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Dunstan, Sir Albert Arthur (1882–1950)

by J. B. Paul

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Albert Arthur Dunstan (1882-1950), by unknown photographer, 1930s

Albert Arthur Dunstan (1882-1950), by unknown photographer, 1930s

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H39895

Sir Albert Arthur Dunstan (1882-1950), premier, was born on 26 July 1882 at Donald East, Victoria, tenth son and thirteenth child of Thomas Dunstan, a selector who had migrated in the gold rushes from Cornwall, England, and his wife Sarah, née Briggs, from Norfolk. After education at the local state school Dunstan took up wheat-growing. In 1907 he left the family farm at Cope Cope to open a pioneer block at Jondaryan, Queensland—living in a tent, because there was neither time nor money to build a shack. He returned to Victoria in 1909 to farm at Goschen, near Swan Hill, where on 6 April 1911 with Presbyterian forms, he married Jessie Gerard Chisholm; they had four daughters and two sons. Dunstan maintained a farm at Kaneira (Culgoa), though living at Fern Tree Gully in 1916 and Melbourne in 1917, before selling up and moving to the Bendigo district early in 1918. He ran sheep on a freehold property at Kamarooka from the early 1920s until 1933, employing a manager; the family lived at Bendigo until 1943, when Dunstan made his home in Melbourne.

In 1916 he had joined the Kaneira branch of the newly formed Victorian Farmers' Union. On moving to Bendigo he became active in the local branch and was endorsed as the party's candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Eaglehawk in the 1920 election. He narrowly won on National Party preferences from Labor's Thomas Tunnecliffe, holding the seat (renamed Korong-Eaglehawk in 1926 and Korong in 1944) for the next thirty years. A short, stocky man, with shrewd blue eyes and a 'curiously frog-like mouth', Dunstan was a forthright and effective speaker. He was to become known as an unruffled political fighter and for his ability to make lightning assessments of the practical possibilities of any situation.

He was one of thirteen V.F.U. members led by John Allan who held the balance of power in the Legislative Assembly. Despite its electoral success, the party lacked cohesion and Dunstan was the principal spokesman for the more radical rural voters; in a split in September 1921 he voted with Labor while Allan led most of the party in voting to save the Nationalist government. He sought to undermine Allan by appealing for the V.F.U. council's support in censuring him for keeping the Nationalists in power. Dunstan, who was excluded from office in the subsequent Lawson-Allan and Allan-Peacock ministries, led a faction which quarrelled with the majority of parliamentary party members on the issues of composite ministries, redistribution and the compulsory wheat pool. In April 1926 they formed a separate party which adopted the name Country Progressive Party. Dunstan, at first its sole assembly member, became the acknowledged leader of a bloc of four (and one legislative councillor) after the 1927 election. In September 1930 the C.P.P. merged with the Victorian Country Party (as the V.F.U. was now named) to become the United Country Party with Allan as parliamentary leader; in a gesture of unity, Dunstan was accepted as deputy leader.

Until the 1935 election, he seemed to react more passively to events. In the May 1932 elections the United Australia Party led by Sir Stanley Argyle made significant gains and a composite ministry was formed with the Country Party. Dunstan served as commissioner of Crown lands and survey, minister of forests, and president of the Board of Land and Works until 20 March 1935.

However, throughout this term a determination to end the Country Party's association with the U.A.P. developed within the organization, with A. E. Hocking as principal spokesman on the party's executive. All efforts to force the withdrawal of the Country Party ministers had failed but soon after the March 1935 election Tunnecliffe, now the Labor leader, proposed that the Country Party turn out the Argyle ministry with Labor's assistance and govern with its support. (A. A. Calwell later claimed that this proposal was inspired by him and that John Wren's influence over his 'close friend' Dunstan had much to do with bringing it about.) Dunstan played along with both Hocking and Argyle pending a final decision; he received crucial support from Hocking in wresting the parliamentary leadership from (Sir) Murray Bourchier, who had succeeded Allan in 1933, and then accepted the deputy premiership from Argyle. The Country Party's withdrawal from the ministry was secured on 19 March by a motion carried by a joint meeting of the party executive and the parliamentary party. Without advising the meeting for or against withdrawal, Dunstan had 'urged members to take a definite line of action and not sidetrack the issue', and promised to abide loyally by its decision. On 28 March the Country Party joined with the Labor Party in the Legislative Assembly to carry a motion of no confidence in the reconstructed Argyle ministry.

