MENZIES VERSUS EVATT – THE GREAT RIVALRY OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICS 

By Anne Henderson

Connor Court 2023

ISBN: 978 1 92281 56 06

RRP: $34.95 (PB)

Reviewed by Nicholas Hasluck

 

 

At a banquet held in 1960 to farewell Sir William Slim upon the completion of his term as Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, a valedictory toast was proposed by the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, and seconded by the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Herbert Vere Evatt. Sir William responded with some warm remarks about the affection he and his wife had developed for Australia.

Then, well aware no doubt of the long-standing rivalry between Menzies and Evatt, the guest of honour reminded the gathering that the Prime Minister had presented him with two silver fighting game-cocks as a memento of the seven years he had served in the vice-regal role Down Under. He went on to say, in a light-hearted manner, that it was an appropriate gift on this occasion. The game-cocks had an aggressive posture and a quality of spirited determination. “So, blow me,” Sir William added, “I will call one Bert and the other Bob!”

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the guests at the banquet, including Menzies and Evatt themselves, roared with laughter. It seems clear from Anne Henderson’s latest book, however, Menzies versus Evatt: The Great Rivalry of Australian Politics, that the roar of laughter, which sounded like an admirable display of mutual civility, in fact masked an entrenched animosity between these two giants of the Australian political scene.

They had much in common but were divided by temperament and a number of deeply rooted beliefs. Their rivalry ended soon after Sir William Slim departed, when Evatt resigned as leader of the Labor Party to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, and Menzies, a few years later, stepped down after a lengthy term as Prime Minister. Against this background, the author casts valuable light on an acrimonious but fascinating struggle for ascendancy, a duel resembling a Shakespearean drama, replete with wars and campaigns and ill-fated entanglements, as the fortunes of the combatants rose and fell along the way.

Both men were born in 1894: Menzies in Victoria, Evatt in New South Wales. After winning scholarships to school and university, both went on to win esteem as youthful barristers. The first of their notable differences of opinion about constitutional matters occurred shortly after the Great War when they appeared on opposite sides in the ground-breaking Engineers’ Case, a case before the High Court won by Menzies. He entered the Victorian parliament soon afterwards. This was followed by a move to the federal parliament in 1932 and his appointment as Attorney-General in the conservative Lyons government. Evatt, equally ambitious, joined the Labor Party, went into the New South Wales parliament, and was then appointed to the High Court.

At one stage, as a member of the High Court, Evatt played a part in ruling against the government’s attempt to ban Egon Erwin Kisch, a radical Czech journalist known as “the rampaging reporter”, from entering Australia due allegedly to his “known subversive activities”. Menzies, the federal Attorney-General, was embarrassed by the ensuing political controversy when the government was forced to back down.

Some years later the scene was set for a more direct contest between the two rivals. Menzies succeeded Lyons as Prime Minister in 1939, shortly before war with Germany was declared. In the following year, Evatt, in a bold move at the age of 46, stepped down from the High Court. After winning a seat for Labor in the next election, he became an opponent of Menzies in the federal parliament. By now, he had written a number of scholarly works, including The King and his Dominion Governors about vice-regal powers. With accomplishments of this kind added to his parliamentary and judicial experience, he was seen as a potential leader of the Labor Party.

Anne Henderson is well-qualified to review this period. Her biographical works include Menzies at War and studies of Dame Enid and Joseph Lyons. In 1941, Menzies was forced to resign after he lost the confidence of his party. Soon afterwards, Evatt became a leading figure in the Curtin/Chifley governments as Minister for External Affairs and Attorney-General. He won renown in the final months of the war at the San Francisco Conference where the United Nations was formed and, probably because of his display of intellect and vigour at the Conference, went on to become President of the General Assembly of the UN in 1948. He was in that position when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved.

It might seem to a casual observer that with these achievements on the international stage Evatt had surged ahead of his rival, for Menzies was still striving to establish a party capable of winning the next election. It is at this point in time, however, unlike a casual observer, that Anne Henderson invites the reader to take a much closer look at Evatt’s strengths and weaknesses, and to examine certain ominous features of the post-war period that were destined to erode his standing on the home front.

Chifley’s legislation to nationalise Australian banks had been struck down by the High Court and Privy Council with Evatt acting as counsel on both occasions, a venture that damaged the Labor government. Concerns about national security arose as the Cold War got under way. When Menzies, at the helm of the newly-constituted Liberal Party, returned to the Prime Ministership after winning the 1949 election, it wasn’t long before he took steps to ban the Communist Party. The ban was disposed of initially by proceedings in the High Court, and Evatt was then effective in blocking a constitutional referendum to authorise the ban, a victory now seen by Evatt’s admirers as one of his greatest achievements.

