Don Dunstan on South Australia’s important heritage

From 1994 to 1999, former South Australian Premier Don Dunstan wrote a regular column for The Adelaide Review covering politics, history, art and more. On the 20th anniversary of his death, we revisit one of his first essays.

Reflecting on housing affordability, South Australia’s heritage and the difficulties in coordinating competing state interests at a federal level, many of Dunstan’s points still resonate today.

An important heritage

There are many things said about the uniqueness of South Australia and its history.

It was a ‘Wakefield’ colony – a ‘Paradise of Dissent’ – the first place to combine manhood suffrage, the secret ballot and effectively equal electoral districts – the original home of the Torrens Title system of land registration – the first place to give women the vote and at the same time the right to stand for parliament – the first place to establish a children’s court – the first place to elect a social democratic government with its own majority. All of these things and more have been rightly said many times. What has not been said or recognised sufficiently is that South Australia also has developed unique institutions which have singularly benefited its citizens, and that if they are demolished either in the rush to a kind of uniformity imposed nationally, or in the ideological push of latter-day supporters of laissez-faire policies, South Australians will lose what decades of achievement have provided for them.

In examining Australia’s federal constitution, many people from Bob Hawke on have claimed that we in Australia are over-governed and have, with both Federal and State Parliament, far too many parliamentarians. While it is true that if one were to start over from the beginning and devise an ideal constitution for Australia, it would be better to have one central sovereign parliament with subordinate legislatures given considerable power of local autonomy based on regions with common interest, and not on the present illogical state boundaries, which are accidents of history. However, the process to change our present constitution to one like such an ideal is a very long one and the outcome is inevitably doubtful. To change the constitution in such a way a referendum would have to pass with a majority in every State.

Since citizens in Australia are woefully ignorant of the constitution and how it works, clearly no such referendum could pass in the foreseeable future. No citizen is likely to vote to change State parliaments to a larger number of subordinate legislatures with powers defined temporarily but capable of change by a majority in the national parliament, and for areas newly defined on a map but with which citizens do not identify and to which they have no developed loyalty.

Chifley and Dedman in the Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction set to the process of forming a basis for change in 1949 by defining regional areas in Australia in which greater powers and resources could be given to combinations of local governments.

The whole process was thrown away by the Menzies government, and has never been revived. It would probably take about thirty years for loyalties to such areas to develop to the point where there could be a feasible alternative to the States.

Simply to abolish the States is not an alternative, and of course no referendum to do so would pass. There are very good reasons why it should not pass. Those who talk about our being “over-governed” have had little experience directly of the work of government. Contrasting our parliamentary institutions with the parliament at Westminster can illustrate that point quite simply. Members of parliament are required to be, effectively, agents for their districts, issues of importance to their citizens must be capable of being raised in parliament. In a 600-member chamber there is simply not the time available for that to happen. It is simply not available, either, in one national parliament in Australia. If we were to add all the major matters now dealt with in State parliaments to those now dealt with in Canberra, the mere time problems would preclude a great many things from being properly dealt with, and the citizen’s voice (which can now be raised with much greater ease than in Britain would be muted, or ignored.

In Britain there is a constant demand for evolution from Westminster, and that is because it is needed. We already have a devolution much more effective than Britain is likely to achieve, and while it is not ideal, we should not forego its advantages.

Inevitably over the history of the States, differences in institutions of quite a major sort developed from one State to another. Attempts at introducing national policies affecting these usually are aimed at the institutions of the larger States and particularly New South Wales and Victoria, for Politicians and public servants in Canberra tend to regard anything beyond these as being unimportant or not worth knowing about. To give an example: Whitlam was determined to do something to push the Governments of the two larger States to devote more of their money for housing which they obtained from the Federal Government to housing the poorer section of the population.

So they proposed a much more severe means test on public housing than had previously applied. At that time New South Wales provided about 8% of total housing from public funds, and Victoria about 6%. South Australia in contrast provided 23% through the Housing Trust and another 9% or so through the State Bank. In New South Wales working people went to building societies whereas here building societies were small and State funding was the biggest component.

By introducing the kind of policy they proposed they would have precluded the average working man in South Australia from getting a home, whereas South Australia had the best record of any State in providing inexpensive housing on a just basis and with support for the poorest.

In my next article I want to look at the development in the 1920s and ’30s of public institutions which served the State remarkably well and whose destruction at anyone’s hands we should resist with vigour.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, September 1994

Header image:
Vic Grimmett, 1968, courtesy State Library of South Australia PRG 1662/5/29

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.