Classic Ellis: The Late Don Dunstan, 1999

I rang on Monday morning to check Don Dunstan’s health for the filming on February 7th and 8th. He would walk, I hoped, round some of his favourite saved buildings; cook a meal; have a Last Supper with friends, or a Don’s Last Party; play on the grand piano the Liszt and Schubert pieces that would be our soundtrack; dig his garden; revisit his restaurant, Don’s Table; read some favourite poetry in that famous golden Tennysonian voice; reflect, perhaps, on sexual McCarthyism in the age of AIDS and Monica Lewinsky; curse Hinch; denounce with his dark angelic fury the Quislings that have sold Australia’s economy to the crazy feral animal whims of the free market; remember Adele; add his particular stoic grace to an unbeliever’s death…

And then he came on the phone in the hospital ward. His voice had worsened, and had that blurry, thick-tongued imprecision you get from a dentist’s injection. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said. ‘I can’t be heard like that.’ I said it might get better. He said he knew it wouldn’t.

‘I’m in the home stretch, old mate,’ he said. ‘I’m truly sorry.’

I realised that this was our last conversation, perhaps. I told him I loved him very much, and gloomily added, ‘I’d normally say Godspeed but it’s the wrong theology. And,’ I added, ‘the wrong velocity.’

A pause, no laughter; then: ‘That it is. See you, mate.’

‘See you, Don.’

I then kicked the wall for a while, and drank, and cursed, and pined, the way you do, for the most significant Australian since Chifley, since Federation perhaps, the man whose political brilliance hacked out the path that Whitlam followed, and to some extent took credit for. And I went feeling foul and frail to Jim McClelland’s memorial service in Sydney Town Hall, where Whitlam and Killen with much inner grief told of the adjacent deaths of Jim Cope, Cleaver Bunton and our vivid Brisbane friend Brian Sweeney, and the final stages of the fading from life of Neville Bonner and King Hussein, who survived, I think, twenty-two assassination attempts but not, like Don, the mutiny in the blood that was cancer. That was an enemy with bite. No-one noted much the enormities of this week, so enraptured were they with Mark Taylor quitting, and Monica testifying, and the entire IOC in unison murmuring that drugs in sport were okay.

On Thursday Mike Rann rang to say Don could see us both on Saturday morning, but his breathing wasn’t good and he had tubes sticking out of him, and we had perhaps about an hour. That would have to do, I decided, and booked my ticket, wondering what you say apart from thanks for the memory to such a man at such a time. Mike cursed himself for having donated, like the good citizen he was, all his Dunstan tapes and photos to the Constitutional Museum, which the present Liberal Government of course (like the pharaohs who defaced and hacked to rubble the monuments of their predecessors) closed down. Where were the tapes and photos now? He didn’t know.

Mike went to work for Don in 1977 and in one intense period, sitting up each night till 4 a.m., wrote five major speeches for him in a week. Don, he explains, was not only the architect of policy change in the Labor Party but also the initiating Prospero (a role that in his old age he might have played well) of its tardy professionalism. He invented the press release, the testing by poll of policy (you do not change party policy, he said; after testing it, you work out how to sell it better), and the then-novel notion that you have to win the second election, and the third, and the fourth, and entrench yourself in office in order to get things done. Nine years before Wran, seventeen years before Hawke, twenty-two years before Goss, twenty-four years before Keating, he was leading a moribund party and a somnolent country (and a state in philosophical rigor mortis) in ways that, after ferocious intellectual quarrel with himself, he had decided were best. Aboriginal equality. Female equality. The inevitability of the multiculture. The actuality of democracy. The possibility of Australia (even South Australia) leading, not following, in the Arts. A sorrowing Chris Schacht (in a five-hour conversation at Bridie O’Reilly’s in Sydney) remembered him at a Norwood branch meeting telling a dumb-struck congregation that an Australian film industry could start in South Australia. In 1974 it did, with Picnic at Hanging Rock; then came Storm Boy, then Breaker Morant.

So too did the flashier, shallower things – the sidewalk cafes, the art-gallery wine-tastings, the orchestra performances among lions at the zoo, the heady trail of international celebrities – Yevtushenko, Rushdie, Burgess, Vidal, Nureyev, Grotowski, Arundhati Roy – that year by year raised Adelaide’s Festival of the Arts to parity with Edinburgh’s, an ultimate Good Time you would remember all your life.

