Sunday, 1 July 2012

RED SILK: The Life of Elliott Johnston QC by PENELOPE DEBELLE

RED SILK: The Life of Elliott Johnston QC
Wakefield Press, 2011, 212 pages, $32.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Elliott Johnston was a good bloke to have on your side if you were in trouble with the law.  Calm in a crisis, he was a top-notch lawyer but he was also a communist and his commitment to justice for the underdog meant he didn't sell his principles to the highest bidder or owe his allegiance to his privileged social set.

Penelope Debelle's Red Silk looks at the life of this terrific South Australian, appointed Queen's Counsel in 1970 (Australia's first 'Communist silk') and made a judge on the Supreme Court of South Australia in 1983 - the only Communist ever in any superior court in Australia.

Born in 1918, Johnston could have trod a familiar path to middle class comfort (Methodist private school, academic success, Adelaide University, well-paid lawyer) but an apprenticeship in the progressive Student Christian Movement and student unionism (he helped establish the first Australian students' union in 1938) smoothed his way to becoming a 'Depression Communist', joining the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1941 where he remained a leading member for five decades.

After serving as an Army lieutenant, then a CPA organiser, Johnston set up a left-wing law practice where he placed himself at the "professional service of working men and women", specialising in workplace injury compensation and giving practical expression to his guiding political vision of equality, peace and justice with a caseload including Vietnam War protesters and draft resisters, sex discrimination, industrial democracy, women's rights, Medicare fraud by doctors, and Indigenous rights.  Johnston was a member of the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Johnston also believed that legal fees were not relevant to justice and he regularly overlooked sending a bill or would accept a bottle of whisky in lieu of payment.  So financially self-deprived were he and his comrade and partner, Elizabeth, that ASIO noted on his burgeoning file the poor-quality furnishings in the Johnstons' house where the "sofa had protruding springs".

The Liberal & Country League government's refusal to appoint Johnston as QC in 1969, against the recommendation by South Australia's Chief Justice, created uproar in legal circles over the blatant political intervention.  The Dunstan Labor government rectified the discrimination but balked at making him a judge.  It took until 1983 before he was promoted to the Bench from where the compassionate Johnston, who always tried to find the best in people, had much difficulty in handing down jail sentences, especially where he knew that prison would not help those sentenced.

Johnston's increasing acceptance by the legal and political system may, as Debelle argues, have reflected the growing moderation of the CPA which had shaken off its Moscow fixation to opt for change within the capitalist system.  John Mortimer (the creator of the fictional Rumpole of the Bailey) was impressed by Johnston's successful harnessing of the law to reclaim some of the rights of the poor and marginalised but noted that, as a revolutionary, Johnston was "probably about as much of a threat to society as an English Liberal".

As the CPA's influence declined, writes Debelle, Johnston came to be celebrated as a lawyer despite his politics, with his continuing party membership seen, by all but "Pavlovian anti-communists", as part of his bohemianism, a harmless eccentricity "like his flowing silver hair, the quaint sense of humour and a taste for pork pie hats".  Such a view does Johnston a disservice - he was indeed an outstanding practitioner of the law but he was an even better advocate of justice precisely because of, not despite, his communist principles.

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