Evatt: A Life by John Murphy, Reviewed by Gerard Henderson.

  • Publisher: NewSouth 2016
  • ISBN: 9781742234465
  • ISBN (ebook): 9781742247779
  • RRP – $49.95



When I commenced my studies in Arts and Law at Melbourne University in the mid-1960s, Herbert Vere Evatt was a hero of the left. There was even an annual Evatt Memorial Lecture on campus where a leading member of the Australian Labor Party or the left intelligentsia would commence a speech each year with much praise for the intellectual and political principles of the man who was affectionately called “The Doc”. Half a century later, The Doc has all but disappeared from Labor mythology. However, an Evatt Foundation lives on in Sydney – albeit in declining circumstances – where it runs an annual dinner and publishes occasional papers. It is a product of the NSW Labor’s left-wing faction.

First some facts. Bert Evatt was born in Maitland in April 1894. He studied at government schools in Maitland and Sydney and graduated from the University of Sydney with first class honours in Arts and Law. He practised law as a barrister and was awarded an LLD (Doctorate of Legal Laws) in 1924.

Evatt was elected as a Labor candidate to the NSW Legislative Assembly in May 1925 for the seat of Balmain but soon fell out with the populist Labor premier Jack Lang. Denied Labor pre-selection for the seat of Balmain, Evatt contested and won the seat in 1927 as an Independent. But he left politics in 1930 to practise law and in December 1930 was appointed by the Federal Labor government to the High Court of Australia.

Evatt resigned from the High Court in 1940 and won the seat of Barton for Labor in the House of Representatives. After Labor came to office in October 1941, Evatt became attorney-general and minister for external affairs. When Robert Menzies’ Coalition won the December 1949 election, Evatt became deputy-leader of the Labor Party – attaining the leadership after Ben Chifley’s death in office in June 1951. Evatt led Labor to defeats in 1954, 1955 and 1958 and resigned from politics in 1960 to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of NSW. He stepped down from the position on October 1962 due to ill-health and died on 2 November 1965.

For three decades after his death, The Doc held the status of a Labor saint. During this period, Evatt biographies were written by Alan Dalziel (1967), Kylie Tennant (1970), Peter Crockett (1993) along with co-authors Ken Buckley, Barbara Dale and Wayne Reynolds (1994). The Dalziel, Tennant and Buckley/Dale/Reynolds books were essentially hagiography. While Crockett’s work was sympathetic, it did contain some devastating material about Evatt’s mental health when he was a cabinet minister in the Labor governments headed by John Curtin and Ben Chifley. Much of the material was taken from information contained in diplomatic cables when Evatt was Minister for External Affairs.

John Murphy’s Evatt: A Life is a late arrival to the Evatt biographical collection. Like all good biographies, Murphy’s book is both critical and sympathetic. At times, the author could have been more critical and less sympathetic. However, this book does present most of the facts about The Doc from which readers can draw their own conclusions.

Murphy’s conclusion is unambiguous. Evatt “lacked the social skills for political work, and particularly for leadership”. In short, “Evatt wanted desperately to succeed in politics, but was unable to translate what he knew – legal rationality – into political acumen and judgement”. He was an advocate, no more no less.

The problem was that The Doc was bereft of self-awareness. The author seems to support the view of Evatt associate Hartley Grattan that Evatt considered resigning from politics in 1946 and again in 1950 – and that his wife Mary Alice Evatt pushed for him to continue. This blame-the-wife syndrome lets Evatt off the hook. He was a man of uber-egotism who was convinced that it was within the interest of Australia and, indeed, the world that he become prime minister of Australia.

Murphy concludes his biography by taking Grattan’s advice and looking beyond his subject’s faults and failings to his lasting achievements. To Evatt’s latest biographer, they were “articulating an independent foreign policy, helping found the United Nations, and arguing the case for civil liberties during the Cold War.” According to Murphy, Evatt “could not have done these things without his fierce sense of patriotism, his enormous drive and his tenacious commitment to legal rationality”.

That’s all very well. But, as Murphy’s biography makes clear, Evatt’s blinding ambition went hand-in-hand with an overwhelming self-regard. He bullied his staff, was rude to domestic help, had scant humour, never returned borrowed books and exhibited a constant paranoia. Evatt’s most attractive personality trait was his personal generosity – although it should be recorded that his wife was independently wealthy.

