Dr Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965) is undoubtedly one of the foremost public intellectuals ever to serve in the Commonwealth Parliament, and arguably the most illustrious Prime Minister we never had.
A scholar and jurist freakishly brilliant and neurotically over-achieving, he was tragically outmaneuvered as Opposition Leader during the McCarthyist scoundrel days of the Cold War by the cunning Liberal Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies. Menzies succeeded in tainting this anti-Stalinist liberal socialist with `Communism’ after Evatt nobly performed the great public service of triumphantly defending the principles of natural `British’ justice by defeating the liberty-killing Communist Party Dissolution Bill Referendum, which would have exposed progressive Australians to prosecution and confiscation of property on the basis of informers’ allegations and secret official suspicion of Communist sympathies.
Evatt's achievements, political limitations and downfall have attracted the attention of no less than five memorialists and biographers since his death. The most recent of these is the worthy effort by John Murphy, Evatt: a Life (UNSWP, 2016). His most senior ministerial role was as Minister of External Affairs to the Curtin and Chifley governments (1941-49), when he put Australia on the world stage in the nascent United Nations as a middle ranking power following an independent foreign policy. His political heir in this regard was Edward Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister (1972-75) and Foreign Minister and the son of his Permanent Secretary at the Attorney General’s office, a ministry Evatt held concurrently.
Like many on the Australian Left in the immediate post-war era, including the historians Brian Fitzpatrick and Manning Clark, Evatt was a strong Zionist sympathiser. In 1960, with his political career behind him, Evatt accepted an invitation to deliver the Rabbi LA Falk Memorial Lecture on May Day at the Sydney Great Synagogue on the theme Australia’s Part in the Creation of Israel. Although his intellectual powers are often said to have been failing him by this time, he succeeded in reminiscing lucidly enough if uncritically about what he had done with Chifley’s support to promote Zionism and the partition of Palestine at the UN.
As President of the United Nations General Assembly and Chair of its Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine he dismissed proposals of a unitary democratic State in the Holy Land as mere Arab delaying tactics designed to frustrate Zionist aspirations. The transcript of his address, published in the journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society (Vol.V Part IV 1961), shows in what measure he had bought into the Zionist line as an exponent of a European colonial settler society (he remained for example a lifelong advocate of the White Australia Policy on socioeconomic grounds. Nevertheless he maintained that the Australian position respecting Israel was disinterested.).
According to Murphy, Evatt was primarily concerned with issues of (selective) promotion of issues of national self-determination for European Jewry in allegedly ancestral Palestine. Certainly Evatt cited such concerns implicitly in his discussion of the Balfour Declaration’s embryonic concept of `a Jewish national home’, which he developed into the fully fledged Zionist notion of the Jewish National State. But it is clear, as Murphy fails to acknowledge, that Evatt was also powerfully motivated by Holocaust guilt. (Indeed it is likely as an antifascist he was more aware than most of the European Jewish predicament before the war, especially after 1933, when the Lyons government had been unsympathetic to Jewish refugee immigration; antifascists were influential on the Left and in the Jewish diaspora in Australia, both prior to and after World War II (1939-45), through the influential Jewish Council to Combat Fascism & Anti-semitism.)
It did not occur to Evatt to apply the same principles of self-determination to the indigenous Palestinian people, whom he referred to only implicitly as an amorphous part of the Arab world. He referred not at all to the Nakba Catastrophe (1948) or the consequent Palestinian refugee crisis which the UN itself had been obliged to address, failing miserably. He subscribed to the Zionist myth of the Israeli War of Independence against the surrounding States as a David and Goliath struggle, not mentioning Israeli military predominance or the ambiguity and half-heartedness of the neo-colonial Arab regimes’ intervention to mitigate the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Indeed he patronised these States as underdeveloped societies that would benefit from Israeli drive and initiative.
By Dr David Faber, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Flinders University, 10 January 2017.