Ever higher, a tribute to Elliott Johnston
One Hundred Years of Elliott Johnston QC OAM
26.2.1918 – 25.8.2011
The path Elliott took in life was certainly not the trodden one.
Fearless campaigner for the working class person, champion of the human rights movement, and passionate advocate for Indigenous Australians, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed, Elliott strode his own mighty path from start to finish. Every step forward reinforced his commitment to creating equal justice for all Australians.
In 1946, Elliott founded his own legal practice and was joined by his fiercely intelligent wife Elizabeth two years later. Together, they created the firm now known as Johnston Withers, and their legacy is something of which we as current employees are proud to be reminded. Elliott’s belief in the rights and decency of ordinary men and women – and in the importance of achieving justice for the marginalised people within our community – was sacrosanct. He was first and foremost a worker himself, and remained actively engaged in the law until his final days. He chided me once for working only three days per week at the time. I cited the importance of seeking work-life balance as my reason for doing so. He looked at me quizzically as he pondered the merits of my resolve. “But how can that possibly work in the Law, dear? Surely, the client’s needs must come first!”
As Elliott’s legal career catapulted into the limelight in the 1960’-s, there followed much political deliberation about how his ardent Communist Party involvement was not only a threat to national security, but was also compromising his obvious potential for senior legal and judicial roles. Elliott finally received an eyebrow-raising promotion to Queen’s Counsel by the Dunstan Government in 1970. Then, in 1983, he was offered a position on the Supreme Court Bench. A condition of the appointment meant Elliott had to relinquish his political party membership, and hence the decision to accept the promotion was personally gruelling and confronting. He made it his mission to prove that someone with staunch Communist ideals could perform the judicial role well.
“When those who came to meet him after he had been elevated to Queen’s Counsel, or, indeed to the Bench, and he knew that they were horrified with the notion of him being a communist, it just made him all the more charming, all the more measured, all the more engaging, and people went away bewildered and beguiled by his charms.” *
Given his personal reservations about the merits of the prison system, Elliott was initially criticised for being too lenient in his sentencing role, but he quickly adjusted his penalties so as not to attract further attention from the higher courts. Thirty years ago today – on his 70th birthday – and after a short but greatly admired stint on the Bench, he ceased his judicial tenure a few months prior to notching up the five years of service required to qualify for the statutory Judge’s pension for the remainder of his life. At the start of his tenure, the Bannon Government had offered to negotiate a deal with him of sorts, so as to guarantee him an ongoing source of income, but Elliott had declined to discuss (let alone accept) any such notion. To have done so would, in his eyes, have flown in the face of his Communist leanings. Instead, he kept working. His next public role was a national one – leading the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody – and precipitated more than 300 formal recommendations on how to improve and implement policy so as to reduce the dire incidence of tragedy so prevalent in this area.
Elliott pursued excellence in all of his endeavours, and he greatly admired it in others. On a rare visit to the Clare Valley with his son Stewart the year before he died, he was extremely impressed to learn that Paulett’s Wines had been awarded Best Riesling in the World for their 2005 Museum Release Riesling. He insisted we visit the Winery so he could purchase his very own bottle to share with his friends on the Plains.
He was fascinated by people and had a love for history. “Fancy Clare being settled by the Irish!” He couldn’t believe it! He delighted in regaling me with stories of my grandfather, from days spent as sprinting rivals at inter-school athletics carnivals, to scoring points against each other during fiercely contested university debates. He told me often how upset he felt about my grandfather’s death. He never said as much, but I believe it was the fact my grandfather died whilst rendering assistance to an ordinary stranger (who would have otherwise perished on the road) that touched Elliott, rather than my grandfather being very young at the time.
Beyond his unequivocally successful legal career, Elliott was passionate about his family, about cricket and croquet, the Sturt Football Club, and about poetry. I was deeply moved by Stewart Johnston’s recollection of their moments at the kitchen sink, routinely washing the dishes of an evening as he and his father recited poetry together. A favourite was “Excelsior!” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – a rollicking tale of a medieval knight on a valiant but ultimately doomed quest to cross the perilous Pyrenean Mountains before daybreak. At the end of each verse, the catch cry “Excelsior!” reinforced the young knight’s resolve.
Ever higher. The sentiment epitomises Elliott’s own inspiring and radical approach to being human.
During the final hours spent by his father’s bedside, Stewart read aloud to Elliott, who was slipping in and out of consciousness. He recited Longfellow’s epic poem, and hoped his father could hear him. As he was finishing the final verse, he felt a slight but definite squeeze of his hand. He glanced up at Elliott and paused, mesmerised, as his father gently exhaled, whilst simultaneously whispering his final word in this life.
This tribute was written by Katherine Vincent, February 2018.
Thank you to Penelope Debelle (author of Red Silk: The Life of Elliot Johnston QC) where facts were sourced.
*Honourable Jay Weatherill in Parliament on 13/11/2011 – a special sitting by the House of Assembly to honour Elliott’s passing.