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Labor’s HV Doc Evatt: brilliant but deeply damaged

10 September 2016 289 views No Comment

Evatt: A Life
By John Murphy
NewSouth, 451pp, $49.99 (HB)

Deeply flawed but intellectually brilliant, yet often foolish, grandiose and out of control, former federal Labor leader Herbert Vere “Doc Evatt is one of 20th-century Australia’s most puzzling, complex and contradictory political figures.

Written with the aid of research assistants Carla Pascoe and Bill Garner, Evatt: A Lifemakes excellent use of many archives, in particular the voluminous Evatt collection at Flinders University in Adelaide, which perhaps surprisingly contains few private papers. However, as previous biographers of Evatt have noted, he rarely wrote or replied to any letters.

Biographer John Murphy also has had considerable help from experts in understanding and interpreting Evatt’s unstable personality and the medical condition that led to significant dementia, which was clear to most observers when in early 1960 he was controversially unloaded from the federal Labor leadership and sworn in as chief justice of the NSW Supreme Court.

Moreover, other specialists have helped in elucidating the medical condition of his independently wealthy and extremely loyal wife for 45 years, Mary Alice, who early in their marriage, in late 1921 and early 1922, experienced severe gynaecological problems and with whom Evatt adopted two children, Peter and Rosalind.

Murphy, who is professor of politics at the University of Melbourne, previously has written two useful histories: the first about Australian involvement in the Vietnam War; the second about social policy in Australia. While Imagining the Fifties (2000), his book about our political culture under Robert Menzies, was less persuasive, this new biography of Evatt has remedied several of its defects.

Murphy writes well and wisely about the roles and relationship of Evatt and BA Santamaria; the Communist Party of Australia’s power in trade unions; and in particular about communist subversion in the labour move­ment from 1939 to the end of World War II.

He also writes knowingly about Evatt the author, biographer and historian; Evatt the jurist and youngest High Court judge; Evatt the NSW-based state and federal politician; and Evatt the idealistic foreign minister influential in the establishment of the UN, an organisation he hoped would rid the world of war.

Remarkably, for a year from mid-1948, as well as being foreign minister and attorney-general, Evatt, who had a morbid fear of flying, was president of the UN General Assembly.

What I find especially fascinating about this book is the material dealing with the 1954 royal commission into espionage in the wake of the Petrov affair. This involves the possible existence of a nest of Soviet spies, several of whom were allegedly connected with Evatt’s Department of External Affairs in the 1940s under the leadership of his close ally John Burton.

When some of Evatt’s staff, including his private secretary Allan Dalziel and his assistant private secretary Albert Grundeman, were named in the royal commission, the increasingly erratic Evatt rushed to defend them, and himself as Labor leader. He thereby became ensnared in the fraught politics of the Petrov affair and played into the hands of prime minister Menzies.

Murphy writes revealingly about the highly fraught relationship between those long-term opponents, Menzies and Evatt, who were both born in 1894, a year when pastoral strikes were crippling the nation, and who before entering parliamentary politics were highly successful barristers.

As it happens, both shared a deep and abiding love of cricket. Indeed, the Evatts had a dog named Bradman.

Moreover, urged on by Sam Atyeo, the enfant terrible of the Australian art world who became a close confidant, Evatt, who played the ukulele, and Mary Alice, who studied painting, championed modernism. In contrast, Menzies strongly supported the art establishment.

In this finely crafted biography there are some deeply touching moments, not least of all when Murphy writes about the loss of two of Evatt’s younger brothers during World War I.

In September 1917 while Bert, whose poor eyesight had prevented him from active service, was at the University of Sydney studying law, Ray, aged 21, was killed near Ypres.

A little more than a year later, 20-year-old Frank, who Mary Alice described as “my husband’s very precious favourite brother, was killed in France. It was barely six weeks before the hostilities ceased.

Then there is a poignant black-and-white photograph of young Bert, aged six, taken a year before his father died in 1901, holding a cricket bat his dad had given him. This was almost the only memory Evatt recounted about his father.

Throughout his life, and particularly during his leadership of the federal parliamentary Labor Party from mid-June 1951 to early 1960, the Doc was contentious, polarising, hugely ambitious and often at the centre of controversy. As Murphy concedes in this fascinating study, Evatt was at the same time “demanding, contrary and volatile and “exceptionally talented and exceptionally neurotic. Hence it is not surprising that other biographers, scholars and observers have interpreted Evatt in a multitude of ways.

As Murphy concludes, Evatt can be seen at the same time as a champion of civil liberties and a maligned hero, as well as a dangerous radical who, before he slipped into full-blown madness, was largely responsible for wrecking the federal Labor Party in the mid-1950s and in the process promoting the great split in the labour movement and the ALP that kept the latter out of office federally until 1972.

As is often the case with contentious and complex characters, it seems clear that, certainly towards the end of his tumultuous and restless life, which ended on November 2, 1965, Evatt was a deeply damaged human being with a great fear of loss of face and especially of abandonment.

Hence it is more than appropriate to conclude my appraisal of Murphy’s revealing analysis of such an increasingly paranoid person and politician with a throwaway line about Evatt from a key chapter entitled The Puzzle. Murphy aptly explains that, with the conspicuous exception of his marriage to Mary Alice, “Evatt lived in a world frighteningly devoid of trust.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, September 10-11, 2016, review, Books, pp 22-23

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