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Australia’s great internationalists

by Penelope Grist, 9 March 2016

Penelope Grist explores the United Nations stories in the Gallery’s collection.

Jessie Street
Jessie Street, 1929 Reginald Jerrold-Nathan. © Estate of Reginald Jerrold-Nathan

Jessie Street recalled that on 25 June 1945, 'the press and public galleries were filled to overflowing' in the San Francisco Opera House. As delegates of fifty nations voted unanimously to adopt the 111-article United Nations Charter, 'everyone in the Opera House rose to their feet and cheered and clapped'. In this 70th anniversary year of the UN’s formation, the Gallery’s collection tells some of the inspiring stories of Australians whose life achievements were bound up in this defining moment in world history. 

Two months earlier, a twenty-strong Australian delegation had travelled to San Francisco by RAAF bomber. Minister for External Affairs, Doc Evatt, and Deputy Prime Minister FM Forde led the delegation; Jessie Street was our only woman delegate. This group would be influential in shaping the new international organisation. They island-hopped the Pacific under cover of darkness; the Second World War was not yet over.

This story of Australia's internationalists began with an earlier generation at the end of the First World War. The League of Nations formed in 1919 with the aim of promoting world peace and justice. Doc Evatt and Jessie Street’s predecessors in our contribution to this earlier attempt at international cooperation included former Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce, and Elizabeth Couchman (often referred to in the press as Mrs Claude Couchman). 

The National Portrait Gallery recently received the generous gift of the portrait of Dame Elizabeth Couchman (1876-1982) from her family. She was Australia's only woman delegate to the League of Nations in Paris in 1934. In her portrait, by Aileen Dent, she wears the honours she received, including DBE in 1960, for a lifetime of public service. She became highly influential in the foundation of the Liberal Party, despite never having been elected to parliament herself. Sir Robert Menzies is said to have called her 'the greatest statesmen of them all'. In 1934, Couchman was prominent in the conservative Australian Women’s National League (AWNL). Poised and persuasive, speaking upon her return from Europe, she argued: 'The... League of Nations has been criticised for not doing away with war in one generation... but it is no use to expect the impossible. If the League has not been altogether successful with regard to disarmament it is weaving webs among the nations... If the League went out of existence it would have to be resuscitated in some form or other as there must be some place where nations can meet on a common platform. The only way to make it strong is to have public opinion behind it, and if the League can be supported by public opinion we will be half-way towards disarmament and the day we all long for - the day of permanent peace.'

The League was both to go out of existence and be resuscitated through committed internationalism. The League Covenant’s mechanisms for resolving disputes were limited, and ultimately, unworkable, but the work of Stanley Bruce CH MC PC, 1st Viscount Bruce of Melbourne (1883-1967) would not be wasted. Bruce had been a nationalist Prime Minister in coalition with the Country Party, from 1923 to 1929. Barbara Tribe’s bronze bust of Bruce, held in the Gallery’s collection, was cast in 1937 while he was serving as both Australia’s High Commissioner in London and the Australian delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva. 

In the midst of the 1930s Depression and agricultural slump, Bruce argued that League-supported agriculture, nutrition and health programs could underpin international cooperation. In May 1939, in the dying days of the League and during the slide into war, Bruce presided over a Council of the League of Nations committee that recommended 'a structural change to the League, which would focus its work on economic and social conditions in the world'.

Bruce’s ideas live on in the United Nations Charter. His successor, Doc Evatt, from the other side of Australian politics and another world war later, also argued that economic justice was the basis of world security. Article 56 of the UN Charter contains the undertakings that became known as the 'Australian pledge'. It commits nations to promoting higher standards of living, full employment, economic, social and health solutions, cultural and educational cooperation and 'universal respect for, and observance of, human rights'. In 1946, Bruce became Chair of the World Food Council of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the new United Nations. 

But how did a nation of 7.5 million people gain such sway? Initially it was, and had to be, the superpowers that laid the groundwork. US President Franklin D Roosevelt had suggested the term 'United Nations' at a conference in Washington DC in 1942. Over the following two years, the allied powers met in Moscow, Tehran, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC and in Yalta, a Russian resort town in the Crimea. However, none expected the influence that the smaller nations were to have at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco in 1945. 

During that conference, Doc Evatt convinced the delegations of the other smaller nations of their power as a voting bloc. In the third volume of his Australian history series, Australians, Thomas Keneally quotes the New York Times of 27 June 1945, which noted that Evatt was 'recognised as the most brilliant and effective voice of the Small Powers, a leading statesman for the world’s conscience'. Edward Stettinius, the US Undersecretary of State who had brokered agreement on the UN’s structure in 1943, observed: 'Dr Evatt has done more than any other person to write the United Nations Charter. His work at San Francisco gained the admiration and respect of all nations.'

A brilliant scholar, Dr Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965) was a barrister and earned his Doctor of Laws by thesis at the University of Sydney in 1924. It is in these academic robes that he appears in his portrait, by Arnold Shore, in the Gallery’s collection. Painted in 1935, five years after he became the youngest ever appointment to the High Court of Australia, it is the perfect costume for a public figure widely known as ‘Doc Evatt’. Stepping down from the judiciary, Evatt ran for Federal Parliament in 1940, holding the seat of Barton for the Labor Party for the next 18 years, serving as Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs between 1941 and 1949. A liberal internationalist, Doc Evatt wrote in a cablegram to Curtin in 1944 that the UN ‘should be a proper place for the voice and interest of the smaller powers’. 

