A noble figure
In Australian Labour Leader, Dr Evatt argues persuasively that both Billy Hughes and William Holman recognised ultimately the futility of their estrangement from the labour movement — what he describes as the annihilating realisation that they should never have abandoned the cause which they first espoused. Dr Evatt’s public career had many frustrations and disappointments, but he was not to know this same annihilating sense of waste and loss.
While Australian Labour Leader is an unsurpassed political narrative, the relevance of The King and His Dominion Governors was obscured for many years. Certainly, it was seen as a worthy academic study of an abstruse area of constitutional law. Its account of the dismissal of the Lang by Governor Game was recognised as a valuable piece of historical analysis. But the importance of Dr Evatt’s elaborate argument for the proper statement and codification of the reserve powers of the crown was either ignored or discounted. It was deemed inconceivable that a power of dismissal against the advice of ministers should ever be exercised again.
Although its importance was not taken up by constitutional scholars, the significance of The King and His Dominion Governors was not completely ignored. Certainly, it was a germinal work for the constitutional lawyer who carefully set out the greatest constitutional trap in our history. Ironically, that same constitutional lawyer was once a youth of humble circumstances, whose legal education and rise in life had been fostered by the boundless generosity of H. V. Evatt. It is a matter of self-admission that the same constitutional scholar later turned against Evatt, as he turned against all who had helped him up the ladder.
Since November 11, Evatt’s The King and His Dominion Governors has been restored to its proper place in Australian constitutional literature. In every way, H. V. Evatt has proved a prophet of the great constitutional crisis, which happened 40 years after he wrote his book. The central point of Evatt’s thesis is just as valid as it ever was. The reserve powers of the crown have not been defined and codified. Legitimate governments remain exposed to the constitutional whims of vindictive and vainglorious men.
Turning to Dr Evatt’s public career, I think it is fair to say that, although he had a deep respect for parliament and for parliamentary practice, the parliament was not the area of his greatest strength. His recognition of the supremacy of parliament was stated plainly in his maiden speech, from which I quote briefly: ‘The House must control the Executive Government of the Commonwealth’. While he adhered faithfully to this principle throughout his long parliamentary career, I think it is true to say that he was not a great parliamentarian in the sense that Deakin, Hughes, Menzies and Whitlam were great parliamentarians.
One reason was that so much of his public career was conducted outside the parliament — even after he became a senior parliamentarian. During the war he was pre-occupied with the War Cabinet and, as External Affairs Minister, much of his time was spent outside Australia. This relative isolation from the Australian Parliament was maintained by his decisive role in the shaping of the United Nations after the war.
A close examination of Evatt’s political career also shows a keen tactical sense of the need to get major issues out of the parliament — either to the courts for ultimate adjudication, or to the people for decision by referendum. His enthusiasm for referendums has been rivalled in our political experience only by Gough Whitlam. It showed up early in his political career in his superb efforts to build a proper base for post-war reconstruction, by enhancing Commonwealth power.
Dr Evatt was pre-occupied with the structure of postwar Australia from the moment he entered parliament. He sounded the great theme in his maiden speech — and again, I quote: ‘The future of us all is dependent upon two things. First the outcome of the war, and secondly, and associated with the first, the sort of society which should follow the war.’
Evatt directed his great personal panache to the two great national referendums designed to facilitate reconstruction — the 14 powers referendum of 1944 and the referendum of 1946. The 14 powers referendum was defeated, but it was largely due to Evatt’s efforts that it came within a respectable distance of success. Again, his work was outstanding in winning the acceptance of the social services power in 1946, and in the tragically narrow defeat of the request for Commonwealth power over industrial employment and farm marketing. We know the impact that the acquisition of federal powers over social services has had on Australian society. It was not lack of zeal on Evatt’s part that prevented a similar benefit for Australian industrial relations and marketing of Australian agricultural products.
Through force of circumstances, Evatt made his contribution to the stability of postwar Australia largely in international affairs. It is a matter of acknowledgement, even by Evatt’s detractors, that he performed this international role magnificently. It remains a matter of tantalising speculation what might have been achieved if his abilities had been directed solely to domestic reconstruction.
Evatt’s tactical impulse to get out of the parliament and into the courts emerged most clearly with the Menzies led onslaught on the Communist Party in the early 50s. As a great constitutional lawyer, Dr Evatt saw at a glance that Menzies’ anti-Communist legislation would not stand up, that it was shot through with loopholes. He manoeuvred the passage of the legislation though the parliament as quickly as possible, so it could be got into the High Court, where he subjected it to devastating and successful challenge.
Dr Evatt’s skills as a political fighter were never more splendidly exemplified than in the heroic struggle he waged to beat the Menzies attempt to win extra-constitutional powers to supress the Communist Party. His efforts to defeat the Communist referendum constitute the greatest individual achievement in Australian political history. It was the exalted climax to a life-long effort in defence of civil liberties.
The inter-meshing of the legislative process with the judicial process, which was so vital to Evatt’s career, was demonstrated just as vividly in the Chifley government’s attempt to nationalise the banks. With his vast constitutional knowledge, Evatt must have known that the attempted nationalisation was exceedingly vulnerable to successful challenge. This did not prevent him from bringing his enormous talents to bear on drafting the legislation, so as to make it as constitutionally watertight as possible. One of his cabinet colleagues, John Dedman, qualified a rather critical comment on Evatt’s economic abilities by describing his performance with this piece of legislation as ‘incredible’. I quote from John Dedman: ‘Chifley told him what he wanted, and Evatt, who had never tackled this field before, staggered us all by producing the legislation in a matter of days.’ Once the legislation was challenged, Evatt displayed his greatness as an advocate by fighting a vain battle to the last ditch in the High Court and the Privy Council. Bank nationalisation should always be recalled whenever Evatt’s loyalty to his government, or his prime minister, is questioned, as it is on occasion by wrong-headed people.
Dr Evatt’s eagerness to get out of the parliament and into judicial forums had its sad side. His defeat of the moves to ban the Communist Party was a great triumph, but it also exposed him to smears and distortions which sowed the seeds for the split of 1955. His insistence on frankness with the parliament led to tactical errors, such as the divulgence of the Molotov letter. These mistakes made him vulnerable to the jibes and vindictiveness of lesser men. His last years in the parliament, and in political life, were tinged with sadness and marked by only a fitful display of his volcanic talents.
In many ways, Evatt was a unique figure — one who cannot be compared with any of our great national leaders, except, perhaps, with Alfred Deakin, the greatest of Australian liberals. Deakin and Evatt were alike in the tremendous range and strength of her intellects, tempered in each case by artistic and literary gifts of a very high order. Both were men of huge achievement, who fell short of their unbounded potential as national leaders. Both in their later years suffered the tragic awareness of their gradual dissolution of remarkable intellectual powers.
Herbert Vere Evatt was a great Australian, whose public career lacked neither triumphs nor disasters. He was one of the noblest of the many great figures of the Australian labour movement. A brilliant scholar, pre-eminent as a jurist, an outstanding political figure, Evatt was a vigilant defender of the great principles that all men and women who believe in a truly pluralistic liberal society must always strive to defend. I am honoured to pay tribute to him tonight and to join with my distinguished colleagues on this platform to warmly welcome and endorse the inauguration of the Evatt Foundation.
Speech on the launching of the Evatt Foundation by Bill Hayden M.P., Leader of the Federal Opposition, Great Hall, University of Sydney, 27 September 1979. [Note: the first page of the original copy of this speech has been lost.]