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Remembering Don Dunstan: Necessary nuance and correcting the record


Don Dunstan’s career deserves celebration but we don’t need to give him unnuanced and sole credit for initiatives that were shared projects, writes Bannon-era Attorney-General Chris Sumner in this riposte to one of his Labor predecessors.

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As an unreconstructed Dunstanite, I welcome any articles celebrating Don Dunstan’s life and achievements including last week’s InDaily article by Peter Duncan (‘Dunstan anniversaries a time for celebration – and anger’).

Dunstan was an important influence on my political views and involvement with the Labor Party. However, there is a tendency to ascribe initiatives to Dunstan which are not always accurate or fail to take account of the historical nuances surrounding them. Peter Duncan’s article does this in some instances which require correction.

Bipartisanship on anti-discrimination laws

The Dunstan government did not introduce in a comprehensive way the “first laws to prevent discrimination against those living with a disability”. The Handicapped Persons Equal Opportunity Act 1981 was an initiative of the Tonkin Liberal Government. Passed in the UN Year of the Disabled, it outlawed discrimination on the grounds of physical disability and involved the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in the administration of the legislation in the same way as under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

The historical nuance here is that the Dunstan Government had in December 1976 set up a Committee on the Rights of Persons with Handicaps conducted by Supreme Court judge Sir Charles Bright, which reported in December 1978. There is no doubt that the Dunstan Government (or indeed the Corcoran Government) would have implemented the recommendations of this report but Dunstan resigned in February 1979 and the Corcoran Government was very short-lived being defeated by Dr David Tonkin in September 1979. It is to Tonkin’s credit that his Government proceeded on a bipartisan basis to give effect to Bright’s report.

Similar bipartisanship was evident in the enactment of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. As revealed in his political memoir Felicia (p237), Dunstan was not initially keen on a broad all-encompassing prohibition on sex discrimination. His first approach was to deal with the issue by the Government putting its own house in order with instructions to the public service and teaching services to eliminate any discrimination in employment on the grounds of sex or marital status.

Subsequently, this approach changed: Dunstan, in his own words, “came to be convinced otherwise”. This change of heart began when David Tonkin in 1973 introduced a private member’s bill for the prohibition of sexual discrimination. This was referred to a select committee, the evidence and report of which, in Dunstan’s words, “changed my view”. The Dunstan Government adopted Dr Tonkin’s Bill with strengthening amendments which “became quite pioneering legislation in its field”, according to Dunstan. As you would expect of Dunstan, he gave full credit to Tonkin for his role in this initiative.

The story on discrimination legislation continued in a major revamp of the law and procedures when I was Attorney-General with the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference (sometimes wrongly attributed to Dunstan) and dealt with sexual harassment. Later, in a bipartisan way, prohibition on age discrimination was also introduced.

The Italian connection

Peter Duncan rightly acknowledges Dunstan’s affinity with migrant communities. He was one of the early exponents of the policies of multiculturalism which have now become mainstream. However, Duncan is wrong to suggest that Dunstan when he was Premier “became fluent in Italian”.

I have no doubt he studied Italian culture, particularly music, art and food, but he did not seriously take up the study of the Italian language until after his retirement in 1979.

Certainly, Dunstan qualified and would have been a better option for the State Bank board than the doozies appointed by the Bannon Government.

I had studied at the University for Foreigners in Perugia, Umbria, in 1974 and, after my election to the Legislative Council in 1975, assisted Dunstan in the ethic affairs area where I had sufficient competence to converse and speak at functions in Italian. Later, this included giving the welcoming speech in Italian to the President of Italy Francisco Cossiga when he visited in 1988.

I was always reluctant to describe my knowledge of Italian as fluent but I certainly had a good working knowledge of it. I think it was partly my example that led Dunstan to also go to Perugia after he retired. He would have returned with an enhanced knowledge of the language but certainly not fluency and Duncan is quite wrong to suggest that fluency in Italian was part of Don’s repertoire when he was Premier.

