less conservative, less literalist, a progressive interpreter, more Evatt J. than Dixon J. compared to Ayres, both have genius in decomplicating and pungently conveying complex principles, ideas, and context.
Geoffrey Lewis’ biography of Lord Atkin (1983) observes: “…the revolution brought about by Donoghue v. Stevenson was so quiet that it passed completely unnoticed by the general public.” It “…called the law of negligence into existence as a separate civil wrong and enabled that branch of the law to develop on common sense lines so as to become the most important and far reaching of all civil wrongs.” As Lewis notes, Evatt corresponded with the Australian-born, Welsh-identifying Lord Atkin from 1933, commenting favourably on Atkin’s reasoning in various British cases.
On the majority in Chester who found that the facts did not disclose a breach of any duty owed by the defendant Council to the plaintiff, Haigh propounds: “The years have not dealt kindly with any of these sternly objective and devoutly masculine sentiments – that death should cause no ‘consequence of more than a temporary nature’, that associated shock was not ‘in the ordinary range of human experience’, that associated suffering was largely a matter of ‘worry and impecuniosity’.”
Landa, Chester’s lawyer, must have considered appealing to the Privy Council, eyeing another vindication for Evatt. It had happened before. In 1935, in Grant v Australian Knitting Mills, Evatt also was the sole dissenter from the majority in the High Court in a case that centred on a customer, Dr Grant, contracting a severe case of dermatitis from his purchase of underwear. Excess sulphites were left in the garment, causing the irritation. Opinion divided on whether this was reasonably foreseeable. Haigh says that after defeat in the High Court Grant’s lawyers took his underpants to London and there the Privy Council upheld Evatt’s dissent. When it came to negligence, right up to the 1970s, the Australian judges were mostly well to the right of the British Law Lords.
Though not discussed by Haigh, it seems likely in the Chester case, with war declared in September 1939, the practicalities of seeking the remedy of Privy Council appeal became decidedly more onerous. Besides, Mrs Chester might not have been strong enough for another legal round.
To complete the story, Golda Chester took her own life in 1949, ten years after her name echoed in the High Court chambers. She never recovered from the death of young Maxie. In Europe, of her family that had remained, the Sochaczewskis and Gradowskis, all “had been swallowed by the giant trench of the Holocaust.”
In 1984, in a landmark case, Jaensch v. Coffey, where the plaintiff suffered nervous shock when immediately after an accident, she saw her injured husband in hospital and was told of the seriousness of his injuries, the Australian High Court revisited Chester, with various references to “the seminal dissenting judgement of Evatt J.” The law might well have evolved anyway, but Haigh insists: “Be that as it may, nothing might have moved at all had Evatt not in 1939 bequeathed later jurists the lever of his dissent.” The whole saga is told movingly and perceptively by Haigh.
In the same year as Evatt’s Chester dissent, in 1939, at state and federal level, “Labor had undergone long healings.” Lang was deposed as NSW Labor leader that year, the fractious competing Labor parties reunited. Evatt was bored. A war was being prepared in Europe and in north-east Asia. Labor’s 1930s isolationist sentiments Evatt abhorred. The cause needed the good, the good to the aid of the cause. The temptation to return to Labor politics was proving great. Meanwhile, Evatt was drafting a new book, his most challenging. He had thought of titling the Holman book ‘Confident Morning’, an allusion to Robert Browning’s 1945 poem ‘The Lost Leader’, which excoriates Wordsworth’s abandonment of earlier liberal leanings, as he retreated to a conservative and unambitious, passive quietude. Hence, for followers, and for Wordsworth himself:
Never glad confident morning again!
The poem goes on:
Best fight on well, for we taught him—strike gallantly,
Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!
The last lines suggest an ambivalence about Wordsworth’s fate and place, that despite apostasy, in recognition of past inspiration, Wordsworth too might make it to heaven, seeing his errors. Evatt was grappling with the Australian labour movement’s ambivalence about one of its founders, who “ratted” in 1916, but merited respect for what he had achieved. Not only did Evatt want to capture those subtle, balanced thoughts, his book, as Haigh notes, was a rehearsal of his own ideas, “with an eye to his political future, arguing, partly with his disillusioned friend Childe, against the inevitability of disappointment.”
