Childhood and education

Herbert Vere Evatt, known as Bert, was born on 30 April 1894 in East Maitland, NSW, the fifth son of a publican, John Evatt, and his wife Jeanie. John Evatt died when Bert was seven leaving him to play a major role in the upbringing of his three younger brothers. Two of them, Ray and Frank, were killed in the First World War. Their deaths had a profound effect on Bert and brought home to him at an early age the tragedy of war.

Evatt was educated at Fort Street High School, Sydney, and the University of Sydney. He was a brilliant scholar and attained the degress of B.A. (triple first-class honours and University Medal), M.A., LL.B. (first class honours and University Medal), LL.D. and D. Litt.

Early career and marriage

He was admitted to the Sydney bar in 1918, taking silk in 1929.

In 1920 Evatt married Mary Alice Sheffer, a student of Architecture, and the daughter of an American businessman. Mary Alice had come to Australia as a small child and she was to remain Evatt's constant companion.

Evatt joined the Labor Party in 1925, entering NSW State Parliament as the MLA for Balmain.

High Court

He left state politics when in 1930, at the age of 36, he was appointed a justice of the High Court of Australia, the youngest person to be appointed to such a position. Evatt quickly distinguished himself as a brilliant and liberal judge and a respected author in the fields of law and history.

Parliamentary career

In 1940 Evatt resigned from the High Court, standing as a federal Labor Party candidate and winning the Sydney seat of Barton at the elections of the same year. When Labor gained power under John Curtin in 1941, Evatt was appointed Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs. From 1946 to 1949 he was Deputy Prime Minister to Ben Chifley.

During the war years Evatt led many important overseas missions for the Australian government. He was instrumental in bringing home Australian troops from the Middle East and in securing military aircraft to support Australia's war effort in the Pacific. During his years as Minister for External Affairs, Evatt completely reorganized the department and laid the foundations for an active and independent Australian foreign policy. He championed the cause of the smaller nations having a voice, alongside the great powers, on questions of international and global significance.

International activities and United Nations

He was a member of the San Francisco Conference in 1945 which drew up the United Nations Charter and the leader of the Australian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1946.

Evatt was Chairman of the Far Eastern Commission, USA, 1945; President of the South Pacific Regional Conference, Canberra, 1947; and Chairman of the British Commonwealth Conference on the Japanese Peace Treaty, 1947.

Evatt led the Australian delegation to the United Nations in 1946, 1947 and 1948 and was elected President of the General Assembly at its Third Session from 1948-49. He was the first chairman of the UN Atomic Energy Commission and chairman of the Palestine Commission.

Opposition years

In 1949 Labor lost the federal election to R.G. Menzies and the Liberal Party and the rest of Evatt's parliamentary life was spent in opposition.

In 1950 Menzies introduced the Communist Party Dissolution Bill which gave power to the government to publicly declare any citizen a Communist and to bar him or her from holding office in a range of public organizations, including trade unions. Evatt successfully contested this Act in the High Court where it was declared unconstitutional.

When Chifley died in June 1951, Evatt was elected the new leader of the Labor Party and held this position throughout a tumultuous period of Australian political history. Evatt successfully campaigned for the "No" vote in the Referendum of September 1951 in which the Menzies Government sought to ban the Communist Party of Australia.

Petrov Affair

In 1954 the defection to Australia of a senior Soviet diplomat, Vladimir Petrov, and the subsequent Royal Commission into Espionage revived fears of Communism and the Soviet Union in the Australian electorate and contributed to the defeat of the ALP in the 1954 Federal elections. The split which occurred in the ALP in the mid 1950s and which led to the formation of the Democratic Labor Party weakened the ALP's chances of regaining power.

Post-political career

In 1960 Evatt retired from politics and took up the position of Chief Justice of New South Wales. Ill health forced him to retire in 1962. He died in Canberra on 2 November, 1965, aged 71.

Biographical notes by Robyn Walden.