Cover of book: Don Dunstan

Angela Woollacott
Don Dunstan

When I immigrated to Australia in 1986, this country was notably forward-looking compared with the United States and Britain, where Reagan’s and Thatcher’s neoliberal policies were busily dismantling civil society and social welfare. Here was universal healthcare, free tertiary education and a decent safety net for society’s most vulnerable. I found palpable excitement about Australian film, popular music and literature. With Uluru recently returned to its traditional owners, it seemed that Indigenous land rights and the redress of historical wrongs were only a matter of time.

Only after reading Don Dunstan, Angela Woollacott’s biography of the visionary South Australian premier, did I realise how much he had done to shape the Australia I fell in love with. When Dunstan died in 1999, Gough Whitlam himself said, “No one has done more to transform his own community and society and, by his example, the whole of Australia.”

Adelaide, stuffy and conservative, was the last place anyone expected the revolution to begin. Dunstan, who was born in 1926 in Fiji but grew up between there and Adelaide, observed that when he was a young man, people would mock: “I went to South Australia and it was closed.” How he almost single-handedly opened it up, transforming Adelaide into a mecca for arts and fine dining and South Australia into a leader in civil liberties, is a story that Woollacott, the Manning Clark professor of history at the Australian National University, tells with authority and warmth. She draws on an enormous array of archival and other sources, including interviews. She is equally fluent at explaining the complexities of Dunstan’s political world and painting colourful portraits of the man himself and the people who surrounded him.

The part of Dunstan’s childhood he spent in Fiji had a huge impact on his personality, his tastes (including for spicy food) and his politics: among other things, his experience there led to a lifelong commitment to combating racism and colonialism in Australia and abroad. He pushed Labor to rid itself of the White Australia Policy, and Nelson Mandela recognised him for his anti-apartheid activism. Once in power, first as a state MP, later as premier, Dunstan translated his Fabian socialist ideals into practical reforms. South Australia passed pioneering laws in consumer and worker protections as well as women’s rights, leading the way in criminalising marital rape and decriminalising abortion. First as a lawyer and later a lawmaker, he worked alongside Aboriginal leaders such as Charles Perkins to advocate land rights, equal pay, education and citizenship for Australia’s First Peoples. Passionate about the arts, he helped establish the South Australian Film Corporation, Adelaide Festival, JamFactory and state performing arts companies.

Dunstan broke every mould of the politician. One day he famously showed up at the legislature in pink shorts; on another he sported a dandyish gold suit to a public event. His “ambisexuality” and somewhat messy open marriages, to strong and remarkable women, were a source of scandal to the self-appointed keepers of public morality and an inspiration to others. He demonstrated, Woollacott writes, “a new version of Australian masculinity”.

Yet Dunstan was given to hubris and self-indulgence. He could be needy and overly sensitive to criticism. Woollacott shows how these weaknesses hurt him politically and personally. Sometimes, his actions raised ethical issues, such as when he assigned official duties to his widely detested lover John Ceruto.

Still, in 1976, Dunstan enjoyed a remarkable 82 per cent approval rating. When a local Nostradamus warned that sexual permissiveness had brought the wrath of God down on Adelaide, and the city would suffer a tidal wave at noon on a particular day, the resulting panic caused some residents to flee the city. Dunstan himself announced he’d be at the beach at the appointed hour and, according to The Canberra Times, a crowd of thousands gathered there to greet his arrival “like the second coming”.

There was no tsunami. But the tide was turning. The golden boy in his golden suit would soon be tarnished by a series of scandals and scuttlebutt. The stress took a severe toll on his health and he collapsed in parliament during question time on February 8, 1979. When his doctor ordered a long rest, Dunstan stepped down, having been in state parliament for 26 years, and premier for 10 of those. The Australian called his resignation “a political bombshell”. Rupert Murdoch had been an early supporter and his paper credited Dunstan with exerting “more influence for political change in Australia than almost any (perhaps, indeed, any) man in the past 20 years”, as well as drawing the middle class and intellectuals to the Labor Party, “a fundamental change”. Dunstan would go on to host a cooking show and an arts program, open a restaurant and more.

Dunstan once said the essential difference between communists and Liberals was that the former were “genuinely unselfish and dangerously insane” while the latter were “genuinely selfish, and dangerously sane”. He could not see why you wouldn’t simply work to build a better, fairer world for all. The former SA premier Mike Rann called Whitlam and Dunstan “champions of change, maestros of the possible”.

Although he fought hard for what he believed in, Dunstan maintained friendly relations with many on the opposite side of politics. If today’s politics “seem driven by self-interest and rivalry”, Woollacott writes in her preface, “Don Dunstan’s life and career present an instructively different model”.

Twenty years after Dunstan’s death and five years after Whitlam’s, Australia seems a smaller and less generous place. Its politicians, including many in the Labor Party, appear more skilled at invective than the expression of ideals and ideas, and stupidly nervous of supporting Australian culture. We’ve recently been treated to the spectacle of Tony Abbott, a former prime minister, consorting with far-right white supremacists in Europe, even as Labor struggles to persuade voters it believes in anything. Reagan and Thatcher would be delighted.

Allen & Unwin, 344pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 21, 2019 as "Angela Woollacott, Don Dunstan".

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Linda Jaivin is the author of 12 books.

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