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David Oliver Tonkin (1929–2000)

by Haydon Manning

This article was published online in 2024

David Oliver Tonkin (1929–2000), premier and ophthalmologist, was born on 20 July 1929 at Hyde Park, Adelaide, only child of New South Wales-born Oliver Athelstone Prisk Tonkin, food factory manager and elocutionist, and his South Australian-born wife Bertha Ida Louise, née Kennett, a music teacher. David’s father died when his son was six, leaving Bertha as a sole parent. Her upbringing of David included his assisting her involvement in non-Labor politics, such as by handing out how-to-vote leaflets at elections. In December 1941 he won a Commercial Traveller’s Association scholarship to the Collegiate School of St Peter (1942–46), from which he proceeded to the University of Adelaide to study medicine (MB, BS, 1953).

Upon graduation, Tonkin became a registrar at Wellington Hospital, New Zealand, where he specialised in ophthalmology. He returned briefly to Adelaide to marry South Australian-born Prudence Ann Juttner, a science graduate, on 16 January 1954, at St Matthew’s Church, Marryatville, Adelaide. They returned to Adelaide in 1955, but David, keen to develop his specialist skills, became in 1957 a clinical assistant at the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital (Moorfields), while studying at the Institute of Ophthalmology (diploma of ophthalmology, 1958). On returning to Adelaide in 1958 he established a thriving practice. He was a director of the Australian Foundation for the Prevention of Blindness (1962–79), and a driving force behind the first public glaucoma screening program in Australia.

The first major foray by Tonkin into politics was as the unsuccessful Liberal and Country League challenger to the incumbent Labor premier, Don Dunstan, in the Adelaide electorate of Norwood at the 1968 State election. He nonetheless attracted a creditable 42 per cent of the primary vote, and at the 1970 election successfully contested the neighbouring electorate of Bragg, a safe Liberal and Country League seat for which he won 67 per cent of the primary vote.

Tonkin soon made an impression in parliament, helped by his solid build and strong, rounded features. In his maiden speech he enunciated his progressive social-liberal values, reflecting on his time serving on the Social Welfare Advisory Council, and stressing that the ‘State’s social welfare programme is just as much the concern of the Liberal-Country League members’ as their Labor opponents (SA HOA 1970, 101). As an Opposition backbencher, in 1973 he moved a private member’s bill to curtail sex discrimination, preceding the Dunstan government’s Sex Discrimination Act by two years. This was ‘an unfashionable policy area in some quarters in the 1970s but one in which he had strong views because of the lessons of his early life’ (Debelle 2000, 11).

In July 1975 Tonkin was the unanimous choice of his colleagues as party leader. His amiable and courteous disposition proved vital to forging party unity at a time of grave division. The merging of the breakaway and progressive Liberal Movement with the Liberal Party was crucial in attaining electoral success four years later, when Labor’s new premier, Des Corcoran, called an early election in the belief that the Opposition would offer little resistance, a view shared by most political commentators. To the contrary, Tonkin’s superior campaigning, coupled with policies that mixed his progressive values with support for free enterprise and the mining sector, saw his party secure a 7 per cent primary vote swing and a seven seat gain. Nevertheless, his premiership rested on a slender majority of one in the forty-seven seat House of Assembly. He also took the treasury, State development, and ethnic affairs portfolios.

Two outstanding achievements of Tonkin’s government were the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 and legislation to establish the legal framework for operations at the Olympic Dam copper, gold, and uranium mine at Roxby Downs, including defining the roles of the South Australian government and the mine’s operator. In 1981 the parliament granted the title deed to land exceeding the size of Tasmania to the Pitjantjatjara people, a remarkable achievement given opposition from his party’s conservative wing. The controversial Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act 1982 confronted stiff opposition from Labor and the Australian Democrats in the Legislative Council, but enjoyed popular support and defined his government’s pro-business stance. It finally passed the Upper House when on the cusp of the 1982 election a Labor member crossed the floor.

Other government achievements included establishing the Ethnic Affairs Commission of South Australia and the History Trust of South Australia to safeguard the State’s heritage, along with initiatives in women’s health, domestic violence, and community housing. The government also commenced work on the innovative O-Bahn busway in north-east Adelaide, and abolished both death duties and land tax on principal places of residence. On election day in December 1982 the Advertiser editorialised in favour of the government’s return, arguing that it had ‘omitted no major initiative within the constraints of the worst economic recession in 50 years.’ But the government lost a net three seats, and was defeated. Somewhat ironically, the Roxby Downs legislation had denied Tonkin a campaign platform from which to berate Labor on the need to lift the State’s faltering economy.

In the wake of this unexpected loss, Tonkin resigned from parliament in April 1983. This was partly also due to the ill-health which, arguably, had contributed to his struggling to campaign with his customary vim. Still dedicated to ophthalmology and to public service, his post-parliamentary life included serving as a consultant for the Northern Territory government training Aboriginal health workers, time in London as secretary-general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (1986–92) and chairing the State Opera of South Australia (1985–86) and the South Australian Film Corporation (1994–96). He was appointed AO in 1993, but three years later suffered a severe stroke that forced his retirement. Six weeks prior to his death Prime Minister John Howard presented him with the Liberal Party’s outstanding service award. Tonkin died in his sleep at Mengler Hill on 2 October 2000 after attending the annual Barossa Music Festival: he had long been a classical music enthusiast. He was survived by his wife, and their three daughters and three sons. His ashes were interred in the grounds of St Matthew’s Church, Marryatville. Another Liberal premier of South Australia, John Olsen, spoke for many when he said that ‘David always had a concern for others. He was a compassionate man, a likeable man, and, most of all, a man of humility’ (SA HOA 2000, 3).

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide). ‘A Convincing Record.’ 5 December 1982
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History. ‘Australian Political Chronicle, South Australia.’ 26, no. 1 (April 1980): 108–16
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History. ‘Australian Political Chronicle, South Australia.’ 27, no. 1 (April 1981): 74–82
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History. ‘Australian Political Chronicle, South Australia.’ 27, no. 3 (December 1981): 392–99
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History. ‘Australian Political Chronicle, South Australia.’ 28, no. 3 (December 1982): 429–38
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History. ‘Australian Political Chronicle, South Australia.’ 29, no. 1 (April 1983): 86–95
  • Brown, Dean. Personal communication
  • Debelle, Penelope. ‘Obituaries—David Oliver Tonkin, AO—South Australian Premier.’ Age (Melbourne), 18 October 2000, 11
  • Jory, Rex. ‘Gentleman Politician with Music in His Soul.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 October 2000, 18
  • Kemp, Miles. ‘A Reformer and a Gentleman.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 7 October 2000, 76
  • South Australia. House of Assembly. Parliamentary Debates, 16 July 1970, 101–2
  • South Australia. House of Assembly. Parliamentary Debates, 4 October 2000, 3–13
  • State Library of South Australia. PRG 1598, Papers of Dr David Oliver Tonkin AO
  • Tonkin, Prudence. Personal communication

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Haydon Manning, 'Tonkin, David Oliver (1929–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 18 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

David Tonkin, no date

David Tonkin, no date

State Library of South Australia, B 72744/69

Life Summary [details]


20 July, 1929
Hyde Park, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


2 October, 2000 (aged 71)
Mengler Hill, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Political Activism