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Bruce Childs & 40 years of the Evatt Foundation

Thank you very much and I will start, of course, by acknowledging that we meet on the traditional lands of the Gadigal People and pay my respects to elders past and present.

I want to say how fantastic it is to be here with Sally McManus tonight. I think Sally and I have probably known each other for close to 30 years now and she was an outstanding leader of the student movement, she is an outstanding leader of the union movement today, she is an outstanding Australian.

It’s my great pleasure to do the vote of thanks this evening and it’s a great honour to do this on the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Evatt Foundation because Gough Whitlam played this role on the night that the Evatt Foundation was established.

So, in moving the vote of thanks, I have to particularly mention not just our wonderful guest speaker Sally McManus, but Christopher Sheil, Clara Edwards, John Graham for their work in organising tonight. We’ve got other members of the State and Federal Parliament with us — Penny Sharpe, Jenny McAllister, Tim Ayres and we’ve also got Linda Scott from Local Government; Tina Zhou; we’ve got the band — Frank, Andy and David. The Evatt Executive, I know, have put in an enormous amount of work in this evening. Thank you Dany Celermajer, Bruce Childs and Christopher Sheil for donating the prizes for the Silent Auction. We’ve got Elizabeth Evatt with us tonight, it is always such a pleasure. And Jeannette McHugh, who is the patron of the Evatt Foundation. I’d like to thank Carrie from Parliamentary catering and all the staff who are looking after us this evening.

I want to make special mention of two people who are here with us tonight, to celebrate not just the 40th anniversary of the Evatt Foundation but also to pay tribute to Bruce Childs, the long-standing driving force of the Evatt Foundation. I have to say a special thank you and shout out to Yola Lucire for showing Bruce such deep love and care and devotion. Yola, it is wonderful to have you here with us tonight and I’d also like to make special mention of Annalisa Guiterrez, who is Bruce’s carer as well. It is wonderful to have you here with us.

Herbert Vere Evatt was an extraordinary achiever. If you ever look at his many biography entries, you’ll need to take a breath afterwards. He was of course, President of the UN General Assembly, State MP, Federal MP twice, Justice of the Supreme Court of NSW, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of NSW. He was a High Court Judge — he was the youngest ever, I think he was appointed around the age of 30. He was prominent both during the Second World War and in the peace that came after. As Minister for External Affairs, he was instrumental in bringing Australian troops from the Middle East and securing military aircraft to support Australia’s war effort in the Pacific.

Afterwards, he was the most significant figure in formulating the United Nations as a body where the voices of small nations counted as much as the voices of large nations. Setting up the United Nations in that way has set the stage for 70 years of International Relations since then. He was elected President of the United Nations General Assembly and he remains the only Australian to have held that position. But there is probably one or two who wish they might have had. So far, he is the only one. In that role he helped draft, and presided over the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He played an important role in Indonesian independence; he established the Colombo Plan — when the Colombo Plan actually reached out to poor nations around the world. In 1951, he appeared in the High Court in the successful challenge to legislate legislation outlawing the Communist Party of Australia and he led the successful ‘no’ case in the referendum that followed. In 1951, he was also unanimously declared leader of the Labor Party, making him Leader of the Opposition from 1951-1960.

Most importantly I would say, and I think most people in this room would say, Evatt was a visionary. He had a vision of a peaceful world governed by rules and laws, where every country had a say in establishing the world order and every country obeyed the rules that led to peace. Global co-operation is needed today, more than it ever has been, and Sally gave you such a great explanation of why. Because too many world leaders today are presiding over declining living standards for their populations and looking around as ever to place the blame on someone external — on someone else, on people who are coming here, or people that we are trading with.

Scott Morrison has just been in the US, you’ve all been watching his triumphant success over there. One of the things that is so deeply concerning right now, is that the United States and China are talking about de-coupling. This is a time when China is inventing its own global positioning system, its own GPS because levels of trust are so low that they don’t think they can rely on a global positioning system that’s invented by the United States of America. That’s how bad things are getting in our world at the moment.

