Cover of book: The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent

Gideon Haigh
The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent

This book is about two brilliant boys. The first is the gifted and driven Bert or Doc Evatt. Of lower- middle-class origins, he went to Sydney’s Fort Street Boys’ High and on to law at Sydney University, winning prizes and scholarships all the way. Evatt shone at the Sydney bar in the early 1920s before entering the New South Wales parliament for Labor when Jack Lang was premier. Like his friend, Vere Gordon Childe, Evatt was a Labor intellectual – a difficult position in the party of the workers – but he established his credentials when he successfully prevented the Bruce government’s deportation of two union organisers, Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnson of the Seamen’s Union. Although born overseas, both were long-time Australian residents and Evatt argued successfully before the High Court that they were beyond the reach of the Immigration Act.

In 1930, at just 36, he was appointed to the High Court, becoming the youngest ever appointee. It was a political selection and icily received despite Evatt’s established legal distinction. In 1940 he resigned from the bench to enter federal politics, where he became attorney-general and minister for External Affairs in Labor’s wartime and postwar governments. He was a founder of the United Nations, saviour of the country in 1951 from Bob Menzies’ Communist Party Dissolution Bill, leader of the ALP after Ben Chifley died, and a catalyst in the ALP’s disastrous split a few years later.

With his complex personality and contradictory legacies, the general verdict on Evatt has been that his achievements fell short of his great gifts. His disastrous inability to navigate the Cold War has overshadowed the brilliance of his early life. Gideon Haigh’s book restores this brilliance.

In the 1930s Evatt was “a one-man intellectual powerhouse”. Much more aware of the law’s social dimensions than his fellow judges, he closely followed British and United States judgements in the law of torts, which found for ordinary men and women harmed by the negligence of capital. And he went toe to toe with the then attorney-general, Bob Menzies, fighting the government’s attempt to prevent the anti-fascist and communist writer Egon Kisch from entering Australia. He also wrote three books on Australian history and, with his wife, Mary Alice, became a champion of Modern art. He took up cudgels against the conservative Australian Academy of Art. He and Mary Alice became friends with the Heide circle around John and Sunday Reed and adventurous collectors.

The second brilliant boy is Maxie, the seven-year-old son of Chaim and Golda Sochaczewski, migrants from the Polish Pale who had Anglicised their surname to Chester. Golda and her three children had been in Australia less than a year when, on a quiet Saturday afternoon, her youngest child fell into an unfenced water-filled trench just 50 metres from his home and drowned. Golda, who was present when the body of her “brilliant boy” was retrieved hours later, was never the same again, and later hanged herself.

Another Jewish Pole, lawyer and local MP Abram Landa, sued the Waverley Council on her behalf for compensation for the “severe nervous and mental shock” caused by its negligence. It was a daring, novel claim. Psychological damage was barely recognised by the courts, nor were secondary victims regarded as deserving of compensation. Where juries were generally sympathetic to the plight of the injured, their verdicts were regularly overturned by judges concerned to keep the floodgates shut. Haigh gives a fascinating account of the slow development of legal reasoning on negligence and psychological injury. Just how slow this was will shock the safety-conscious sensibilities of today’s reader, as will the hazards to which ordinary folk were regularly exposed.

The Chester case eventually ended up in the High Court. At stake was not the negligence of Waverley Council, which was admitted, but whether the council’s duty of care extended to Golda as a secondary victim who suffered nervous shock. A majority, regarding the world as a harsh place where unfortunate things happen, concluded it did not. The book’s climax is Haigh’s reading of Evatt’s dissenting judgement. Throughout the book, Haigh quotes generously from legal judgements, subjecting them to close reading, not just for their legal reasoning but for the qualities of imaginative sympathy they display or lack. The dismissive judgements in the Chester case are cold and depersonalised. A reasonable person, argued Chief Justice John Latham, “would not foresee that the negligence of the defendant towards the child would so affect a mother”.

Evatt, whose own mother never recovered from the deaths of two of her sons in the war, knew well that it could. He recounts the detail of the ordinary suburban Saturday afternoon on which Maxie drowned, the mother noticing her son missing, the family’s frantic search, the “agony of hope and fear” before the dreadful discovery. It is not remarkable, he concludes, that the plaintiff’s nervous system was permanently injured. Evatt’s imaginative empathy gives Golda Chester a voice, using literary references to arouse the sympathy of his readers: William Blake, and the stories of lost children in Joseph Furphy’s rambling masterpiece, Such Is Life, which link Golda’s suffering to a deep fear in the Australian settler experience.

Evatt’s legal career has been little investigated by his previous biographers, who have focused on his political life. Its achievements rescue him from the Manicheanism of the Cold War, and show why he deserves his place in Labor’s pantheon. Gideon Haigh has a nose for Australian stories that light up the past from new angles, and he tells this one with verve, grace and lightly worn erudition. I couldn’t put it down.

Simon & Schuster, 384pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 31, 2021 as "The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent, Gideon Haigh".

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