Feature: The Visionary Politician Who Changed Australia

ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans, joined by head of ANU School of History Frank Bongiorno, launches Don Dunstan: The Visionary Politician Who Changed Australia (Photo: Adam Spence)
Wednesday 23 October 2019

A new biography by ANU Historian Angela Woollacott for the first time reveals the life of a politician ahead of his time, and holds lessons for those in politics today reports Adam Spence.

In 1960s South Australia, where political gerrymandering and conservatism seemed entrenched, the likelihood of Labor achieving power seemed improbable. All the more improbable it seemed was that a political progressive with a colourful personal life and little apparently in common with the working-class would be the one to lead Labor to a decade of success.

Yet that is exactly what Don Dunstan did. Doing so he changed not only South Australia, but also the country. How did he achieve the improbable? And in this current era where people increasingly express cynicism and disillusionment with politics, and Labor is reeling from an unexpected defeat in an election fought on progressive policies, what lessons can we draw for contemporary politics?

In Don Dunstan: The Visionary Politician Who Changed Australia, Manning Clark Professor of History at ANU Angela Woollacott offers the first comprehensive biography of a politician who broke the mould. Based on extensive research, Woollacott reveals the origins that led him to be an agent of social change, the personal traits that threatened to be his undoing, and the qualities that gave him such broad appeal and generous political capital in an era that came to be known as the Dunstan decade.

“I’m from South Australia; I was born there and grew up there. And I came of age while he was in power,” Angela recalls. “As a teenager starting to think about politics, here he was, this really influential political figure. And for my generation there were just so many issues that he seemed to be on the right side of.”

This was a generation witnessing the abandonment of the White Australia policy, a greater appreciation for the rights of Indigenous Australians, and growing opposition to the quagmire of the Vietnam War. A generation that would witness greater opportunities for women, decriminalising homosexuality, and a renewed focus on culture. Playing a leading role on these issues was Dunstan, whose government appointed Dame Roma Mitchell as the first female Supreme Court justice in Australia, made South Australia the first state to decriminalise homosexuality, and who was eager to promote cultural opportunities, not least by encouraging the growth of the Australian film industry.

Dunstan played an essential role in removing the White Australia Police from the Labor Party national platform, a contribution praised by Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke. He was an early proponent of sex discrimination legislation, was early to appoint an advisor on women’s affairs, and was particularly active in the area of Indigenous Affairs. His government began recognising Indigenous land rights, and he served as Federal Chair of the Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

His deep passion for social justice and progressive causes can be traced back to his childhood, growing up in Fiji while returning to Australia for education. A family of modest means, they still enjoyed the benefits of being a part of the white ruling class. The family had servants, Dunstan had Fijian nursemaids attend to him.

“Growing up in a British colony, so racially stratified and with such class inequality, and such rigid colonial administration and governance and society, it had a deep effect on him,” Angela says. Dunstan ate Fijian food, could speak Fijian, and later in life became a part of the Movement for Fijian Democracy. He was a part of two worlds and it shaped his outlook in life.

At university Dunstan explored politics in earnest, trying to articulate his political beliefs and to find those with a similar outlook. After ill-fated stints with the Liberals and the Communists, he settled on Labor and a particular brand of socialism known as Fabian socialism.

Entering politics Dunstan pursued progressive policies shaped by these early influences, but he couldn’t have achieved all that he did without the support of the party, and his state. And the political reality in South Australia made such support seem out of reach to many.

“Labor Party leaders didn’t even think it was possible for them to win, they thought this was the natural order of things, that they would always be in opposition,” Angela says of the entrenched gerrymander dating back to the 1930s. This gerrymander considerably skewed the balance of voting power, with Adelaide being home to 2/3 of voters yet only having 1/3 of the seats.

Dunstan entered the South Australian Parliament in 1953, soon becoming a vocal critic of the state’s entrenched gerrymander and playing a leading role in a plan to gradually win country seats from the conservative coalition. The plan worked and in 1965 Labor returned to power, with Dunstan as Attorney General under Premier Frank Walsh, who in 1960 had narrowly beaten Dunstan for the party leadership.

Two years later Dunstan became Premier on Walsh’s retirement. His Premiership was short lived though, the Gerrymander again depriving Labor of power in the 1968 election despite a 54% two party preferred vote going to Labor.

