BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The man who split the party
, March 11, 2017
EVATT: A Life
by John Murphy
Hardcover: 464 pages
Price: AUD $49.99
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
“I told my wife that I had encountered the impossible – a man without a soul.”
B.A. Santamaria, after meeting
H.V. (“Doc”) Evatt
– Evatt: A Life
I never met “the Doc”, as Herbert Vere Evatt was known. I was 12 when he died; he was well into the dementia that blighted his final years.
Evatt was one of the most influential Australian politicians of the 20th century. He was concurrently Minister for External Affairs and Attorney-General, giving him control, among other things, of the nation’s intelligence network. Yet he never attained the summit of political power.
Evatt was important, as Evatt: A Life demonstrates. We should know him better. Yet hardly anyone under 80, including those from his home region in the Hunter region, knows anything about him.
By the end of his life, Evatt was suffering from dementia and the effects of a stroke. I did not know “the Doc”, but I knew people who did. A jurist like Evatt would call information derived from these observers as “hearsay”; a journalist would call it “using your sources”.
Evatt was a complex character, people say. By this they meant he was mentally unstable, untrustworthy, unreliable, suspicious, deceitful and, above all, supremely ambitious. Similar terms were once used to describe Bob Hawke in his drinking days. Bob Hawke’s minions, though, sang of Bringing Australia Together following the divisiveness of the Fraser years.
Bob Hawke was Australia’s greatest postwar Labor Prime Minister, his admirers say. Evatt split the party, inflicting a gaping wound in the body politic that has yet to heal fully. As an inevitable result, he never attained the nation’s highest elective office. The Split helped deny Evatt the Holy Grail of his public life: “Prime Minister of Australia”, his one desperate passion.
Evatt was a politician of the sort described in Patrick O’Brien’s The Saviours: An Intellectual History of the Left in Australia (Drummond, Richmond, 1977). Evatt had, while at the University of Sydney, absorbed a form of progressive liberalism fashionable at the turn of the 20th century. He never wavered in his attachment to the ALP, even though as a Protestant and intellectual, he was initially viewed with some distrust by many ALP rank and file members. NSW Premier Jack Lang, (“the Big Fella”) almost killed his political career stone dead.
It would be interesting to speculate about Evatt’s intellectual development had he accepted the offer of a Rhodes Scholarship and been further educated at Oxford University. Bob Hawke, Kim Beasley (junior), Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have all been Rhodes Scholars.
Gaining an insight into the interior world of this highly intelligent and complex man is difficult. He was a notoriously erratic correspondent and left few personal letters. He was not a diarist. What records remain often relate to professional matters.
His wife Mary Alice (nee Sheffer) left a far richer documentary record. Mary Alice was a wife that politicians can only dream of – enthusiastic campaigner, adept public speaker, expert organiser, diligent household manager, wealthy in her own right and accomplished diplomatist. She was very caring and tolerant of the demands of being a political wife.
The couple adopted two infants. Together, they indulged an infatuation for contemporary art and were well known patrons of the Bohemian left. Both Bert and Mary Alice helped promote Modernism in Australian art. They were members of the set that coalesced around John and Sunday Reed’s Heidi property, on the Yarra River at Heidelberg, not far from Melbourne. Bert Evatt was nicknamed “Judgie”.
Between Bert’s earnings as a top QC and judge and Mary Alice’s considerable fortune, the Evatts always had money to be patrons of Modernist art. Bert, however, was regarded as a traditionalist in literature.
Herbert Vere Evatt was born near Maitland in the Hunter region of NSW in April 1894. His father, John Ashmore Evatt, was of Irish Protestant extraction. His family had been servants of the British Crown for generations. His father died when Evatt was seven. Evatt’s father was a champion cricketer but was regarded as being ineffectual; “the Doc” also loved cricket.
His widowed mother Jeanie was a Catholic who converted to Anglicanism. She was left to bring up a family of six boys on her own. Two of her sons, Ray and Frank, died in combat in World War I. Jeanie Evatt ran a “respectable” hotel, gamely holding on to the lower rungs of the middle-class social ladder. Jeanie saw education as the key to advancement; and of all her sons, Bert was her brightest star. She never ceased pushing him. Only perfection was acceptable. Bert shone in almost everything he did.
Evatt was probably not, in the medical terminology of the time, insane. People who knew Evatt speculate that he had an undiagnosed brain disorder, that his strangeness was physiological in origin. But he was certainly eccentric. He stuffed newspapers into his clothes to keep warm and carried fishing tackle while flying overseas in case the plane ditched in the ocean and he needed to fish to stay alive.
