The Brilliant Boy by Gideon Haigh

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

As is the case with many brilliant men, Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965) was a multi-faceted character. Scholastically brilliant, he was awarded J.D. (Juris Doctor) at a young age and, at 35, was a judge of the High Court, and henceforth known as ‘Doc’ Evatt.

He was erudite and widely read which led to his interest in the Labor Party. His political life was triggered by a thumping majority win in the seat of Balmain; but subsequent turmoil and disillusionment led him to return to the Law in earnest.

He fought and won the Walsh and Johnson case in the High Court which brought him fame, not just in legal circles. Subsequently, there were workers’ compensation and fraud cases. Such was his volume of work that he was nicknamed the ‘legal Phar Lap’.

Evatt’s strong social conscience steered him into exploring communism as an attempt to redress the balance between ‘the property-owning minorities that held sway over the property-less class.’

He was part of the law-giving section of Australia that was “intellectually curious, socially aware, uncompromisingly modern and unselfconsciously international.”  Some who knew him, nonetheless, also saw him as vain, pompous, a seeker of publicity and self-advancement.

Doc Evatt married Mary Alice and they were intensely devoted. Their letters reveal a deep and enduring love for each other. Father of Peter and Rosalind, he proved to be a loving and over-anxious parent, sometimes soft and sentimental, even towards other little children.

Servants like Burgess would testify to his being prickly, demanding, and at times despotic.

Gideon Haigh gives a widely diverse and complex picture of this fascinating man.  An interesting anecdote related a kindly gesture when Evatt gives a helping hand to the struggling son of a boiler-maker whose career became that of Sir John Kerr.

Many eminent historians have examined Evatt’s life and the contribution he made to the legal and social justice system current in NSW, and Gideon Haigh’s is an excellent addition.  In exhaustive detail, he portrays the man who, with colleagues such as Atkin and Dixon, were outstanding; and, in fact, regarded as amongst the most brilliant men of the time, not just in Australia, but internationally. This cohort had a vision for the young country, coming to terms with its shedding the colonial past and shaping a brave and better future.

This is evident in some of the cases cited in the book. Evatt’s professional skill is illustrated, but the nature of the cases he represented indicates his determination for better outcomes for the poorer clients. The Chester case, where little Maxie drowned in an exposed trench, finally acknowledged the mental suffering of the bereaved mother. An important precedent was established.

The dangerous open-doored Sydney trains were subject to scrutiny after many accidents occurred. Evatt pleaded negligence and, in most cases, compensation was paid.

The book is impressive in that significant cases are related at length when Evatt’s work is critical. The driving need to protect the rights of the poorer constituent highlight his passion for social justice. He also loved to win the courtroom jousts….

The content is enormous, and a brief review can only mention some examples of the achievements of this brilliant Australian. To encourage further reading, the ‘great Australian dissent’ awaits interested readers and many more details besides. It is a book rich in information with no wasted prose.

Herbert Evatt encouraged and sponsored Modern Art in Australia, wanting to leave the landscape and mythical genre of Roberts, Bunny and other nineteenth century artists who were heavily influenced by the Art in the Northern Hemisphere.

His work in the beginnings of the United Nations put a respected Australian prominently on the international scene.

There are exchanges with Menzies, renowned founder of the Liberal Party, as Evatt himself retained Labor affiliation. However, a mutual respect remained.

Between the covers of The Brilliant Boy is depicted a fledgling nation graced by vibrant, highly intelligent men who individually contributed pathways to making our country a just and better one. They strove to realise these ideals which is, sadly, a stark contrast to the blatant disregard for such values we witness today.

This excellent book is at times a challenging read, but should be read widely especially by those who are in government roles.

The Brilliant Boy – Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent


by Gideon Haigh


ISBN 978 17608 5611 3

$39.99 (Hardback); 384pp

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