Dunstan’s Victorian job

It is necessary to call on historical nuance to deal with the final difficult issue that Peter Duncan raises and which gives rise to his anger when he says that subsequent South Australian governments refused to further use Don’s talents. He writes: “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.”

Duncan’s position on this is unclear particularly given that Dunstan took up the Victorian job in 1982 – some months before the Bannon Government was elected in December 1982. If the suggestion is that the Tonkin Government should have appointed him to a position that is simply unrealistic, given the history of relations between Dunstan and the Liberal Party including over the sacking of Police Commissioner Salisbury in Jan 1978.

If the suggestion is that Dunstan was forced to seek employment in Victoria because the Bannon Government would not find a position for him then Duncan is wrong – Bannon was not yet in power.

My understanding is that Dunstan did not think Bannon could win the 1982 election and took the certain job that was on offer. I make no criticism of his decision.

The waters become muddier when Dunstan returned to SA in early 1987 and there is a legitimate debate about whether Dunstan’s skills could have been better utilised than they were now he was back in SA.

There is the usual, predictable (and very banal ) cry of jobs for the boys when a former MP is appointed to a government paying position by their party. I say banal because there are many examples where the skills acquired as a minister or Member of Parliament can be utilised to the benefit of the community.

Certainly, Dunstan qualified and would have been a better option for the State Bank board than the doozies appointed by the Bannon Government. He clearly had great skills in the arts field.

Any suggestion, realistic or otherwise, that the Bannon Government was going to appoint him to a position was met with howls of outrage from the Liberal Opposition.

However, Dunstan returned to SA with some baggage. There was some community resentment based on an unjustified parochialism (which I don’t share) about him being the face of SA for over a decade and then taking a position to promote the interests of another state in tourism in direct competition with SA.

His time in Victoria was not without controversy – something the Kennett Opposition was keen to foment. The proposal for a Chinese Museum became a point of contention. More damaging,  even if unjustifiably so, was Dunstan being photographed at a speech he gave in Sydney when he launched a book about homosexual men with a person identified as ‘Monsignor Porcamadonna’ in the audience.

It is hard to imagine a more grievous insult in Italian – the identification of the Mother of Jesus with a pig. This person was not a part of the official proceedings, Dunstan did not know him and nor did he pose for the photograph. Consistent with his general character, he immediately apologised for any offence given and said that he did not condone offending church members in this way.

Nevertheless, it gave his opponents the opportunity to viciously attack him. Kennett called for him to be sacked and Dunstan resigned from the Victorian job shortly afterwards. The Liberals in SA were not going to let up on him. Any suggestion, realistic or otherwise, that the Bannon Government was going to appoint him to a position was met with howls of outrage from the Liberal Opposition.

Even the modest decision in June 1988 to appoint him to investigate options for Aboriginal community governance was opposed by the Liberals. Yet, there could be no person more qualified in the country for this task given that Dunstan was a lawyer of some distinction who had been involved with the advancement and rights of Aboriginal peoples since the 1950s. Despite this, the Liberal Opposition went on the attack describing it as an insult to Aboriginal people and Dunstan as a washed up, white ex-politician and failed Victorian public servant.

Duncan is right to mention the respect in which Dunstan is held by Aboriginal people. I know of no other politician who exceeded his commitment to the cause of Aboriginal advancement and who had a higher level of esteem within their community than Dunstan.

Duncan may be right to raise the issue of whether the SA community would have benefited from Dunstan’s expertise after his retirement from Parliament and justifiably lament that this did not happen. However, he was not forced to take the Victorian job because of any supposed indifference from Bannon, who was not in a position to offer anything to Dunstan at that time. After Dunstan returned to SA, Bannon is on record as saying that he had an open mind about offering Dunstan a job.

It is also worth observing that if he had taken a government job of some kind he would have been constrained in the expression of his views many of which were contained in articles written for the Adelaide Review between 1994 and 1999. These were republished in a book (Don Dunstan, Politics and Passion, Selected Essays from the Adelaide Review, ed John Spoehr 2000). It is recommended, if very uncomfortable, reading for the modern Labor Party.

Chris Sumner was Attorney-General in the Corcoran and Bannon Labor Governments.

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