Some speculate that Evatt was an undercover Bolshevik and the strangeness came from trying to live a double life. But this seems unlikely. Nonetheless he was sympathetic to Russia and believed that the USSR was important to Australia.
Evatt was a brilliant jurist. He was appointed to the Bench of the High Court of Australia in his mid 30s, the youngest person to attain this honour. He first encountered the man who would vanquish him, (Sir) Robert Gordon Menzies, in the Engineers Case, one of the most prominent constitutional actions ever to be heard before the High Court. His nemesis, R.G. Menzies, was everything Evatt was not: a man with a shrewd judge of character and a finely honed political brain who knew when to pounce and when to withhold his forces. Menzies was a traditionalist; Evatt was a Modernist.
Politically, Evatt hit rock bottom on October 19, 1955, with his statement to the House of Representatives that he had been in communication with V. Molotov, Stalin’s Foreign Minister and an Old Bolshevik, who had assured him that the disputed documents before the Petrov Royal Commission were forgeries. This triggered stunned disbelief in the House. Menzies audibly said: “The Lord hath delivered him into my hands.” The house on both sides of the dispatch box was initially shocked into silence, and then dissolved into laughter.
Politics is a cruel business. Why Evatt acted as he did is almost inexplicable. His career as a politician was effectively over. His judgement, the most precious attribute in political life, was exposed as being fatally flawed.
“Doc” Evatt was not, by nature, a political creature, whereas Menzies had learnt about politics the hard way when he resurrected his career after World War II. He had no easy run. Evatt’s mind was more driven by legal rationalism than the arcane logic of practical politics. As a legal rationalist, Evatt believed that the legal process would arrive at the truth, and that both sides deserved their day in court, including Stalin.
As the Parliament mercilessly lampooned Evatt, we can almost hear the Earl of Gloucester say in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, they kill us for their sport.” Menzies had never served on the Bench; he had been a barrister and career politician for many years. He was an advocate, but not a judge. Evatt was accustomed to speaking from the Bench and demanding attention. “I am Sir Oracle. When I ope my lips, let no dog bark,” as Gratiano says of a certain type of person in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. So Evatt, in his book, Rum Rebellion, drawing on legal records, wrote first as an advocate for Captain William Bligh but concluded his account by writing a judgement.
We can assess Evatt’s state of mind from the curious episode of “Phil’s Friend”. Evatt saw conspiracies everywhere. Indeed, he was convinced that the whole Petrov affair was a conspiracy, more so as time went by. “Phil’s Friend” was Evatt’s main source of information on a worldwide conspiracy, involving many linked groups, including the CIA and the Vatican.
“Phil’s Friend” has been proved to be R.F.B. Wake, a former high-ranking ASIO officer who was dismissed for instability, says Robert Manne in The Shadow of 1917 (Text, Melbourne, 1994). Wake had a deep hatred of ASIO and its director, Colonel Charles Spry.
Much of the conspiracy mirage was purely sectarian. Naturally, the Movement and News Weekly were tapped as being involved. Indeed, at one stage, News Weekly was proscribed by the ALP.
At the centre of this international conspiracy was not the Pope or the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan but an inoffensive Catholic intellectual from Adelaide called Dominic Mary Paul McGuire. McGuire was a Catholic intellectual of some prominence; his wife was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism. The pair had entre into both Catholic and Protestant intellectual circles, which was not common at the time.
McGuire served in Naval Intelligence for a period during World War II. Earlier he had also had contact with G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc while he was in London. McGuire also served as ambassador to Italy in the early post-war period. How much heed Evatt took of “Phil’s Friend” cannot be determined, but he did not reject it; in his distorted worldview, the Santamaria-Petrov-Menzies “plot” was his chief foe.
Evatt was a disastrous figure for the ALP and Australia. Yet the ALP rank and file had a great affection for “the Doc”. Evatt did some good work at the foundation of the United Nations, where he helped advance the cause of the General Assembly as a forum for smaller nations. It has been hinted that Evatt believed in “world government”.
Even the conspiracy theories might not be so strange; there are many conspiracies in politics, which are often not revealed until years later. But he will always be remembered as “the man who split the party”. And like Moses, he never reached the Promised Land; he could only see it from afar.
As John Murphy concludes: “Throughout his life, Evatt was a contentious and polarising figure, demanding, contrary and volatile, exceptionally talented and exceptionally neurotic, interpreted by others in a multitude of ways: a champion of civil liberties, or the mad wrecker of the Labor Party; as a maligned hero, or a dangerous radical.”