It seems, however, that there was a price to be paid for all of this. Evatt had succeeded Chifley as Leader of the Opposition, but questions were beginning to arise concerning the radical hue of Evatt’s political inclinations and as to whether he had the conciliatory qualities required of a leader. Reservations of this kind were brought to a head with the defection of the Russian agent Vladimir Petrov shortly before the 1954 election. Evatt’s ill-fated involvement in the Royal Commission into espionage set up by the Menzies government added to the doubts about him.

The papers Petrov brought with him pointed to the presence of certain officers within the Department of External Affairs in Canberra who had been instrumental in leaking classified documents to Moscow in the 1940s while Evatt was Minister. They included people on Evatt’s staff or with connections to him. Unwisely, Evatt decided to appear as counsel for some of those close to him who were affected by the allegations, a step taken with scant support from the Labor caucus and one that left a damaging impression that he was virtually appearing on his own behalf.

Evatt was intellectually gifted but somewhat obsessive in pursuing his objectives and often blind to the sensitivities of those around him. This is reflected in his approach to the three issues for which he is principally remembered – the bank nationalisation controversy, the attempted ban of the Communist Party in the early years of the Cold War and the Petrov affair.

On all of these occasions, Evatt’s style as an advocate was said to be rambling and tedious. In the Petrov case, where he persisted in the fantasy that documents had been concocted to defame him, his line of attack was so vexatious that the Commissioners felt obliged to remove him from the proceedings. He then accused members of the Labor caucus of disloyalty, an accusation that split the party and led to the formation of the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party, a source of electoral support unwittingly provided to his arch-enemy, Menzies.

It emerges from Anne Henderson’s skilful review of the main events that even in the years of Evatt’s greatest success, there was always an underlying erratic or unsteady side to his nature which was inclined to lead him into error. Menzies endured various disappointments in the course of his career, including those associated with his first term as Prime Minister, but it appears he wasn’t vindictive or burdened by the personal flaws that seem to have led Evatt astray. Tragically, Evatt’s eventual resignation as Leader of the Opposition to serve as Chief Justice of New South Wales proved unwise. In the end, his intellectual capacity declined to such an extent that he had to abandon the role.

In his memoir The Measure of the Years, Menzies did his best to be fair to his long-standing political opponent. He described Evatt as “a scholar of great attainment and a well-furnished lawyer”, but felt obliged to add that, oddly enough, he was “a poor advocate”. Evatt’s crowning calamity as an advocate was said to have occurred during the Petrov affair when he tabled a letter in the House of Representatives from Molotov, the Russian Foreign Minister, purporting to corroborate Evatt’s claim that the documents he complained of were indeed a concoction. This was greeted with a roar laughter on both sides of the House, but a roar far less congenial than the laughter heard at Slim’s farewell some years later. According to Menzies, Evatt’s reliance on the Molotov letter was the moment Evatt “ruined himself as political force”, a blow struck by his own hand.  The best that Menzies could come up with by way of a final summation was to characterise Evatt as “a strange and controversial figure”.

There are various passages in Anne Henderson’s book in which the reader’s attention is drawn to opinions that might be thought to underline the Menzies summation. According to Howard Beale a former Liberal minister and a contemporary of the two rivals in both law and politics: “Evatt and Menzies disliked each other without bothering to conceal it, and when he [Evatt] succeeded Chifley as Leader of the Opposition, the rivalry intensified.” Beale goes on to describe the spectacle of these two outstanding men pitted against each other: “Menzies with his sharp tongue scoring most of the points, and Evatt on the other side of the table in the House looking for all the world like a bull in the arena hunched up as the barbs struck home.”

Irrespective of whether the rivalry be symbolised by Slim’s spirited silver game-cocks or by Beale’s matador and bull in a combative arena, there can be no doubt that Anne Henderson, in a crisp and well-focused style, has unfolded a compelling drama. She moves with ease from informative overviews of the political situation in various eras to graphic details concerning the affiliations and habits of the two leaders. Throughout the book, her judicious weighing up of the evidence concerning a wide array of issues has provided a memorable account of a profound rivalry.

Nicholas Hasluck’s latest book is Print and Prize: Travels in the Commonwealth (Connor Court Publishing) about literary works and truth-telling in former colonies).