Dunstan's cabinet composed entirely of Country Party members lasted from 2 April 1935 until 14 September 1943. It relied on Labor support until the beginning of the 1942 session, and then continued in office with U.A.P. support until after the 1943 elections. Defeated on the issue of electoral redistribution in the Legislative Assembly on 9 September 1943, Dunstan resigned. A minority Labor government led by John Cain was sworn in but governed for only five days. Defeated in the assembly, Cain was refused a dissolution and thereupon resigned. Dunstan was then commissioned and formed a composite ministry without any consultation with the party executive. The Country Party elected its ministers and the U.A.P. leader, Tom Hollway, selected an equal number of U.A.P. ministers; Dunstan allocated the portfolios. As well as being premier from 2 April 1935 until 14 September 1943, Dunstan was also treasurer, and solicitor-general from 22 April 1938 and minister of decentralization from 1 March 1943. From 18 September 1943 to 2 October 1945 he was premier, treasurer and minister of decentralization.

The factors responsible for projecting the Country Party into office in its own right in 1935 were, on the face of it, so fortuitous that the new government had difficulty in broadening the scope of Bourchier's somewhat negative statement of policy into a programme which would not seem to rely too much on commitments to the Labor Party. To the rescue came E. J. Hogan, a former Labor premier turned independent, who had switched to the Country Party when Dunstan offered him the agriculture portfolio. He was able to resuscitate a marketing bill almost identical to the one introduced in 1930 by his own government with C.P.P. support—in 1935 the legislation emerged from the Victorian parliament bearing the imprint of all parties and especially that of the Legislative Council. At the same time the Dunstan government passed measures for rural rehabilitation through debt adjustment, something to which the Argyle ministry had been broadly committed before the 1935 election because the Commonwealth government was providing finance. The form the legislation took, however, owed its inspiration to a programme advocated by a non-party organization, the Primary Producers' Restoration League, which Dunstan had done his best to discredit. Yet he was to claim repeatedly that these laws were the outstanding achievement of his government.

Labor's influence was to be seen in legislation for workers' compensation, hire purchase, factory Acts, the establishment of the Housing Commission of Victoria, and in Dunstan's subsequent attempts to reform the Legislative Council. His less than wholehearted efforts to reform the Upper House dragged on for more than a year with an assembly election interrupting them. The result was the institution of a double dissolution procedure to break deadlocks; it has never been used and it could not have prevented two successful attempts by the council in 1947 and 1952 to force a government to the polls through the refusal of supply. This prolonged endeavour at constitutional reform served to keep the Labor Party happy, conscious as its members were of the obstacles an unreformed Upper House would pose to any future Labor government.

Other actions of the Dunstan government, legislative and otherwise, which were intended to mollify the Labor Party were perhaps not for the squeamish. Some adroit footwork on Dunstan's part resulted in a royal commission report into allegations of bribery against certain Labor members (in the interests of defeating a government-inspired bill) which did not affect them as adversely as might have been the case if Dunstan, although blameless himself, had divulged all he knew. This intricate exercise in obfuscation enabled him to move against Hocking, who by now was something of an irritant, and repay one or two old scores. When threatened with a hostile party conference in 1940 as a result of his vindictive conduct towards Hocking, Dunstan called a snap election which, thanks to Labor's continued support, left his government's situation unchanged. Despite the overwhelming support of the party organization, Hocking backed down when Dunstan intimated that a hostile conference vote would result in the cabinet walking out. By now Hocking's work in devising organizational machinery to control parliamentary members lay in ruins. Labor support was also not wanting when another royal commission, this time to enquire into the causes of the 1939 bushfires, pointedly implied that there had been serious instances of ministerial incompetence.

Two important acts of the Dunstan government which were unrelated to Country Party policy were the removal of the Royal Melbourne Hospital to a new site in Parkville and the sale of Crown land at Fishermen's Bend to General Motors-Holden Ltd. In the latter case, the responsibility of the final decision must be accounted Dunstan's own.

