When we think of an active role for democratic government in civic affairs we think of Don Dunstan says ACTU President Jennie George.

Thankyou Veronica Brodie and Cherie Watkins for your kind welcome this evening. We are honoured to be here with you and your people in this place.

Friends and comrades,


On behalf of the ACTU and the Trade Union Education Foundation, I welcome you all to the first Whitlam Lecture for 1998.


In the pantheon of Labor greats, few stand as tall as our speaker tonight.


It is now 31 years since Don first held the office of Premier of South Australia and 19 since he relinquished the post, but Don Dunstan’s indelible mark on the civic life of this state – and the nation – remains clear.


The depth and scope of the reforms achieved by Don and his governments is extraordinary. As leader of this State he was prescient and courageous – the issues which he championed in the sixties and seventies are hot topics still.

Reflect for a moment on the following:

1. Land rights and aboriginal affairs

Don was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Walsh Labor government from 1965 to 1967, having previously championed the Aboriginal cause as Opposition spokesman. Don consistently supported Maxwell Stuart in his long quest for a fair trial.


In the early-sixties he advocated policies of ‘self-determination’ and recognition of Aboriginal land rights. Aboriginal people at the time were subject to paternalistic and segregationist legislation.


As Minister, between 1965 and 1967 – and in the face of hostile attack in the House and in the media – Don fundamentally changed the approach to Aboriginal issues in South Australia. This was before the 1967 federal referendum. It marks the first real success for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island people in their long and continuing struggle for recognition and equality under the law in this country.


His 1966 Aboriginal Land Trust Bill sought to vest with Aboriginal people pre-eminent mineral rights over the lands concerned, but the Tories in the stacked Upper House rejected that provision.


Other legislation in 1965 and 1966 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, country of origin or skin colour and sought to protect and support Aboriginal culture and languages.


Don was Premier from 1967 to 1968 and 1970 to 1979. His government appointed Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls Governor in 1976.


In 1978 Don as Premier introduced the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Bill to the parliament. He continued to advocate publicly in support of the Bill after retiring from politics, and it was ultimately passed into law.

2 Equality of Opportunity

In 1975 the Dunstan Labor government passed the Sex Discrimination Act and in 1976 strengthened the 1966 Race Discrimination Act.


The Dunstan government established an Equal Opportunity Unit within the State public service, and funded a range of women’s self-help community projects.

3 Law Reform

South Australia, if the truth be told, was in the the mid-sixties widely regarded as something of a wowser backwater.


Not since Don.


Licensing law reform ended the “six o’clock swill”. Censorship law reform allowed adults to read ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.


The Mitchell Committee was established to review the criminal law and penal methods. Corporal punishment was abolished. So too was capital punishment.


Strong consumer protection legislation was enacted. Residential tenants’ rights were recognised. The rights of so-. called “de facto” couples were recognised and “illegitimate” children [exquisite term, isn’t it] were given inheritance rights. Homosexual relations were ‘decriminalised’. Rape in marriage became a recognised offence.


A special committee chaired by Hon Sir Charles Bright was established to review the State law with a view to giving effect to the United Nations declaration on the rights of people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Subsequently the Equal Opportunities Act was amended to outlaw discrimination on the basis of disability.


Don has always been ardent and articulate in support of civil liberties. He had to deal with his own ‘Special Branch’ difficulties years before similar problems became apparent in other states.

4. Electrical Reform

The gerrymander which prevailed under Tom Playford was overturned: An independent Electoral Commission was established. In those days, there were actually some ‘liberal’ Liberals who supported this electoral reform – Steele Hall to his credit was one of them. Under the reforms, one vote got one value; the property franchise in the Upper House was abolished in favour of a democratically elected Legislative Council.


As respected political scientist Dean Jaensch observers, by 1976


“the SDA electoral system has been transformed into the most democratic in mainland Australia and a unique guarantee of electoral equity had been entrenched in the constitution.”


5 Fundamental reforms were made in all areas of public policy and service delivery, including



  • education




  • community welfare




  • public housing




  • workers compensation, and




  • public administration



The Festival Centre was built and the West Lakes precinct established. Rundle Street was transformed into a Mall. The Hills Face Zone was declared to protect the city’s glorious green curtain.


The Arts flourished. The government was hands-on in infrastructure provision, in economic development and industry policy. Tourism was recognised and promoted as a growth industry for the state well before the rest of the country.


The Dunstan government was hands-on in creating Adelaide’s distinctive ambience, in shaping the feel of the city and the state. By the close of the seventies, it was a wowser backwater no more.


7. Years before anyone had heard of APEC, when the so-called Tigers were just little cubs and the Aussie dollar bought around 320 Yen, Don promoted engagement with Asia, with the countries of our region. Adelaide established sister city ties with Penang in the early seventies. Don’t government appointed the State’s first Trade Commissioner, with an explicit role to promote the State and its trade capacities to the countries in our hemisphere.


In public life there are many fine orators and Don is on e of the very best.


Ultimately, however, the test is not what we say but what we actually do.


Very few people in public life pass this test as comprehensively and distinctively as has Don Dunstan. He blazed a trail for the broad labour movement in this country.




as we fight for native title rights and reconciliation;


as we struggle against discrimination and prejudice;


as we fight the union-busters;


as we support an active role for democratic government in civic affairs;


we think of you Don and we draw courage and inspiration.


Friends all, please welcome


Don Dunstan


First Whitlam Lecture 1998, given by, Don Dunstan at Adelaide Convention Centre, Tuesday 21 April. Welcome By Jennie George