Indigenous Law Bulletin
Somebody once said to me well you were a member of the Adelaide Establishment.'I said 'well I'm a refugee from it, and thank God for somewhere honest to flee to!'
Don Dunstan, the former South Australian Premier who died on 6 February, understood that there was a social, political and moral obligation to the Indigenous population of Australia which could only be met through a profound change in attitude of the whole nation. He believed that, until that change took place, Aboriginal people would remain outcast and underprivileged.
When Dunstan became Premier in 1967, Government policies on Aboriginal issues were assimilationist. By the time he stepped down in 1980, the framework for Aboriginal self-determination had been established.
Dunstan's commitment to social reform had an impact far beyond South Australia. He played a key role in generating the nationwide political momentum for change which led to the granting of Aboriginal voting rights, the lifting of restrictions on access by Aboriginal people to licensed premises, and the abolition of laws which required Aboriginal people to prove they were capable of making decisions for themselves before they could be treated as citizens. He later appointed an Aboriginal clergyman, Pastor Doug Nicholls, as Governor of South Australia in 1977.
Shortly after the end of his term as Premier, but as a direct result of his initiative, South Australia became the first State to recognise land rights with the enactment of the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1980 (SA). For the first time there was direct communal title to traditional lands rather than ownership through a Land Trust or Land Council. This model still stands as one of his most powerful legacies.
Don Dunstan has many friends and admirers in the Aboriginal community of South Australia and his death will be deeply mourned by them. He was a champion of the Aboriginal cause; a politician who took political risks for principles in which he believed and a man who sought to persuade the electorate of his beliefs rather than adjusting policies to suit opinion polls.