A wide sweep

Zelman Cowen

I am very pleased to participate in this ceremony to inaugurate the Herbert Vere Evatt Memorial Foundation. Both as Governor-General, and as one who has a deep and continuing interrest in the law, I should like to pay my tribute to the memory of a distinguished Australian: a scholar, lawyer, judge, political leader and President of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Others who will speak on this occasion will have a much closer personal acquaintance with Dr Evatt than I. It happened that I met him on very few occasions. I was his guest at a luncheon in Parliament house when I was a Law Professor; I also saw him and spoke with him in Melbourne.

I know his work much better; after his death, I wrote a short appreciation of his work as a member of the High Court Bench; I also wrote an introduction to a second edition of The King and His Dominion Governors, which was first published in 1936, and then in the second edition in 1967. Indeed, the second edition is a reprint with an introductory essay by me. I had no dealings wth Dr Evatt's family; as I recall, the late Dr Andrew Fabinyi of Cheshire's said that it was not desired that the text of the book be amended and that a new introduction could, hopefully, bring the case material up to date. So it was that the second edition has Harold Laski's foreword and Sir Kenneth Baily's introduction to the first edition, and my introduction to the second edition.

It was one of a number of books which made their appearance during his years on the High Court Bench. The King and His Dominion Governors, as I have said, was published in 1936; Injustice within the Law: A study of the case of the Dorchester Labourers in 1937; Rum Rebellion in 1938 and Australian Labor Leader: the story of W. A. Holman in 1940. It is a record of scholarship and research of which a full time scholar would be proud; much of the work was done while he was actively discharging the duties of a High Court Judge.

I am sure that the ten years on the Bench of that Court from December 1930 to September 1940, when he resigned to enter politics, were special and rewarding. He came to the court at the age of 36 after a distinguished career as a student and then at the Bar. Every Australian law student knows, or at least remembers something of the Engineers' Case of 1920; and two notable Australians who were then very young men made their appearance as counsel in it. Robert Menzies appeared for the claimant, and H. V. Evatt, as junior to Flannery K.C. appeared for the State of New South Wales, intervening.

A onetime teacher of the law must curb the impulse to give an expansive account of the course of Evatt's interpretation of the Constitution as a judge, and of his approach to other cases. I shall curb it, but I shall say that during his years on the Bench, he had abundant opportunity to deal with constitutional matters: matters which bore on the notions of federal implications in the constitution, on the supremacy of Commonwealth law, on the interpretation of taxing powers, on the scope of such powers as defense, arbitration, trade and commerce, posts and telegraphs and, in a celebrated judgment, he gave broad interpretation to the external affairs power. The well known section 92 gave him plenty of scope for the expression of his views, notably in transport and marketing cases, and he came back to section 92 when, as Attorney-General and Counsel for the Commonwealth, he argued the Bank Nationalisation Case at the end of the 1940s.

What I find particularly interesting in Evatt's work as a judge is in his work in the non-constitutional cases, and these provide the greater part of the jurisdiction of the High Court, and they are varied. Evatt's work in this field was distinguished; his judgements were scholarly, searching and revealed the breadth of his knowledge in the law and beyond. He had a keen awareness of the social implications of issues and, as I said in my introduction to The King and His Dominion Governors -  and please let me quote a few words from myself -

Evatt's judgments established for him a permanent place in Australian jurisprudence; they reflect great industry, a wide learning, and a range of inquiry which often extended into fields of history, politics and sociology. Some of them, surely, are classics.

He returned to the Bench, to the distinguished office of Chief Justice of New South Wales, after his retirement from politics. His great work as a judge was, however, done as a High Court Judge. As Attorney-General, he had an active interest in many legal issues, not least in the cause of constitutional reform.

Of his years in politics as a minister, as Attorney-General, and Minister for External Affairs, of his activities in the founding conference of the United Nations, which gave him international prominence and which surely contributed to his subsequent election as President of the General Assembly, others will doubtless speak. He had a lively interest in the arts and in sports, and Kylie Tennant, in her biography, stresses his deep interest in people and his human compassion. That is a great quality which no good man, however high he rises, should ever lose.

The Foundation which will help to preserve his memory will provide scholarships and grants to students and researchers over a wide range of academic endeavour. It will collect, document, and preserve the history of the Australian labour movement. The Foundation will organise seminars and conferences to explore new approaches to Australian and world problems bearing on human rights, civil liberties, industrial relations, social and economic development, and world peace. It is a wide sweep, and it is a fair reflection of the ambit of Dr Evatt's interests. He would, I am sure, be pleased to know that a memorial devised to honour him, will serve these, and all of these, purposes.


Speech on the launching of the Evatt Foundation by His Excellency Sir Zelman Cowen, AK, GCMG, KStJ, QC, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, University of Sydney, 27 September 1979.