Originally published in Now & Then magazine of the National Museum of Labour – April 2011
Clive Evatt Sr, lawyer and MLA Clive Evatt Jr, lawyer and art gallery owner
On 26 November last year (2010) the Australian featured an article (by Michaela Boland) about the Sydney defamation lawyer and art dealer Clive Evatt.
The article, occasioned by Evatt’s decision to close down his art gallery and sell off its stock, stated that the 79-year-old barrister was a “former member of the NSW legislative assembly”.
But sadly the article had got its Clive Evatts mixed up.
The only Clive Evatt ever to serve in the NSW Legislative Assembly was Clive Evatt senior who was first elected in 1939 when his son, Clive junior, was still a child.
Clive Evatt MLA was the youngest brother of the heroic Labor leader Dr H V Evatt. He was the baby of the Evatt family who always needed to try hard to ensure that he was not overlooked.
He was, though, a fascinating figure in his own right.
Tall and good looking, Clive was a student at, successively, Fort Street Boys High School, the Royal Military College at Duntroon and Sydney University where he played rugby league at the state level and graduated in law.
He was an early member of the Sydney University Labour Club and also was prominent in the Sydney University Dramatic Society.
Clive was admitted to the bar in 1926 and was made a King’s Counsel in 1935.
In 1928 he married Marjorie Hannah Andreas. They had three children – Clive junior, and daughters Elizabeth, foundation chief judge of the Family Court of Australia, and Penelope, an architect who married Harry Seidler.
Evatt’s specialty as a barrister in the 1930s was workers compensation and personal injury cases. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography informs us that, along with “other like-minded practitioners, he enlarged the concept of negligence in the interest of employees injured in industrial accidents.”
Clive entered parliamentary politics in 1939 at a time when the Labor Party in New South Wales was split between the supporters and opponents of Jack Lang.
On 18 March there was a crucial by-election in the state seat of Hurstville. The rival Labor camps each fielded a candidate.
Clive Evatt KC was the anti-Lang Labor nominee. As a result of his “many triumphant battles” in the field of workers’ compensation claims he could count on receiving the support of a large number of railway employees in particular who then lived in Hurstville.
The railways workers union, led by Dr Lloyd Ross, endorsed Evatt, with Ross ensuring that the publicity resources of the Labor Council’s radio station 2KY were deployed in support of Evatt’s candidacy.
Lang supported his candidate Alderman J F McGrath, a publican, but did his cause not good at all when he said that Evatt spent most of his time in the courts “fighting for widows and children”. Evatt handily won the by-election.
A month later another by-election in the state seat of Waverley was won by a second notable anti-Lang lawyer, Clarrie Martin.
As a direct result of these two by-election outcomes the federal ALP intervened in the affairs of the NSW branch of the party. A unity conference was called which led to the removal of Jack Lang as NSW parliamentary leader. He was replaced by William McKell who, after winning the 1941 state election, inaugurated 24 years of durable Labor government in the state of New South Wales.
Clive’s success in Hurstville in 1939 was, in all probability, one of the reasons which led H V Evatt to stand down from the High Court to successfully contest a seat in the 1940 federal election. Evatt’s federal seat of Barton took in Hurstville.
Students of his political career after 1941 have applied a number of epithets to Clive Evatt. He has been described variously as flamboyant, unpredictable, volatile and impulsive. He could certainly be a difficult ministerial colleague at times.
Clive was made Minister for Education in 1941 and had an ambitious reform agenda, taking in changes to the examination and inspection systems. He tried to outlaw corporal punishment in public schools but was overruled and then demoted by Premier McKell in 1944. He was restored to favour by McKell’s successor James McGirr.
The rows with the NSW Premier of the day resumed in 1952 when McGirr was succeed by Joe Cahill. Evatt was removed as a minister in 1954 and was expelled from the ALP in 1956 when he crossed the floor to vote against increases in public transport fares.
During the great Labor split of the mid-1950s Clive was an overly enthusiastic fraternal supporter of H V Evatt and his expulsion may well have been designed to further ensure that the party in New South Wales stayed in safe centrist hands.
In 1959 Evatt contested Hurstville as an independent. He lost and returned to the bar where he resumed his practise in personal injury cases, often representing impecunious clients. He also appeared in defamation cases where his clients included Arthur Calwell, Tom Uren, Shirley Bassey, Dawn Fraser and Junie Morosi.
Evatt, who became ever more eccentric and theatrical as he aged, died in 1984. His life and career form the subject of a fine entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography but otherwise with the passage of time his renown has dimmed as indicated by the Australian’s mixing him up with his son, another barrister and fellow lover of the arts but never an MLA.
If the term “the workers KC” has any meaning at all it surely can be applied to Clive Evatt senior. He deserves to be better remembered, both as a notable individual associated with the Australian labour movement and, provided he is properly identified, as a member of a remarkable Labor family.
Stephen Holt has co-authored a biography of the political reporter Alan Reid.