A tribute to Elliott Johnston: 1918-2011

September 16, 2011
Elliott Johnston.

A huge crowd of about 650 people attended a memorial service at the Elder Hall, University of Adelaide on September 9 to farewell Elliott Johnston, the only communist to become a judge in Australia. He died on 25 August, aged 93.

Those paying tribute included representatives from the legal profession, trade unions, the Aboriginal community, the original Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and his son Stewart.

As a personal friend of Elliott’s, I consider him to have been a great human being who spent his life in the service of those who face poverty, discrimination and repression — whether they be in Australian or overseas.

He was a great mentor and wise counsellor for me and for many other progressive and not so progressive people over the years.

Such was his contribution to Australian society that after his death, most sections of the conservative media paid very warm tributes to him.

Over the years, some described his politics as “extreme”. However, Elliot Johnston’s politics involved working for peace, social justice, fairness before the law, adequate incomes and healthy and safe working conditions for workers, more responsible approaches to protecting the environment, assisting original Australians to have a better future and generally being a champion of human rights.

In particular, he believed that true socialism can only occur when the human rights of all are respected.

Elliott was the first to admit that the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China did not live up to these ideals and he was often very critical of them.

This led him to oppose unjust wars (for example, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and the invasions of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan by the US), repressive regimes (for example, Suharto’s Indonesia, the apartheid regime in South Africa, Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and China, Pinochet’s Chile and Israel’s repressive rule of the Palestinians).

He assisted many ordinary battlers, especially Aboriginal people and those in other ethnic communities when they got into strife with the law, as well as assisting the important causes mentioned above. Much of this work was done pro bono.

Just over a year ago, he donated a $1000 to the Australian East Timor Friendship Association in South Australia for programs to assist the East Timorese to rebuild their nation after the 24 years of occupation by the Indonesian military.

Throughout the years of occupation, Elliott assisted the East Timor solidarity movement and ordinary East Timorese refugees by providing free legal advice.

This is the reason why the association named him as a patron along with the many other tributes and awards that he has received over the years, including two honourary doctorates. He was also a patron of the Australian Friends of Palestine.

Elliott founded the law firm Johnston Withers in 1946 which acted for those who were economically disadvantaged.

Elliott and his wife, Elizabeth, joined the CPA in 1941. His elevation to in 1970 Queen’s Counsel by the Don Dunstan government in South Australia was very favourably received except by the very conservative elements in Australian society.

He resigned from the Communist Party only when he was admitted as a South Australian Supreme Court judge in 1983, but still continued his links with progressive politics.

After five years as a judge, he headed the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which produced its findings in April 1991.

The report made 339 recommendations aimed at reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system.

These recommendations were considered as iconic among those supporting Aboriginal people, but Elliott was very disappointed that very few of them were ever adopted.

He continued his service to the law as a member of the academic staff at the Flinders Law School.

In his later years, he was the driving force behind the independent progressive magazine, Australian Options. He was active on its management and editorial subcommittees.

He also continued to be an advisor to the Flinders Law School and to give occasional lectures.

He believed passionately in the ordinary Australian concept of a “fair go” and inspired many in the process — even those who did not agree with his progressive politics.

He will be very much missed.

Vale Comrade Elliott. You will not be forgotten.

[Red Silk: A Biography of Elliott Johnson QC by Penelope Debelle was published in 2010 by Wakefield Press. There was no actual funeral service as Elliott donated his body for medical research.]

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