MILESAGO - Profiles
"Nobody who ever met Don Dunstan could be anything other than impressed with his intellectual powers. His oratorial skills were outstanding; he could persuade, he could seduce, he could teach, he could inform. I have seen many politicians over the years and few have that ability to make you stand up, lift your head and be proud. He could do that."
Don Dunstan was one of most charismatic, courageous and progressive Australian politicians of the 20th century. His flamboyant public image sometimes made him a target of ridicule -- he was the first Australian politician to break the unwritten law of wearing a suit and tie in Parliament -- and he often appeared in a wide variety of colourful outfits including batik shirts and his trademark safari suits.
But behind the flashy clothes and immaculately coiffed hair, the media-savvy Dunstan was a dedicated social democrat with a deep commitment to social justice and a lifelong passion for the arts and education. During his 26-year political career, Dunstan introduced pioneering reforms across the entire social and political spectrum, transforming his state and its capital from dull conservatism, making it a pace-setter for the nation and, in some areas, a world leader. Not surprisingly, his reformist agenda was anathema to conservatives and throughout his life he was reviled and denigrated by many on the right wing of politics.
The Honourable Donald Allan (Don) Dunstan AC, QC was born in Suva, Fiji on 21 September 1926. his family were affluent and politically conservative and his father was the Fiji manager of the Adelaide Steamship Company. After early schooling in Fiji he moved to South Australia because of childhood asthma; there he attended Murray Bridge High School, St Peter's College and the University of Adelaide, graduating with a law degree in 1948. He returned to practiced law in Fiji for several years and then also in Adelaide. He was ppointed a Queen's Council in 1965.
Dunstan became involved in politics in his teens and after an early flirtation with conservatism, he joined the Australian Labor Party. In 1953 was elected to the House of Assembly for marginal seat of Norwood. During the Fifties Dunstan became friends with Adelaide News editor Rohan Rivett and the paper's young proprietor Rupert Murdoch. During the bitter ALP/DLP split, Rivett and Murdoch invited the young Dunstan to the News office and urged him to defect to the DLP, promising favorable publicity. Dunstan later recalled:
"I looked at them in bemused horror, and said that they quite obviously didn't know much about the principles or policies involved, the Labor Party and its organisation and support; and even more, they clearly didn't know much about me."
Relating this incident at the memorial tribute to Dunstan in 1999, Gough Whitlam wittily remarked that "Don and I must be the only political leaders in the English-speaking democracies to say 'No' to Rupert."
When when the ALP government won power in 1965, party leaader Frank Walsh became Premier and Dunstan was appointed Attorney-General and Minister of Community Welfare and Aboriginal Affairs. Two years later, Walsh was forced out of the party leadership in controversial circumstances. ALP powerbroker Clyde Cameron initiated the spill by publicly thanking Walsh for deciding to step down and make way for a younger person, when in fact he had made no such decision. Walsh dug in his heels but he eventually resigned the leadership, although he tried (unsuccessfully) to manoeuvre his protege Des Corcoran into the Premiership. Dunstan's backers prevailed, however, and Dunstan was elected party leader on 1 June 1967, remaining Premier until the ALP was controversially defeated at the state elections on 17 April 1968.
His childhood in Fiji had a strong influence on his attitudes towards the racism that was endemic in Australia in his youth, and throughout the Fifties and Sixties Dunstan was a tireless advocate for the abolition of the odious 'White Australia Policy' and was instrumental its eventual removal from ALP party policy in 1971. He was also one of the earliest and staunchest advocates of the (much maligned) philosophy of multiculturalism.
On 2 June 1970 the ALP regained power in South Australia, beginning the so-called 'Dunstan Decade' of political reform. Under Dunstan's progressive leadership South Australia was transformed socially, legally, administratively and politically. His many reforms covered areas including Aboriginal land rights, consumer protection, education, housing, licensing laws, welfare and anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation He appointed the first Catholic Supreme Court Justice in the state's history, and Australia's first woman QC, Roma Mitchell, who later became Australia's first woman Governor. He fought tirelessly for the principle of equal opportunity for women, with the result that by 1979, S.A. had more women employed and more women employed in the public sector than any other state.
The Dunstan Government was a world pioneer in the field of consumer protection and led the way for the nation. For the first time, statutory guarantees of quality and other protections were provided in consumer transactions. Consumer credit laws overcame many of the injustices of the old hire-purchase system and provided a fair legal structure for the protection of consumers. The used car industry was regulated and legal requirements and warranties were introduced into used car transactions. Similar protective provisions were introduced into a whole range of consumer transactions. Many of Dunstan's innovations have since been incorporated into the Federal Trade Practices Act.