This summation, in Australian Labour Leader (1940) quoted by Haigh, explains Evatt’s view:
What was achieved by Australian Labour was achieved by men of courage, imagination and integrity. Similarly, where there was failure, it was caused or contributed to by the weakness and errors of individuals. But it is erroneous to draw the inference that in political life the ideal must always be abandoned: that, by some immutable law, disillusionment is universal, absolute, and certain… Serious conflict is certain, as to policy as well as method. But disinterestedness and idealism need not disappear. They can and must be renewed by constant and continuous contact with the people, the true rank and file.
This is a humble defence of Australian labourism, and an argument that the reformer’s task is a purposeful and noble quest.
As earlier mentioned, Evatt won election in September 1940 to the House of Representatives and immediately sought to orchestrate the formation of the Curtin government. Another Haigh assessment refers to 1940-41, where Calwell acknowledged Evatt’s decisive role in personally winning over the two independent MPs who switched to support Curtin becoming Prime Minister. Evatt’s subsequent “…veerings could perhaps be foreseen from his year in opposition: he was impetuous, pushy, even ruthless, convinced of his rightness in every view and suitability for every position. Being in rather than of the party and without factional allies, he also had a freelance quality, taking on tasks like an advocate accepting briefs.” Even so, Evatt’s bold stratagems worked. In 1941 under Curtin, Evatt was appointed Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs, portfolios he held to December 1949.
In the latter role, Haigh acknowledges Evatt’s enthusiasm for the formation of a Jewish and an Arab divide in the land of Palestine. Justice motivated him. His good friend Abram Landa joined him at some of the crucial meetings at the UN. Haigh says: “…Evatt was more inclined to see it as a question of justice for the UN General Assembly to resolve – this belief was seasoned with an anti-fascist philo-Semitism, and a scepticism about conciliating Axis-aligned Arabs.” (The Chief Mufti of Jerusalem had been a notable Nazi sympathiser and Axis advocate during the war.)
Evatt had more than sentimental attachment to a cruelly decimated people’s right to a homeland. This was a test-case for the fledgling UN, for whether international law and the new international organisation could deliver on its promise. Haigh writes: “The foundation of a Jewish state is the most lasting geopolitical legacy of that brief efflorescence, between World War II and the Cold War, of what has been called rule-of-law internationalism, based on the resolution of global disputes through treaties, tribunals and multilateral institutions.”
With Haigh’s book, not counting the books on the ALP Split or those on the Petrov “affair”, there are now six Evatt biographies and two book-length accounts (plus an interesting monograph) of his record in foreign policy: A former Evatt staffer, Allan Dalziel, wrote Evatt the Enigma (1967), lightly touching on flaws and achievement; novelist Kylie Tennant’s Evatt, Politics and Justice (1970) gives hagiography a bad name. A former head of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Alan Renouf, wrote Let Justice Be Done: The Foreign Policy of Dr H.V. Evatt (1983), praising his distinctive contribution to alliance, independence, and internationalism. Peter Crockett, Evatt: A Life (1993) is thorough, ambitious, and divides between admiration and brutal assessment; Ken Buckley, Barbara Dale & Wayne Reynolds in Doc Evatt: Patriot, Internationalist, Fighter and Scholar (1994) doggedly defend the record, too often too uncritically. Sometimes multiple authors fail to chime well. A promised second volume never materialised. Mandel’s book H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel (2004) thoroughly covers what was arguably Evatt’s most significant and lasting achievement. Ashley Hogan’s monograph, Moving in the Open Daylight. Doc Evatt, An Australian at the United Nations (2008), as the title suggests, is a stirring defence of Evatt’s approach to diplomacy, interesting in its exuberance and clarity in describing a moralistic view to Australian foreign policy. If only some realist, competing arguments were better discussed and contrasted. John Murphy’s scholarly Evatt: A Life (2016) is thorough, thoughtful, and captures Evatt’s contradictory, sometimes over-wrought personality. Despite thinking the ALP was heading to a major Split, Murphy confesses an uncomfortable appraisal, that Evatt was unsuitable to lead and “unhinged” in the mid-1950s. But it is Haigh’s book that stands above all.
