A fighter for justice

Gough Whitlam

Your Excellencies, Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen. Nothing could be more appropriate, nothing can give the Evatt clan more joy, nothing would have given Herbert Vere Evatt more satisfaction, than to have the Foundation dedicated to promoting his ideals, inaugurated, launched in Blacket's Great Hall, modelled on Westminster Hall.

It was on this campus that Evatt nurtured and enhanced his appreciation of the finest things in life, all the things that one can and should do for one's fellow man. In his long and very diverse life, he strove unrelentingly to apply those ideals for the benefit of mankind through the Westminster system. He was a member of the State Parliament, he was a member of the Federal Parliament, he was a member of the High Court of Australia, he was a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

The first I remember him as, of course, was as an author, because in the 1930s, the High Court was not as busy as it is unquestionably now. Nor, in fact did it take as long to deliver its judgements. Evatt spent a great deal of time writing books. And significant books they were. They gave a new aspect to our history - the Tolpuddle Martyrs book, Injustice Within the Law; Rum Rebellion, a seductive title, dealing with Australia's first coup d'état. And then, The King and His Dominion Governors. I can assure His Excllency that it is not just a book studied by students now. It is a book studied by the highest people in politics and the professions. It is required reading, not least with its present introduction. I aspire to write one for the third edition.

I served with Evatt for seven years in the Federal Parliament and, there, we thought we had in Evatt and Menzies, antagonists of the class of Lincoln and Douglas. Gladstone and Disraeli. And when Governor-General Slim retired, a man with a very rough appearance but a most engaging and pithy utterance, he was given a Parliamentary dinner. The Parliamentarians gave him - somehow there was money found from Consolidated Revenue - a present of two fighting cocks. Slim said: 'We'll call them Bob and Bert'.

They were my formative years in Parliament. But back when I was a student in the 1930s, Evatt took the opportunity to visit the United States. There were very few lawyers, very few judges in this century, who studied in the United States. Last century they did. The founding fathers of our federation were well aware of the American constitutional system. One of those who Evatt came to know was Felix Frankfurter, later, of course, on the Supreme Court of the United States and one of Roosevelt's appointments. But Frankfurter was at that time in Harvard. If one has to be a professor, there is no better place to be. Amongst Evatt's books, there was one by Frankfurter, autographed from Cambridge: 'A doughty fighter for justice through law'. That was what Frankfurter said in the 1930s, and what Evatt certainly showed in the 1950s.

But there is another aspect that has not been mentioned, and I am hoping in speaking this evening not to repeat what has been said, as I am asked to propose a vote of thanks to those who have spoken already. But Frankfurter introduced Evatt to Roosevelt, and that introduction was of immense importance to this country in 1942, because Dr Evatt had access to Roosevelt and this country was saved through that friendship, as much as by most other factors at that time.

I remember, many years later, being received in New Delhi by Prime Minister Nehru. The High Commissioner came and said all the right things, gave the Prime Minister his Government's compliments, said that he would be leaving soon and so on. He had brought me along to this reception and Nehru listened, and immediately said to me: 'And how is Dr Evatt?' It was very plain that the leader of the most populous democracy on earth found it worthwhile for India to remain in the Commonwealth because of the Australian whom he knew best.

I have mentioned the presence of the Governor-General, who wrote the introduction to the second edition of The King and His Dominion Governors. It is a very fine thing that this year, the Governor-General, jurist, scholar and orator, should, as the resident Head of State of Australia, launch the foundations in honour of both Menzies and Evatt. In so doing, I believe he speaks for the whole of the Australian people.

And may I say that I find some satisfaction in being again on a public platform with a Governor-General. The last time was just over four years ago. It was on Independence Day in Port Moresby. Not only one Governor-General but two attended, Papua New Guinea's and ours, together with the Chief Justice of the new nation and its Prime Minister. Only the last remains.

I thank on your behalf, too, Neville Wran. He said something nice about me and perhaps I can say something nice about him. I was speaking in this Blacket Great Hall just over four years ago at a graduation in Arts. I pointed out to the audience that the graduates of this University were taking over the country. They were Governor-General, Prime Minister, Governor, and I went on to say that I thought that at the next election of the Legislative Assembly in New South Wales, there would again be, for the first time in 50 years  - since Bavin - a graduate of the University of Sydney as Premier of New South Wales. I was right. We should all thank him for his Government's contribution to the Foundation. This should spur some matchng grants in the spirit of co-operative federalism.

