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`Doc` - A Portrait of Herbert Vere Evatt - Lessons for Today`s Politicians

Date: 19 October 1995
Author: test, teset
Type: test
Location: Parliament House, Sydney
Publisher: Publisher - Was the paper published?




Today's Australian politicians could learn from the life of Dr H V Evatt that sticking to fundamental principles is more important than bending their policies to transient opinion polls and that Australia should offer the world the path of internationalism as the alternative to destructive nationalism. Multiculturalism is preferable to ethnic violence.

This was said tonight in Sydney at the launch of a new film by Film Australia titled "Doc" - A Portrait of Herbert Vere Evatt. The film was launched at Parliament House, Sydney by Justice Michael Kirby. Justice Kirby is President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal and holds a number of United Nations positions.


Justice Kirby said that a film on the life of Dr Evatt, who was a High Court Judge in the 1930s, Australian Foreign Minister during the Second World War, ALP Leader during the 1950s and Chief Justice of New South Wales at the close of his career, illustrated a number of points which were highly relevant to Australia today:

"This film is not an uncritical study. Like all good history, it examines the subject in the way Oliver Cromwell instructed his portraitist: 'warts and all'. But despite some serious faults in character, Dr Evatt emerged as a remarkably forward looking man. Ironically, he was more celebrated outside Australia than within, where he was always a highly controversial figure. His work as one of the drafters of the UN Charter, as President of the UN General Assembly and supporter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights assure Evatt of an honoured place in history. After Hiroshima and the Second World War he realised that the future of humanity depended upon the three principles upon which the United Nations was founded: peace and security, economic development and respect for fundamental human rights. We are still building a world order based on those foundation. But Evatt played a critical part in laying them down. It is altogether appropriate that in the 50th year of the United Nations we should remember Evatt's role in establishing it.

I have just seen the report on the programme of the Australian activities to mark the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. There is a complaint about the general failure of the media to cover the achievements of the United Nations. Instead, it tends to focus on the more negative aspects of UN activities. The hard work of idealistic, UN agency workers in the field and the brave work of peace keepers attracts little media attention. We in Australia neglect our heroes. Unless they achieve sporting fame, we tend to ignore and forget them. So this film reminds us of the fellow citizen who was well ahead of his time. He saw internationalism as the way of the future. He saw multicultural society, such as we now have in Australia, as the alternative to ethnic cleansing which has infected so much of the rest of the world since the end of the Cold War. Young people in Australia today should learn from Dr Evatt's life. They should see themselves and their future in a global and regional context", Justice Kirby said.


Justice Kirby also pointed out that Dr Evatt had fought the communism referendum in 1951, and won, despite all the opinion polls which told him that his cause was hopeless and doomed to failure.

"In 1951, at the height of the Cold War, the Menzies Government proposed an amendment to the Australian Constitution to give sweeping powers to the government to ban communists and communism. The measure smacked of McCarthyism. Dr Evatt, as leader of the Opposition, saw it as an attack on fundamental human rights. The way to beat communism was by persuasion, not by using autocratic communistic methods. At the opening of the referendum campaign, the opinion polls showed 80% of the Australian public supported the Menzies proposal. Many members in Dr Evatt's own Party urged him to back off. Those who followed opinion polls would never have taken his stand. But he was convinced of the importance of the principles at stake. By a heroic campaign he ultimately persuaded the Australian people to reject the amendment to their Constitution. It was his finest hour as an Australian leader. The lesson for today's politicians who follow countless opinion polls and surveys is clear. The business of politics is properly that of leading the community, not twisting in the wind to transient public opinion. Evatt may have been a difficult man. But he knew that in the end, history would vindicate adherence to principle. He rightly told his colleagues in Canberra that it was more important to defeat the referendum than to win two or three Federal elections. We need more politicians of such principle. They should say what they truly believe. Personally, I would consign political pollsters to Pinchgut. They have taken over political thinking in this country. All too often they hold our political 'leaders' as hostages. Politicians of all political parties should study Evatt's stand of principle on the proposal to outlaw communists. We need more leadership of that quality in Australia and fewer pundits and pollsters," Justice Kirby said.


The film "Doc" contains interviews with numerous Australians who have studied the life and work of Dr Evatt or who knew and worked with him. Amongst those interviewed are Dr John Burton, a colleague of Evatt who worked with him in New York and who was Head of the Department of External Affairs for a time. Also interviewed are Justice Elizabeth Evatt, Dr Evatt's niece, who now serves as a Member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee and who talks of her recollections of him. Colleagues from political life, the law and the Department of Foreign Affairs give insights into Evatt's turbulent controversial career. The film does not try to hide Evatt's sometimes difficult personality and his physical and mental decline at the end of his life. But shining through all the faults, are Evatt's achievements:

    • As a great Judge of the High Court of Australia in the 1930s;
    • As one of the Founders of the United Nations in the 1940s; and
    • As the champion who defeated the referendum to outlaw the Communist Party in Australia in 1951.
The film produced by Film Australia is the work of Pat Fiske and Denise Haslem. It will be screened at State Parliament House theatrette on Thursday 19 October 1995. The launch and screening will commence at 6 p.m. when Justice Kirby will speak. For further contact telephone:

Justice Kirby's office, (02) 230 8202

Kaye Warren, Film Australia (02) 413 8777.