Dr H.V. Evatt and Letters to the Press in the 1944 Referendum Campaign

B. Griffen-Foley, BA (Hons)

The controversial Dr H. V. Evatt, in his capacity as Labor Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs, was the most vigorous proponent of the ‘Yes’ case in the Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights referendum campaign of 1944. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) had won a sweeping victory at the 1943 polls, attaining a majority in both Houses; the Party seemed to have acquired a convincing mandate for reform. Since the procedure for the States’ voluntary transfer of powers, agreed upon at the 1942 Constitutional Convention, had failed, the Federal Government decided to proceed with a referendum to provide the Commonwealth with the Constitutional power to legislate on fourteen points until the War ended and for five years afterwards.1 The proposed powers extended from providing for the reinstatement and advancement of servicemen and womens’ employment and unemployment to uniform railway gauges and the Australian Aborigines. At the poll on 19 August 1944 voters were also requested to approve the insertion into the Constitution of clauses protecting the freedoms of speech, expression and religion and the supervision of delegated legislative powers.2 With Curtin ill and Chifley pre-occupied with financial matters, it was Evatt, who had spoken of the need to ‘… plan … the peace effort of the nation’ as early as 19403, who conducted the most strenuous nationwide crusade for the ‘Yes’ case. With a public tired of rationing and other wartime restrictions and given the poorly organised ‘Yes’ campaign, and the receding threat of Japanese invasion, there was a large Commonwealth majority for ‘No’ and only two states South Australia and Western Australia returned majorities for ‘Yes’.4

L. F. Crisp wrote that the Powers referendum went down in 1944 before a full-scale onslaught from the Opposition leaders who had pledged themselves to Constitutional changes in 1942, backed by an ‘Australia-wide’ press barrage.5But even Arthur Calwell, who rarely enjoyed less than a turbulent relationship with the Australian press, had been forced to admit that several large metropolitan dailies had given editorial support to the case for greater federal powers.6 This article looks not at the news and editorial coverage of the referendum campaign, but at the letters to the editor published in a sample of morning newspapers between the opening of the ‘Yes’ campaign on 28 June and the day of the poll, 19 August. Four papers have been chosen from New South Wales and Victoria: two which advocated a ‘No’ vote, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and the Melbourne Argus, and two which advocated a ‘Yes’ vote, the Sydney Daily Telegraph (DT) and the Melbourne Age. 7

The volume and nature of ‘ letters to the editor’ can be interpreted in two ways. In an election or referendum campaign, a clear pro- or anti-platform/party/politician weighting can suggest that letters received have been selected for publication to mirror the editorial policy of the particular newspaper. There is, after all, no way of ascertaining how many letters major metropolitan papers would receive during a campaign. Indeed, David Bowman has recently confessed to obeying instructions to ‘fake the occasional letter’ while a cadet journalist!8 An identifiable political stance amongst letters can also suggest a sympathy on the part of the readership to its newspaper’s editorial policy. It is almost impossible to assess how influential the press is in anchoring political attitudes in the first place. Nor can letters to the editor be taken as a sample of public opinion. Few ‘neutral’ (no political stance can be determined) or ‘balanced’ (two sides of an argument are presented and so cancel each other out) letters are published or, presumably, received during a campaign. It seems safe to assume that only those people who feel quite strongly about issues bother to write letters to the editor, particularly when they are required to relinquish their anonymity.9 In a campaign such as that of 1944, no evidence can be gathered about the proportion of contributors who were regular writers, or regularly politically active in some other way, or how many people had been roused by the specific issues raised by the referendum proposals. With these considerations in mind, only a few brief points can be made about the letters to the editor published during the period discussed here.

The SMH, the paper which most vigorously opposed the referendum proposals, published 68 letters relating to the referendum, 49 of which clearly objected to extending Commonwealth powers, and 13 of which advocated a ‘Yes’ vote. In the first fortnight of the campaign, 5 letters appeared mentioning Evatt’s name, all of which were critical of his policies or behaviour: apparent inconsistencies in his arguments were pointed out, his legal expertise and his honesty were brought into question, and he was accused of conspiring to bureaucratise and regiment the nation.10 The appearance of several letters dealing with Evatt at this time is understandable, given that a complacent Menzies had yet to open the ‘No’ campaign. Several more letters were published which referred to Dr. Evatt, a number of which were in response to his first two SMH articles espousing the ‘Yes’ case. 11 Evatt himself, a keen reader of newspapers and an active participant in press political machinations,12 felt obliged to reply to SMH correspondents. On 23 July, he commented from Canberra on a letter to the editor, published the previous day, by the Crown Solicitor of South Australia, A. J. Hannan, KC. In this letter, Hannan had contended that the much-debated sub-section (4) of the referendum Bill, that of the regulations’ safeguard, conferred on the Executive a new power to issue emergency decrees, not subject to disallowance by Parliament, which could be used to establish socialism or communism behind the back of Pariiament.13 Evatt argued that this suggestion was a ‘complete distortion’ of what the Bill actually did, and quoted Sir Isaac Isaacs, Claude Weston and Percy Spender, KCs, in support of his own legal opinion. And in reply to the many SMH correspondents who had asserted that the Commonwealth already had the capacity to make full provisions for the repatriation of servicemen and women, Evatt claimed that a Constitutional amendment was necessary to place beyond doubt the Commonwealth’s power to make full provisions for the reinstatement and advancement of Australia’s servicemen and women.14

