Book Reviews

Braham Dabscheck

Peter Crockett, Evatt: A Life, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, pp.iv + 388, $44.95 (hardback).

Ken Buckley, Barbara Dale and Wayne Reynolds, Doc Evatt: Patriot, Internationalist, Fighter and Scholar, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1994, pp. xiv + 433, $39.00 (paperback).

Herbert Vere Evatt was born in 1894 and died in 1965. He was a brilliant student and the author of numerous books and articles which he produced mostly in his spare time whilst pursuing his career in politics and the law. His publishing output would put many a modem academic to shame. Evatt was a prominent member of the New South Wales Bar in the 1920s, a New South Wales parliamentarian in the second half of the 1920s, a High Court judge in the 1930s, Attorney General and Minister for External Affairs in the Curtin and Chifley Labor governments, an important figure in the formation of the United Nations being its third President in 1948, leader of the Australian Labor Party during the 1950s and Chief Judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court in the early 1960s. He was both an Australian patriot and an internationalist. He also had a wide range of interests in areas as diverse as sport, literature, music and the arts. Evatt is a unique figure, an enigma in Australian history, a person of great controversy who rose to prominence during the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Evatt was keenly interested in Australia and its role in the world. Many of his writings are concerned with major events in Australian history – the Rum Rebellion, the 1917 split in the Labor Party over conscription, the reserve powers of governors and so on. Evatt found himself attracted to, and immersed himself in, various issues associated with the governance of Australia. He wrote about, commented upon, handed down decisions and drafted legislation on issues involving the relationship of Australia to the British Empire, the role of the Crown, the nature of Australian Federation, the role of Courts and the division of powers between the executive and judiciary. These were simply backdrops to his broader progressive concerns with helping the oppressed and defending civil liberties. In addition, he involved himself in matters pertaining to international law – mandates and protectorates, the development and role of the United Nations and the relationship between small and large powers.

Evatt’s public life was characterised by controversy. He seems to have propelled himself to the centre of major issues of the day ‘fighting the good fight’ on a number of fronts. While Evatt was a staunch defender of civil liberties, as a government minister, particularly during the war years, he was involved in passing legislation or actions which curtailed such freedoms. He helped establish ASIO in the latter part of the 1940s. Evatt was the leading advocate of the successful ‘No’ campaign in the referendum to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia, became involved in the Petrov affair, the 1954 Royal Commission into Espionage, and was leader of the Labor Party during ‘the Split’ of the mid 1950s. In addition, there is what might be called the problem of Evatt’s character and personality. It would be difficult to describe him as a pleasant person. He had a domineering personality, being an intellectual bully who was often rude and unpleasant. He treated his staff poorly and, possessing a touch of paranoia, was secretive and spied on them. Evatt evoked a love-hate relationship with contemporaries. While many admired him for the issues he stood and fought for, his personality and dealings with people simultaneously induced feelings of repugnance and scorn.

In terms of his work and public life, and his relationship with others, Evatt is an enormously complex person. Both the breadth and depth of his interests and activities pose enormous problems for biographers. To provide a work which does justice to the scope and complexity of Evatt, biographers need to be abreast of a wide range of difficult and fundamental issues. Evatt is a demanding figure who demands biographers of the highest calibre.

The two studies being considered here are at either ends of the spectrum in producing a successful and insightful biography. Peter Crockett’s Evatt: A Life is a brilliant piece of scholarship and will be long remembered as an outstanding contribution to Australian historiography. On the other hand Ken Buckley, Barbara Dale and Wayne Reynolds’ Doc Evatt: Patriot, Internationalist, Fighter and Scholar is a disappointing and, at times, pedestrian piece of work. One illustration of the difference between the two is their respective use of bibliographies and footnotes. The scale of Crockett’s research is breathtaking with over 1850 footnotes. Other than for material on Evatt’s period as Minister for External Affairs, which is based on Reynolds’ Ph.D. Thesis, the authors of Doc Evatt have been less diligent producing less than 700 footnotes.

