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The best state premier ever: Don Dunstan (Sth Australia)

Fiji born Don Dunstan (1926-1999) did Law-Arts at Adel­aide Univer­s­ity, joined the Socialist Club and became deeply comm­it­ted to soc­ial justice, cultural div­ersity, democracy, human rights and resp­ect for Indigenous people. If I’d been old enough by 1950 to app­reciate Dunstan’s commitments, he would have been my absolute hero.

Dunstan was nominated as the Labour candidate for Norwood at the 1953 election, seeking the support in particular of the large It­al­ian migrant population who’d previously been op­pressed. Dunstan won and was duly elected to the State House of Assembly.

As the State Premier of South Australia from 1967-68 and from 1970 -79, his reforming influence reached far beyond his home state. He was seen as the architect of a new kind of Australian soc­­iety, and was one of the few state premiers make a lasting mark on Australian life, the man who might have one day led Australia as prime minister.

In Don Dunstan: The Visionary Politician who Changed Australia 2019, author Angela Woollacott noted that the new Premier was re­sp­onsible for the state being the first in Aust­ralia to decrimin­al­ise homo­sex­ual­ity, making him a hero in Adel­aide's gay com­munity and in much of the straight world as well. He reformed Abor­iginal land rights, abolished capital punishment, introduced con­sumer prot­ect­ion laws, supported women's rights, relaxed censorship and drink­ing laws, promoted environmental protection and child protection reforms, and was an ardent supporter of the arts.
Angela Woollacott's biography
Photo credit: Amazon

He was rec­ognised for his role in reviving the social, art­ist­ic and cultural life of South Australia during his 10 years in office, remembered as the Dunstan Decade. He was a friend of Australia’s brilliant prime minister Gough Whit­lam, participated in national ALP social polic­ies of the Whitlam era, and worked against the obnoxious White Aus­tralia Policy. The Dunstan Decade meant South Australia saw the greatest slab of sig­nificant reforms under one premier, defining Dunstan as one of the most pro­gressive politicians Australia has ever seen. As premier, Dunstan overhauled the drinking laws that closed pubs at 6pm, and because of his love of food and wine, he later opened his own re­staurant, Don’s Table. Woollacott said Dunstan singlehandedly encouraged the emergence of a new rest­aurant cul­t­ure that made Adelaide a foodies’ delight. 

Dunstan was also a passionate patron of the arts and was respons­ib­le for cultivating a thriving live theatre scene. The Dunstan Play­house is one of Adelaide’s largest theatre venues and was named to honour his contribution to the performing arts.  In many ways the battle lines of the modern culture wars were drawn by Dunstan.

Alth­ough much loved by the public, Dunstan's career was marked by scandal about his own sex life. Journ­al­ists and photographers saw the meaning of the premier’s wearing of the pink shorts in public, as a clear act in defiance of sexual conservatism. The shorts fixed their place as the symbol of the premier’s integral role in South Australia’s democratic history, and continued with Australia’s civil rights debate about marr­iage equality. During his tenure, Dunstan’s sexuality was rumoured to be ambiguous, although he was married with children of his own. Out of office, Dunstan spent the last decade of his life in a gay relationship with Stephen Cheng. They are an important part of the history of South Australia, where people were allowed to have more freedom. His relation­ship withCheng, which began in 1988, gave personal context to his much earl­ier act of legalising homosexuality. 

Dunstan's life story helps us to appreciate just what a watershed era the 1960s and 1970s were in Australia, and to see how one small state could, for a time, lead a nation. Dunstan fought for decades against the entrenched gerrymander, ending conservative rule and introducing his vision of social democracy in one state. Dunstan captured the mood for reform, and led the way politically.

Dunstan was, and remains, remembered for his humane act for margin­alised groups. He remained a South Australian cultural icon because after a career of fighting for others that ended suddenly in 1979, he remained an outspoken campaigner for progressive social policy. He lived for 20 more years, dying in 1999.

Woollacott sugg­ested how much a biography has to offer, such as showing how growing up in racially-stratified colonial Fiji shaped his strong sense of racial justice, and his drive for policy and legislative re­f­orm, including prohibiting racial discrimination, and pioneer­ing Aboriginal land rights. I am not surprised that Bob Hawke (Aus­t­ralian great prime minister 1983–91) later said that Don Dunstan was Australia's most influen­tial Austral­ian politician in the C20th. For those of us born when our fathers returned from WW2, Hawke was definitely correct; I wept when Dunstan died.

This year David Penberthy reviewed the Woolacott biography. He asked how did such a staid state as South Australia, with its roots in Methodism and Luther­an­ism, and ruled for decades by a gerrymandering rural squattocracy, sign up with such enthusiasm for the Dunstan Decade? Dunstan did so because he stuck to his principles and brought the public along with him. It was a combin­ation of his strong convictions and a very clear agenda, and the fact that he was so good at enacting that agenda, that won. Today so many people express jaundice with the political system because politicians often seem to be driven by rivalries or by self-interest.

Thank you Angela Woollacott. 


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