Inside Story

Wrong place, wrong time

Books | Energy and ambition fuelled the rise and fall of a remarkable but flawed Labor leader, writes Paul Rodan

Paul Rodan 9 September 2016 1367 words

The internationalist: H.V. “Doc” Evatt as president of the UN General Assembly 1948–49. State Library of New South Wales

Evatt: A Life
By John Murphy | NewSouth | $49.99

Any account of the life of Herbert Vere Evatt must address two key questions: could the Labor split of the mid 1950s have been avoided with a leader other than Evatt, and was Evatt “mad”? John Murphy tackles these issues and more in a very readable account of one of Australian politics’ most perplexing characters. Evatt has perhaps been the subject of more studies than many prime ministers, which would be small solace to a man who so greatly craved that high office but who, after failing to reach it by a slim margin in 1954, spent the next six years in very public political and psychological disintegration.

Two grim features of Evatt’s younger years can be seen as explaining much of the man. The first was the death of his father when Evatt was only seven, placing him in that formidable club of public men effectively raised by widowed, abandoned, or just evidently strong mothers. In Murphy’s depiction, “ambitious” would hardly be an adequate adjective for Jeanie Evatt’s determination that her children would do well. Once Bert’s talent was clear, he was the one most pushed; in turn, he felt driven to prove himself to her. First-class results in nine senior public examination subjects attracted less attention than the second-class result in the tenth. A reader who knew nothing of Evatt but much of biography would already suspect that this may not turn out well.

The second tragedy was the death of two of Evatt’s younger brothers in the first world war. The ensuing emotional devastation was hardly unique to the Evatt family, but in Bert’s case, Murphy sees a possible explanation for his later commitment to internationalism and the creation of structures aimed at making war less likely. To pursue those issues, and his broader political career, Evatt made the (now unthinkable) switch from High Court justice to federal MP just as the second world war was heating up in 1940 (having been appointed to the bench at the unlikely age of thirty-six).

Evatt’s conviction that he could make a difference went beyond the standard line routinely uttered by even the dullest of parliamentary candidates. As outlined by Murphy, Evatt’s confidence and ambition bordered on the messianic. His strong support for conservative prime minister Robert Menzies’s proposed all-party wartime government (which was contrary to Labor Party policy) didn’t endear him to his new parliamentary colleagues. He seems to have viewed the plan as his fastest path to the prime ministership, but he was fortunate that his collusion with his political opponents (as revealed much later in correspondence) was not undertaken in the WikiLeaks era.

This tone-deafness to the views of others reinforced his outsider status within the Labor Party. His links with the party’s industrial base had been largely limited to his work as a Sydney barrister in the 1920s, and he had been expelled from the party in 1927 when, after the radical forces around premier Jack Lang blocked his re-endorsement for the NSW parliament, he ran (successfully) as an independent.

As a middle-class intellectual in the Labor Party, Evatt would have attracted suspicion and hostility whatever his personality. Arthur Calwell’s line that working with “horny hands” was a necessary prerequisite for membership of a Labor ministry was a revealing one, although this was clearly not a criterion that ex–public servant Calwell ever applied to himself.

Usefully, Murphy outlines in some detail Evatt’s early political philosophy. He was an admirer of the brand of liberalism associated with Australia’s second prime minister, Alfred Deakin, but when Deakin’s version of the Liberal Party merged with the free traders, Evatt saw Labor as the chief proponent of liberal ideals (a contention that would partly be validated during the 1951 referendum on Menzies’s bid to outlaw the Communist Party). Hand in hand with this liberalism went a faith in legal reasoning; as Murphy observes, Evatt believed that legal reasoning “could arrive at the truth,” a belief “that shaped his conduct in life and was reinforced by his undoubted talent for legal rationality.” Alas, such skills have proved of limited utility in democratic politics at the best of times; they would prove even less useful in the emotional cold war environment in which Evatt would lead Labor.

Evatt’s work as attorney-general and external affairs minister in Labor governments from 1941 to 1949 was beyond substantial. For all his personal failings, he did much to defend and advance his country’s interests while also contributing to the creation of the United Nations and establishing Australia, albeit briefly, as an international player. Murphy writes of Evatt’s alleged intention to quit party politics after the war, although it is unclear how genuinely such thoughts may have been entertained. Life would certainly have been easier for Evatt and different for Australia. Judgement on such issues was not assisted by Evatt’s inadequate record-keeping (no surprise there). In terms of correspondence, he clearly saw it as more blessed to receive than to give. In practical effect, he resembled his nemesis Daniel Mannix, the long-serving archbishop of Melbourne, who would handicap future biographers by burning vast volumes of records.

Murphy spends less space than might be expected on details of the Labor split and its consequences, observing that a “huge literature” exists about the issues in question. Fair enough: his summary version does the job. One marvels again at Evatt’s work in turning around public opinion on the Communist Party referendum. We learn that pre-campaign polls revealed a high point of 82 per cent support for Menzies’s plan, a figure that had been reduced to 49.4 per cent (with the proposal carried in only three states, and thus defeated) on polling day.

What should have been Evatt’s finest hour was, of course, anything but, as warring forces within Labor headed closer to fracture. By now, Evatt was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a series of low points over the ensuing years, surely nothing can match Evatt’s letter to Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov seeking advice as to whether there were Soviet spies in Australia. Here was legal reasoning gone mad, or Evatt gone mad, or both. Misjudgement followed misjudgement, and any revenge that Menzies KC sought for long-past High Court slights from Justice Evatt was secured in spades.

Which leads us back to the two key questions in the opening lines of this review. After a careful weighing of views, Murphy concludes that Evatt “was out his depth in politics,” and “had little grasp of what was happening” and “little control over events.” He sees that the “powder keg” that Evatt touched off – and that would trigger the Labor split – “was already in place and it is difficult to imagine how it could have been made harmless had he not been in the picture.”

As for Evatt’s sanity, the issue is addressed in a substantial eleven pages. Again, Murphy weighs a range of views, and cautions of the need to distinguish between eccentricity and a psychological disorder. Evatt would eventually be diagnosed with cerebral arteriosclerosis, and some Labor colleagues wondered when it might have begun, with Clyde Cameron opting for as early as 1951; for others, the Petrov affair or the Molotov letter are viewed as decisive.

Murphy sees Evatt as “unhinged” by the mid 1950s, but finds it “impossible to determine, though, whether this was due to a physiological condition affecting his mind, or just the extreme reaction of a paranoid narcissist put under incredible pressure.” Ultimately, Murphy plumps for the latter, while conceding that vascular dementia may have played some role.

Evatt: A Life is a quality addition to the literature on one of Australia’s most enigmatic political figures. Anyone with an interest in Australian political history will find this a rewarding read. •