Dunstan's most important political legacy was his reform of South Australia's electoral system. He abolished its long-standing gerrymander, which was one of the most notorious in the country and which had allowed the conservative parties to hold power at election after election (in spite of a consistent majority of popular support for the ALP) and abolished the restrictve system of property franchise that controlled entry into the state's Upper House.
The scandalous bias of the S.A. electoral system had been dramatically demonstrated in the 1968 state election, when the Dunstan was ousted by the conservative coalition led by Steele Hall, which won government with just 43% of the popular vote; Labor lost power, holding only four out of twenty seats in the Legislative Council (the S.A. upper house) even though it had 54% of the popular vote. When he was returned to government in 1970, Dunstan overturned these entrenched inequalities, entrenching the principles of 'one vote, one value' and full adult franchise as the new bases for electoral law in the state.
Dunstan also encouraged development in the arts, giving strong support to the Adelaide Festival and the Festival Centre and the State Theatre Company. One of his most important innovations in this area was the establishment of the South Australian Film Corporation, which played a pivotal role in the so-called Australian 'film renaissance' of the 1970s, backing breakthrough productions including Picnic At Hanging Rock and Breaker Morant.
In health, education, planning and community welfare, Dunstan took South Australia 'from rock bottom to Australian pre-eminence'. He fought for equal justice under law, equal access to the law, as well the end of capital punishment and introduced a wide range of civil liberties, criminal and licensing law reforms. In 1978, Dunstan introduced historic legislation to recognise the inalienable rights of Pitjanjatjara tribal Aborigines to their land, fifteen years before Mabo.
In February 1979 Dunstan was forced to retire from politics on medical advice due to chronic ill health, compounded by the tragic death of his wife Adele and the political storm that followed his controversial sacking of S.A. Police Commissioner Harold Salisbury. In a final display of the famous Dunstan flair, his dramatic resignation speech was broadcast live from Calvary Hospital, but the obviously frail and exhausted Dunstan, with dressing gown and cane, broke down as he talked aobut the loss of his wife. He was awarded The Companion of the Order of Australia in June 1979.
Dunstan's sexuality had been the subject of much rumour over the years, and this reached a peak in late 1979 when two Adelaide journalists published a sensational book called It's Grossly Improper (which sold out within a week) in which they alleged that Dunstan had misused government funds and that he had an affair with Adelaide restauranteur John Ceruto. There was much speculation as to the authenticity of these claims and although Dunstan dismissed the book as a "farrago of lies", the fact of his bisexuality was eventually confirmed by his later relationship with Steven Cheng, whom he met in 1986.
After leaving politics Dunstan published his political memoirs Felicia in 1981. He became the first director of Tourism Victoria in 1982, and then chairman of the Victorian Tourism Commission until 1986. He was national president of the Freedom from Hunger Campaign 1982-87, president of the Movement for Democracy in Fiji from 1987, and national chairman of Community Aid Abroad 1992-93.
His lifelong interest in food led to the publication of the popular Don Dunstan's Cookbook in 1976. He also established the Don's Table restaurant at The Parade, Norwood in 1994 with Steven Cheng. He was an Adjunct Professor at Adelaide University from 1997-1999.
Dunstan was married twice. He married his first wife Gretel in 1949 and they had a daughter and two sons; they separated in 1972 and were divorced in 1974. He married Adele Koh, a member of his staff, in 1976; she died in 1978.
Don Dunstan died of cancer at his Norwood home on 6 February 1999. Shortly after his death, the Don Dunstan Foundation, based at the University of Adelaide, was established to perpetuate his memory and reflect his life's work by fostering research and education on a broad range of social development issues.
Born Suva, Fiji, 21 September 1926
Political career in South Australia, 1953-1979
" ... he was truly ahead of his time ... a great thinker about society and humanity,
who managed to bring his intellectual creativity and social
democratic ideals to bear on the political life of South
Australia ... he was one of those people who made me proud to join the
Labor Party ..."
" ... one of the great State Premiers of the twentieth century."
"Dunstan did more to civilise South Australians then any other Premier in the
history of this state."
|REFERENCES / LINKS|
The Don Dunstan Foundation
Don Dunstan: A Labor Herald Tribute