By Christine Salins
PS News Books
Red Silk. The Life of Elliott Johnston QC
By Penelope Debelle. (Wakefield Press, $32.95, softcover, 212 pages)
There are not many people who can hold firm to their principles throughout their life, especially in the face of fierce attack and discrimination.
Elliott Johnston is such a person and his adherence to his fundamental Communist belief in the rights and decency of ordinary people is what marks him out as a great and significant Australian.
It was ignorance and misunderstanding about those beliefs from a conservative government and legal profession that prevented him taking silk for a very long time.
Penelope Debelle provides a full and informative account of the life of Australia’s first Communist Queen’s Counsel and the only Communist to be appointed to the South Australian Supreme Court Bench.
Having served in the army during World War II, Johnston studied in Mao’s China and later visited Russia.
He knew and understood the failures and oppression of those regimes, but believed in a uniquely Australian brand of Communism, one that held democratic principles as fundamental.
Unlike Arthur Koestler and others writing in The God that Failed, Johnston never renounced his beliefs.
He fought steadfastly against injustice and supported human rights. As a lawyer he took on cases that others would never touch and won a number of landmark cases for workers compensation.
He was the first lawyer to win a case for an injured and sacked Aboriginal stockman.
In 1991, towards the end of his legal career, Elliott Johnston headed the Royal Commission in Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and as a result, laid the groundwork for the Reconciliation Movement.
Throughout his life Johnston had to earn the respect and admiration of politicians and others in his profession who simply could not believe that a Communist would not destroy Australian society. He proved them wrong and in doing so made it an even better one.
Johnston’s wife Elizabeth was also a Communist who held firm to her beliefs and Penelope Debelle devotes a chapter to this remarkable woman who really deserves a book of her own.
Debelle’s book is a fascinating account of two people who were an intricate product of both their remarkable upbringings and another time in Australia’s history when Communism was a logical choice for thinking people who were witness to the hardships of the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism.
She leaves us in no doubt that Elliott Johnston has made a lasting and significant contribution to this country.
To find out more about Christine Salins click here.