It is with mixed emotions that I contemplate two impending anniversaries which fall within two weeks of each other. Tomorrow, the 20th anniversary of the death of Don Dunstan on February 6, 1999, and then the 40th anniversary of his resignation as Premier on February 19, 1979.
I feel sadness, of course, at his passing, but it is tinged with gladness, almost joy at having known and worked with this extraordinary man and to contemplate the wonderful legacy that he bequeathed to South Australia. There is also anger at the shabby way he was treated by the South Australian political class after his resignation.
Don was a renaissance man among us. You are lucky if you come across one such person in a lifetime. His political skills were without peer. His debating skills were legendary. Who else could have convinced the Labor Party of the late ’50s and early ’60s to abandon the White Australia policy? Aside from his political skills he was an accomplished classical pianist, an actor of some note and a chef of great skill.
It is beyond debate that he changed South Australia fundamentally. Prior to the election of the Dunstan governments, South Australia was socially conservative and inward-looking. It suffered from an inferiority complex and was the butt of national jokes. It was dominated by a political and business elite centred on the Adelaide Club.
At the beginning of the 1960s Labor was seen as the permanent opposition—confronted with a seemingly insurmountable gerrymander, a dominant daily newspaper, The Advertiser, which was a force nine gale against reform and modernism, and a conservative business establishment not afraid to expend resources to protect its class interests.
To confront this political juggernaut, Don Dunstan forged a political coalition consisting of Labor’s industrial working class base onto which was grafted, the (at the time) small educated elite including the artistic community, and the growing Greek and Italian communities. Don became fluent in the Italian language and studied Italian culture. He was also well-regarded by the British immigrant community as a result of earlier legal work.
This voting bloc became a majority and the bedrock of Labor electoral success particularly following the reform of the voting system prior to the 1970 election. The voting majorities Don subsequently achieved on this base have never been rivalled by Labor governments since.
If I have a general criticism of Dunstan, it is only that he gave his trust too generously to people who had neither earned it nor deserved it.
Once the ‘Dunstan decade’ began following the 1970 election, a whirlwind of change hit South Australia. Almost no facet of life was unaffected and the majority seemed to relish the new broom. Despite the unpopularity of the Whitlam government nationally, the State Labor Government was re-elected in 1973 and, amazingly, survived in 1975.
South Australia was at the centre of national attention, and South Australians exuded an air of confidence not previously seen. The best and the brightest from interstate and overseas flooded into Adelaide, which was the place to be.
Education was revolutionised — particularly following the election of the Whitlam government when money poured in. Early childhood education became a focus. Schools were refurbished and rebuilt. New ways of teaching were introduced — open plan class rooms, team teaching. Class sizes were reduced. Retention rates soared. Six colleges of advanced education were established. The university sector expanded dramatically.
In the health sector, services were improved out of sight and access was assured. New public hospitals were established at Modbury and Noarlunga.
When passionate about an issue, Don was a fearsome advocate. At the same time, he was a great democrat and the Labor caucus and cabinet during the 1970s were widely consultative and inclusive. He treated everyone as an equal, regardless of background or educational status.
Don preferred to carry the team and only rarely were there bare-knuckle debates over weighty issues. Debates over nuclear power and uranium mining were examples. Another was Don’s enthusiasm for industrial democracy which was opposed by the emerging economic rationalists in the cabinet.
Policy often emerged through ideas being floated or kites flown. If the reaction was positive, or not too negative, further work would be undertaken.
As an illustration, Monarto was originally an idea for a new city east of Adelaide. Some favoured it being grafted onto Murray Bridge (opponents said it was too close to the river, that there were pollution risks), others favoured expansion of Mount Barker (opponents said this would eat up prime agricultural lands). Eventually, the Monarto site was proposed and the cabinet unanimously adopted the proposal. Ultimately, subsequent governments killed Monarto and Adelaide kept on sprawling north and south into prime agricultural land.
It still galls me to think of Don taking the job as tourism director in Victoria. That he was put in the position of having, in effect, no alternative but to accept that position is nothing but a disgrace.
Don also had a vision for a second South Australian city hub based on Port Pirie, Port Augusta and Whyalla and told me later in life that one of his great regrets was that he didn’t get the Redcliff petrochemical project proposed by Dow chemicals across the line. Apparently, Dow wanted $20 million more from the government for infrastructure spending and at the time that was an outrageous demand. Later he regretted not agreeing as the moment of opportunity had quickly passed.
Few people living in Adelaide will have failed to appreciate the backdrop of the green hills face zone – a planning achievement of the Dunstan Governments vigorously opposed at the time.
Of course, the achievements of the Dunstan government for which it is in the main remembered are the social reforms which mostly led the country and were subsequently adopted in other states.
These included sensible liquor and gambling laws but no poker machines; laws allowing adults to see hear and read what they wanted without interference from the state; removing the state from the bedrooms of consenting adults; protecting women from rape in marriage; the first laws to recognise de facto couples; and the first laws to prevent discrimination against those living with a disability.
In Australian firsts, a sex discrimination act was passed and a commissioner for equal opportunity was appointed. As a result, the position of women in society improved immeasurably.
Container deposit legislation was passed which put SA decades ahead of most other states.
In consumer affairs, protections were introduced to level the playing field between large corporations and the individual consumer. Sadly these were in many cases watered down or not enforced by subsequent governments.
I haven’t as yet mentioned policy on Aboriginal issues and I won’t in detail. You only have to ask Aboriginal leaders today about the Dunstan Government to hear an outpouring of nostalgic enthusiasm.
Some have suggested that the Dunstan government ruled in a different age, a time when the public were more progressive and happy to take risks. Such suggestions are balderdash promoted by people attempting to defend their own timidity in government. It was never easy; reform was always tough.
What made the Dunstan government unique was the collective bravery of Don and the cabinet. We were prepared to have a go. Not all of the good ideas worked. Some were just too far out there, ahead of their times. Dial-a-bus was an Uber 30 years too soon.
Through all of this Don suffered personally. He had bouts of terrible recurring migraine headaches. His first marriage ended. He then married a second time only to have his wife die of cancer about two years later. Some of his closest confidants turned on him, causing him considerable political and emotional pain.
If I have a general criticism of Dunstan, it is only that he gave his trust too generously to people who had neither earned it nor deserved it. This led to many of the problems that emerged towards the end of the 1970s and which led to the collapse of his health and his resignation.
I mentioned above the anger many still feel that subsequent South Australian governments refused to further use the talents of Don who throughout his political life had been a wonderful servant of the state and its people. It still galls me to think of Don taking the job as tourism director in Victoria. That he was put in the position of having, in effect, no alternative but to accept that position is nothing but a disgrace.
I was wonderfully lucky to have had Don Dunstan as a mentor, friend and colleague — and to have served as Attorney-General in his government.
Prior to his death in 1999, my wife Julie was part of a small group of friends who provided support in his last few months. We were devastated personally by his premature death.
Many South Australians may not know much about the political history of the state, but their lives continue today to be enriched by the legacy of the reforming Labor governments of the 1970s which Don Dunstan led with such distinction. I hope this legacy will inspire future leaders with the same passion for South Australia that Don exemplified in his career and his life.
Peter Duncan was Attorney-General in the Dunstan Government and held a number of portfolios in the Hawke Government.Jump to next article