The headings preceding letters in the DT, the Age and the Argus tended to be neutral and dispassionate, such as ‘Powers Referendum’, ‘The Powers Bill’ and ‘The Use of the Powers’. In the SMH, however, headings were frequently more coloured and, in some cases, quite misleading. On 3 July, for example, a letter by R. Windeyer, KC, a prominent ‘Yes’ proponent throughout the campaign, was headed ‘Parliament and the People. Problems of Powers’, which surely implied that the writer regarded greater federal powers as somehow problematical. Windeyer was, in fact, replying to comments made by Professor F. A. Bland on the Powers legislation, and arguing that the guidance of the economic life of the country so as to enable private enterprise to be more efficient in the post-war period would be essential.15 A few weeks later, a letter was published which asserted that Evatt’s arguments in his ‘What is this Freedom?’ articles justified his former observation that ‘there is no limit to the audacity of elected persons’.16 The name of the correspondent, W. K. McConnell, was supplied, but the fact that he was the spokesman for the Australian Constitutional League, a body which had placed advertisements in several newspapers advocating a ‘No’ vote, was not acknowledged.17

The Dr traditionally devoted only a small section to letters to the editor. It ran a competition for the ‘best’ letters on the referendum – one can only speculate as to what the criteria were – and the five prize-winners were published on II August. The two letters advocating a ‘No’ vote reflected the typical arguments of the proposals’ opponents: the Commonwealth Government was authoritarian and centralist, the original balance of the Constitution would be upset, no definite plans for the use of the powers had been revealed. Similarly, the ‘Yes’ letters reflected the arguments of most such advocates: confusion and chaos would result if a ‘No’ vote was recorded, and the Australian people should have the courage to take their destiny into their own hands. Only five other letters were published during the course of the campaign, including two which, with some justification, congratulated the DT on unclouding the issues of the referendum and offering an ‘impartial’ summing-up of the fourteen points.18 No individual politicians were referred to in any of these letters.

During the course of the gruelling two-month campaign, the Age published a massive 136 letters dealing with the referendum proposals; more than a few of these comprised a lively, and ultimately tedious, correspondence between Robert H. Simpson and R. Grant Taylor. An almost even balance in political viewpoints was presented: 64 letters advocating a ‘Yes’ vote and 57 advocating a ‘No’ vote appeared. A large proportion of these were from primary producers and various bodies representing them. Several of the Age’s letters appear to have been from women, with housewives arguing over the continuation of wartime controls such as food rationing. None of these many letters, however, discussed the fourteenth proposal, that dealing with ‘the people of the Aboriginal race’. Indeed, my reading of the news and editorial pages of the four newspapers under discussion here suggests that neither politicians, journalists or editors regarded this power as of any importance. A SMH correspondent, Michael Sawtell, the Chairman of the Committee for Aboriginal Citizenship, seems to have made a solitary contribution to the discussion. Criticising Cabinet Ministers for supplying ‘vague and evasive answers’ to the question of granting full federal citizenship to all ‘non-nomadic full-bloods’ if the referendum proposals were carried, Sawtell declared that a ’50-year plan of absorption’ was required and that, until the Govenment displayed more knowledge and sincerity, he intended to vote ‘NO’.19

The Argus published 97 letters relating to the referendum, 54 of which were in favour of a ‘No’ vote and 30 of which supported a ‘Yes’ vote. As only five letters appeared which featured Evatt’s name20, it is difficult to make any generalisations about how the readership perceived him. All but one of these were published in the last week of the campaign, reflecting, perhaps, an acknowledgment of his accelerated efforts for the ‘Yes’ cause in the wake of increasingly negative public opinion polls21and Curtin’s almost complete withdrawal from the campaign.22The fact that Evatt and his Cabinet colleagues were not prominent in correspondence published by the Age and the Argus throughout most of the campaign suggests that Melbournites felt distanced from the Labor stronghold of New South Wales, which was also Evatt’s home state. On 14 July, Menzies replied to reports in both the Age and the Argus23 in which words he claimed he had uttered in response to a question from an interjector at a meeting in Geelong were omitted, and so creating the false impression that he was casting aspersions on the worth of the ‘many splendid men and women’ who had found themselves unemployed during the Depression.24 That both newspapers deleted this clause suggests that no conspiracy was at work to misrepresent Menzies. Certainly, Menzies himself did not suggest this. The noise of the persistent interjectors may simply have drowned out the full text of his alleged reply.

