In the tradition of pragmatic idealism

By John Faulkner

The Doc, in context

First let me acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. Second, I would like to congratulate Ashley Hogan, the author of this volume - which is characterised as a monograph, but is more a distilled portrait of a remarkable Labor figure at the height of his powers. This was the Doc Evatt whose intellect, drive and organisational ability ensured that social justice and Labor values were injected into the constitutional architecture of the United Nations.

I should declare a slight conflict of interest here, as in 2000 I liberated Ashley from academia, and enticed her to work for me through seven long years in Opposition, and then with the election of the Rudd Government a year ago, as a Ministerial adviser. Some of you may not know that, over the years, Ashley has written many speeches for me, and she and I have spent literally years tussling over words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sometimes the whole thrust of a formed (or unformed) argument.

I think I can safely say that at times we have driven one another mad. All her intransigence of course - never mine! But I also have to say the this process has always been creative and productive, and I can confirm that this book is no flash in the pan - Ashley is not only a historian of depth and quality, she is a very fine writer. In fact, I believe there is no better speech writer working in Australian politics today than Ashley, and there is no better qualified person that the Evatt Foundation could have asked to write this book.

Ladies and gentlemen, 'Doc' Evatt was not a shy or retiring character, and for the Australian Labor Party, his presence was certainly felt not only during his lifetime but long after his death. For those of us interested in our Party's history, the Doc is often a cautionary figure, a Party Leader who fell into Menzies's red-baiting trap not once but twice, and under whose leadership the Party suffered a debilitating and catastrophic Split. Such were the turmoil and enduring trauma of those years that they dominate our recollection of the Doc. In True Believers, the history of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party I edited with Stuart Macintyre, apart from three glancing references to his early parliamentary career, the Doc features only as the besieged, 'brilliant but erratic' Labor leader struggling to contain within the Party rival forces determined to tear the ALP apart.

But, as this book shows, while it may be as Labor Leader that Evatt made the greatest impression on Australian labour history, it was not as Labor Leader that Doc Evatt made his greatest contribution or accomplished his greatest achievements. In two successive Labor Governments, the Curtin and Chifley Governments, Evatt held the External Affairs portfolio - he was, in modern parlance, the Foreign Minister, from 1941 to 1949. Those years included the darkest days of the Second World War, and, as this book describes, the foundation of the United Nations and the drafting and, on this day 60 years ago, the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While Evatt's ubiquity and energy at the United Nations Conference on International Organisation (in 1945) led to the joke that there were 'ten Evatts', a casual survey of what has been written about him would certainly lead to the impression that there were 'two Evatts'. Internationally, a renowned statesman and jurist. Domestically, a divisive, ambitious, combative egocentric. Of course, there was only one Evatt. He was certainly not as skilled in the art of Caucus or Party management as Curtin or Chifley - but few leaders, before or since, have been. And it was Evatt's misfortune to be Leader at a time when the internal pressures and conflicts of the Party would have tested the diplomatic skills of the most conciliatory negotiator.

To those who wish to see B. A. Santamaria and the Industrial groups as the true custodians of the Labor tradition - a view that somehow manages to see social conservatism as a fundamental Labor value - Evatt makes a convenient scapegoat for the Split, caricatured as a paranoid and unreasonable Communist stalking horse who forced their idols out of the Party. Evatt's determination to stand fast to his personal values of civil liberties and due legal process no doubt caused political difficulties to his colleagues and made him enemies within the Party. Evatt's preoccupation and priority remained anti-fascism. He was not as quick to grasp the new domestic political reality as Menzies was.

Perhaps those who see Evatt's personality as the main cause of the Split might consider the effect of those long, grinding years of division and disunity, in which he was constantly struggling to hold together a Party that now contained members who were also members of outside organisations and whose priority was to bend the ALP to become wholly compliant to those outside organisations. Perhaps a John Curtin or a Chris Watson could have held the Party together: or perhaps they too would have ended up suspicious and combative. There is a saying in politics: it's not paranoia when they're really out to get you. As an example of just how bad things got, there was an attempt to roll Evatt from the leadership when internal enemies manipulated his local branch meeting schedule to prevent him from renewing his branch ticket.

He was not the Labor outsider some would like to portray him as. Perhaps this portrait is encouraged by those authors who want to celebrate Evatt's achievements while disparaging his Party. The expression of views that could be characterised as 'small-l liberal' in his early writing becomes evidence that he never was a real Labor man. This ignores Evatt's life-long engagement with the labour movement, and his more than three decades in the Party. And it ignores how firmly Evatt's views and foreign policy preoccupations fit within a Labor tradition of internationalism and progressivism.

This book places Evatt's achievements in his political context, showing how not just Evatt but the Curtin and Chifley Governments in which he was a Minister believed in a new world order, based on (in the words of Christopher Waters) 'the understanding that the foundations for long-term peace were economic prosperity and improving social conditions, and the belief that secret diplomacy, alliance diplomacy, and the development of strategic power leads to war'. In Curtin's own words, in his July 1943 policy speech: 'This government's policy of full development of resources, full employment of man-power and full provision for social security is a basis not only for Australian reconstruction, but for a stable and peaceful commonwealth of all nations Â… In banishing want, we shall have gone far to free the world from fear.'

Another criticism levelled at Evatt by his contemporary political opponents and later commentators is the judgement that he was naïve in his faith in the UN and in international law - that he was unable to understand the inevitability of power politics, or accept the failure of the United Nations to fulfil the grand hopes that attended its conception, that he believed that law could trump raw power. Yet, as Evatt's own words recounted in this book show, that is not the case: Evatt did not believe that law could conquer power. Rather, he believed that power ought to make itself obedient to law.

His acceptance of the necessity of acceding to the demands of the 'Great Powers' to maintain their veto power over Security Council action as the price of keeping them involved in the United Nations - despite his conviction that the veto was bad procedure, undemocratic, and not in the interests of international peace - reflects his understand of the reality of power politics. He did not believe powerful nations could be forced to accept the will of the majority - rather, he hoped they could be persuaded to.

And he did not think that such a goal was easy, or immediate, or simple. As this book shows, he said, over and over again, that patience and hard work were needed, that the UN had flaws, but that flawed institutions were better than none, that the road to peace was difficult and filled with unexpected reversals but that there was no alternative that did not lead to disaster. It is perhaps a surprising message for a man caricatured by his enemies as impatient, and politically naïve. But, as this book shows, that pragmatic idealism with which the Doc treated the UN was firmly part of the Labor tradition.

As I have noted earlier, today is the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the United Nations adopted this landmark text on December 10 1948. Ashley quotes Gareth Evans as stating that the declaration is: 'the single most important statement of human rights norms.' As President of the General Assembly, Evatt oversaw its adoption. Forty-eight nations voted for it, eight abstained, two were absent, none voted against. It's fitting that we mark the moment with this fine book.


Senator the Hon John Faulkner is the Special Minister of State, Cabinet Secretary and Vice-President of the Executive Council in the Australian Government. This is the text of his speech to launch Moving in the Open Daylight: Doc Evatt, an Australian at the United Nations (Sydney University Press) by Ashley Hogan, at the home of Bruce Childs & Yola Lucire in Edgecliff, Sydney, on 10 December 2008.


Also on the Evatt site