Twenty-five years after his death, Don Dunstan remains SA’s biggest influence

On the anniversary of the former Premier’s death, it’s remarkable how the Dunstan Effect continues to shape our state, writes Reggie Martin.

Feb 06, 2024, updated Feb 06, 2024
Towering impact: Don Dunstan standing on a bulldozer at the initiation of work ceremony for the construction of Flinders Medical Centre in 1972. Photo courtesy Dunstan Collection

Towering impact: Don Dunstan standing on a bulldozer at the initiation of work ceremony for the construction of Flinders Medical Centre in 1972. Photo courtesy Dunstan Collection

We are still living in Don Dunstan’s South Australia. It’s nothing short of extraordinary that this can be said.

Today, 25 years on from his passing – and approaching half a century since the end of his administration – it’s challenging to name a person who has had a greater influence on the life and the soul of our state.

Don Dunstan didn’t ride the winds of change. He commanded them.

Many of us have tried, and tried again, to capture the profound magnitude of his impact and his influence. Doing justice to the enormity of his legacy proves surprisingly hard.

Across wide-ranging areas of our social, cultural and economic lives, Don Dunstan introduced ideas and reforms so fundamental to the South Australia we now inhabit that they are woven into our state’s fabric.

From the day he was elected to Parliament in 1953, he set about challenging and changing the status quo. Although very young, he was already considered by many to be Labor’s most talented orator. This was not a surprise to some of the wiser heads within the Labor Party who identified and encouraged his talent. But it’s fair to say that he was not always universally liked, with his charisma and his abundant confidence proving a challenge to some of the old guard.

Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan at The Lodge in 1973. Photo:

He was never shy in making the most of that talent as a tireless advocate for change, both in society and within the Labor Party. In particular, as a person who despised racial discrimination – which was rife in our laws until he set about eradicating it – Dunstan spent many years agitating to remove the White Australia ideology from our national platform.

Federal Labor Leader Arthur Calwell, a Victorian, infamously scoffed that it was only “cranks, long hairs, academics and do-gooders” who wanted to see the demise of the White Australia Policy.

But Dunstan, Gough Whitlam and their allies finally prevailed at Labor’s National Conference in 1965, when a Dunstan-led motion to remove support for White Australia from Labor’s platform was carried.

Dunstan loved to remind people, when later describing that day, that the seconder for his successful motion was none other than Arthur Calwell.

Such was the potency of Dunstan’s influence.

As South Australia’s Attorney-General and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, his Aboriginal Lands Trust Act 1966 was the first major recognition of Aboriginal land rights by any Australian government. It passed our Parliament more than 25 years before the Mabo decision was handed down.

He also sponsored the nation’s first anti-discrimination legislation: the Prohibition of Discrimination Act 1966, which prohibited discrimination based on skin colour and country of origin in hospitality venues, services and accommodation, employment and controlling land.

Nearly a decade later, he did the same for discrimination based on gender and marital status with the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

Famously, Dunstan breathed life into the arts. He legislated to pave the way for South Australia’s 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.

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He also introduced the nation’s first container deposit scheme, removed the legal consequences of illegitimate birth, and made rape within marriage a criminal offense.

Many of these might feel like features of our state that simply always were. For those of us who came after Dunstan’s many achievements, it is almost inconceivable that they ever weren’t.

That’s the Dunstan Effect in action. His reforms have become intrinsic to who South Australians are.

Don Dunstan epitomised the parable of the man who plants trees in whose shade he knows he will never sit. He catapulted our state decades ahead into a future that he dared to see on the horizon.

And he showed us how to grow into that future: be bold; be brave; be ambitious.

He proved to us that we can. And he taught us that we must.

South Australians are exceptionally fortunate to have had the benefit of Don Dunstan’s leadership, his ingenuity and his extraordinary determination to make our state a better and fairer place.

Not many people can claim to have had a transformative impact on a state that endures generation after generation. Dunstan stands out among those who can.

We are still living in Don Dunstan’s South Australia.

Just as he knew we would be.

Reggie Martin is a Labor member of the Legislative Council and past state secretary of the ALP.

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