An internationalism rooted in a commitment to social reform and justice in Australia
Your Excellencies, Sir Richard and Lady Kirby, my distinguished fellow speakers, ladies and gentlemen. It is perhaps for me, more than most of my colleagues in the Labor Party, a particular pleasure to be here, and to speak, at the launch of the Herbert Vere Evatt Memorial Foundation. When the suggestion was made, during my presidency of the party, for the establishment of such a foundation, the question arose as to which of the great figures in our history we should so honour. Other names were mentioned but when, using the considerable privileges of the chair, I made this point there was no dissent: no person in that history had approached the towering contribution of Evatt in the field of international relations and it was inconceivable that a foundation having as a prime concern the promotion of public awareness and understanding in this field could be created in other than his name. And so it is we come to honour this great man tonight.
Evatt’s unrivalled internationalism was deeply rooted in a passionate commitment to social reform and justice in his own country. Indeed, internationalism was for him the logical extension of that commitment, as I tried to put it when delivering the inaugural H. V. Evatt Memorial Lecture in the University of Adelaide in 1976: whatever distance we, as an industrial and political movement, may travel down the road of social reform within our own country will have been in avail if we cannot achieve and maintain a world living in peace. Nuclear war will not merely ravage —it may well obliterate. No man better understood this than Dr Evatt. No Australian worked harder to establish a viable structure of peaceful relationships between nations, and to project for our country the image and the reality of constructive independence within that structure. This was the outstanding characteristic of the man’s remarkably diverse career; all his other achievements, and his concerns, were secondary to it.
As the world emerged from the immediate devastation of global carnage the optimism of the human spirit was nurtured by the belief that it was beyond reason for mankind, by resort to war again, to contemplate his own obliteration. In this context, Dr Evatt saw his days of great achievement as Minister for External Affairs, particularly as one of the main architects of the United Nations framework to which he was dedicated as the instrument for preserving that very future of mankind.
More than 30 years have passed since those days of great achievement and great hope. Those have been years of change so momentous as to attract the comment from the American economist Kenneth Boulding: ‘The world of today is as different from the world in which I was born as that world was from Julius Caesar’s … almost as much has happened since I was born as happened before.’
What have those developments of such vast dimensions meant for the vision and optimism displayed by Evatt both at home and abroad? I believe they have confirmed his belief in the inventive genius of man and in our capacity to provide a better standard and quality of life for all people. Equally the period has demonstrated how fragile is the fabric which at any time holds people together in one state or in a relationship between states.
Understandable as it was in the immediate post-war period, euphoric optimism is not the appropriate garb for the politician of today. The dominant characteristic of our community, nationally and internationally, is the total lack of symmetry between our capacity as technological and social engineers. Internationally, whilst we have avoided the ultimate disaster of the nuclear holocaust, war has been the constant concomitant of our affairs in this period. Within Australia we have moved from the easy options of ‘the lucky country’ to a society more and more sharply divided within itself and uncertain about its future.
In no sense does this mean that the inspiration and example of Bert Evatt is no longer valid — quite the contrary. Because the risks we are facing are greater, because the price of failure is more horrendous, so much more necessary it is for men of goodwill to speak the truth as they see it and, if necessary, to say the uncomfortable thing. Without, of course, endorsing everything he said and did, one thing is certain: when he believed something must be done Evatt gave no thought to the consequences for himself even if what he was about could encompass his own destruction. I was inevitably reminded of Evatt when reading recently F. S. Oliver’s The Endless Adventure:
It is this uncertainty, with its various consequences, that makes politics the most hazardous of all manly professions. If there is not another in which a man can hope to do so much good for his fellow creatures, neither is there any in which, by a cowardly act or by a mere loss of nerve, he may do so much widespread harm. Nor is there another in which he may so easily lose his own soul. But danger is the inseparable companion of honour. The greatest deeds in history were not done by people who thought of safety first. It is possible to be too much concerned even with one’s own salvation. There will not be much hope left for humanity when men are no longer willing to risk their immortal as well as their mortal parts.
Bert Evatt knew what it was to take such risks and, perhaps more than any other person in the history of federal politics, came to experience the devastating price that can be paid by the man who is not ‘too much concerned … with (his) own salvation.’
In life, Australia did infinitely less than justice to Evatt. We now have in this Foundation the opportunity, far into the future, to do both justice and honour to a truly great Australian in the way I believe he would most desire.
The hope of this nation and of this world is to have a growing community of people aware, proud of but not blinded by their history and tradition — a community who, from this base, increasingly perceive their interest, indeed their salvation, in terms of finding common ground with others within and beyond their national boundaries rather than in the sterile honing of hatreds and divisiveness.
This Foundation, as I say, provides the opportunity to foster the growth of such a community and at the same time to honour a great man. I hope you will give it your utmost support.
Speech on the launching of the Evatt Foundation by R. J. Hawke, President, Australian Council of Trade Unions Bill Hayden M.P., Great Hall, University of Sydney, 27 September 1979.