A brilliant & controversial character
Dr Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965) realised many of the labour movement's highest ideals, as a scholar, lawyer, High Court Judge, and the Attorney General and Minister for External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs) in the Curtin and Chifley governments, and as the Leader of the Opposition during the 1950s. He was one of the great innovators of the labour movement, influencing Australian public policy and society to this day. His achievements and uncompromising stand for just principles in public life will always be remembered.
Dr Evatt initiated Australia's first independent foreign policy and became widely recognised around the world as a supporter of the right of the smaller nations to peaceful development and equality.
As leader of the Australian delegation to the meeting that founded the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, he took the step of including a woman in the delegation. The woman was Jessie Street. This was a brave move for a political leader in those days, when women in politics were not highly regarded by most male politicians.
At the San Francisco Conference, Dr Evatt spoke to the Great Powers on behalf of the other nations of the world with a voice that commanded universal respect. After three months of diplomatic struggle, the Charter of the United Nations was adopted; a Charter that had become more humane and larger in scope, now containing provisions for the poor, the weak and the oppressed, provisions that had never been envisaged by the Great Powers. Alan Renouf characterised Evatt's performance as
"of virtuoso quality: for sheer brilliance in an international forum there is nothing in Australia's diplomatic annals to surpass it. For the public, he was one of the outstanding personalities (newspaper representatives voted Harold Stassen of the United States and Evatt as the most impressive delegates). Abroad, he was loaded with praise ... The reputation Evatt won for himself as the voice of Australia long endured in the United Nations. It brought great credit to his country; more than any other national leader, Evatt made Australia known universally and made it known as a country of courage, responsibility and liberalism ... Deprived throughout the war of the say to which Evatt thought Australia was entitled, he had his reward at San Francisco, where Australia was heard as never before. What was of more lasting value was that when it was heard, it had something worthwhile to say."
In 1948 Dr Evatt was elected President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the only Australian to have ever held the position. He presided over the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of human rights protection throughout the modern world. "It was the first occasion on which the organised community of nations had made a declaration of human rights and fundamental freedoms", Evatt reflected, "millions of people, men, women and children all over the world would turn to it for help, guidance and inspiration."
After Labor lost office in 1949, the Doc's fights for freedom continued. Against all odds, in 1950 he contested the Communist Party Dissolution Act introduced by the Menzies government in the High Court and won, saving Australia from a serious blot on its democracy.
Doc Evatt and his wife Mary Alice were also great patrons of the arts and gave encouragement to struggling young Australian artists, including Russell Drysdale and Sidney Nolan, purchasing many of their paintings and drawings and donating them to galleries and local councils around the country.
Faith Bandler, the leader of the 1967 referendum that formally recognised Indigenous Australians and one of Dr Evatt's greatest admirers, paid tribute in a speech to the inaugural meeting of the Foundation in 1979:
"Dr Evatt fought for the oppressed, he fought for our political rights and civil liberties, our freedom of thought and action. We would not find it possible to be as outspoken today as we are if Dr Evatt had not fought for us as a judge, as a politician and as an Australian."
For more information, visit the Evatt Collection at the Flinders University of South Australia.
You can purchase Moving in the open daylight: Doc Evatt, an Australian at the UN (with a foreword by Michael Kirby) by Ashley Hogan (Sydney University Press, 2008) securely online.
Contact us if you wish to purchase the biography by Ken Buckley, Barbara Dale & Wayne Williams, Doc Evatt: patriot, internationalist, fighter and scholar (Longman Cheshire: Melbourne, 1994).
Top image: Flags & Badges. Evatt signing the Charter of the United Nations at the San Fancisco Conference, 26 June 1945. The Charter was adopted unanimously on 24 October 1945. This photograph was taken at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.