REVIEW

There's plenty more to be said about Herbert 'Doc Evatt', as Gideon Haigh reveals in his sparkling new biography

H.V. (Doc) Evatt, 1935 (detail), by Arnold Shore. Gift of Elizabeth Evatt and Penelope Seidler 1998. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program. Malcom K Shore

H.V. (Doc) Evatt, 1935 (detail), by Arnold Shore. Gift of Elizabeth Evatt and Penelope Seidler 1998. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program. Malcom K Shore

  • The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Experiment, by Gideon Haigh. Simon & Schuster, $39.99.

Readers may well come to this book with some reluctance. Hasn't enough already been written on Herbert Vere Evatt, they may legitimately ask? What more might possibly be said? Surely there is no remaining interest in the life of a man, long dead, with little relevance to today's world?

These questions are understandable but suspend disbelief, please, if you possibly can. This book is an absolutely remarkable, moving and elegant re-reading of the early life of an extraordinary Australian.

It will show the reader why Evatt matters still, and what an utterly worthy Australian he was.

Gideon Haigh is one of Australia's finest writers and thinkers with an instinctive feel for Australia. He believes Evatt to be the most brilliant Australian of his day and he marshals a very strong case.

This a complex and mesmerising book which will repay close attention.

We start, improbably, with an account of the death, by drowning, of a young boy, Max, (Maxie) Chester in a trench in a suburban street in Sydney's Waverley.

The reader has every right to be confused, expecting, no doubt, that Evatt will be front and centre from the very beginning. But the story of the boy's death, its saddening aftermath (a mother's mind and life are destroyed) and the legal implications weave their way through this book to completely absorb the reader.

You think you don't like lawyers? The Brilliant Boy will reinforce your prejudices. The claim for compensation from Waverley Council eventually reaches Australia's High Court where "the Doc" sits. He is the youngest member ever appointed and one of the most brilliant.

He is surrounded by dullards, time-servers and incompetents. Delightfully, they all despise each other while retaining a veneer of superficial charm and "collegiality". Chester comes to the court. Chief Justice Latham writes to Evatt: "The only object I have in view is to get the work of the Court done with efficiency and credit to its members and as pleasantly as possible." Codswallop!

Move on to the account of the Chester judgement, one of the finest pieces of judicial analysis I have ever read, and one of the most moving.

Haigh finds much to criticise in the performance of the judges who rule against compensation for Maxie's mother: "Their language was affectless, the reasoning bloodless, the matter's participants so depersonalised they did not even have names."

Evatt was alone in his dissent. Haigh shows the reader how Evatt entered into the mind of the grieving woman, understood her, treating her as a dignified human being whose grief was overwhelming her mind. He wrote of her "agony of hope and fear".

Drawing on his own mother's experience - she lost four of her eight sons, two to the First World War - though not explicitly in his judgement, and explicitly drawing on Australian art and literature to understand the impact of the lost child, Evatt wrote a 14,000 word dissenting judgement.

Knowing, when he set out on this task, that he could not overturn the majority, Evatt, in Haigh's view, realised that he could change the law and the legal approach to grief and mental anguish in the future.

It is with some considerable satisfaction that Haigh is able to reveal to the reader in his last pages that Chief Justice Harry Gibbs ruled in 1984 that the majority view in Chester "should no longer be followed". Justice William Deane wrote "the conclusion of Evatt J. is plainly to be preferred to that of the majority".

Haigh gives a rich and rounded portrait of the young judge. We also see him as a devoted and skilled father and husband, a man of difficult personality, a lover and writer of history, and with his wife, Mary Alice, a skilled and knowledgeable patron of the arts. Menacingly, Robert Menzies is regularly present in Evatt's life. The reader knows there will be trouble between them.

Haigh's conclusion is dramatic and inescapable: "No Australian leading a life of the mind was more brilliant, ambitious and ubiquitous... he brought breadth and warmth to a Bench crabbed and cold."

Gideon Haigh has done Australian history and his exemplary hero a great service. Evatt was not a success as a politician, although he was closely involved in the creation of the United Nations.

His last years in politics, as leader of the Labor Party, have clouded our understanding and respect for this magnificent Australian.

I came to The Brilliant Boy, expecting to give it cursory attention and a very quick read. It soon engaged me, delighted me, moved me and offered me a completely new view of Bert Evatt.

This is one of the best Australian biographies I have read for a long time.

This story Reclaiming the great dissenter first appeared on The Canberra Times.