The embarrassment over the unfair win and generational change within the coalition saw electoral reform consign the gerrymander to history, allowing Dunstan to return to government in 1970. So began the Dunstan decade.

If the South Australian gerrymander presented an obstacle to power for Dunstan, then so too potentially did the culture of the Labor Party. Dunstan did not fit the typical Labor mould, a University educated lawyer with a penchant for culture. Yet like Gough Whitlam who was enjoying a similar ascension at the Federal level, Dunstan was part of a cultural and generational shift in the party. And above all his approach to leadership, and his articulate authenticity won over the party room and voters alike.

“His popularity came from the strength of his vision and his ability to articulate it. He could clearly explain his policies and why they would benefit people,” Angela says. “He had longer in interviews to speak than is typical these days. I think also he had that experience in amateur drama, and he was a prize-winning debater in school. From the late 50s onwards media was changing around politics. He was the first one to say we need pamphlets that look good. He was an early adopter of using TV advertisements and was very telegenic.”

He led his cabinet using a consensus style of leadership. He strongly advocated for his ideas to a party that fully appreciated that while his interests and priorities were further to the left than many of theirs, his priorities and ability to sell them to the public were the reason they were in power.

The media marvelled at his ability to be true to himself, yet have a genuine rapport with everyday people, and a wide range of people. Perhaps no example better illustrates his ability to bridge the class divide than a visit to water depot workers the day after he did a poetry reading on the ABC. Two workers approached the Premier and gave their critique… “[it] was bloody beaut.”

Dunstan had worked with Whitlam to remove the White Australia Policy from the Labor platform, and like Whitlam he was part of a cultural change in the party. But as Dunstan’s political fortunes increased, Whitlam’s declined. With the Whitlam government faltering by 1975 and a state election approaching, with Whitlam’s consent Dunstan distanced himself from the turmoil of the party at a federal level. And when Whitlam was finally dismissed, influential Labor figures tried to draft Dunstan as his replacement.

The question over whether Dunstan, who had already been influential at a national level, wanted to enter federal politics is a contentious one. Angela thinks if factors had aligned, he may well have harboured ambitions to enter national politics and aspire for the Prime Ministership. But while the South Australian media granted Dunstan some space for his personal life, including his bisexuality that he never publically admitted to while in office, it’s doubtful the national media would have afforded him that same courtesy. Coupled with health issues toward the end of his Premiership, it was not a path he chose to pursue.

Bringing Don Dunstan’s story to print for the first time was an ambitious project for first time biographer Woollacott.

As I learned, doing a biography is massive. This is my sixth monograph. The research was massive in ways that are different from other history projects. My last book was about political and cultural change in the Australian colonies. You do something like that where what you find in the archive shapes the book. With a biography, you need to know all the myriad facts, detailed accurate facts about one specific life.”

Over the eight years Angela spent researching the book, a determination to uncover intricate and accurate detail was born of a historian’s approach.

“I approached this as a historian,” Angela says. “As a historian, I believe the context is important. That to really understand the life, you need to understand the politics, the culture and the society.”

Angela benefited from the past work of political scientist Allan Patience, who had once pursued writing a biography of Dunstan and had interviewed the former Premier while he was still alive. She used materials in archives including the Dunstan Collection at Flinders University, and enjoyed input from many who knew Dunstan. Just to uncover his school records, she drove to the town of Murray Bridge, finding the documents in a lost corner of a shed behind the school.

The efforts paid off, not only for telling Dunstan’s story comprehensively for the first time, but for telling the story of a progressive politician at a time in Australian politics when many are questioning how politics works, and Labor is reviewing its election defeat earlier this year.

“A lot of people now are interested in someone who was such an effective progressive politician,” Angela says. “And I think it is a sign of the times, I think there is so much disillusionment with politics now and dismay about leaders who aren’t willing to stand up for things , or who can’t cut through.”

For those in politics today, those considering it, and those questioning where politics is headed, there is a valuable lesson Angela believes in the pages of Don’s life.

“You don’t need to be nervously middle of the road. If you can be clear, if you can explain your policies and your objectives, and they will benefit people and you can explain how, and you believe in them, clearly believe in them, you can benefit as a politician.”


Don Dunstan - The Visionary Politician who changed Australia is published by Allen and Unwin, and is available through booksellers and online now.

Search this site only

Updated:  28 October 2019/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications