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Don Dunstan: A visionary leader

Launch of Angela Woollacott, Don Dunstan: The Visionary Politician who changed Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2019), ANU, Canberra, 15 October 2019

Those of us who can personally remember the Dunstan decade – from the late ‘60s to the late ‘70s – are a rapidly ageing and increasingly decrepit bunch. We are a diminishing band, those of us who continue to stand in awe, as I certainly do, of the way in which Don Dunstan pretty much single-handedly transformed South Australia from a gerrymandered, wowserish backwater into the cultured, socially progressive renaissance capital of Australia – and at the same time led the way nationally, pre-dating Gough Whitlam, on transforming our attitudes on so many issues, above all racial discrimination, and recognising the rights, dignity and humanity of our First Australians.

It is really important, accordingly, in the interests of the historical record and historical justice that, before memories fade, a really comprehensive account be written of the man and the massive contribution he made to making us the kind of country we are today. Don didn’t really do justice to himself in his own memoir, Felicia, and certainly just about everything else written about him over the years, with only a handful of exceptions, has been either implausibly hagiographical or just plain vicious – to put it bluntly, either treacle or shit.

So what a pleasure it is to read now Angela Woollacott’s splendid biography, which is manifestly neither of those things, but rather a meticulously researched, comprehensive, balanced, measured and lucidly written account of both the public and private life of this great Australian.

We get the full context – the family background and early life experiences in Fiji, the posh education in Adelaide at St Peter’s and St Mark’s, and a good understanding of the culturally and politically desolate South Australian landscape which he set about challenging and transforming.

We get the early recognition and sponsorship of his manifest talent, and subsequent political nurturing, by Clyde Cameron – that brilliant but bloody-minded shearer turned cantankerous Whitlam cabinet minister – who was not on the face of it the most likely candidate to accommodate along the way Don’s transformation from weedy, theatrical-but-nerdy lawyer (barely recognisable in those early photographs) to dashing style icon of manifestly ambidextrous sexual disposition (albeit the latter never being publicly acknowledged at the time, pink shorts notwithstanding).

We get the personal story – the intensely affectionate but open marriages, the sometimes reckless male relationships – woven into the public story, but always tactfully and never gratuitously: just enough to make us appreciate what a complex, multi-faceted character Don always was.

And of course we get the full story of Dunstan’s extraordinary political achievements –

  • in breaking the gerrymander, achieving comprehensive constitutional and electoral reform, and turning South Australia into a genuine, one-vote one-value functioning democracy;
  • as a law reformer, making South Australia the first state to pass racial discrimination, Aboriginal land rights, sex discrimination, rape-in-marriage and homosexuality decriminalisation legislation, and also to enact major consumer and environmental protection laws;
  • as a champion of the arts, and nurturer of design and craft, in every domain;
  • as a highly-competent democratic socialist-oriented but not especially ideological manager of all the other health, education, welfare, industry and infrastructure dimensions of state government; and
  • as a national leader in the fight against the White Australia policy, for Indigenous recognition and respect, and in the campaign against apartheid, one aspect of which in his later life was chairmanship of the Mandela Foundation. (One of my fondest and most enduring personal memories of Don is standing alongside him and Nelson Mandela on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in front of a roaring, emotional crowd of thousands, a few months after the great man’s walk to freedom in 1990.)

On any view Dunstan was an exceptional political leader. How we judge leaders’ success is necessarily very context dependent, with great variations in the scale and degree of difficulty of the challenges they may face, and the realistic availability of opportunities they have to make a difference.

Dunstan didn’t have to face the challenges of a national wartime leader, or a prime minister confronting global economic crisis, but the challenges of overcoming the gerrymander were as daunting as any state leader has ever faced, and the opportunities he grasped were not there for the taking. In the face of a deeply hostile and unyielding political environment, it was Don Dunstan who, by sheer skill and perseverance, created his own opportunities to make a difference.

I had occasion a few days ago to draw up, for an Academy of Social Sciences roundtable on political leadership, a list of what – in my experience at least – are the attributes needed to be a successful democratic political leader: one with electoral longevity, a track record in managing effectively both change and catastrophe, and commanding the respect, if not always the affection (and not always at the time) of their political opponents. You perhaps won’t be surprised that Don Dunstan, in my judgement, satisfied every one of the ten benchmarks I set:

  • Serious intellectual ability - tick;

  • Empathy: the ability to connect, to understand where others are coming from, to see how they are seeing you – tick;

  • Sound judgement: not avoiding risks, but taking sensibly calculated risks – tick, but not always in his private life (the Ceruto relationship being his most spectacular implosion); and some would argue not in the Salisbury police commissioner-dismissal case which took a lot of the gloss from his last period in office, but I think (with the author) that’s quite unfair:

  • Basic organisational and time management skills - tick in the public domain, but not in the management of his personal financial affairs, which always seem to have been chaotic;

  • Communication skills - tick, obviously;

  • A clear sense of strategic direction tick: Angela Woollacott’s subtitle says it all - ’the visionary politician who changed Australia’;

  • Unimpeachable personal integrity – tick, not in the sense of being a paragon of familiar domestic virtues, but certainly in terms of personal honesty and incorruptibility;

  • A work ethic well above the prevailing norm – tick, periodic health issues notwithstanding;

  • Resilience: the ability to recover ground after the defeats, set-backs and humiliations which are, except in fairy-tales, part of every politician’s and political leader’s experience. – tick; and

  • ‘Spark’: the capacity, through sheer force of personality, to ignite enthusiasm, and on occasion real excitement, in one’s colleagues and the wider community – tick, absolutely. Don was passionate about many things, and few Australian political leaders have ever communicated that passion so effectively.

The saddest part of Angela’s book is unquestionably the last, covering the period when, and after, health issues forced his retirement from parliament and politics in 1979, at the unhappily early age of 52, through until he died in 1999. His last year in office had been a deeply troubled one, described accurately by the author as the ‘Perfect Storm’ – personally, with the tragic early death from cancer of Adele Koh, and then the Salisbury affair. There is every reason to believe he would have weathered that storm if his health had held up – although it would have really defied gravity for his popularity to have returned to the glory days of the 82 per cent he was recording two years earlier, fully six years into his second term.

With his always fairly parlous finances demanding he take on some new income-earning roles (apart from writing best-selling cookbooks), when his health sufficiently returned, Don took on the role of head of the Victorian Tourism Commission. But the role never quite fitted his stature, and he spent his final years back in Adelaide engaged in ultimately ill-fated restaurant ventures with his new partner Steven Cheng.

Hard experience has taught many of us who have had held high political office in Australia that there is no public place at home for voices from the past: far better to roost offshore for a decade or two, and return home when all is forgiven, or at least forgotten. My great personal lament in this respect is that Don was not healthy enough to take up, at the time it was proposed in 1979, the quite serious suggestion that he become the new head of Amnesty International: I can’t think of a role that would have been more brilliantly suited to his human rights passions and advocacy skills.

And there is also the unanswered question as to why the Hawke Government did not proceed after 1983 – as I’ve learned for the first time on reading this – with a proposal that he become our Ambassador to Italy: again an absolutely tailor-made role, albeit not globally influential as the Amnesty position would have been.

But, sad though his last years were, nothing diminishes the scale of Don Dunstan’s achievement. Angela Woollacott has done a splendid job in capturing it all, and she and her publishers are to be congratulated on an absolutely first-rate scholarly and general public interest achievement. Don Dunstan has been winning the reviews it deserves for some weeks now, but to the extent that the job remains to be done in the nation’s capital, and on Angela’s home campus here at ANU, I am delighted to now declare it duly launched.