Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965) - "The Doc"

30 Apr 1894 - 2 Nov 1965

Evatt remains a controversial figure - he is loved, hated or considered mad. He was consumed with ambition and was one of the really important intellectuals of his time, yet he left Parliament House alone, unhonoured and unsung. His life, both rich and flawed, has resonances today and is one of the truly Australian tragedies.

Quite brilliant, Evatt's beliefs could be summed up in the word 'justice'. A 'Lawyers' lawyer', he had great faith in law, was loyal to its principles and saw the constitution as something almost sacred. Known as "The Doc", he was an idealist, a statesman, a major influence in the creation of the United Nations and the only Australian ever to become President of the General Assembly. All this was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding his leadership of the ALP in the bitter turmoil of the 1950s.

Evatt had great skills of advocacy and in 1929 became Kings Counsel. At the age of 36 the Scullin Labor Government made him a High Court judge and in that position he made historic judgements which affect our laws today. His ideals were internationalist and he quit the high bench after learning of the inevitability of World War II and the lack of defence in Australia. He became a politician and was Attorney General and Minister for External Affairs in John Curtin's Labour government which followed Menzies' resignation half way through his term.

In Apr 1945, San Francisco hosted a conference to design the UN Charter. The conference was opened by President Truman with the words "you are the architects of a better world; in your hands rests our future". Everybody associated with it had very high hopes of its success in preventing war, stopping it if it started, and building up the social and economic well-being of the whole world.

Evatt's hand-picked team consisted of brilliant young lawyers, the cream of Australia’s diplomacy from around the world. The team contributed greatly to his achievements, though they didn't always agree with his ideals or his style. He was not an easy person to work with or for at any time in his life and had a love/hate relationship with some of his staff. In Foreign Affairs Evatt didn't have many ideas of his own and recognised this intuitively. He sought ideas from able people around him and could take an idea and run much further with it than the originator ever imagined.

Britain, USSR and USA had drafted the Charter of the UN which was tabled at the Peace Conference for all members to vote on. This was to decide how the UN would operate for future decades. The Charter was Evatt's bible. He fought against the right of veto by the great powers and raised 20-25 key amendments, using committees of four or five people with a runner to fetch him if needed. He worked 16-18 hours a day at top intellectual capacity and telephoned people at all hours of the night, using them as a mirror and often hanging up in the middle of a sentence.

[Lloyd Tilbury accompanied Evatt to the meeting of the Security Council in New York and to UN conferences.]

The Press liked his liberal views and the fact that he took on the "big boys" and made him a world figure. His last press conference was attended by 400 people and he was lauded as the delegate who had the greatest single contribution to the conference, from great and small powers. San Francisco represented the greatest achievement of his professional career. His insistence that Australia stood for the Security Council, with the first election in London at the start of 1946, was successful. Australia was also elected to the Economic and Social Council and the Trusteeship Council. These were a follow-on to his work at San Francisco.

As President of UN General Assembly he worked for the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights, the foundation of all work done by the UN in human rights. This has become an almost unassailable legal principle. The UN Charter was a statement for all nations of world, founded on three principles: security, development and human rights. It was Evatt's foresight that supported the moves within the UN to give expression to human rights.

The UN Charter assumed that the cooperation of world powers during the war would continue. USSR and USA had expectations of rewards after the war; they clashed and the Cold War developed. Evatt couldn't adjust to the Cold War and the cooperation was lost. By 1949 the Cold War conflict had infiltrated Australian domestic politics, resulting in strikes and rationing. Menzies won the election and started working against communism on his political promise. In 1950 a bill was passed to make the Communist Party illegal, barring members from public office. The onus was on people to prove they weren't members. Evatt maintained that this was an abuse of the British system of justice. Support was divided within Labor Party, some members of the ALP helping the bill through Parliament.

Evatt and the Waterside Workers Union took the bill to the High Court, saying it was unconstitutional. They succeeded and Menzies planned a referendum to override the High Court decision. Two weeks before the referendum, Ben Chifley, leader of the Labour Party, died and Evatt prepared to take over a hopeless campaign; "communist" had become the catchcry against Evatt and party rivalry could not be contained. But Evatt's Bondi speech was electric as he defended democracy and the future of Australia; his sincerity won the referendum in 1951 and Labour was favoured to win the 1954 election.

Vladimir Petrov defected and Menzies set up a royal commission into espionage. The entire Soviet diplomatic delegation, with the exception of Petrov's wife left Australia in protest. The dramatic scenes fuelled Menzies' attack on anyone who could be seen as a communist sympathiser, including Dr Evatt. The first hearing of the Royal Commission was held just before the election and Evatt thought publicly that the defection was engineered. His members of staff were accused of having communist links and he entered the enquiry to defend them, sure that he could defeat Menzies on his suspicions of political conspiracy. His behaviour in the Royal Commission became increasingly erratic and his failure to prove anti-labour conspiracy gave ammunition to his opponents. Enemies in the party moved to dump him as leader, Evatt called them traitors and the party split.

In a period of intense anti-soviet feeling Evatt revealed that he had written to the Soviet foreign minister to get to the truth regarding the Petrov affair. Labour members were stunned as he waved the reply from Molotov and Menzies commented "the lord has delivered him into my hands". Menzies narrowly won the election and Labour didn't regain power for 17 years.

The pressure of the Petrov affair, the Labour split and election loss soon after saw Evatt a victim of events, not a shaper. His isolation made him increasingly suspicious and obsessive and there was speculation about his mental stability. The Party re-elected him in 1955 and 1958 - no-one epitomised an alternative view. He then moved sideways to the position of Chief Justice of NSW. His health declined and his mental functioning deteriorated with arterio sclerosis. Dementia set in and although there were moments of lucidity and sharpness he was mostly totally incomprehensive of the world around him.[1]

 

[1] Transcribed from a recording of the ABC documentary "Doc".


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