Neville Wran

An authentic Australian voice in the world

It is altogether fitting that this meeting to launch the Herbert Vere Evatt Memorial Foundation should be in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney, of which he was one of the most distinguished graduates. Indeed, I could quote an impeccable authority to establish that Dr Evatt was in fact the most distinguished graduate of this university. That was the verdict of the Evatt Memorial Lecturer speaking in this same Great Hall years ago. The lecturer was Edward Gough Whitlam. The fame of a university that has produced an Evatt and a Whitlam is secure indeed.

Your Excellency, we are honoured by your presence this evening. Your presence places the Foundation and the memory of Dr Evatt firmly where we, his colleagues and heirs of the Australian Labor Party, deeply believe it must now be, above the party and for the nation. He was the leader of our party but he was the servant of Australia. Your Excellency’s presence is a gratifying remembrance and recognition of that fact.

In the same spirit, Sir Richard Kirby has generously consented to be the chairman of the Evatt Foundation. No living Australian commands greater respect from all sides, from all parties, from industry and from labour. In a field where it is proverbially impossible to satisfy everybody and to please anybody, Dick Kirby did in fact seem to achieve the impossible — by bringing to bear his qualities of integrity, impartiality, patience and not least, good Australian common sense. In the difficult times through which Australia is passing, the Kirby touch is needed as much as ever, and we must hope that the example and lessons of Sir Richard Kirby are never forgotten in Australia.

I was asked earlier this year to contribute a foreword to a publication of Dr Evatt’s classic work: Australian Labour Leader. One was powerfully reminded of how much the turbulence, touched by genuine tragedy, of Dr Evatt’s later years, had obscured the shining achievements of this remarkable, brilliant, many-sided Australian. His writings in history and law would alone have guaranteed him a formidable reputation as an historian and scholar.

He was, at the same time, one of the great jurists of this century. Above all, he was the architect of modern Australian foreign policy, for the truth is that before the Evatt era, Australia had no independent foreign policy, no voice which was not the echo of either Whitehall or Washington. Dr Evatt gave us — in every sense — an authentic Australian voice in the world. And if that voice sometimes sounded abrasive, it was because he had no patience with the little hypocrisies of diplomacy, and he spoke with deep and genuine passion about the things in which he believed and against the things he passionately believed were wrong. And in his advocacy of human rights and the rights of small nations, Herbert Vere Evatt will have his monument as long as the United Nations endures. On the great world stage, his place in history is secure.

As I have said, later events, particularly the tragedy of 1955 — Evatt’s tragedy, Labor’s tragedy, Australia’s tragedy — dimmed the lustre of his political achievements. But none who cherish liberty and freedom in Australia can ever forget his almost single-handed efforts, truly heroic efforts, to preserve the civil rights of Australians in 1951. If that had been his sole achievement, then the name of Evatt would still be a mighty name, and his mighty fame, forever. However, history ranks him among our statemen, of this, I think, there can be little doubt. Of those who did not reach the highest political office, the prime ministership, he was the greatest and noblest of them all.

These then are some of the reasons why it has been decided to honour the memory of Herbert Vere Evatt by the establishment of this Foundation. But in truth the honour we do is not so much to him, but to ourselves, in being honoured to pay, in some small way, our tribute to this great Australian.

In particular, it is an honour for me as Premier of New South Wales — Dr Evatt’s home state, in whose parliament he served on the threshold of his remarkable career and whose chief justice he became at the end of it — to be asked to launch the appeal for the Foundation. I now do so, and on behalf of the New South Wales Government, I ask Sir Richard Kirby to accept a cheque for $100,000 as a contribution, on behalf of all the people of New South Wales, to the Herbert Vere Evatt Foundation.

Speech on the launching of the Evatt Foundation by the Honourable Neville Wran, Q.C., M.P., Premier of New South Wales, Great Hall, University of Sydney, 27 September 1979.

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