White supremacist? We need to talk about Doc Evatt: Part 1

Doc Evatt was revered as a man who fought for justice for all, yet there was a dark side to the man that has been either glossed over or ignored. Part 2 will examine Evatt’s prejudiced role in the partition of Palestine. 

Justice can’t be limited … justice must be given to all. You must always fight for justice for all people …” Dr. H. V. Evatt in his finest hour, opposing the banning of the Communist Party at a public meeting in Bondi; broadcasted nationally, October 1951

A brilliant labour lawyer; the youngest ever High Court judge; Labor leader; President of the UN General Assembly. This is how younger generations hear of Doc Evatt, still ennobled by respected elders.

He was the “childhood hero” of former High Court judge Michael Kirby, an “inspiration” for former Labor senator Gareth Evans, “the Australian who has had most influence on human progress… overwhelmingly this was for the benefit of humanity” (expatriate barrister Geoffrey Robertson); “a central figure in every civil rights struggle in Australia for a generation” (radical author John Pilger); and ”a champion of civil liberties and the rights of economically and socially disadvantaged people” (law professor George Williams).

The eulogies  just keep tumbling out. But though the word most commonly associated with Evatt is justice, sadly, he limited justice to his own white tribe. And what’s worse, Evatt and even his current admirers seem oblivious of this uncomfortable fact.

Evatt was a white supremacist. It is a label that also applies to most of his white peers, but there were a few who knew that justice must be universal, and even a saintly handful who spent their lives campaigning for justice for Indigenous Australians. But they have faded into obscurity while the cult of Evatt sails regally on, unchallenged.

The six biographies on Evatt either play down, or leave out altogether, tragic outcomes for non-whites as a result of his actions, or as a result of his inaction when intervention was called for.

Consider his disregard for Indigenous Australians: Evatt, a leading expert and writer on constitutional law, revered the Constitution as the soul of the nation but remained untroubled by its blatantly racist sections.

And when, as 1948’s annual President of the United Nations General Assembly, he shepherded through the Genocide Convention to much acclaim, he seemed oblivious to the fact that he had just criminalised the forcible removal of children from one group to another group, now listed as a genocidal act. Yet in Australia at the time, this was official government policy, with large numbers of mixed-race children being forcibly removed from their families.

Evatt displayed this disconnect again when recording, with quiet pride, his UN initiative to re-unite stolen Greek children with their distraught parents (during the Greek civil war both sides stole children). Evatt’s intervention was honoured at a ceremony at Sydney Town Hall, where the freedom of the city of Athens was conferred on the children’s saviour. This had been, he wrote later, a situation that had “aroused great feeling”, and he was “happy to say, as a result of this resolution, some of the children have already been returned”.

Great feelings” were also aroused on his home turf . As a policeman removing Indigenous children from a cattle station near Marble Bar reported: “There were thirty natives … they made an awful fuss.” No happy reunions for any Indigenous families on Evatt’s watch, and the practice was not officially ended until 1969, four years after his death.

Then, in his hurry to establish the Anglo-Australian Woomera rocket range, he showed no concern for Indigenous tribes under threat. Even the Department of the Interior complained that the plan was a “violation of our native policy”.  In response to growing protests and mass meetings in capital cities, he passed a draconian Act imposing stiff penalties for anyone taking part in a proposed union boycott, and for any who might so much as speak or write against the nuclear tests.  With civil liberties now annihilated by this “libertarian warrior”, the predicted nuclear tests began in 1953 and continued until 1963.

As opposition leader after 1949, Evatt took no responsibility and showed no regret when promises to protect tribal people were broken. Anangu people and, later, Pintupi people, were forcibly trucked off their land and herded into miserable settlements such as Papunya, where the trauma experienced by Indigenous people resulted in high death rates, alcoholism and violence.

Nuclear test boundaries were inadequately patrolled, about 1200 people were exposed to radiation and long-term illnesses, and the site is still contaminated. The 1985 Royal Commission noted that the paltry attempts to ensure the safety of Indigenous people were riddled by “ignorance, incompetence and cynicism”.

 Sometimes Evatt’s racism prevented intervention in issues where, had whites been involved. he would have been inspired to act. In 1946, when in New York chairing a UN committee, Evatt ignored an urgent appeal for help for two jailed Indigenous strikers in Western Australia sent to him by the strike committee headed by an Anglican minister, Rev. Peter Hodge. Don McLeod, the main organiser, had joined the Communist Party – the only group to offer support to the strikers – and this was admittedly a political problem for Evatt. But as Bob Hawke said in 1979 at the launch of the Evatt Foundation: “When he believed something must be done Evatt gave no thought to the consequences for himself.”

Evatt was not moved by the plight of striking ‘natives’, though the strike committee reminded him that “the right to organise is a primary right of free men and its violation is against all the principles fought for by the United Nations”.  The strike in the Pilbara, one of the longest in history, dragged on until 1949, with no support from the Labor leader.

The Indigenous pastoral workers trying to unionise were up against a system corrupted by large landowners. In 1936, while on the bench of the High Court, Evatt found time to write a stirring book entitled Injustice Within the Law, honouring the Dorsetshire labourers transported to NSW for attempting to form a union, and who were also up against a system corrupted by large landowners. Wearing the white blindfold, Evatt failed to join the dots.

It is also worth examining Evatt’s post-war decisions affecting non-whites in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and even China, even his defence in the UN of South Africa.

But these pale into insignificance compared with his leading role in the partition of Palestine. Alan Renouf, his aide at the United Nations, claimed that “no better testimony exists to Evatt’s pursuit of justice than the part he played in the establishment of the state of Israel”. Statements along these lines, oft repeated, have never been challenged in Australia.

Evatt’s procedure on Palestine at the UN is the most striking evidence of his failure to apply justice to non-white people, both in procedural and substantive terms.

Leaving aside the substantive issues – the merits or demerits of partition and possible alternatives, modifications, and legalities – on this momentous occasion, Evatt’s conduct as Chair of the UN’s Special Committee on Palestine was both devious and deceitful.

His work first for partition and then for recognition of Israel, though it was guided and urged on him by others, was his own obsession. It was a difficult challenge, but his procedure as Chair was a travesty of justice and a discredit to the UN, using the whatever-it-takes tactics familiar to anyone who’s attended adrenalin-filled Labor Party branch meetings during a split.

Part 2 will examine in detail Doc Evatt’s role in the partition of Palestine.  

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Former journalist and retired senior lecturer in international politics, UTS. Secretary of Northern Beaches Committee for Palestine and member of the Pittwater Knitting Nannas, activists for renewable energy.

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