One of the most influential Australians

I can boast of several links with Herbert Vere Evatt.

Like me, he attended Fort Street Boys' High School in Sydney, the oldest public school in Australia. That school has long provided special educational opportunities to talented pupils within an ethos of public education: free, compulsory and secular. These values marked out the early public education policies of the Australian colonies. They influenced my attitudes and those of Evatt.

Amongst the talented ex-pupils - Sir Edmund Barton, Sir Douglas Mawson, Sir Percy Spender, Sir Garfield Barwick, Sir Alan Taylor and many others (a goodly number of them lawyers and judges) - Evatt stood out. He did so especially because of the leadership role he played in the formation of the United Nations Organisation and in the adoption of its Charter in 1945. He was then elected the third President of the General Assembly. He was in the chair in December 1948 when it voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

It is sixty years since that resolution of 10 December 2008. Even in the imagination of immature schoolchildren in the 1940s and '50s, the Hiroshima cloud was imprinted on our consciousness. We knew then (perhaps more than Australians do today) how important it was for the survival of the human species that the United Nations be effective, including in its new Universal Declaration.

When I arrived at Fort Street in 1951, Evatt was no longer a judge or Federal Minister. He had become the Leader of the Opposition in the Federal Parliament. His nasal, flat-toned voice was familiar to us from the daily broadcasts of the Federal Parliament. Evatt was the alternative prime minister to Mr Robert Menzies. Both of these men were impressive figures. Each presented a different vision of Australia and the world. Each spoke for different values and, to some extent, different ideals.

I appreciated that a most significant contest about liberty in Australia had been won. In large part, it was won because of the courage and foresight of Evatt.

I had a second, more personal, reason for feeling connected to Evatt. By the time I commenced at Fort Street High, my grandmother had remarried. Her new husband was the national treasurer of the Australian Community Party, Jack Simpson. After Mr Menzies' return to government in December 1949, a Bill was introduced into the Federal Parliament in fulfilment of an electoral commitment of the Coalition government. This Bill sought to dissolve the Australian Communist Party and to impose various civil disabilities upon communists. It promised direct and personal consequences for someone who, effectively, was a new member of our family.

As counsel, Evatt led the court challenge to the constitutional validity of the legislation. In one of its most important decisions, Australian Communist Party v The Commonwealth, Evatt's submissions were substantially upheld by the High Court. Against all odds, and with initial polls showing an 80 per cent support for the proposal, Evatt then led the ensuing campaign against the attempt of the government to amend the Australian Constitution to overcome the High Court decision.

In a referendum held on 22 September 1951 a majority of the electors in three States (Queensland, Western Australia and (only just) Tasmania) favoured the proposal. But the majority national vote of electors was 49.85 per cent against, with 48.75 per cent in favour. There was no majority of States in favour of the referendum proposal. It therefore failed to pass.

Although at the time I did not understand the full ramifications of the court decision and the referendum, being then only twelve years of age, I appreciated that a most significant contest about liberty in Australia had been won. In large part, it was won because of the courage and foresight of Evatt.

In recent years, I have read extracts from Jack Simpson's national security file. One such entry records how he was closely observed at the Sydney Taronga Park Zoo, in company with three young schoolchildren. Perhaps those conducting the surveillance were concerned about the potential communist corruption of young minds. If so, they need not have bothered. Those schoolboys were myself and my brothers. One became a leading Sydney solicitor. Another is now a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. I was the eldest.

After the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Jack Simpson came to question his earlier political philosophy. To the end he was idealistic, even if misguided. Australia's highest Court and then its electors, upheld, in effect, the principle that he was entitled to his political opinions, however foolish the majority thought them to be.

Because of Evatt's faith in Australia's institutions and confidence in the wisdom of its democracy and because of his leadership at the United Nations that gave birth to the UDHR, Evatt in my childhood was a hero. This was so despite faults that were constantly called to notice and were sometimes all too evident.

In the big picture of Evatt's colossal achievements, his defects are of much less significance, especially with the hindsight of sixty years. Now we can see that he was one of the most influential Australians of the twentieth century. We do well to remember his astonishing contributions to the Commonwealth and to the world.

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