Next, I must thank on your behalf, Bill Hayden, Evatt's third successor as Leader of the Australian Labor Party. I thought from your reception that I would not be inaccurate, and that I would not be alone, in wishing that he would become my successor as prime minister. I wanted him to succeed me, and when he did, I took an appropriate opportunity to leave the field to him because he has the age and experience to do the job spendidly. I have seen him develop in the job over the past 18 years and he has great experience, and there is no man in Federal Parliament who has a better grasp of the whole range of issues on behalf of the nation. He is still only the same age as Evatt when he entered the Federal Parliament.

Hal Missingham gave, I thought, a remarkable vignette of the Evatt household. He mentioned Mary Alice Evatt too. They are a remarkably fine lot of people, the Evatt women. Good citizens with an appreciation of the social and artistic issues. And the Evatt home - what a home! No one can bear the brunt of politics without having a home, and Mary Alice gave Herbert Vere Evatt a home. And it was as Hal Missingham described it.

I must also thank on your behalf, Bob Hawke. I am one of the few people in the last week who have not had something to say in public about him. My mind goes back nearly 40 years to the first time I saw Evatt. It was on the Monday fortnight before the 1940 election. I went up to the High Court - it wasn't easy to get in - and I saw this man who had achieved an immense position in the public life of his country. He was the best known Australian in many ways, overseas, already, because he wrote well and what he wrote was worth reading. The style and the matter were both outstanding and were a credit to his country.

He was on the High Court and I was a law student then, and I possibly had more veneration for him than I would have had since. He was stepping down. He was putting everything at issue. And I do not believe there has been such an event for 40 years till last weekend. Bob Hawke, in a similar field for a similar period has exercised great influence in this community. I believe our institutions, our Westminster system, will be better for the fact that he has brought his experience and his talent to the Federal Parliament. 

Evatt, as Bob Hawke has said, always stressed peace - always in the Parliament - he had, at the UN, at San Francisco, at Geneva, at Lake Success, done his part, single-handed, it seems. Certainly more than anyone now remembers, he played his part in seeing that the basic agencies of the United Nations, the basic instruments of the UN, are dedicated to the principles of full employment. Before the war, nobody ever thought that was a matter which was of any international concern at all. They have not said that since Evatt's time at the UN.

The last speaker to whom I must convey your thanks is Faith Bandler. I can see how warmly you responded to her. And I am moved to say one other thing about Evatt. We can be grateful in this country for his stand in 1951 - in the Parliament, in the High Court, on the hustings for the referendum of that year on the Communist Party Dissolution Bill. The language of that Bill was also included in the legislation of South Africa. There it passed and was applied. If it had been applied here, if the High Court had accepted it as the Parliament did, if the people had accepted it as the Parliament did, I ask you to compare our condition with South Africa and see how we would stand with our neighbours and in our region. Becaue of Frankfurter's inroduction to Roosevelt during the war and because of Evatt's resistance to this legislation ten years later, this country is a safer and more harmonious place and is better regarded in the world.

Finally, I must thank Sir Richard Kirby. He is a man with an extraordinary talent for bringing people together. This is a rather comprehensive group of men and women on this platform tonight. They are united partly in a good cause, but particularly under excellent chairmanship. I don't suppose anybody in this country has had to resolve and heal more disputes than Sir Richard Kirby. He is a man who tolerates it all at weekends down the coast at a place modestly called the White house. He is very tolerant, very humane and a very amiable man. Indeed, we are fortunate in this country to have a man aptly called a 'mediator' in the biography of him.

Not long ago, I took part in a This is Your Life program about Richard Kirby, and I recalled that when I had the opportunity, I took him to Indonesia, recalling the fact that he had been Evatt's envoy, Australia's representative in the police actions by the Netherlands in Indonesia in the late 1940s, and that he was well remembered in Indonesia, and particularly by people who haven't been around in Indonesian public life for some years. Mabe they aren't always enouraged or allowed to come out and see people like Dick Kiry, and it was good to see the man chosen by Evatt regarded in our day in that way.

I also talked rather flippantly about Dick Kirby on that This is Your life program, saying that it had been recounted that Bob Menzies, in introducing him to the Queen, had said, referring to the awards that were granted in the Arbitration Court: 'Ma'am, this is my most expensive Judge'. I said I thought, had I been given the honour of introducing Richard Kirby, I would have said: 'Ma'am, this judge would make an ideal Governor-General'. And that, Your Excellency, would be as big a tribute as one can pay to any Australian.

Ladies and gentlemen, this evening, in this great place, for this great occasion, you've heard some great Australians speaking to you. And I would ask you to show your appreciation to them all.


Vote of thanks by Honourable E. G. Whitlam, AC, QC, Great Hall, University of Sydney, 27 September 1979.