Early in the biography, Murphy writes that by 1960 Evatt had “significant dementia”. It is one of the scandals of Australian politics that, under pressure from the Federal Labor Party, the NSW Labor government appointed a man known to be suffering from a severe mental illness to be chief justice of the State.

Murphy cites Labor MP Clyde Cameron tracing Evatt’s “mental deterioration” back to 1951. Another colleague, Les Haylen, believed that Evatt had a “brain lesion” when he was 40 years of age – that is, by the mid-1930s. So, how did it come to pass that the Australian Labor Party was prepared to indulge such an egotistical, dogmatic and irrational man for so long? It seems that so many Labor operatives and voters were mightily impressed by Evatt’s educational attainments. After all, he was The Doc. Moreover, as Murphy points out, Evatt “was the first prominent Labor figure to come into the party via a middle-class route”.

And yet, The Doc’s intellectual attainments do not stand up all that well. He attained his LLD from the University of Sydney essentially for the thesis that became The King and His Dominion Governors (published in 1936) concerning the powers of governors and governors-general. Murphy describes this work as “rambling but insightful” and “large, dry and somewhat disorganised”. Evatt’s Rum Rebellion (1938) was “comically biased” against John Macarthur and in favour of Governor Bligh. It was also replete with errors, as documented by the historian M. H. Ellis.

Evatt’s other substantial work was his biography of NSW premier William Holman, titled Australian Labor Leader (1940). Evatt obtained Holman’s papers from his family but made scant use of them in the book and failed to return them after publication. Australian Labor Leader was a mediocre production. As Murphy acknowledged “it was not so much a biographical portrait of Holman as a narrative of New South Wales politics, focused on the early Labor Party”.

And then there is Evatt’s time on the High Court. His was a political appointment and his judgments reflected this fact. As Peter Bayne wrote in The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia, “as a justice Evatt shed sociological jurisprudence and conception of legal and moral rights to achieve what he thought were socially desirable results”. The historian Geoffrey Sawer wrote that Evatt’s judgments lacked “analytical muscle”.

Murphy’s chapter on Evatt’s time as a High Court judge is the weakest section of the book. He spends more time discussing Evatt’s family life in the late 1930s than analysing his High Court decisions. It is fair to say that Evatt’s judgments were of little moment and his influence as a judge was virtually non-existent once he left the High Court. In other words, most of his judgments did not precedents make.

Evatt’s career is best known these days for his life as a politician. Most notably for his time as a minister in the Curtin and Chifley governments – including his role in the formation of the United Nations. Then, when deputy leader of the Opposition, for his role in the defeat of the Communist Party Dissolution Bill. Then as Labor leader at the time of the Petrov Affair (1954) and the Labor Split (1955).

The remaining members of The Doc’s fan club today see him as an avid libertarian. However, in fact, as Labor attorney-general at the time of the Second World War, Evatt oversaw the internment of an increasingly high number of Australians of Italian background. Moreover, he ensured the detention of P.R (Inky) Stephenson and members of the right-of-centre Australia First Movement without any evidence that Stephenson or his colleagues were a threat to the war effort. Murphy acknowledges that Stephenson was “never actually tried and found guilty of any offence” but fails to see Evatt’s vindictiveness and political partisanship in this instance.

One of the strong parts of Evatt: A Life is that the author puts in perspective his subject’s involvement in the establishment of the United Nations and corrects many of the myths created by The Doc’s fan club. Contrary to the mythology and to the inscription on Evatt’s tombstone, Bert Evatt was never “president of the United Nations”. No such entity has ever existed. Rather Evatt was president of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948-49. During his time at the UN, Evatt played a significant role in the creation of the State of Israel. It was his most important contribution to public life. However, contrary to the claims of some members of the Evatt fan club, the Doc did not write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – its principal author was Eleanor Roosevelt.

Evatt also played an important role in the defeat the Menzies’ government’s attempt to ban the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) at the referendum in May 1951. Robert Menzies’ proposal to ban the CPA during the early years of the Cold War obtained 49.4 per cent of the total vote and a majority in three states (Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania). Murphy expresses surprise that the “No” vote was so high in Victoria since this was “Menzies’ home state” and this was where “the Catholic Groupers were by far the strongest”. He seems unaware that the Catholic position in Victoria was divided. The anti-communist Daniel Mannix (the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne) opposed the proposal while anti-communist B. A. Santamaria (head of the Catholic Social Studies Movement) supported it in the immediate lead-up to the referendum vote.