What, then, can be concluded from this brief discussion? The letters to the editor in our four newspapers suggest, perhaps, that the reading public, like journalists, editors and press proprietors, did not, in the main, believe that Evatt himself had totalitarian designs or was developing into a megalomaniac as early as 1944. The fact that he seems to have provoked relatively little newspaper correspondence is in stark contrast to the letters columns during, for example, the 1951 Constitution Alteration (Powers to Deal with Communists and Communism) referendum. 25 That the SMH‘s letters columns contained a clear ‘No’ message, and frequently contained coloured headings, indicates that political criteria were used during the editorial selection process in 1944; and, it must be noted, no letter appeared criticising any aspect of the SMH‘s coverage of the campaign. One is forced to recall that the SMH, the only major metropolitan daily which appears to have condemned Evatt’s resignation from the High Court Bench in 1940 to contest the United Australia Party-held seat of Barton,26 at that time published numerous letters critical of his decision and aspects of his campaign.27 During this period, Evatt’s activities had caused little concern to the leader writers and correspondents of the Dr, the Age, and the Argus, and Evatt’s public support had been such that he had won an outstanding victory at the polls.28 For all this, however, the sheer volume of letters published in 1944, particularly in the Age and the SMH, ensured that the press provided an outlet for the views, not just of prominent citizens, but for many ordinary members of the community and, if the correspondence between Simpson and Taylor is any guide, acted as a stimulus to public discussion – if in Euro-centric terms.


  1. For details of the background to the referendum. see W.J. Waters. ‘Australian Labor’s Full Employment Objective. 1942-1945’ in Jill Roe. ed., Social Policy in Australia. (Sydney. 1980). pp. 228-234.
  2. For the text of the Constitution Alteration (Post-War Reconstruction and Democralic Rights) Bill. see the Official Yearbook of the Commonwealth of Australia. no. 35 (1942-1943). pp. 64-66
  3. Daily Telegraph (DT). II September 1940. p. 7.
  4. No: 2 305 418; Yes: 1963 400. For further details of the results. see the 0fficial Year Book of the Commonwealth of Ausstralia. no. 36 (1944-1945). p. 61.
  5. L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley. A Political Biography, (London and Sydney, 1977), p. 196.
  6. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates. House of Representatives. 20 July 1944, p. 351; NewspaperNews I August 1944, p. 4.
  7. For details of how these newspapers dealt with the 1944 referendum. and Evatt’s role in it, see B. Griffen-Foley, “A Nearly Great Man”: Dr. H. V. Evatt in the Press’, B.A. (Hons) thesis (Macquarie University, 1992). ch. 3.
  8. David Bowman, ‘I’m going to sit right down …’, The Sydney Review, August 1992, p. 5.
  9. Henry Mayer, Peter Loveday and Peler Westerway, ‘Images of Politics: an analysis of letters to the press on the Richardson Report’. Australian Journal of Politics and History. vol 6. no 2 (November 1960), pp.155, 172-173
  10. SMH, 28, 29 June; 4. 6, 10 July, p. 2.
  11. H.V. Evatt, ‘What is this Freedom? I. – Confusion on Referendum,Issues’, SMH, 1 August, p.2. ‘What is this Freedom? II, – Planning to Provide Social Security’, 2 August, p.2.A third article by Evatt was published in SMH on 18 August, p.2.
  12. Griffen-Foley,op. cit,. passim.
  13. SMH. 22 July, p.2.
  14. SMH, 24 July. p. S; Age. 24 July. p. 2.
  15. SMH, 3 July. p. 2.
  16. SMH, 3 August. p. 2. Evatt had made this oft-quoted commenl in ‘Democracy is in Danger Here’, Sun. 17 March 1940. section 2. p.1.
  17. When a letter by McConnell had been published by the DT on 31 July, p. 6. his status had been acknowledged.
  18. DT 14 August, p.6.
  19. SMH, 7 August. p.2.
  20. Argus, 13 July, p.4; 12 August. p.6; 15 August, p.6; 17 August, p.4; 18 August, p.7.
  21. Australian Public Opinion Polls ‘Powers Referendum Likely to Succeed’ (January 1944); ‘Referundum Prospects Less Certain’ (April 1944); ‘Most Civilians Now Oppose Extra Powers’ (May 1944); June, July, 5 August. 17 August.
  22. Lloyd Ross, John Curlin: A Biography (Sydney and Melbourne, 1977), pp. 365-366.
  23. Age, 15 July, p. 3;Argus, I5 July, p. 7.
  24. Age, 21 July, p. 3; Argus, 21 July, p. 11.
  25. Further details about letters to the press in the 1951 referendum are held by the author.
  26. Griffin-Foley, op.cit., ch.2.
  27. SMH, 31 August 1940,p.7; 6 September,p.4; 7 September, p.10; 9 September p.6; 10 September, p.5;12 September, p.4; 14 September, p.9; 16 September, p.11; 21 September, p.8.
  28. Evatt had received 35 425 votes to Lane’s (UAP) 21 845