LIONEL ORCHARD. Don Dunstan in Perspective: A Review

Sep 11, 2019

ANU historian Angela Woollacott has written a major biography of Don Dunstan reflecting on his place in the pantheon of reforming Australian Labor politicians. A review of the biography follows.

In social analysis including biography, perspective and balance are difficult to achieve at the best of times. It is much more so when complexity and controversy cloud the picture. In the case of charismatic, reforming South Australian Labor politician Don Dunstan, commentary and analysis has suffered from lack of perspective given polar positive and negative assessments. Treatments of his political and policy achievements have run alongside forensic accounts and criticisms of his personal life. The latter have often swamped the former. Any politician who successfully challenges orthodoxies in the way Dunstan did is bound to generate opposition and criticism but he had more than his fair share of both.

It is against this background that historian Angela Woollacott’s new biography Don Dunstan: The visionary politician who changed Australiais very much to be welcomed. At last we have a comprehensive, balanced and well-judged treatment of Dunstan’s life in all its dimensions – his formative influences; his emergence and growth as a reforming politician; his political, social and cultural leadership and progressive achievements at a time of great change in Australian society in the 1960s and 1970s; the complexities and controversies surrounding his personal life; and the price he paid throughout but particularly at the end of his life.

Perhaps Professor Woollacott’s most significant achievement is to present the story with an enviable economy and focus. The narrative moves along briskly with good judgement about the context of the times, Dunstan’s place in it all, and with an interesting integration of the public face of the politics and what was going on in his private life and behind the scenes. In this, the biography draws on extensive interview material with Dunstan’s family, friends and those who worked closely with him.

Many of the anchors of Dunstan’s life were laid early. Born in 1926 in Fiji, his openness and ease with cultural and ethnic diversity and concern about racism were formed in his childhood. His flexibility of mind, urbanity, acting and debating skills, and political commitments were shaped through his private establishment high school and university education in Adelaide where he took a degree in law and politics. From the outset, his political commitments reflected an interesting mixture of liberal, libertarian and social democratic values embraced with an energy and creativity that was to be a hallmark of his political leadership.

Professor Woollacott’s account of Dunstan’s legal and political career captures key events and their significance well. He joined the Labor Party in 1945 while at university. His time as a lawyer in Fiji defending Fijians and Indians in the late 1940s and early 1950s ran up against colonial racist prejudice and was cut short for these reasons. His return to Adelaide in 1951 was a time of struggle in gaining a professional foothold given his closing out by the conservative legal establishment. Nevertheless, he had help from progressive friends and mentors including Clyde Cameron and gained reputation defending migrants in a case against the Commonwealth Government about rent that he ended up winning in the High Court.

Recognised as a political talent, he won preselection and then election for the seat of Norwood in inner Adelaide in 1953 as a Labor member in the House of Assembly in the SA Parliament. He held this seat until his retirement in 1979. His openness to all and his energy were hallmarks of his local political work and representation.

Dunstan quickly emerged as a political leader on issues of race and discrimination at both local and international levels. His work through the 1950s and 1960s fighting for Aboriginal rights in South Australia, his role at the national level in ending the White Australia policy and his advocacy on international development and anti-colonial campaigns in Cyprus and elsewhere are outlined well in the biography.

Dunstan was Premier of South Australia in two periods – 1967-68 and 1970-79. How should the reforms associated with his period be characterised? Perhaps most importantly, law reforms were central, many of them Australian firsts. New electoral laws ending the SA gerrymander and cementing the principle of one vote, one value were enacted. New laws on racial discrimination, aboriginal land rights, consumer protection, women’s rights, and legalisation of homosexuality were all also achieved.

Dunstan’s focus on the arts and culture was integral to the reform era with the establishment of the SA Film Corporation, the Adelaide Festival Centre, the SA Theatre Company and a Craft Authority that evolved into JamFactorysponsorship of arts and crafts. Adding to the flair, Dunstan published his famous Cookbook in 1976.

In more mainstream policy areas – education, health, housing, urban planning, the economy – the era also saw growth and innovation reflecting the social democratic values of equity and a more local, community-based focus. The energy and initiatives of the Dunstan Decadegave Adelaide and South Australia national prominence.

Professor Woollacott approaches the story of Dunstan’s private life, particularly when he was in full political flight, acknowledging the turbulence and difficulties but without the sensationalism of past accounts. She argues that Dunstan became more socially radical – reflected in his ambiguous or bi-sexuality and his emphasis on civil liberties – from the late 1960s after his father died. The biography outlines the many relationships Dunstan had with both women and men. The passions and emotions shaping his private life often seemed to get the better of him reflecting both an openness and a neediness that is perhaps unique among modern Australian politicians.

Dunstan argued that his private life was no business of others. As Professor Woollacott notes, Dunstan argued in defending civil liberties that ‘no one had the right to lay down a code of behaviour to be observed by everyone regardless of its effect on individuals’, a radical if principled claim. This brought him considerable grief and problems particularly with some of his close advisors and, as it turned out, key figures in the Adelaide establishment. Professor Woollacott lays out these aspects of the story directly and with admirable balance. Perhaps most significant here were the breakdown of his relationship with Peter Ward one of his closest confidants early in his second Premiership over Dunstan’s relationship with John Ceruto, and the larger conflict with and sacking of his police commissioner over what he saw as inappropriate spying and file keeping by the police Special Branch.

Given all the pressures and mainly for health reasons, Dunstan resigned from politics in 1979 aged just 52. His creativity continued in his life post politics – writing his memoir Felicia, leading the Victorian tourism agency for a time, establishing and running restaurants, and writing progressive commentaries on political events as the neoliberal era grew stronger. Nevertheless, Professor Woollacott argues that he was not shown the respect he deserved in this phase of this life. One can only agree with this assessment. We are the poorer for the fading of politicians in Dunstan’s mould.

Professor Woollacott’s biography gives us the fullest and fairest treatment of Don Dunstan’s life yet to appear. For this, we are very much in her debt.

Lionel Orchard worked in the SA Public Service in the Dunstan Decade before joining Flinders University where he taught public policy.

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