EVATT Herbert Vere

Position
Attorney-General
Years active
7 October 1941 ‒ 19 December 1949
Portrait of Herbert Vere Evatt - Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

HERBERT VERE EVATT PC KC 1894–19651

 

Herbert Vere (Bert) Evatt was born on 30 April 1894 at East Maitland, New South Wales, fifth of the eight sons of John Ashmore Evatt, a publican from India, and Sydney-born Jane (Jeanie) Sophia, née Gray, who was of Irish descent. When Bert was seven years old his father died, leaving the widow with the challenges of raising a large family of intellectually gifted boys. Evatt attended East Maitland Superior Public School then Fort Street Model School in Observatory Hill after his family moved to Sydney. He matriculated in 1911 with the second highest score in New South Wales, his results securing him a bursary to the University of Sydney and a scholarship covering accommodation at St Andrew's College.

Participating fully in all aspects of university life from 1912 he played cricket, Rugby League football, hockey and baseball; edited the university's literary journal, Hermes; tutored at his college; served as president of the Undergraduates' Association in 1915 and was the first undergraduate elected to be president of the University Union in 1916-1917. Achieving outstanding results in mathematics, logic, philosophy and English, he won numerous academic awards. Evatt graduated with a series of first class honours degrees – Bachelor of Arts with the university medal in 1915; Master of Arts in 1917; and Bachelor of Laws, again with the university medal, in 1918. Appointed associate to Chief Justice Cullen of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 1916, Evatt continued to live at St Andrew's College, tutoring without fee in English and philosophy, until he was admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 31 October 1918.

Rejected for military service during the First World War because of astigmatism, Evatt initially supported conscription but became disillusioned with the arguments in favour of it later in the war. Increasingly anti-conservative in his politics, he joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 1918. On 27 November 1920 he and Mary Alice Sheffer were married at the Congregational Church at Mosman, New South Wales. They honeymooned in Hawaii and California, where Evatt was conducting an inquiry for the Commonwealth government into American treatment of Asian minorities.

Often involved in immigration and constitutional issues, Evatt rapidly developed a successful practice at the Bar during the 1920s. Junior counsel with Wilbur HamJohn Latham and Edward Mitchell representing the State government in the Engineers' Case2 in the High Court of Australia in 1920, he faced the successful opposition of another young barrister, Robert Menzies. Evatt's thesis examining aspects of constitutional monarchy, later published as The King and his Dominion Governors, earned him a Doctor of Laws from the University of Sydney in 1924, and the sobriquet 'The Doc'. In late 1925 in a landmark case in the High Court, Evatt succeeded in averting the deportation of two trade union militants,3 which had been threatened under recent amendments to immigration laws. Travelling to London to attend an international conference on labour migration in 1926, Evatt staunchly defended the restriction of immigration under the 'White Australia' policy.

Elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in May 1925 as Labor member for Balmain, Evatt, a forthright critic of Premier Jack Lang, was refused Labor endorsement in 1927 and held his seat at the next election as an Independent Labor candidate. Appointed King's Counsel (KC) in 1929, he left politics in October 1930 to concentrate on his legal practice, by then one of the largest in the State. On 19 December that year he was made a justice of the High Court of Australia. The twelfth appointee to the Court, at age 36 he was the youngest person ever elevated to the position. Radical by comparison with his brother judges, he spent an often controversial decade on the bench. A significant contributor to Australian cultural life throughout this time he was a patron of modern art, president of trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales from 1937 to 1963 and an industrious historian who completed a second doctorate, of Letters, in 1944.

Wishing to be of more direct service to his country during the Second World War, Evatt resigned from the High Court to re-enter politics. Securing Labor endorsement for the federal seat of Barton, he won it at the September 1940 general election and held it for the next 18 years. In Opposition in a hung parliament initially, he was active in the schemes which brought down the Menzies government in 1941 and put Labor into office without another election. From 7 October 1941 to 19 December 1949, Evatt served as Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs in three successive Labor governments, led by John Curtin until his death in office in July 1945, very briefly by Frank Forde4 and then by Ben Chifley.

