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Obituary: Don Dunstan

DON DUNSTAN made more of an impact on Australia than almost any other state political leader. State politics are usually mun- dane affairs, overshadowed by the federal scene in Canberra. But when Dunstan ruled as premier of the Labor government in South Australia from 1970 to 1979, the "Dunstan decade" put that state on the map with a series of groundbreaking social reforms. His was the first government in Australia to introduce land rights for Aborigines, decriminalise homosexual acts, appoint a woman judge and introduce anti- discrimination legislation.

Dunstan was a man of vision, a nonconformist who had the courage to be himself in one of the country's most conservative political environments.

The most abiding image of Dunstan is on the day he turned up for work in 1972 at Parliament House in Adelaide wearing pink shorts. He had them made, telling his tailor not to produce bloomers down to the knee but to cut them "short". Dunstan was making a statement, but it shocked many people in the "city of churches", as Adelaide was known, and even he admitted years later that he might have gone too far.

It was a shrewder political move than the headlines made it seem. It made people outside South Australia take notice of the man who was setting out to shake his state out of its provincial somnolence and to turn Adelaide into the "Athens of the south", as Dunstan rather grandly put it.

He dismissed those who suggested he was a man in the wrong place. Despite its conservatism, South Australia has something of a radical tradition. In 1894 it was the first state in Australia, and one of the first in the world, to give votes to women. Dunstan saw himself as a man in that tradition. "This is my place," he said in his last television interview, shown the night he died.

Dunstan was born in Fiji, where his South Australian father was a merchant. He went to St Peter's College, one of Adelaide's leading private schools, and to the University of Adelaide, where he moved in theatrical circles and graduated in law. This background cast him outside the traditional working-class mould of the Labor Party at the time he joined it. He stood for state parliament at the age of 26 and won the Adelaide constituency of Norwood, a stronghold of the conservative Liberal Country League (LCL), in 1953.

The LCL ruled South Australia from 1933 until Labor unseated it in 1965. The conservatives stayed in power for these 32 unbroken years through a blatant gerrymander of the electoral boundaries that gave undue weight to their base in sparsely populated country seats. Dunstan made reform of this his priority. He had already shown his credentials as a reformer at the Labor Party's 1965 national conference when he successfully pushed through a motion to drop the racially disciminatory White Australia immigration policy from its platform.

In South Australia, Dunstan had a brief stint as premier when he took over the Labor Party leadership in 1967. His government lost office after an election the following year produced a hung parliament. Under reformed and fairer electoral boundaries, Dunstan led Labor back to power in 1970, and the Dunstan decade began.

"We'll set a standard of social advancement that the whole of Australia will envy," he declared. "We believe South Australia can set the pace." He was right. Elsewhere, Australian public life was still gripped by conservatism. Dunstan came to power two years before the reforming Labor government of Gough Whitlam took office in Canberra.

His changes embraced not just personal freedoms, but the education system, urban planning and consumer protection. He appointed the first Aborigine, Sir Douglas Nicholls, to the vice-regal office of state governor. And he turned Adelaide into a national centre for the performing arts by building a state theatre centre and fostering cultural enterprises. People such as Rudolf Nureyev and Lord Snowdon visited the Adelaide artistic salon revolving around Dunstan and his second wife, Adele Koh.

Dunstan was the first political leader in Australia to understand and use the media as a marketing tool for his own message. When a clairvoyant once predicted that Adelaide would be swamped by a tidal wave, Dunstan went to Glenelg Beach on the appointed day to mix with anxious crowds. He walked through Adelaide streets with a loudspeaker appealing for calm to depositors gathered outside a building society said to be in trouble. He published his own cook book, and talked up the wines from South Australia's now world famous vineyards. At one point, Dunstan's approval rating soared to 83 per cent. Radio stations played a song called "Our Don Dunstan", fashioned after one about another prominent South Australian, "Our Don Bradman".

How Dunstan brought such a revolution to a society once identified by its Waspish establishment remains one of the spectacular success stories of Australian politics. The key, perhaps, was his unadorned style. Dunstan could communicate with those less educated and articulate and make them feel included, a rare skill in leaders. Although he was more radical than the party he led, he never forgot, as he told one newspaper, that he had to carry the party with him. Even conservative South Australians admired him in the end, and got swept along in their state's new image. Then it all came unstuck.

In 1978 Dunstan sacked Harold Salisbury, the state police commissioner, after discovering that the police special branch had kept thousands of secret files on public figures. A political storm ensued; a later inquiry vindicated Dunstan's action. But the affair shook his government. Later that year his wife, still in her thirties, died from cancer. Dunstan was deeply distressed, appeared to suffer a breakdown and shocked everyone when he resigned in early 1979, appearing before the media in his dressing gown in hospital. It was a sad exit. Des Corcoran, who took over as leader, called an election later that year at which Labor was decimated. The Dunstan decade was over.

After his health recovered, Dunstan left his beloved South Australia and went to work for the tourist commission in the neighbouring state of Victoria. He publicly supported causes on human and minority rights. After two military coups in Fiji in 1987, he became president of the Movement for Democracy in Fiji. He continued to court controversy, such as when he launched a book on homosexuality on a platform with a man dressed as a nun who called himself Monsignor Porcamadonna. Italian community leaders were furious.

Despite his flamboyance, Dunstan was a reserved, even shy man. In later years, journalists tried to draw him on his personal life, and the subject of sexuality, but he refused to the last interview, arguing that public figures were entitled to private lives. He returned to Adelaide and opened a restaurant called Don's Table with his partner, Stephen Cheng. Last year, as cancer started to take its toll, he drew an audience of 5,000 to the Gough Whitlam Lecture in Adelaide at which he denounced New Labor's embrace of free market economics.

Don Dunstan was an old-style interventionist, and one of his great legacies is the city of Adelaide itself. He left it with a sense of pride in its heritage, innovation in the arts and elegance in the good things of life like food and drink.

Donald Allan Dunstan, politician: born Suva, Fiji 21 September 1926; married 1949 Gretel Ellis (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1976 Adele Koh (died 1978); died Adelaide, South Australia 6 February 1999.