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Elliott Johnston has passed away. He is a working class hero.I was not able to attend the public celebration of his life in Elder Hall, Adelaide.
You can get some idea of Elliott Johnston for those who did not know him in this
book just published, ‘Red Silk’ by Penelope Debelle (Wakefield Press 2011).
‘Elliott and Elizabeth Johnston became Communists in 1941 and he resigned only
to join the South Australian Supreme Court Bench.
His appointment as Queen’s Counsel by the Dunstan Government – after his
controversial rejection by the former government of Steele Hall – was the
highest public office attained by a Communist in Australia.
In 1991 he made his national mark as head of the Royal Commission into
Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
From extensive discussions with Elliott Johnston and access to his private
papers and documents, Penelope Debelle has compiled the biography of a committed
intellectual who studied at Chairman Mao’s international Communist school,
visited Soviet Russia before and after the fall of Stalin, and sat a few feet
from Pablo Picasso at the 1950 Peace Congress in Warsaw.
As the dream of Communism faded, Elliott held onto his faith.
He used the law to improve the rights of injured workers by pursuing compensation cases through the courts, setting new standards for employer responsibility and winning the
respect of the profession as an outstanding criminal lawyer.
From extracts in the Introduction.
‘On any view, Elliot was and is a complex character: a lifetime Communist, but
not an ideologue; a critical thinker who, at times, was naively optimistic about
the political cause he espoused, a person who believed that there could and
should be a better political system, but who was prepared to work within the
current system and, even, accept some of its privileges and honours.
Above all, however, he believed in equal justice.
That belief sustained his professional life and, perhaps, goes some way to
explaining his political beliefs.
This book is not simply an account of Elliott Johnston, the lawyer. It is also an account of a student radical who, even then,
would put his belief in freedom of thought and speech above his personal interests, a Communist warrior whose ideas and principles
were not well understood even by his comrades.
It is the story of a husband separated from his young wife, Elizabeth, during the
Second World War and later while he was a student in China, a wife whose beliefs, integrity and industry matched his own and
with whom he had a long and loving relationship.
The backdrop to all of this is a fascinating picture of Adelaide life and society,
particularly student life in the late 1930s when Elliott’s fellow students included Max Harris and others associated with the Angry
Penguins, as well as Fin Crisp who, with Elliott’s help, founded the National Union of Australian University Students. Equally fasci-
nating is the account of the privileged circumstances of Elizabeth’s
family, the Teesdale Smiths.
What comes through this account of Elliott Johnston’s life is his complete and unswerving commitment to improving the lives
of others, both by political means and practical assistance. This
practical assistance was not confined to his work as a lawyer.
For example, when stationed in New Guinea during the Second World War, Elliott ran literacy classes to help other soldiers write letters home.
However, it was as a practising lawyer that this aspect of his character came to the fore, fighting workplace injury cases and
representing ordinary men and women whose ability to pay his legal fees was never an issue.
He also appeared in complex criminal
cases, both for the defence and the prosecution. Elliott was a skilled
advocate and his courtesy and charm won him many friends and
admirers within the legal profession. One such admirer was Chief Justice Bray, who provoked considerable controversy when he nominated Elliott for silk in 1969.
The controversy surrounding the appointment of a member of the Communist Party as Queen’s Counsel delayed Elliott’s appointment until 1970, when he became Australia’s first Communist silk – the ‘Red Silk’.
He remained an active member of the Communist Party until his appointment to the
Supreme Court of South Australia in 1983 – the first openly avowed Communist to be
appointed to a superior Court in Australia.
Being ‘a first’ of anything nearly always involves difficulties,
especially in the Law, which remains an essentially conservative
profession, and was even more so in the 1970s and 1980s.
At the very least, being ‘a first’ usually involves a higher level of scrutiny
than would otherwise be the case.
Elliott seems not to have been confronted with many difficulties, either as the
first Communist Queen’s Counsel or as the first avowed Communist appointed to
the Supreme Court of South Australia.
Perhaps, in part, that was because of his social connections through Prince
Alfred College and the Teesdale Smiths. Certainly, it was partly due to his
courtesy, charm, integrity and professionalism. It was also due in part to the
South Australian legal profession, which boasted a progressive, independent and
outstanding Chief Justice in the person of Sir John Bray and which produced
Australia’s first female Queen’s Counsel in the person of Roma Mitchell, who
later became the first woman to be appointed to an Australian Supreme Court.
Certainly, I have always found the South Australian legal profession to be
open-minded, progressive and tolerant. I suspect Elliott’s professional life
might have been more difficult and more controversial in any other state.
Elliott’s commitment to equal justice has been and continues to be an inspiration to many, including those who had the privilege
of working with him before his appointment to the Bench.
That commitment underscores his work on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody following his retirement from the
Supreme Court. His commitment to equal justice for Indigenous Australians has a long history, including as first Chairperson of
the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement.
Despite Elliott’s work on the Royal Commission, equal justice remains elusive
for many Indigenous Australians.
It is to be hoped that, sooner rather than
later, the recommendations of the Royal Commission become established both in
law and in fact. That would be a fitting tribute to the work of Elliott
Johnston, a good man and a great Australian.’
by Mary Gaudron.
Red Silk places on record Elliott’s personal involvement in international events that took place more than half a century ago. The
Depression shaped his Communism but he was equally committed to the great cause of peace. His presence at the 1950 Peace Congress
in Sheffield, which moved to Warsaw after the Attlee Government
prevented some delegates from entering the country, place him in
an incredible moment in world history. Pablo Picasso was there, and Elliott sat a few feet from him. He returned from Warsaw through
Stalinist Russia at the invitation of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Five years later he went to the People’s Republic of China for 18 months to study Communism as a guest of Chairman
Mao Tse-tung, returning again through Russia.
Elliott’s personal recollections, combined with the historical record, memoirs and
reports from the time, provided the basis for writing about these
(I am indebted, with a healthy dose of irony, to ASIO for their diligence in bringing to my attention articles from sources as
diverse as On Dit and Truth.)
Elliott’s commitment to Communism ran parallel to his practice of the law. For many people their co-existence in one man was at
best perplexing, at worst something to be feared.
Even those close to Elliott were not entirely sure how a man of such
intelligence could remain a follower of Communism after the horrors committed in
its name. I was unsure how the two could be reconciled. Part of the book’s
purpose, then, was to make sense of a life that seemed riven by fundamental