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Wednesday, 14 September 2011
Page: 10151

Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (19:35): On the night of 25 August 2011, Australia lost a lifelong activist for social justice with the death of Elliott Johnston QC. He was 93 years of age, but the remarkable part of his longevity was his unwavering commitment to the end to a just and fair society and the defence of the disadvantaged. Committed to the ideals of communism and a long-time member of the Communist Party of Australia, he only resigned as a party member to take up his appointment to the bench of the Supreme Court of South Australia in 1983.

Within Australia communism was anything but a prestigious political brand, well highlighted during the controversy surrounding Elliott's long-overdue appointment as a QC by the Dunstan government in 1970. Strongly supported by prominent members of South Australia's legal fraternity at the time, Elliott became Australia's only active Communist Party member to be appointed a Queen's Council. But Elliott's intellectual rigour, practical involvement in the struggles of ordinary people and concern for humanity's future on a planet under stress left little space for fashionable politics. His adherence to socialist ideals and aspirations, with their potential for equality and fairness through the elimination of suffering, almost seemed naive in the prevailing pro-profit productive practices that still govern global political and economic decisions despite their proven social and environmental destructiveness. Elliott was no shiraz socialist. He served Australia in New Guinea during World War II, rising to the rank of lieutenant. In 1942 Elliott married his wife Elizabeth, whom he had met three years earlier at Adelaide University. Their home in Adelaide became the venue for many meetings. Elizabeth, who died in 2002, was also a prominent activist in her own right and, amongst other things, had been a lawyer, former union leader and the chair of South Australia's first Sex Discrimination Board.

Elliott was troubled deeply by the continued influence of corporations whose collective wealth dwarfed that of governments. For Elliott, the current financial crisis was the latest display of how the concentration of capital was being used to further extract money from the less well off through higher living costs and speculative investments. Nor was he persuaded by the shallow politics of law and order, and he remained sensitive to the penetrating violence from increasing social and economic disparity.

In 1975, Elliott was appointed as one of three commissioners on the Laverton royal commission inquiry into Aboriginal arrests following clashes with police at Laverton and Skull Creek in December 1974 and January 1975. However, it was through his work and conclusion of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that he came to national prominence. After the resignation of Jim Muirhead, he became the inquiry's lead commissioner and delivered its report in 1991. The report's 339 recommendations remain important reference points in improving the lives of Aboriginal Australians.

Elliott's brilliant legal mind and calm and courteous mannerisms won him the admiration and respect of the legal fraternity. Some may wonder at the widespread public regard for Elliott Johnston given his avowed communist values. However, they will have missed the point, for the regard and admiration was not despite those values but because of them. Elliott was generous in his pro bono work and very early in his career was recognised as a friend to workers and a steadfast supporter of Indigenous Australians, becoming the first Chairperson of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement. His practical support and encouragement was devoid of any paternalism or superficial compassion and he was genuinely alert to the opportunity and need to learn from those he helped. It was not uncommon for this engagement to result in lasting relationships.

Astute observers of his keen curiosity about the lives of others would have seen ingrained in his approach the belief that overcoming the individual's hardship was also the way to elevating the community and improving civil society. In more recent years Elliott's principles and values were further reflected in his belief in the need for urgent action on climate change. Weeks before his death, in a memo to the editorial chairman of his beloved journal, Australian Options, he urged for greater action to set up renewable energy sources, arguing that CO2 had a major effect on climate change. In 1994, Elliott was awarded the Order of Australia.

Five minutes cannot do justice to the life of Elliott Johnston. However, his life was superbly documented by Penelope Dobelle in her biography of him titled Red Silk. The biography was completed and launched earlier this year. It is a personal regret that I was not able to attend his book launch or his 90th birthday because of my parliamentary commitments in this place.

On Friday, 9 September hundreds of people from all walks of life filled Elder Hall at Adelaide University where a memorial service was held to farewell Elliott. It was a fitting recognition to the extraordinary life of a working-class hero, a unique individual, a legal legend and a great Australian. To his son Stewart, partner Janet and their family, I extend my sincere condolences.