Evatt’s towering intellect, internationalist ideals, dominant personality, judicial experience, rigorously principled conviction and stamina came together in those two months in San Francisco in 1945. Conscious of the League’s failures, Evatt argued for robust processes and a permanent International Court of Justice. Sir Percy Spender KCVO KBE QC (1897-1985), the subject of a drawing by Louis Kahan and a bronze bust by Alex Kolozsy, both held in the collection, joined the International Court of Justice in 1958 and was its President from 1964 to 1967.

Evatt had hand-picked his team, including the young John Burton (1915-2010), the subject of a photographic portrait in the collection. (Two years after San Francisco, aged only 32, Burton was appointed Permanent Head of the Department of External Affairs.) The Australian delegates attended, in Evatt’s words, 'as many committees as physically possible', and their system of reporting back to Evatt meant that he was able to appear in committees, fully briefed, at crucial moments. They averaged ten meetings a day - about 350 over the two months.  So omnipresent was Doc that other delegates joked there were actually 'ten Evatts' attending the conference. 

Australia was elected to the Executive Committee and Coordination Committee that drafted the final UN Charter.

On May 7, 1945, during the San Francisco conference, Germany officially surrendered, ending the European conflict; the US declared the day a public holiday. Deputy Prime Minister Forde, Doc Evatt, Jessie Street and three other Australian delegates hired a car to visit Yosemite National Park on this one day off; 

it was in planning this trip that a furious Street discovered that her delegate’s allowance was a third of the men’s.

Women represented less than 1% of the delegates from the fifty nations. Similar to Evatt’s approach to mobilise the smaller nations, Jessie Street worked closely with Bodil Begtrup of Denmark, Berta Lutz of Brazil and Senator Isabel de Vidal of Uruguay to exert influence as a group. Lady Jessie Street (1889-1970), like Evatt, hailed from country New South Wales and was educated at Sydney University. 

She had visited and observed the League of Nations in 1930 and 1938. She had also represented Australia at numerous women’s meetings and congresses with leading international lights of the feminist cause, including Margaret Sanger, Margery Corbett Ashby and Alice Paul. 

In 1929, when Street sat for her portrait held in the collection, painted by Jerrold Nathan, she had recently co-founded the United Associations of Women. National Portrait Gallery curator Joanna Gilmour, in her article on the portrait in a previous issue of Portrait magazine, noted that the 'rich fabrics, furs and jewels' were likely to be the painter’s selection, as his subject was 'more commonly found in the no-nonsense combo of a suit, blouse and sensible shoes'. 

Within the UN Charter, Street and the women delegates successfully lobbied to include equal rights of men and women in the preamble, equal employment within the UN (despite the vigorous opposition to this resolution from the US, UK and Cuban delegates), and provision for the creation of the Commission on the Status of Women. Street assisted in drafting Article 8 on the status of women and served as Australia’s representative on the Commission on the Status of Women from 1947 to 1948.

Evatt and Street’s contributions did not end in June 1945. Three years later, according to The Greats: the 50 men and women who most helped to shape modern Australia, the French police, outside the opening of the third Assembly in Paris in 1948, almost prevented the entry of a 'heavy, tousle-haired man in a baggy lounge suit, his tie off-centre', who emerged from a 'modest, late-model Ford' and 'shambled up to the official entrance'. 

It turned out they had delayed the arrival of the President of the third General Assembly of the United Nations, Doc Evatt; he remains the only Australian to have held this position.

On 10 December 1948, presiding as the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Evatt declared that 'millions of people... would turn to it for help, guidance and inspiration.' Jessie Street had contributed to its drafting. Another judicial sitter in the Gallery’s collection, one also committed to human rights and who has chaired UN committees, The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG, remembers receiving a copy of the Universal Declaration at school in 1949, bearing the 'blue imprint of the then newly familiar global emblem of the United Nations'. Kirby has noted that Evatt’s 'presidency of the Assembly is the sole inscription appearing on his tombstone in Canberra. Later generations of Australians would do well to remember Evatt’s contributions as a lawyer and an internationalist.'

Both Street and Evatt lived out their principles. In the ensuing years, both fought personal and political battles in the poisonous climate that attended the perceived threat of communism. Later, both Street and Evatt threw their weight behind the ‘Yes’ campaign in the 1967 constitutional referendum relating to Indigenous Australians. Its leader, Faith Bandler, said Street was 'absolutely vital' to the movement.

Sounding very much like Elizabeth Couchman sixteen years and a world war earlier, Evatt wrote in the program for the United Nations Festival in Geelong in May 1950: 'The road to peace is never easy, and it is sometimes dangerous. The world desperately needs people who will have the wisdom and courage to travel that road, and to insist that their governments make no tours around it.'

Bruce and Couchman, Evatt and Street, coming from opposite sides of Australian politics, were united as Australian internationalists who believed in the community of nations. These wise, courageous individuals represented in the Gallery’s collection believed that Australia could help change the world. Over the last 70 years, thousands of Australians have followed in their footsteps, serving at the UN, as part of the Australian Missions to the UN, and on UN committees. While the United Nations has endured for 70 years, as Doc Evatt wrote in 1949, 'At no stage in the world’s history will it be feasible to pause and assume the task is finished'.

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