Elliott Johnston, Communist, activist, campaigner, prominent lawyer, working class hero, controversial Queen’s Council, Supreme Court justice and Royal Commissioner was born in North Adelaide on 26 February 1918. His parents were William Stewart Johnston, who worked at Harris Scarfe, and Elsie Vivian. Both came of very large families.
Elliot grew up in the suburb of Kingston, which was named after G.S. Kingston and started primary school at Highgate and from there to Unley. He started Unley High School but later, after winning a scholarship, moved to Prince Alfred College. He gained admission to Adelaide University where he studied law. His strength was English and the exchange of ideas. Although blind in one eye he was very active and played both cricket and football.
He became involved in student life, joined debating teams and other organisations and soon became interested in both Law and International political thought. He was one of the best debaters on campus and was on the committee that ran university debates. While at university he worked for law firm Povey Waterhouse in Waymouth Street. After graduating they offered him a job with the right to private practice, regardless of his views or political leanings.
In 1937 Elliott became secretary of the University Peace Group which opposed all wars. Three years later he established his own University forum, the Radical Club, of which he became president. It was banned within a month. Although he was not a communist yet, he surely began to think like one.
During this time he met Elizabeth Teesdale Smith. They were very much alike in their beliefs but not in manner. Elizabeth was secretary of the Radical Club and on the editorial staff of On Dit. In 1940 Elliott enlisted in the army and from 1943 until 1945 served in New Guinea where he was promoted to Lieutenant. Upon his return to Australia he went back to Waterhouse but soon opened his own office in King William Street.
Both Elliott and Elizabeth had joined the Communist Party of Australia, CPA, in 1941. Elliott became a communist because he wanted to improve the lives of working people and make the world a better place. He also believed in free speech. Both attended all meetings of the CPA.
On 17 April 1942 Elliott married Elizabeth. Born in Adelaide on 1 October 1920 she was educated at Woodlands Church of England Girl’s Grammar School at Glenelg. Although married for 60 years, they were professionally independent of each other but believed in Communism until the very end. She became the first female secretary of a trade union in South Australia. Later ASIO would say that Elizabeth was intellectually superior to all the other women in the CPA.
Elliott used the law to improve the rights of injured workers by pursuing compensation cases through the courts, setting new standards for employer responsibility and winning the respect of the profession as an outstanding criminal lawyer.
In 1950 he attended the Sheffield Peace Congress in Warsaw, attended by 2065 delegates from 81 countries. Among them were scientists, politicians and ordinary people. After the congress he made a two-week trip to Moscow and Leningrad. It led to the cancellation of his passport by the Australian authorities.
A year later he gave up his law practice and became a full time organiser for the Communist Party of Australia. He was going to preach the ‘Red Gospel’. And preaching he did! For nearly 3 years this took him to the mid and far north of South Australia to such places as Port Augusta, Iron Knob and Whyalla.
Elliott was elected to the state committee of the South Australian branch of the CPA in 1954. He retained that post for 30 years. In August 1955 he left for China to study, until February 1957, while Elizabeth remained home with their young son. In July he returned to the law again and opened a new office, once again in King William Street. He loved the law and thought that it could be harnessed to redress some of the rights of the poor and marginalised. Elliott placed himself solidly on the side of the working man and workers’ compensation claims became the heart of his legal practice. Later he also took on criminal cases.
It wasn’t until the 1960s before Elliott and Elizabeth realised that Chinese Communism was just as flawed in its practice as that of Russia. When the cruelty and stupidity of Mao’s Cultural Revolution became apparent, they were shocked but remained communists. Even so, his name was put forward in 1969 for the appointment of Queen’s Council and rejected on political grounds by the Hall Government. A year later he was appointed QC by the Dunstan Government.
Meanwhile his practice, Johnston & Johnston was doing well. Headed by Elliott and Elizabeth they took on Robyn Layton who began as a probationary solicitor and quickly became a partner. Between them they represented cases dealing with the Vietnam War, sex discrimination, apartheid in South Africa, industrial democracy, women’s rights and native title. Elliott and Elizabeth even travelled to London in 1975 for a Privy Council appeal in the Van Beelen case.
By the 1980s Elliott’s firm, which looked more like a family practice than a legal partnership, represented 19 Unions. Still interested in football, for many years he was the principal council of the SANFL and advised it during club transfers.
In 1983 he was appointed South Australian Supreme Court Judge. To be able to accept the appointment he had to resign from the CPA. Both he and his wife, who did not have to resign, had given more than 40 years each to the party. However it did enhance the CPA in the eyes of the community. This time there was no opposition to his appointment. Not a voice was raised in protest. He had proved himself as a barrister beyond reproach, said Justice Roma Mitchell later. It was certainly a new direction for Elliott. Whereas before he had offered help and given people the benefit of the doubt, now he had to pass judgement. He retired from the Bench in February 1988 on his seventieth birthday, 48 years after completing his law degree and 47 years after becoming a communist. Even today as the dream of Communism has faded Elliott is holding on to his faith.
Although 70, Elliott’s commitment to a fair deal for all resulted in him becoming a member of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. In 1989 he was appointed lead Commissioner after Jim Muirhead resigned. He joined because he believed that Aborigines were badly treated in prison and died as a result. His final report of 1991 made 339 recommendations for improvement. He had made his national mark as head of the Royal Commission. Elliott’s wife Elizabeth died in 2002, a month short of her 82 birthday. With her death he lost the greatest love of his life, his comrade, best friend and wife who had fought for social and political change as hard as he had done. Although the Communist Party of Australia has been disbanded, Elliott has remained a communist.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Red Silk by Penelope Debelle, with footnotes, index and photographs,
Red Silk by Penelope Debelle, with footnotes, index and photographs,