Every country, every government puts the interests of its citizens first. That is a natural thing. But what we need to explain to people is that our interests, Australia’s interests, are best served in a peaceful and prosperous world — where everyone has a say in making the rules and everybody abides by those rules. Doc Evatt knew that and we are the inheritors of his tradition and that’s why we have to speak up at times like this in particular.

Of course, the Foundation that was established in his name has done great work for four decades. Tonight, 40 years ago, speeches were given by Sir Richard Kirby, Sir Zelman Cowen, Neville Wran, Bill Hayden, Hal Missingham, Bob Hawke and Faith Bandler — with Gough Whitlam moving the vote of thanks. So much of the amazing work that the Evatt Foundation has produced is because of Bruce Childs, and the driving force that he has been in the Evatt Foundation. As Evatt Foundation President, Bruce elevated campaigns around civil and industrial liberties and global peace.

Bruce was born in Mascot in 1934. When he left school, he served an apprenticeship in etching. He attributes his early interest in politics to listening to the radio, listening to his heroes — Ben Chifley, Doc Evatt and Eddie Ward, who many of you will remember as the firebrand of Eastern Sydney. In 1951, as a 17 year old apprentice, Bruce spoke up at a meeting of the amalgamated Printing Trades Employees Union of Australia. He moved a resolution against the 1951 horror budget brought down by Arthur Fadden, the then Federal Treasurer. Of course, union leadership in those days were pretty good at spotting talent and they certainly spotted Bruce. He was taken under the wing of the union leadership at the time, signed up to the ALP and supported after that to play a more active role in the union. In 1953, as a 19-year-old, he led his first strike.

He moved quickly up the ranks of the union, he was elected as a delegate to the Labor Council of NSW and at the first meeting of the Labor Council, one of the more experienced union leaders sitting next to him said: ‘Up there, they’re the leadership — if you’ve ever got any doubts, vote against the bastards!’ In that year, Bruce also attended his first State Conference and he has gone every year since.

The Cold War and the great Labor split of 1955 were the backdrop of Bruce’s coming of age politically, and of course, they we’re a big part of politics at the time. As well as Bruce’s work as a union organiser, he was not just about industrial rights. He was an early feminist demanding a greater role for women in the Labor Party and supporting the Women’s Liberation Movement as it was then, and opposing the Vietnam War, of course.

In 1971, Bruce was elected the Assistant General Secretary of the NSW Branch — that was the first salaried position for a left-winger in the NSW Branch. But you know in that position in Head Office, Bruce put his personal safety on the line. He was fighting criminals and thugs. Bruce risked his physical safety, but his morals were never imperilled. His moral certainty was never imperilled.

Bruce was elected a New South Wales Senator in October in 1980 and re-elected five times. Within two years of being elected, Bruce became a National Left convenor, he was a Parliamentary Left convenor for most of his time in parliament and he was widely acknowledged then and ever since, as a unifying force in the left of the Labor Party. He was a man of his word, his word was his bond, he had trust — it sounds like a bizarre thing to say doesn’t it? Trust right across the faction, but I can tell you those of us who are involved in factional politics know that that is no mean feat.

He also, of course, had the respect of parliamentarians from other parties and I actually brought the VHS cassette — for those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s what happened before we got streaming and everything — of Bruce’s valedictory speeches and every person who spoke about Bruce, spoke about his honour, his dedication to the Labor party, his thoughtfulness, his kindness, his patience, his decency. It really is something to see some of those Libs talk about these concepts.

