Don Dunstan The visionary politician who changed Australia by Angela Woollacott

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Speaking of politicians in the pubs of Australia is not really a very good idea. Australians in general don’t venture approving opinions about our elected representatives. But speak of Don Dunstan and some will praise and others cringe. Australians are uncomfortable with the existence of gays and lesbians (the pub crowd do not distinguish further) in their community, and his bisexuality is just never spoken about. However, those who understand his contribution to our political freedom can do nothing but applaud. Dunstan is the sort of figure that supplies the grounds for an interesting biography.

Writers know too well how quickly readers’ eyes glaze over when the talk comes around to politicians. Their subject has to have been controversial, of the calibre of Bob Hawke or Gough Whitlam or, for a different reason, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Don Dunstan joined that crew because his appeal was wider than that of a chief minister of an Australian State.  The newspapers refer to him as one who changed Australian attitudes, that through his efforts the 1960s and 1970s became a watershed in Australian politics. They forget, in their admiration for the man, that individuals alone do not make great changes but lead others to combine efforts to get the job done. They forget very conveniently their avid support for the Playford gerrymander in South Australia and their efforts to quell Dunstan’s ideas.

In Angela Woollacott’s biography, Don Dunstan is revealed as a solitary child with the temerity to befriend children who were passed over by better-placed pupils in his primary schools in Murray Bridge and in Fiji. He was the boy who took elocution lessons, the one who took his share of academic prizes but never tried out for the school football team, the boy who earned the wrath of his infant teacher for wetting his pants and may have had to repeat a year of pre-school because of the infant mistress’s vindictiveness; above all, throughout his childhood he is portrayed by biographer Angela Woollacott as a fearless boy who was intolerant of unfair treatment and stood up for social justice though it earned him a fat lip or two for his trouble.

Dunstan’s academic record is presented in the biography as something highly praiseworthy. To my way of thinking it was solid, but not outstanding, except in areas such as scouting (a particular interest of his) and in debating at school level and in wider circles, and in the performance of school plays. It is always easy to disagree over what is excellent and what is good, and I would not belabour the point that Woollacott has been overly generous. Woollacott’s revelation (38) that Dunstan was never actively gay when at school earns a bouquet for balanced and interesting writing, her facts and views assembled such as to bring joy to a master debater’s heart.

It was at university that Dunstan progressed a social justice agenda most strongly. Woollacott covers his years at the University of Adelaide in some considerable detail. She shows his development as a speaker and advocate for the right to freedom of speech and his acumen as a leader in his executive responsibilities with the Socialist Club and the Fabian Society. His education was certainly geared towards evolving political ideas, in which Woollacott holds to the belief that he was probably taught by the legendary Professor Jerry Portus. Woollacott’s book is not completely about serious matters like political memberships and club or party membership entanglements. Possible ASIO surveillance of activists and the midnight burning of files gives way at one stage to a debate over whether or not Don Dunstan should be thrown into the Torrens. “War tensions had created ‘a bitter edge’ in student politics with ‘student activists … forcibly thrown into the River Torrens’. Seemingly, this bitterness continued into the post-war period” (51).

Woollacott is a major writer, known for her disciplined prose and her nose for sniffing out what is royal and what is dross. She is aware that telling her subject’s story involves detailing less than exciting material. The drama of personal attacks by forces opposing Dunstan’s support for the native people of Suva that led to the young man’s near breakdown could have been pursued with vigour but was not. The scandal (shock! horror!) of being gay could have been emblazoned through this biography but was not. The routine of a politician’s life might have been treated in a more general fashion by a less fastidious biographer who saw value only in areas of controversy. This is not Woollacott’s mode of operation. She demonstrates that you get to know a politician through attention to ordinary things, those daily events that grind away at your tolerance, unless you have the skills, and the strategies, to accommodate them. It would be tedious in the extreme to tell once again the hard fought battles Dunstan faced when he took on the established conservative forces in South Australia and wrenched government from their hands. Woollacott has done that admirably. In fact, her history of Dunstan’s parliamentary endeavours and the spotlight-loving, social justice driven politician make enjoyable, if not engrossing reading.

Details of Dunstan’s fights for the rights of aborigines and his cooperation with the reforming politician Gough Whitlam are mentioned in Chapter Six but not belaboured. Opposition in the form of Thomas Playford is told with the wry humour of an anecdote. Dunstan might well have felt privileged to be listed alongside “ne’er-do-wells, rogues, prostitutes and vagabonds” (127). Dunstan’s loss of religious faith is reported upon but not given much discussion room (85). In his view “both Marx and the Catholic Church were wrong to see society as static…Churches should not intervene in politics, but concern themselves with moral welfare and seek to remedy social evils” (84 – 85). Offered membership of the Adelaide diocesan synod, Dunstan informed the vicar that he believed only parts of the accepted liturgy. However, his agnosticism was acceptable, as he was, to the synod. As Premier, he did not attend state church services, and made no secret of his irreligion (85). His non-attendance at a church service on the occasion of a visit by a reigning queen was no different from his absence on any other Sunday. Every worshipper knew his views and expected nothing else. The newspapers of the day milked the issue. I question, therefore, why Woollacott felt obliged to tell us again that Dunstan was no longer a believer in the Christian faith (131). Sloppy editing is one explanation.

Something else I really did like about Woollacott’s book were the photographs presented between pages 160 and 161. There is much to like about this particular book but I think the photographs are special. They bring a living, breathing man into the sometimes overly cerebral discussion. We see Don Dunstan with family and friends, at functions, taking himself less-than-seriously, and we see, recorded for all time, those famous pink shorts. These pictures say as much on their own about the man who led South Australia as they do about the political leader. They share with us the intellectual might as well as a picture of the fun-loving man about town. They turn an excellent account into a portrait of a widely-respected human being.

No warts are painted over in this biography. Vilified and loved, scandal-ridden and adored, and ardent supporter of the arts and an expert raconteur – this was Don Dunstan. Woollacott’s book is a testimony to a humble bloke but a great bloke nevertheless.

Don Dunstan: the visionary politician who changed Australia

(2019)

By Angela Woollacott

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-76063-181-9

343pp; $32.99

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