Legislative Council: Thursday, March 09, 2023


Dunstan, Hon. D.A.

The Hon. R.B. MARTIN (16:34): I seek leave to move my motion in an amended form.

Leave granted.

The Hon. R.B. MARTIN: I move:

That this council—

1. Acknowledges that 7 March 2023 marks the 70th anniversary of the election of Don Dunstan as the member for Norwood; and

2. Recognises the significant social, cultural and economic contributions made by Don Dunstan to the state of South Australia.

Don Dunstan is spoken about so frequently in South Australia that praising his legacy can feel like a practised recitation. I seek today to attempt to capture the magnitude of his impact and influence, to honour the seven decades since that legacy found its beginnings in this parliament.

Part of what sets Don Dunstan apart is the comprehensiveness of his influence. Both during and before his premiership, across wideranging areas of our social, cultural and economic life, Dunstan shaped ideas and attributes which are so fundamental to the South Australia we now inhabit that they are deeply woven into our fabric. Professor Andrew Parkin wrote, shortly after Dunstan's death, that:

…one of the most telling testimonies to the value of the Dunstan legacy is how many of [his] reforms now seem so accepted, familiar and uncontroversial. We have absorbed many of them into the received wisdom about how a modern society should organise itself.

Don Dunstan would most likely not feel flattered by these observations: he would say that is exactly as it should be. His achievements and his radical reforms amounted, in his mind, to the overdue realisation for South Australia of that which he had long believed to be correct, reasonable and just.

By his own account, Dunstan's values in life were shaped by his early experiences and observations growing up in the diverse but racially segregated and economically stratified environment of colonial Fiji. While undertaking his degrees at Adelaide University, he embraced the ideas and values that attracted him to the Labor Party, joining in 1945. Upon graduating from university, he returned to Fiji for a while to practise law and be with his widowed father but soon came back to Adelaide in 1951.

As soon as Don Dunstan was elected to parliament on 7 March 1953, he set about challenging and changing the status quo. Although quite young, Dunstan was already considered by many to be Labor's most talented orator, and he wasted no time in positioning himself as a leading antagonist of the Playford government in the other place. Labor had spent two decades in opposition by that time, and while some members seemed resigned to letting the remarkably socialist-leaning Playford continue in his role indefinitely, Dunstan was not content to remain on the opposition benches.

He was an especially outspoken critic of the system of electoral malapportionment that led to the Playmander, and he was influential in shepherding the ALP towards the marginal seat targeting strategy that finally enabled Labor to overcome it. I do not want to give the honourable members opposite too many pointers, but that strategy still works. Dunstan also used his influence to enshrine in legislation the important concept of one vote, one value.

From a policy perspective, Dunstan was a tireless advocate for progressive change from within. He spent many years agitating alongside Gough Whitlam to remove the White Australia ideology from Labor's national platform. Despite Labor leader Arthur Calwell infamously insisting 'it was only cranks, longhairs, academics and do-gooders' who wanted the ALP to disavow White Australia, Dunstan and his allies prevailed at Labor's national conference in 1965, where Dunstan moved the motion to remove support for the White Australia policy from Labor's platform.

As Dunstan was never shy of reminding people when later speaking about that moment, the seconder for Dunstan's successful motion that day was in fact Arthur Calwell himself, such was the potency of Dunstan's ability to create and grow momentum. He did not just ride the winds of change, he summoned them.

During the period of Dunstan's service as South Australia's Attorney-General and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the Aboriginal Lands Trust Act of 1966 brought about the first major recognition of land rights in this nation, more than 25 years before the Mabo decision was handed down. He also sponsored the nation's first antidiscrimination legislation through the parliament, the Prohibition of Discrimination Act 1966, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of skin colour and country of origin in hospitality venues, services, accommodation, employment and controlling land. Nearly a decade later, he did the same for discrimination on the basis of gender and marital status.

As Premier, Dunstan famously legislated to pave the way for our theatre and screen sectors to thrive. He relaxed censorship and drinking laws, enacted nation-leading environmental protections, pursued one vote one value electoral reforms, abolished the death penalty and decriminalised homosexuality. He also introduced the nation's first container deposit scheme, appointed the first disability adviser to the Premier, removed the legal consequences of illegitimate birth and made rape within marriage a criminal offence. If some of these things sound like obvious things, that is the Dunstan effect in action. The reforms he achieved are today so familiar and uncontroversial they feel like an inexorable part of who we are.

Don Dunstan was not universally loved in his lifetime. In fact, he was strongly disliked by many people, whether for reasons of political opposition, social conservatism and traditionalism, or for the reasons of everyday bigotry of the era. Within the Labor Party and the Labor caucus there were many who loved him, perhaps some who hated to love him, and no doubt a handful who disliked him, but none among his detractors would consider disputing that he changed South Australia for the better.

We are exceptionally fortunate to have had the benefit of his leadership, his vision and his extraordinary determination to make our state a better and fairer place. Dunstan said to Michael Parkinson in their well-known 1980 interview:

I went back to South Australia intending to go into politics because I believed that it was possible in South Australia to set an example of what could be achieved in social democracy…to provide a community in which people had an effective say in their own government, and in the decisions which would affect their lives…

A community which removed restrictions from people and allowed them to be themselves; which celebrated individuality; which was a tolerant and caring community; and in which we provided the necessary protections to citizens from the kind of depredations which some people seek to wreak on them at times and where we could provide the best services.

I believed we could do that, and I believe we've done it.

Don Dunstan catapulted South Australia decades ahead into a future that we have now fully grown into. He saw it on the horizon and he reached out and he grasped it, and it all started 70 years ago on 7 March 1953. I commend the motion.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. L.A. Henderson.