And I just want to finish on this — Doc Evatt and Bruce Childs shared many similarities. They were both internationalists who believed in coalition building. That you would work with whoever shared your values to achieve an end. I mentioned Penny Sharpe earlier, but Penny should be celebrated this week because this is exactly what you have done with abortion reform. Keeping the best traditions of working in a cross-party, bipartisan way, on what matters — for an outcome that really matters. Both Bruce and Doc Evatt knew first hand that disunity is death, they were both ceaseless advocates for global peace — as the convenor of the Nuclear Disarmament Co-ordinating Committee, Bruce was proud of his role in organising more than a decade of Palm Sunday peace rallies and at its peak in 1985, probably most of you were at that one, 170,000 people marched in the streets for nuclear disarmament.

In 1991, Bruce abstained from voting on a motion in support of Australia’s involvement in the Gulf War, he did that along with Margaret Reynolds and John Coates, and for his troubles he was censured by the ALP National Executive. In 1992, he played a lead role in a protest of parliamentarians going to Tahiti to protest the French Nuclear test in the Pacific. I’m kind of laughing because I was kind of involved in finding the boat and it was not easy.

When the Second Gulf War threatened, Bruce once again pulled together his contacts from across the peace and disarmament networks and in 2002, we saw a huge Palm Sunday march. In November 2002, the 'Walk Against the War' and in February 2003, the historic peace march that saw Sydney brought to a standstill as ordinary people filled the streets protesting against this adventurism — and by the way, they were all right.

Bruce’s defining characteristics are his thoughtfulness, his kindness, his strategic ability, his inexhaustible patience. There are only a few times I heard him raise his voice and it was always for very good cause and then straight away afterwards he would say ‘I had to show them I was a bit cross because they wouldn’t have taken me seriously’.

Another defining characteristic is his absolute commitment to lifelong learning — he read so widely, New York Review of Books was a favourite. He always had a diary where he would note down outstanding facts from his wide reading and he would share those facts and make sure you caught up with the recent thinking. He was curious about the world.

He is a feminist, he always supported the women around him, particularly younger women and as I know Jeannette would be the first to say when you are in a caucus together, he wanted Jeannette to be promoted, he wanted Margaret Reynolds to be promoted. He was not looking for promotion himself but looking to support the women that he admired. Carmel Tebbutt, another protégé of Bruce’s — what a stunning contribution she has made to NSW politics.

Despite being a feminist, Bruce was always a gentleman. I remember, I had a little tear in my eye one day in his office — some 20 year old heartbreak — and he pulled out a perfectly ironed handkerchief and I said ‘Oh, don’t you need it?’ and he said ‘No, I always carry two, one for myself and one should a lady need it.'

As a parliamentarian, Bruce took our democracy seriously. He wrote the seminal work about parliamentary committees — 'The Truth about Parliamentary Committees' it was called. And this is a quote from it, characterising Senate committees as: ‘having all the psychodynamics of a small group without the therapy’. Bruce claimed that too many Senators were token members of committees. He attacked what he called the ‘primitive personalities’ such as the Senator who was always first to ask questions and then left to make phone calls for the next hour before returning to push in again, thankfully because things have changed so much.

Bruce said in his last speech to the Senate: ‘I have never identified with being a politician but I really do identify with being a parliamentarian’. He’s always held that a strong parliament was essential to counterbalance the unintended consequences of foul-ups and muck-ups which were a constant aspect of executive government. Tom Uren said of Bruce, in 1994, that: ‘he was a patient negotiator and an outstanding administrator ... He was one of the most outstanding collectivists I have ever known. He does not push his own barrow, he always puts the interests of the Left and the working class first.'

All of you who know him know how true that is.

Tonight, we celebrate 40 years of the Evatt Foundation and the Australian hero it was named after. And we celebrate another hero too. A hero of the Left, a hero of the peace movement, a unionist, a feminist — my hero, Bruce Childs.


Tanya Plibersek MP is the Shadow Minister for Education and Training and the Federal Member for Sydney. This is the text of her speech upon the 40th anniversary of the Evatt Foundation at NSW Parliament House on 27 September 2019. Photographs by Sarah May.

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