Evatt’s erratic behaviour first became evident to the public when Vladimir Petrov (the third secretary in the Soviet Union’s Embassy in Canberra) defected – to be soon followed by his wife Evdokia Petrov (who had first-hand knowledge of Soviet codes). They were the most important Soviet defectors during the Cold War. It soon became evident that some members of Evatt’s personal staff had provided intelligence material to the Soviet Embassy in Canberra. Prime Minister Robert Menzies called a Royal Commission on Espionage which only had one meeting before the federal election held on 29 May 1954.

Evatt was soon to allege that the Petrov Affair was a conspiracy by Menzies and others to defeat Labor in the 1954 election. Yet Murphy’s analysis rejects the Petrov conspiracy theory:

The outcome of the election was close, with Labor gaining just over 50 per cent of the vote, and five seats, but that was not enough: they needed to gain ten. How much the Petrov Affair had contributed to this outcome has been the subject of much argument. Evatt was convinced the [Petrov] defection cost Labor the election, and that it was all a conspiracy designed to deny Labor the government and him the prime ministership, but there is little clear evidence to confirm this view. Labor’s position had been slipping since early 1954, and its internal divisions were not helping. Opinion polls had for a year been showing support was turning towards the government, while the dominant issue in the campaign was Evatt’s means-test promise.

In a massive error of judgment, Evatt appeared for his staffers Alan Dalziel and Albert Grundeman before the Royal Commission. His performance was erratic, if not unhinged. Evatt alleged, without any evidence, that the report provided to the Soviet Embassy titled Document J was a forgery. Eventually, the three judges who comprised the Royal Commission withdrew Evatt’s leave to appear. Later on, Evatt wrote to Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslau Molotov asking whether the Soviet Union was engaging in espionage operations in Australia. When the obvious answer of “No” was received, Evatt paraded Molotov’s letter in the House of Representatives on 19 October 1955. As Murphy writes:

The idea that Molotov might admit to espionage was ludicrous. Labor parliamentarians were appalled and incredulous, while their opponents laughed, stamped their feet and shouted “Molotov”. Stan Keon, one of the most able and vociferous of the anti-communists who had been recently expelled from the Labor Party, interjected, asking whether Evatt’s letter to Molotov had been headed “Dear Boss”. Evatt had foolishly thrown away any advantage he had, deflecting attention towards his naivety. Kim Beazley senior recalled in his memoirs: “The Liberals were roaring with laughter and Evatt couldn’t see why. The Labor Party sat stunned.”

From there, it was all downhill. Evatt led Labor to another defeat in 1955 and yet another one in 1958. Initially it was fashionable in left-wing circles to blame Catholic anti-communists – in particular B.A. Santamaria – for the Labor Split of 1955. However, Murphy adopts the more considered view that Evatt’s statement of 5 October 1954 attacking the Victorian State Executive of the ALP was “the match that triggered the explosion”.

Even so, Murphy is rather soft on Evatt’s role in the Labor Split and at times uncertain about his level of responsibility. But he does acknowledge that the Labor leader’s behaviour in 1954 and 1955 demonstrated the fact that Evatt was hopeless at politics:

It was not only that Evatt was out of his depth in the intricacies of Labor politics, he was out of his depth in politics. He had few of the skills need for political leadership: the ability to work co-operatively, the skill to assess political situations, the open-mindedness to recognise differences of opinion and seek compromise, and above all the ability to persuade others and to engender trust and loyalty.

As Murphy relates, when The Doc left the House of Representatives for the last time in February 1960 – on his way to his career as NSW Chief Justice –“there was no send-off”. Evatt “walked out of the parliament without his few remaining supporters even knowing he was going”. Yet within a few years the Bert Evatt fan club revived, for some decades at least.

Bert Evatt is buried in Canberra’s Woden Cemetery. His tombstone reads

Son of Australia

1948-1949, President of the United Nations

There is no reference to The Doc’s time on the High Court, or as a cabinet minister, or as a Labor leader. The only career reference is to the United Nations. And it is incorrect – since Bert Evatt never held the position of president if only for the reason that no such position has ever existed. That’s the story of The Doc. So much intellectual fire power but so little real achievement – as a barrister, an author, a judge or as a politician.