20 August 2019



*** check against delivery ***

(Acknowledgments omitted)

At a time when many of us are still coming to terms with the result of the 2019 Federal Election, Angela Woollacott’s biography, Don Dunstan: The visionary politician who changed Australia, provides a timely salve to progressives around Australia.

Don was loved by South Australians.

He changed our State forever. And he changed our nation forever.

For women, for Indigenous Australians, for LGBTIQ Australians, for migrant communities, and for all who care about an open, inclusive, and forward-looking community, Don is a hero.

Angela’s book reminds us of what progressive Governments do – they change our State and our nation for the better.

It reminds us of the importance of advocating for and protecting democracy – ensuring all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.

And it is reminds us that change never comes easy – it must be fought for – and it must be won.

Through her wide-ranging and detailed account of Don’s life and career, Angela not only records the achievements of a man who changed the nation – she anchors them in Don’s values, and explores the experiences that informed them.

Born in Suva and spending his early years in colonial Fiji, Don’s values were shaped by his early observations of inequality, class and racism.

As a child, Don experienced segregation between white colonialists, Fijians, and Indian workers.

He saw that the opportunities offered to him as the son of a white Australian differed to the sons of the Fijians and Indians he played with.

And that’s not to mention the class structures that existed within the European and white community – of delineation between ‘officers’ and other workers at CSR’s mill in Nausori.

These early experiences no doubt fostered Don’s instinctive opposition to inequality, to prejudice and to racism.

It was an instinct exhibited early in Don’s life.

Angela tells of Don responding in Primary School to his friend, Tony, being called a ‘dago’ and an ‘Itie’ by making a point of walking home with him.

As a young lawyer in Fiji, Don took on the cases of Fijian and Indian-Fijians – something that earned him the ire of the White establishment – and which some believe eventually led to him and Gretel being forced to leave Fiji in 1951.

It is that instinct against racism that saw Don argue fervently within the Australian Labor Party to reverse its support for the White Australia policy.

His advocacy is credited by Gough Whitlam as being key to its eventual removal from the party’s platform at the 1965 National Conference.

It is advocacy for which I will always be grateful.

In Government Don legislated protections against discrimination with the Prohibition of Discrimination Act.

And, from his time as an Opposition backbencher early in his political career through to his time as Premier – Don advocated for and advanced the rights of Aboriginal South Australians.

He recognised the importance of self-determination to Aboriginal South Australians.

As Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Don advocated for a shift in policy from assimilation to integration – a move initially resisted by other states but, a decade later, adopted nation-wide.

Don’s personal relationships and subsequent advocacy for Australia’s first nations peoples set South Australia on the course towards reconciliation.

He possessed an understanding sadly lacking from many contemporary political leaders – which has seen progress in our journey towards reconciliation with Indigenous Australians thwarted.

Don understood Australia’s place in the world.

Like Whitlam and Hawke, Don recognised that Australia was not merely a European outpost.

Don wanted Australians to accept that their country “was now a European island in an Asian, Melanesian and Polynesian sea”.

He called for an Australia that was “more cosmopolitan and multi-racial” and advocated for the opening up of Australia’s immigration system to migrants from Asia and the Pacific.

As Angela says – “his sense of Australia’s region was deeply personal”.

Angela’s biography not only reminds us of Don’s great achievements and contribution to our state and nation, it instructs us on how lasting change is achieved.

As Angela notes, Don’s early exploration of political theory and of political movements saw him work for the Liberal Country League in elections, become active in the Socialist Club on campus, and briefly, for three weeks, flirt with the Communist Party.

Ultimately, Don came to the view that ‘the only right policy was a policy of democratic socialism in accordance with the present views of the Australian Labor Party’.

From his entry into the Parliamentary Party in 1953 – Don demonstrated a commitment to campaigning and to making long term strategic decisions.

At the time, many had accepted opposition as the natural place of the Party in our State – the result of the Playmander which stacked the odds against the Party being able to form a Government.

The energy and commitment that Don brought to the Party helped to lead Labor out of the wilderness and into Government in 1965 – for the first time in 27 years.

Don’s commitment to end the Playmander and make South Australia a more democratic State also took time.

He reflected that, once in government, it took nine years – from 1965 to 1973 – to pass the necessary legislation that would enable an entrenched system of impartially drawn, fair electorates for the lower house, and adult suffrage with state-wide proportional representation for the upper house.

Don’s work to overturn the Australian Labor Party’s support for the White Australia Policy was also incremental. As Angela says – it ‘was a long haul’.

Attempts to remove support for the policy at the 1959 and 1961 federal conferences were unsuccessful.

In 1963, Don was appointed to an internal immigration-review committee.

It was only after the report of this Committee was presented to the National Conference in Sydney in 1965 that Don and others were successful in finally removing the White Australia policy from Labor’s platform.

Don reignited South Australia’s long history of progressive reform and leadership.

When South Australia had become known for being conservative, staid, and inward looking – Don opened South Australia to the world.

He reformed South Australia’s licencing laws – ending the 6:00pm swill.

His leadership in the Arts has left an indelible mark on South Australia.

He personally oversaw the construction of the Adelaide Festival Centre.

He drove the creation and expansion of our State’s arts institutions, making the State Theatre Company and State Opera Company statutory bodies.

And he transformed South Australia’s laws, to make our State a more equal and decent society.

His government:

  • Pursued decriminalisation of homosexuality – making South Australia the first state to do so in 1975.
  • Abolished capital punishment.
  • Created avenues for accessing legal abortions.

Later in his political career, Don pursued the cause of gender equality.

He appointed the first Women’s Advisor, Deborah McCulloch, in 1976.

Through the work of the Women’s Advisory Unit, the Dunstan Government legislated the Sex Discrimination Act and created the Equality Opportunities Commissioner and Advisory Panel.

Don was a key architect of modern Australia.

That he was able to exert that influence over Australian public debate as the Premier of one of Australia’s less populous states – is a demonstration of his capacity as a political leader.

Don’s achievements were possible because of what he represented.

A modern, outward-looking and energetic Australia – confident in our identity and in our place in the world.

A man committed to equality before the law, democracy and human rights.

As a daughter of the Labor Party, I am proud to bear the responsibility of carrying Don’s legacy.

Reading Angela’s biography – there is much that resonated with me.

Both Don and I spent our formative years abroad in post-colonial and multicultural nations.

Like Don, that experience informed my view of race and equality. And, like Don, it gave me perspective to understand Australia’s place in the world.

For those of us looking to the task ahead for Labor, Don’s story reminds that we cannot accept the argument – pushed by some – that we must choose either working Australians or progressive reform.

Rather, Don’s achievements make clear it is Labor’s task to advocate both for working Australians and progressive reform.

It was achieved by Dunstan here in South Australia – and nationally by Whitlam, by Hawke, and by Rudd.

It is only when we successfully champion both ideals that Labor wins government and changes the nation.

With that, it is my pleasure to declare Don Dunstan: The visionary politician who changed Australia officially launched.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.