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Don Dunstan’s role in PNG independence

Whitlam Dunstan
Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan in Canberra in 1973 during Whitlam’s prime ministership (National Archives of Australia)


TUMBY BAY - The argument goes that it was Australian opposition leader and later prime minister, Gough Whitlam, who led the charge for early self-government and independence in Papua New Guinea.

This is a naïve and simplistic view cherished by many observers in both Australia and Papua New Guinea. But the real story was decidedly more complex.

In 1960 the United Nations established a committee on decolonisation.

In the United Kingdom the pragmatic prime minister, Harold Macmillan, famously talked about the ‘winds of change’ that were stirring anti-colonial sentiment in its African colonies.

In Australia prime minister Robert Menzies also acknowledged that decolonisation was an issue and in the early 1960s the territories minister, Paul Hasluck, introduced constitutional reforms aimed at beginning the process of self-government and independence for Papua New Guinea.

However, under the Liberal government, the process was slow. In contrast the opposition Labor Party began to speed up its discussions and planning.

A key figure in these discussions was the charismatic and progressive South Australian politician, Don Dunstan.

At the 1961 ALP federal conference in Canberra, Dunstan tabled a report by the party’s standing committee on foreign affairs, defence, immigration and territories that included proposals for Papua New Guinean independence.

Dunstan had grown up in Fiji and had experienced colonialism first hand. He had also visited other colonial dependencies, including Cyprus, and made several fact-finding trips to PNG.

In his opening speech at the conference, Dunstan said, “The Labor Party declares that the sole right of Australia in Papua New Guinea is to develop the territories to independence at the earliest possible time and that it must then withdraw.”

Under Dunstan’s proposal Australia was to aim for development that included all adults in PNG being on an electoral roll and a legislative council as well as local government councils with regular elections.

The proposal also stipulated that no further local land would be alienated, there would be free and compulsory education for children, child endowment would be paid to voting parents and free medical and hospital treatment would be provided for all Papua New Guineans.

It went on to say there would be freedom of speech, assembly and worship and that the native contract system would be abolished and replaced by an industrial system that included union involvement.

The proposal was then duly ratified as official ALP policy and then re-ratified with a few amendments in 1963. Dunstan formally drafted the final official policy.

It was this policy, devised and drafted by Dunstan, that Gough Whitlam used while pursuing independence for PNG.

In a 1970 radio program, after Whitlam had visited PNG as opposition leader, Dunstan said that Australia had taken money out of PNG and had done a poor job in developing the country.

He added that it would be disastrous for Australia to be seen before “the bar of world opinion as the last remaining power prepared to exploit indigenous people for our own wealth and to refuse them an adequate say in their own future development”.

Dunstan became the premier of South Australia in 1967 and proceeded to drag a state “shrouded in Calvinistic gloom” into the sunlight.

His progressive reforms became shining lights that were emulated Australia-wide and even internationally.

Although Gough Whitlam proudly talked about being the prime minister that saw PNG become independent in 1975 he was singing from a song sheet devised by a South Australian.


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Simon Davidson

An excellent piece of history on the catalyst behind the decolonisation of the nation. Thanks for sharing. Enlightening indeed.

Such man of experience, vision are the engine behind the rise of any nations nation for that matter. The nation owes him a lot.

Without him, we would still be agrarian backwater colony, dancing to the music of our colonial masters than be masters of our destiny.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I agree about Playford, Chris. He was a reforming premier in his own right, especially in terms of economics. He dragged South Australia out of its 'hayseed' period into one of modern manufacturing.

The latter has, of course, suffered terribly under globalisation and the state has foundered. Hopefully our lead in renewable energy will help.

Playford was also very good at gerrymanders, even better than Joe Bjelke Peterson. It took Dunstan almost 20 years to turn that around and win an election.

For a cherry farmer with only a basic education Playford was a giant in his own right too.

He and Dunstan, strangely enough, became good friends. They often drove home together after work.

Chris Overland

In South Australia, the 'Dunstan Decade' is still remembered as a time of great optimism and an even greater amount of long overdue social reform.

Using the term "Calvinistic Gloom" to described the preceding nearly three decades of conservative rule is probably a bit unfair.

Under the benign despotism of Sir Thomas Playford, premier for an astonishing 27 years, the state had gone from being an almost entirely agrarian backwater to having a thriving industrial base.

However, it is undeniably true that Playford and his colleagues were deeply opposed to the sorts of social reforms that Don Dunstan and other younger ALP Parliamentarians were determined to implement.

Consequently, once Dunstan became premier, there was an explosion of genuine and far reaching reform in South Australia the like of which had never been seen before and which has never been seen since.

There was literally no aspect of government that remained untouched or unchanged. Dunstan drove the whole process with a combination of intelligence, determination, flamboyance and more than a little drama.

As a very junior public servant, appointed in the middle of the Dunstan decade, I remember that period very fondly.

Dunstan very much suited the times and this is reflected in his championing of independence for PNG.

Sadly, I think that Don Dunstan would have been dismayed and angered by how PNG's political class has contrived to stuff up the many opportunities they have had to produce a modestly wealthy and productive state, in which people could expect to receive a good range of basic public services.

Even this modest aspiration has proved beyond the reach of the Moresby mob.

Still, hope springs eternal and maybe, just maybe, the Marape government may begin to turn things around.

Perhaps there is a PNG equivalent to Don Dunstan waiting his chance?

Francis Nii

Very interesting truth. History should be rewritten. Credit must go to who it is due.

If only Dunstan became the prime minister at that time, I wonder how my country would progress from then to now.

My salute to Dunstan.

Thank you for bringing this fact to light, Phil.

Justin Kundalin

Interesting and touching history. I appeal to fellow Papua New Guineans to know our history because our identity is rooted in our history. Thanks Phil for sharing this brief history of how PNG got its independence.

William Dunlop

Not such a sweet song nowadays, eh!

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