In 1936 he brought down what was generally acclaimed as the 'Recovery Budget'. Provision for reduction in taxation earned him commendation in some metropolitan circles; but, with his eye always on rural areas, he provided for a continuance of direct concessions to primary producers in respect of payments for losses on soldier and closer settlement, reduction of railway freight charges on certain primary products and alleviation of costs and expenses connected with the destruction of vermin and noxious weeds; in addition other grants and advances were made under the general heading of rural relief. Crown employees' salaries and State pensions (which had been reduced as a Depression measure) were fully restored and increased provision was made for education. (These last items of expenditure were not lavishly funded in the later years of the Dunstan administration).

But for the five-day Labor interlude, his term of office as premier took in the whole period of World War II. Such reformist enthusiasm as had been kindled in Dunstan by his reliance on Labor support was dampened by wartime conditions when he specifically repudiated any espousal of 'contentious legislation', a very comprehensive category as it turned out. This deliberate immobilisme only served to encourage those within the Labor party hostile to continuing their party's support for him.

The Dunstan-Hollway composite government of September 1943 to October 1945 was a most unhappy marriage of convenience. The State parliamentary U.A.P., which changed its name to Liberal in March 1945, was determined to get some form of redistribution of electorates. Dunstan was determined to stay in office and play for time, but the results of his idiosyncratic administration over the years brought an outcrop of troubles and unprecedented criticism. Discontent among teachers and public servants over salaries and working conditions brought much opprobrium upon his head. Ultimately a redistribution was passed but gradually the tensions in the coalition parties became intolerable, and defectors from both parties combined with Labor and some Independents to defeat the government in the assembly late in 1945 on an appropriation bill. A minority government, made up of non-Labor dissidents led by Ian Macfarlan, was able to pass supply with Labor support. The resulting election brought Labor to office. After the 1945 election, Dunstan wisely declined to nominate for his party's leadership which passed to (Sir) John McDonald.

In 1947 Dunstan entered a Liberal-Country Party composite ministry (the Hollway-McDonald government) as minister of health, his very presence at McDonald's insistence being at first strongly resisted by Hollway and then suffered with loathing. Within a year this ministry fell apart. In November 1948 a rift appeared in the coalition over settlement of the essential services legislation and Hollway, claiming that Dunstan's incorrigible urge to intrigue left him with no choice, demanded his resignation. He was then given authority by the Liberal Party to select a new cabinet excluding Country Party members. (Ironically in June 1948 Dunstan had been appointed K.C.M.G. on a recommendation which must at some stage have been approved by Hollway).

Sir Albert Dunstan spent the last two years of his life as a private member. He had just returned from a three-day tour of his electorate when he collapsed and died of coronary vascular disease at his Camberwell home on 14 April 1950. He was survived by his wife and children and was cremated after a state funeral. A keen follower of the share market, and successful as a small investor, Dunstan left an estate valued for probate at £17,370.

Whether he was in the leadership of the Country Party or out of it Dunstan seemed to hold the key to its fortunes. Moreover, he seems to have been pivotal to the chances and changes of Victorian politics over thirty years. He might well be judged to have lacked statesmanship, but statesmanship was not the key to survival in Victorian politics, and Dunstan was without peer in his ability to survive.

Select Bibliography

  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • A. A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not (Melb, 1972)
  • F. Howard, Kent Hughes (Melb, 1972)
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 27, 30 Oct 1920, 15 Apr 1950
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 13 Sept 1928
  • Sunraysia Daily, 19 Jan 1940
  • St Arnaud Mercury, 13 Mar 1940
  • Age (Melbourne), 15 Apr 1950
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 Apr 1950
  • Herald (Melbourne), 15 Apr 1950
  • F. W. Eggleston, Confidential Notes: The Victorian Parliaments as I Knew It (Menzies Library, Australian National University)
  • J. B. Paul, The Premiership of Sir Albert Dunstan (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960)
  • private information.

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Citation details

J. B. Paul, 'Dunstan, Sir Albert Arthur (1882–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dunstan-sir-albert-arthur-6055/text10357, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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