Buckley, Dale and Reynolds’ biography is organised chronologically. Chapters are organised around major events or turning points in Evatt’s life. Their approach has been to gain an understanding of the period and inform readers about Evatt’s doings with a few contemporary quotes thrown in to spice up, or academise, the narrative. Many of these chapters have the appearance of what one might expect from a first year undergraduate student. For example on page 105 the authors state that ‘the Australia Constitution gave Britain control over external affairs and defence’. If they had read the Constitution they would have discovered that this is not the case. What they presumably meant to say is that after federation Britain and Australia entered into arrangements relating to the powers of the sovereign which were not resolved until the Statue of Westminster in 1931. On page 253 there is a reference to a 1946 conference before the Commonwealth Conciliation Commission. No such body has ever existed. Between 1904 and 1956 there was an industrial relations ‘tribunal’ called the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. Titles of statutory bodies can be found in standard reference books.

Doc Evatt is virtually devoid of any conceptual or considered reflective analysis of the complexity of Evatt the man, and his work. Evatt spent ten years on the High Court. Chapter Eight examines some of Evatt’s early decisions. We are told in a footnote (page 103) that one of the authors will present a subsequent publication on Evatt’s years on the High Court. This is simply not good enough for a book which purports to be a biography of Evatt. Moreover many of their insights on Evatt and his times rarely rise above the banal. On page 326 we are told that Evatt ‘was a very difficult person to comprehend’! Earlier, on page 150, Buckley, Dale and Reynolds state that ‘Evatt’s relationship with associates was often poor in quality, yet he had some understanding of human nature’! On page 332 they feel compelled to tell their readers that Evatt was an authority on constitutional law. They also sweetly state on page 101 that ‘Scullin was much too respectful to tell the judges, in blunt Australian argot, what they could do with their mealy-mouthed proposal’!

Crockett’s Evatt: A Life is a complete contrast. Crockett’s work is organised conceptually and thematically, rather than chronologically. The first three chapters are devoted to a study of Evatt the man, his complexities and nuances, his mode of working and his ‘relationships’ with others. Before embarking on the more substantive aspects of Evatt’s life Crockett provides readers with a feel for the personage that was Evatt. Having done this Crockett examines various aspects of Evatt’s work and actions thematically. This enables Crockett, in examining particular issues or aspects of Evatt, to range backwards and forwards through time. In this way he provides a richer tapestry of the evolution, changes and/or contradictions in Evatt as he responded to or thought about these issues at different points in his career. Crockett provides a warts and all account of Evatt. He highlights both the strength of purpose and his weakness of character. On page 168 he says of Evatt:

By exalting freedom he concealed his ambition and tendency towards despotism, and was able to enjoy public acclaim and the acquisition of power. With his anti-authoritarianism fashioned unnaturally on his unreliable repudiation of oppression, his sincerity only partially mitigated the faults of self-centredness. Likewise, his profundity was restricted to dependence on a continuing advancement in law and politics.

At the end of Evatt: A Life (page 305) Crockett says of Evatt ‘in his working life he oppressed others and offered freedom from oppression through constantly imposing his will on his environment. He obtained psychological purchase on vital political and legal issues of the day as he continually tested liberty. In this he showed a need to be vexed by oppression, which gave identity and equanimity to his ambition. An outsider but not an individual out of his time, he was appropriate to his era as an unappreciated visionary.’

The major strength of Crockett’s work is its ability to provide an understanding of the various dimensions which constituted the enigma that was Herbert Vere Evatt. In reading Crockett one has a feeling that Evatt is in the room, that one can appreciate why he did what he did, of the forces that relentlessly drove him on. At the same time one is attracted and appalled by Evatt, a fascinating figure in Australian history. Positive feelings concerning the crusader who tirelessly fought for and defended fundamental values, run alongside feelings of disquiet concerning a self-centred, insensitive and obsessive persona. Crockett is able to convey the love-hate relationship that contemporaries had with Evatt. If nothing else this is a remarkable scholastic – if not literary – achievement.