For this blog hop against homophobia, I wanted to write about one of the most remarkable Australians in the history of my country: Don Dunstan, former Premier of the state of South Australia, where I live. Given the achievements and initiatives he put in place, the laws he changed and abolished, I think that Dunstan is more than a fitting subject for this post. While in public office, he fought homophobia, racism and prejudice; he continued fighting long after he retired from politics and until his last few days.
Donald Allan Dunstan was born in Fiji on September 21, 1926, and died on February 6, 1999. He was a reformist, a visionary, a supporter of the arts, and he was bisexual.
Don Dunstan's public life was just as colourful as his private one. He studied at a private boy's school before going to study law at Adelaide University and joining the Labor Party, the left wing political party in Australia's two party system. While in opposition to the long-running LCL (Liberal and Country League), Don Dunstan was instrumental in establishing the first laws for Aboriginal land rights in Australia and he was at the forefront of the abolition of the White Australia Policy in South Australia. South Australia was the first state to abolish that policy; also the first state to seek land rights for Indigenous Australians and abolish the Sodomy Law and decriminalize homosexuality and marijuana. All of these reforms were engineered by Don Dunstan and his Labor Party.
In 1973, Dunstan, leading the SA Labor Party, led the Party to victory in a state election, a victory he won again in 1975 and 1977. During his tenure as Premier of South Australia, Dunstan expanded on recognizing title holdings of Aboriginal land rights, decriminalizing homosexuality, appointing the first woman judge, the first non-British governor and later the first Aboriginal governor.
He enacted consumer protection laws, reformed and expanded the public education and health systems, abolished the death penalty, relaxed censorship and drinking laws, decriminalized marijuana, created a ministry for the environment, enacted anti-discrimination legislation, and implemented electoral reforms such as the overhaul of the Legislative Council of parliament. He lowered the voting age to 18, and enacted universal suffrage, and completely abolished malapportionment (unequal representation by the representative body or equal rights under the law). These changes gave him a less hostile parliament and allowed him to enact his reforms.
Left: Dunstan meeting with Aboriginal Elders (he's the gentleman sitting down, wearing glasses); right, Dunstan walking down Rundle Mall with The Queen. Courtesy of the NLA, Trove.
He established Rundle Mall, the foot traffic only strip between Rundle Street and Hindley Street. He instituted measures to protect buildings of historical heritage importance, and encouraged the arts, with support for the Adelaide Festival Centre, the State Theatre Company, and the establishment of the South Australian Film Corporation. One of the first films produced by the SAFC was the critically acclaimed Picnic at Hanging Rock. He encouraged cultural exchanges with Asia, multiculturalism statewide, and an increase in the state's culinary awareness and sophistication. He is recognised for his role in reinvigorating the social, artistic and cultural life of South Australia during his nine years in office, remembered as the Dunstan Decade.
The Adelaide Festival Theatre. Courtesty SA Arts Commission.
However, towards the end of his tenure as Premier in 1978, Dunstan's administration was beginning to falter following his dismissal of Police Commissioner Harold Salisbury. Controversy broke out over whether he had improperly interfered into a judicial investigation; the police had been systematically keeping dossiers on left-wing politicians and the so-called "Pink Files" which allegedly contained information about homosexual South Australians and which have never been released under the FOI.
In addition, policy problems and unemployment began to mount, as well as unsubstantiated rumours of corruption and personal impropriety. The death of his second wife from cancer led to increased strain upon Dunstan and he resigned from politics in 1979. He had collapsed due to his own ill health and held a press conference looking weak and frail, wearing his pajamas. However, he would live for another 20 years, remaining a vocal and outspoken campaigner for progressive social policy, gay rights, Aboriginal rights and women's rights and the arts.
Dunstan's legacy to the city of Adelaide and the state of South Australia includes his many social changes into law and politics as well as his patronage and development of the arts and multiculturalism. He approved construction of the iconic building of the Festival Theatre and increased ties with Asia and Aboriginal elders. He and Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia, were instrumental in abolishing the White Australia policy which remains one of the blackest marks on the history of the nation. He also repealed the Sodomy Laws in South Australia, being the first State Premier to make homosexuality legal. He supported gay rights, and in the later years of his life, he established the Donald Dunstan Foundation and a restaurant called Don's Table, with his partner, Steven Cheng.
Cheng and Dunstan met in 1986. Dunstan was 59 and had been retired from politics for seven years. Cheng was 24 and an immigrant from Hong Kong. Their relationship lasted until Dunstan's death in 1999, when he died of cancer at age 72. Cheng was at Dunstan's bedside. In 2008, Cheng spoke of Dunstan with great affection to the national newspaper, The Australian, saying, "He was my first love and he will be the love of my life. His memory will always be like that to me ... you know, sacred."
