Don Dunstan: Charting the life of a queer premier
Don Dunstan was a political tour de force, who captivated Australia with his antics both in the private and public spheres. Biographer Dino Hodge gives Stephen Russell an insight into the former South Australian premier that goes beyond the pink shorts.
Former South Australian ALP premier and small ‘l’ liberal Donald ‘Don’ Dunstan was a firebrand who privately identified as both bisexual and polyamorous. He married twice before living with his partner Steven Cheng, who stood by his side for over a decade before Dunstan’s death from cancer in 1999.
The son of British expats and well-connected business folk, Dunstan was born in Fiji in 1926 and spent the first seven years of his life there before his family returned to South Australia. A skilled pianist and cook,he devouredphilosophy books, something that would stand him in good stead for his chosen career in politics.
Dunstan worked tirelessly to achieve his goals, quickly rising through the ranks of the South Australian parliament, first winning the seat of Norwood for Labor in 1953 before becoming attorney general in Frank Wash’s Labor government,then succeeding him as party leader. He became a well-loved premier not once, but twice, from 1967-68 and 1970-1979, known affectionately as the ‘Dunstan Decade’.
With a commendable list of social justice and equality victories, both during his time in parliament and beyond, it’s odd that no one has published a biography detailing Dunstan’s achievementsuntil now.
Dr Dino Hodge, a social and cultural historian who grew up in Adelaide, interviewed over 50 of Dunstan’sclosest friends and family, political allies and enemies,to get the fullest picture possible of his profound impact on the fabric of Australian society. The result is the biography, Dunstan: Intimacy and Liberty.
“I think part of the reason is that people haven’t known how to deal with the personal complexities related to his professional life,” Hodge says. “His lifestyle was quite extraordinary, and it was very public.”
A flamboyant presence on the political scene, famous for wearing pink shorts in parliament, Hodge argues that it was Dunstan’smany achievements that ensured he remained a popular premier. “He connected with a wide range of people. They understood who he was. He wasn’t putting on a facade, he just said ‘this is who I am, I’m not going to label myself.’”
A reformist, Dunstan worked alongside Gough Whitlam to remove the White Australia policy from the ALP platform, pushed for Indigenous and queer rights, as well as challenging corruption amongst the police and ASIO, particularly with reference to homosexual persecution.
Above: ‘A man with integrity’ … Don Dunstan.
But not everyone was a fan.
“His personal life was of concern to his political colleagues, and certainly it was being discussed by journalists,” Hodge says.
“He recruited into the public service a young man [John Ceruto] with whom it was thought he was having a relationship, and later on helped him set up his own restaurant. There was some suggestion he used his influence.”
A book detailing these accusations, It's Grossly Improper, was one of the catalysts in a ravenous Liberal campaign to unseat Dunstan and this, in combination with the death of his wife, Adele, led to a physical and emotional collapse that was ultimately the undoing of hispremiership. He resigned live on TV in his pyjamas.
“There was a huge amount of affection for Dunstan even after he was premier, but what happened was very difficult for him,” Hodge says. “The Liberal government that followed held a parliamentary inquiry that didn’t come up with any new information, but effectively made it impossible for the South Australian Labor Party to use his standing in the community.”
It wasn’t the end of him as a political force, however. Dunstanbecame the national president of both the Freedom From Hunger campaign and the Nelson Mandela Foundation andwas a vocal champion for queer rights. He chaired a committee on the development of HIV/AIDS policies and programs for ethnic communities in the Hawke Government.
Victorian ALP Premier John Cain tasked him with heading uptheVictorian Tourism Commission in Melbourne, where Dunstan successfully married the industry with the hospitality and cultural sectors, before once again being forced to stand down in 1986 amid Liberal howls of disrespect to Catholics when he spoke at the launch of Garry Wotherspoon’s book about gay men in Australia,Being Different. Another man attending dressed in clerical garb and identified as Monsignor Porcamadonna.
“Dunstan denied the two events were connected, but he was widely hated by the conservative elements of the day,” Hodge says.“When I spoke with Liberal Party politicians from the 70s, they continued to express very strongly-held negative sentiments about Dunstan, and that surprised me.”
While Hodge admits the thrust of his biography focuses on Dunstan’s fight against homophobia, there’s room for more books on the pioneer. “He was gifted, with a passion for politics, and was a man with integrity. He had a vision, was able to articulate it and translate that vision into policy, seeing it through to implementation. Voters could see that this was not only a man who talked the talk, he walked the walk.”
Don Dunstan: Intimacy and Liberty by Dino Hodge is published by Wakefield Press.
In Melbourne, Dino Hodge will launch Don Dunstan: Intimacy and Liberty at Hares & Hyenas, 63 Johnston St, Fitzroy, 7.30pm, on Friday July 18.