But it was important, Mike added, not to lose the real Dunstan under the glamorous honeymoon icing of his era. This was a man who, in Parliament since 1953 (when Churchill and Stalin were still in power), pursued a vision of social equality and union rights and worker participation and architectural sacred sites poand minority equality and cultural independence and ungerrymandered representative government (he lost the 1968 election with 54 percent of the vote), and a skilful humanistic balance between government intervention and personal initiative – between individual incentive and cautious bureaucracy – that had few echoes anywhere (in the Erlander-Palme years of Sweden perhaps or the New Deal Thirties of F. D. Roosevelt perhaps or the first two years of Harold Wilson, or Gough Whitlam).

This was no mere flashy magazine editor slumming, for a time, in electoral politics. This was no dilettante in pink shorts. This was twenty-six years of hard slog in the branches, in the Caucus, in party committees and national conferences, turning around things as basic as the White Australia Policy. This was a man who paid, as they say, his party dues; who worked in his retirement, unlike some, for his party’s good; who just about invented Aboriginal land rights, and certainly invented Meals on Wheels; who in 1957 was in Cyprus bargaining for the release of Archbishop Makarios. This was a man who changed his country, not single-handedly but by years of persuasive discussion, and changed it, with a persistent eloquent selflessness, for the good. If any have cause to doubt this, let them speak now, or forever, etc.

Mike was in Sydney on Friday at lunch with Bob Carr when he suddenly got word that Don, after an agitated Thursday night, was in a coma now with only a dimly flickering pulse. He left the restaurant, rang me, rushed for the airport, was caught in traffic, missed the plane. I agreed to come down anyway, as I said I would. I was up at 4 a.m. and write this now exhausted, remembering, not happy. So many remembrances now lost, of a great – or minor – Renaissance prince.

There was a farewell occasion in December at which he movingly, wonderfully spoke; unrecorded. There were dinners with friends in his last autumnal journeys to Sydney and Melbourne; unrecorded. And the promised film, too late, unmade. There remains for us now but a slow trawl now through the footage not yet destroyed by those in fear of his legend, those who went after him in life, whose enmity, he said, was a constant source of comfort to him.

Like many public men of charm and magnetism, his private life was uneasy. He was shy and uncommunicative at parties, and even in his restaurant (goat on toast, fine wines) where most nights he was waiter he was stiff and tired with customers who loved him. He was betrayed more often than most politicians are – by lovers, staff members, ministers, old friends – or he thought he was. He would nurse a wound long years and not reveal it. He felt, as the nights drew in and the tumours bloomed and spread, a little unregarded, a bit let down, forgotten even. He saw the dismantling of his radiant Athens, his Felicia, by double-dealing dwarves and was not content.

And in his last years, as in his first, he was torn between his love of the Labor Party and his dismay at what had become of it. He detested (and in his obituary interview with George Negus said he detested) the mindless factionalism that was now but a squabble, dogs over rotting meat ‘for the spoils of defeat’. He hated the Hawke-Keating lurch towards Global Economics that, however, it was bandaided, in the end meant only surrender to foreign uncaring boardrooms of our national Self, our society, our destiny. He was not at one with the Muscular Cowardice of these millennial times. He believed in a better world. He was the kind of man of whom his fellow Fabian G.B. Shaw once said, ‘Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.’

Don was a why-not kind of man. He was a doer in a world of postponers. A maestro of the possible. A leader. A hero of that better polity he saw in his last days shrinking from the world. One of his favourite quotes, and he read it magnificently, was, unsurprisingly for an old St Peter’s College man, from Tennyson.

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Vale, Don Dunstan. Godspeed.

  1. This may sound mawkish, but your article brought a tear to my eye. I was but a nipper when Don was in his ascendancy, and nearly a thousand miles removed, but I still recall the ineffable style of the man.

    Thank you for reminding us of his achievements.

    Men like him don’t come along often enough.

  2. Beautiful comrade.

    This was in ‘Babylon’, right?

  3. My last memory of the public presence of Don Dunstan was a speech given in a church in central Adelaide, Don wearing a big suede style coat (to hide his fading physique and protect him from the cold), speaking with passion about Native Title.

    Don Dunstan was a great man.

    I was privileged to be a citizen of South Australia during the Dunstan years, to experience the political and artistic and intellectual power of those times.

    Don Dunstan will be there, in spirit, at Lizard’s Revenge in July 2012.

    Hang The Nuke Gang.

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