I was a child during Dunstan's tenure as Premier. My mother still speaks of him with fondness and great respect, saying that "Don Dunstan was a great and remarkable man." During the conservative Seventies, Dunstan was tight-lipped about his sexuality to the press, although rumors ran riot. He was flamboyant in his political life, going to parliament wearing tight, pink short shorts in summer and cream safari suits in winter. I remember very clearly when, on January 19, 1976, a Jehovah's Witness who felt Dunstan was turning Adelaide into Sodom and Gomorrah prophesied that a great tsunami would rise up out of Glenelg Beach and drown the whole of Adelaide. Dunstan said he'd go and face down the tsunami and wait for the destruction. He did so on 20 January, the day of the predicted storm, and nothing happened, although he made newspaper headlines in the United Kingdom for his defiance.
Don Dunstan from the '70s to '90s. Courtesy The Advertiser.
The Don Dunstan Foundation was established at the University of Adelaide shortly before his death to push for progressive change and to honour Dunstan's memory. Dunstan had spent his last months helping to lay the platform for its establishment. At the inauguration, Dunstan had said, "What we need is a concentration on the kind of agenda which I followed and I hope that my death will be useful in this". The foundation's primary work is the giving of scholarships; an additional aim is to promote causes championed by Dunstan such as human rights, social equality, multiculturalism and Aboriginal rights.
The long-standing homophobic environment in Sixties and Seventies Australia made it impossible for Don Dunstan to "out" himself; he never answered media questions about his sexuality, although it was widely known as a 'worst kept secret' that he was bisexual. His enduring love with Steven Cheng and their mutual passion for food, social justice and human welfare speak louder than words to the character of the man. While there were very dark periods in Dunstan's time as Premier (such as the Von Einem case and the Family murders), his positive legacy was far greater than those dark moments.
Jane Lomax-Smith, former Lord Mayor of Adelaide and Labor Minister for Education in South Australia, said of Dunstan on his death, "He was such a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, highly-refined person, yet he had the capacity to connect with the problems of ordinary working people, and he was able to translate those problems into significant legislative reform. He was a consummate politician."
Among the letters in the Dunstan Collection held by Flinder's University, there is a typewritten copy of the information he most likely sent off to Who’s Who in the early 1990s. After his formal CV, right at the bottom, written in black ink in his own handwriting is this:
"What does S.A. mean to me? Home."
Dunstan was a forward thinking man who fought diligently for the rights of all minorities, battling racism, homophobia, xenophobia and conservatism to bring about great reforms and change for women, Aboriginal Australians, the GBLT community, the arts community, immigration, multiculturalism and more. On his death, state flags were flown at half-mast and the memorial service was televised live. A theatre in the Festival Centre was renamed the Dunstan Playhouse. His lifelong interest in food led to the publication of the popular Don Dunstan's Cookbook in 1976. He lived as an openly gay man in his final years in Adelaide with Asian chef Steven Cheng and they ran the Don's Table restaurant on The Parade, Norwood in 1994, which closed shortly after he died. He was an Adjunct Professor at Adelaide University from 1997-1999. Dunstan was married twice, he married his first wife, Gretel in 1949 and they had a daughter and two sons; they separated in 1972 and were divorced in 1974. He married Adele Koh, a member of his staff, in 1976; she died in 1978. He was awarded The Companion of the Order of Australia in June 1979.
Dunstan was honoured in the 1996 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras by a group who marched in the parade, calling themselves The Pink Don Dunstan's, carrying placards thanking him for twenty-one years of gay law reform.
The Pink Don Dunstan's, source unknown.
References and Further Reading:
Miles To Go Profile: Don Dunstan - http://www.milesago.com/People/dunstan-don.htm
A Short, Sharp Shock to the System by Kerryn Goldsworthy - http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/ipad/a-short-sharp-shock-to-the-system/story-fn3o6wog-1226171750504
Don Dunstan and Don's Table - http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/52388/20051007-0000/miettas.com/chefs/chefs_96-00/dunstan.html
The Uranian Society Remembers Don Dunstan by Ron Hughes - http://gaynewsnetwork.com.au/news/victoria-copy/6123-uranian-society-remembers-don-dunstan.html
The Renaissance Man: Don Dunstan and the Sexy Seventies by Ruth Starke - http://www.killyourdarlingsjournal.com/article/the-renaissance-man-don-dunstan-and-the-sexy-seventies/
In the Dark Due to Self-Serving Dunstan by Mark Day - http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/opinion/in-the-dark-due-to-self-serving-dunstan/story-e6frg9tf-1226044206049
Donald Allan Dunstan - http://www.southaustralianhistory.com.au/dunstan.htm
Former Members of South Australian Parliament Profiles: Hon Donald Dunstan - http://www2.parliament.sa.gov.au/formermembers/detail.aspx?pid=2602
Extract via the Wayback Machine of Don Dunstan talking about the abolition of the White Australia Policy - http://web.archive.org/web/20060821211047/http://multiculturalaustralia.edu.au/transcripttext.php?id=386
Obituaray: Don Dunstan by Robert Milliken - http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-don-dunstan-1071332.html