Even Haigh feels awed by the difficulty in assessing this complex figure who related better to humanity than to people: “He seems unclassifiable: not a patrician, not a larrikin, not a populist, not a statesman; instead, a wealthy liberal, a maverick conservative, a patriot…” The words flow in measured uncertainty. Insightfully, however, Haigh, in seeking to grasp the wisp of meaning, says of Evatt-the-politician: “A native of the individualistic, adversarial, and logically rational law, Evatt lacked capacities for collegiality and compromise; his incredulity and suspicion on encountering alternative points of view grew worse. An untrusting man in an untrustworthy environment, he and his party mirrored each other’s gravest weaknesses” – another piece to the kaleidoscope puzzle.
Evatt rescued from the residue of Holman’s life deep meaning and accomplishment, buoyant “glad confident morning again”, as does Haigh with Evatt’s. Referencing Chester and what Evatt stood for in his brightest days, Haigh concludes: “… it reveals to us the greatness of a forgotten Australian.” Forgotten, not exactly; under-appreciated for the period prior to becoming Labor leader in 1951 is more to the point. Despite all, this was a man for whom it mattered “to wring justice from an unfeeling world.” Just as the Dutch legal scholar Paul Scholten suggests the “law is never ‘finished’,” so we might say about the assessment and re-assessment of the life that was Evatt’s.
Before submitting this piece to the editors of Workplace Review, I dropped Gideon Haigh an email pointing out some errors and queries. For example, the number of non-Catholics in the NSW ministry was more than just Landa and Evatt, though it varied from McKell to Renshaw.
I made clear in my note and the review my favourable view of the book and Haigh’s accomplishment in understanding Evatt, at least for the period before he became Labor Leader in 1951.
Interestingly, I received a note from Barry Jones AC (1932- ) who urged that, in the list of Evatt achievements, I add Evatt’s central role in the adoption of the UN Convention on Genocide, where Evatt worked closely with Raphael Lemkin (1900-59)the Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who coined the term genocide and initiated the Genocide Convention (1948) adopted just beforethe UN Convention on Universal Human Rights.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG), or the Genocide Convention, was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948. The Convention entered into force on 12 January 1951. The day after the Genocide Convention was adopted, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was also adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948.
Jones emailed on 31 December 2021:
I had a reasonably close relationship with Evatt, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious, and I have written about it a little.
Every time he came to Melbourne, I would spend time with him and would inevitably drive out to Essendon airport with him as he (nervously) flew to Sydney or Canberra.
From a Victorian perspective, I think the split of 1954-55 was inevitable. The operation of the Groupers in defeating Pat Kennelly (then National Secretary of the ALP and a Minister in Cain Sr’s government) for pre-selection in the Legislative Council was the Rubicon for many. (To add to it all, Kennelly was paralysed with grief at the accidental death of a son). I observed many acts of treachery in the 1954 Federal election campaign. There was also a narrowly defeated attempt to knock off Frank Crean’s pre-selection — and, also, Jack Galbally, a practising Catholic who was not a Grouper.
But a critical element, which has rarely been written about, was this — and by sheer dumb luck I was a witness. (See A Thinking Reed, p. 150)
Clement Attlee, after visiting the PRC, came to Australia, I think for the first time, and addressed a Caucus dinner on 9 September 1954. I happened to be in Canberra and — thanks to Arthur Calwell — I was allowed to attend the dinner: the only non-Caucus member.
Attlee spoke in a characteristically calm, low-keyed way about his China experience but was abused and booed by some MPs. (Other MPs had boycotted the dinner.) The atmosphere was poisonous. The division could not be healed.
Evatt’s attack on “disloyal elements in the party” took place in October.
This stimulated in early January 2022 a vigorous correspondence. Howard Nathan QC (1936- ) wrote:
Further to the correspondence arising from your message.
The Split and The Participants.