Indefatigable and meticulous in his own approach, Evatt was a demanding minister and frequently aroused antagonism. As Attorney-General he faced a formidable war-time workload which included implementation of national security regulations and uniform taxation legislation. The several advices he contributed to the Opinion Book during his term were on wide-ranging subjects. Moves towards constitutional change in this period included the eventual passage of the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 – implementing provisions formalising Australia's autonomy as a self-governing nation which had been available to Commonwealth countries since 1931 – and proposals for fourteen new Commonwealth powers. Intended to assist post-war reconstruction, and including guarantees of religious toleration and freedom of speech, the proposals were submitted as a group to referendum in 1948, attracted hostile opposition and were ultimately not agreed by voters. An avowed centralist, Evatt publicly supported the contentious bank nationalisation legislation of 1947 and led for the government in the consequent High Court case brought by the banks.5 When the Court ruled that parts of the Banking Act 1947 were invalid under section 92 of the Constitution, Evatt appealed to the Privy Council but lost again when, in July 1949, it upheld the High Court's decision.

Despite a pathological dislike of flying, Evatt was extremely productive on the international front during his time in office. After Japan's entry into the war in December 1941, he was sent on missions to Washington and London to negotiate support for Australia's defence. Appointed to the Privy Council (PC) in England in 1942, he was also made an honorary master of the bench of the Middle Temple. Disgruntled with what he saw as the self-centred approach of the 'Great Powers', Evatt took a leading role on behalf of smaller nations in asserting their interests in shaping a new world order. Earning an impressive international reputation through his tireless foundational work in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, he sat on the UN Security Council and in 1946 became first president of the Atomic Energy Commission. Avid in his support and promotion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) both in Australia and overseas, Evatt was President of the General Assembly's third session in 1948–49 and was in the chair when it voted to adopt the UDHR in December 1948.

Out of office after Labor's defeat at the elections on 10 December 1949, Evatt was unanimously elected Leader of the Opposition following Chifley's death in June 1951. Evatt's most noteworthy activity in this role was his vigorous opposition to a Bill seeking to dissolve the Australian Communist Party and to impose various restrictions on communists. Evatt led both the successful High Court challenge to the constitutional validity of the legislation, and the subsequent campaign against the government's attempt to amend the Constitution to overcome the High Court decision. Held on 22 September 1951, the referendum on the issue failed only narrowly, with three states each voting for and against and the margin less than the total number of informal votes cast.

Moving to the Hunter electorate, Evatt held that seat from 22 November 1958 until he retired from politics on 10 February 1960. He was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 15 February 1960. Already succumbing to deterioration of his previously formidable intellectual powers, he suffered a stroke in March 1962 while travelling to a law reform commission meeting in London. Given leave of absence he never returned to his duties at the Court but resigned on 24 October 1962.

Survived by his wife and their two adopted children, a son and a daughter, Evatt died on 2 November 1965 at Forrest, Canberra. Accorded a state funeral at St John the Baptist Anglican Church in Reid, where Prime Minister Menzies was one of the pall bearers, Evatt was buried in the historic church cemetery. The members of the General Assembly of the United Nations stood to honour his memory and his contribution. An annual national schools debating trophy competition run by United Nation Youth Australia was named in his honour, as were the Canberra suburb of Evatt, a research institute for the labour movement and HV Evatt Park in Lugarno, Sydney.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
    • GC Bolton, 'Evatt, Herbert Vere (Bert) (1894 - 1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, Melbourne University Press, 1996, pp. 108-114.
    • Hon. Justice Michael Kirby, 'The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, H V Evatt and Liberty in Australia', HV Evatt Lecture, St Andrew's College, University of Sydney, 14 August 2008.
    • Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1929-1949, Melbourne University Press, 1974.
    • Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.
  2. Amalgamated Society of Engineers v Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd (1920) 28 CLR 129.
  3. Ex parte Walsh and Johnson (1925) 37 CLR 36, 79.
  4. Francis Michael Forde was Australia's shortest-serving Prime Minister, for eight days from 6 to 13 July 1945.
  5. Bank of New South Wales v Commonwealth [1948] HCA 7; (1948) 76 CLR 1.

Opinions by this author

Opinion Number Subject Opinion Date
Opinion Number. 1700

PROPOSED UNIFORM FEDERAL INCOME TAX SCHEME…

Opinion Number. 1708

SECRETARYSHIP OF PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEE…

Opinion Number. 1712

RESTRICTION OF EMPLOYMENT of DOMESTIC SERVANTS…

Opinion Number. 1713

referral of powers
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN…

Opinion Number. 1731

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT
PROPOSED…

Opinion Number. 1732

POLITICAL NAMES
PROPOSAL TO PROTECT USE…

Opinion Number. 1757

DEFENCE FORCE
ADMINISTRATION OF THE…

Opinion Number. 1764

STATE CROWN
PUBLIC TRUSTEE OF NEW SOUTH…

Opinion Number. 1801

PROTECTION OF NAMES OF POLITICAL PARTIES…

Opinion Number. 1806

COAL INDUSTRY
POWERS OF JOINT COAL BOARD…