The Vic ALP fell under the control of the very people Santamaria was excoriating, perhaps obviously but we Participants were ignorant of that. Dennis (Dinny) Lovegrove [1904-79, Victorian ALP Secretary from 1950-55, including at the beginning of the ALP Split and later a Victorian state MP, 1955-73] probably to assuage doubts about his loyalty to them and in hilarious contradiction of his background, joined the Freemasons in the early 1960s, at that time the main vehicle for pretentious upwardly mobile Prots. In the late 1940s more than 200,000 of Victoria’s males from a population of less than 1.5 million were Goat riders. Best estimates put that figure at 230,000. Now, their numbers have fallen to less than 20,000. Surely a loss only matched by trade unions. Even more surely, worth a flotilla of PhDs. It is amusing to think of Dinny at his installation wandering around the Temple blindfolded, with his left breast exposed to ensure he was not a woman and shod in a pair of fetching slippers. Thankfully no further anatomical examination was required to establish his gender, perhaps to the dismay of some of the brethren.
A few days later Jones went on to say:
I don’t want to obsess about Evatt and the Split, but there are a few points I should make briefly.
- Evatt delivered the first Chifley Memorial Lecture for the ALP Club at Melbourne University on 24 June 1954. Unfortunately, no written text survives, and Evatt was essentially freewheeling. It was reported in the newspapers and on radio. But he set out a radical vision which was anathema to the Groupers. I organised the Lecture. Sir John Latham — conservative but a rationalist — asked if he could move the vote of thanks.
- Catholics and pre-selection. I was too sweeping in saying that Catholics were excluded. Not quite. My great mate Michael Duffy — an observant but not fervent Catholic — was preselected twice. You should talk to him. Gerry Hand was a Catholic, I think, but only nominal.
- Arthur Calwell’s position was complicated. He was a fervent Catholic but ostracised in his parish church. He then went to Mass daily at St Francis in the CBD. If anything, he over-compensated in his relationship with the Left. When Yarra was abolished in 1969 and Cairns challenged Calwell in Melbourne, the hard Left supported Calwell.
- Howard Nathan is correct in drawing attention to the role of the Freemasons, and I regret not mentioning them. There was a Lodge in the Melbourne Trades Hall and, I think, in some other cities. Could you imagine Jim Cairns in an apron? But he did ride the goat. (And his funeral was in St John’s Church, Toorak.) …
- Gilroy v. Mannix. Mannix gave BAS a free hand with the Movement but remained radical on some issues — for example he voted ‘No’ in the 1951 Referendum (like John Howard’s mother) and he protested the execution of the Rosenbergs. Gilroy’s role in avoiding a split in the NSW will be better known to you, Michael, than me.
And then Jones commented that:
I overlapped with Dinny Lovegrove in the Victorian Parliament. Very complex character and very conflicted. Terrific debater. He was Deputy Leader to a very decent dud, Clive Stoneham [1909-92; Victorian state MP, 1942-70; Victorian Labor Leader 1958-67] (known as ‘cement head’).
You are right about the harsh treatment of Catholics in the Victorian ALP in a period that began only after John Cain Sr died (in 1957). My friend Bob Corcoran whose daughter Ann was MP for Isaacs 2000-07 was shamefully abused. (Bob is still alive).
John Cain Jr, John Button, Michael Duffy, Xavier Connor, Jim Kennan, the young Steve Bracks, Sheila O’Sullivan, Alistair Nicholson, Frank Costigan, Howard Nathan, Ralph Renard, Dick McGarvie and I (or should it be me?) were members of ‘The Participants’, a Whitlamite anti-faction faction, covertly supported by the AWU. After intervention the (Trade Union Defence Committee [TUDC, a breakaway for a period from the Victorian Trades Hall Council] split — with the opportunists going to the Right (sorry, that just slipped out) and the hardliners formed the Hartley-ite Left.
Evatt had an extraordinary range of interests. I introduced him to Rosemary, my late first wife, who was working on an MA on Seán O’Casey. Without warning, he started reciting from Juno and the Paycock.
All interesting perspectives, just worth noting for now.