Saturday, March 29, 2014

Albert Dunstan

Cutting between Spring and Landsdowne Streets, Treasury Place provides an unexpectedly elegant boundary to the State Parliament precinct. With the undulating green of the Treasury Gardens on one side, and the graceful pale stone of various public service offices on the other, it is simultaneously both a secluded and open space and is a good spot for a stroll, when it's not overrun with bureaucrats.

The current layout dates from the 1950's, when the government precinct was given an overhaul.

Treasury Place in the 1950's.

And today.

Keeping vigil outside the Treasury offices are four statues, depicting four of Victoria's most famous Premiers; Albert Dunstan, Henry Bolte, Dick Hamer and John Cain jr, And while their names are probably familiar, the key achievements and personalities of these former leaders have, perhaps, become obscured by the passage of time.

These are worth considering. For among the details of the public lives of these four, very different men, you can tell much about the history of life in this state, and about the machinations of politics everywhere. Over the next few weeks, we'll have a look at the backstory on these former Premiers, starting with our very own Frank Underwood, Albert Dunstan.


Short, stocky and pugnacious, Albert Dunstan may have seemed like an odd fit for a top level politician. But his forthright, direct manner and everyman persona made him an effective operator.

Born into a farming family in rural Victoria, Dunstan initially seemed set to continue the family line, working on the land first in Queensland and then locally, near Swan Hill. But in 1916, he joined the Victorian Farmer's Union, a move that would eventually lead him to a seat in the State Parliament as the member for Eaglehawk. Dunstan quickly established himself as one of the VFU's most outspoken parliamentary members, and also soon displayed a talent for Machiavellian political chicanery.

In 1921 Dunstan fell out with the VFU's Parliamentary leader, John Allan, and began to undermine his authority. The VFU had traditionally voted with the leading conservative party of the day, the Nationalists, but Dunstan lead a breakaway faction that voted with the Labor Party on certain key issues.

John Allen; nemesis

Allen correctly interpreted this as Dunstan's attempt to destabilise his leadership and paid him back by stymieing his career. Despite his effectiveness in Parliament, Dunstan was deliberately excluded from cabinet when the VFU formed a coalition government with the Nationalists in 1924. Allan became deputy Premier and seemed to have thwarted his feisty rival.

But Dunstan was far from finished.

In 1926, he formed his own party, the Country Progressive Party, and sat in Parliament as its sole member, ostensibly as an independent. Dunstan's talents on the stump and in the community were now unencumbered and in the 1927 election, the CPP increased it's representation to 5, solely at the expense of the VFU.

Worried about how successful Dunstan may become, Allan and the VFU sought peace. In 1930, Allan convinced Dunstan to rejoin the fold, and they merged their two parties into the United Country Party. Allan remained as leader but, to his undoubted chagrin, Dunstan demanded the deputy leadership as part of the deal.

And the agreement bore fruit. In 1932, the UCP formed a coalition government with the conservative United Australia Party, with Allen again as deputy Premier and Dunstan now becoming Minister of Works. Dunstan was to prove a diligent and hard working Minister, but his ambitions went much further than this.

Dunstan in 1932.

The election of 1935 was close, but the UAP Government, headed by Stanley Argyle, was returned. Allan had lost the UCP leadership by this stage, largely due to poor health, and had been replaced by Murray Bourchier.

Bourchier, however, had proved an ineffective leader. Dunstan had spent the previous three years shoring up his support within the party and, shortly after the election, successfully challenged Bourchier for the leadership, which also brought the Deputy Premier's office with it.

He was now just one short step away from achieving his ultimate goal.

Dunstan campaigning in 1935. His ease with
regular folks was much remarked upon.

The relationship between the UAP and the UCP had always been strained, and Labor leader Thomas Tunnecliffe now sought to widen this divide. He had intermediaries reach out to Dunstan and advise that if Dunstan were to move a no-confidence motion in the government, Labor would support a new government headed by Dunstan himself. While an act of outrageous political treachery, this offer would prove too much of a temptation.

Dunstan had his party withdraw from the coalition on March 19, 1935 and a no confidence motion was put to Parliament nine days later. This passed and Dunstan formed a new government, and became Premier, on April 2.

The local press reports the story, April 2, 1935.

He would remain at the head of Victoria's Government for the following eight years. Although the methods he employed to retain power were every bit as cynical as the means he had used to claim office.

Even a united country party would only ever be a minor player in a state like Victoria, so Dunstan quickly moved to stack the deck in his favour. Using a form of gerrymandering that would resurface during Joh Bjelke-Peterson's long reign in Queensland in the 70's and 80's, Dunstan used electoral redistribution legislation to redraw the electoral boundaries for country electorates. In simple terms, country electorates then contained dramatically fewer people than their city equivalents, meaning a political party like Dunstan's could claim more seats with fewer votes.

Such a tactic could not work without additional political support, and Dunstan found that his Labor Party allies were willing to back his scheme in exchange for a few policy concessions. Although their support was controversial and threatened to split the party at times, they remained behind Dunstan for seven years, enabling his Premiership.

John Cain sr.

Finally, in 1943 Labor withdrew their support and voted in favour of electoral equalisation legislation. When Dunstan lost this vote, he immediately resigned as Premier, seemingly seeing the closure of his route to power. He was replaced by John Cain sr, but Cain's interim Labor government would last only 5 days.

With Labor unable to command a working majority in Parliament, Dunstan returned to the Premier's office to see out the remaining two years of his term.  But the farce had nearly concluded; John Cain lead Labor to a convincing victory at the election of 1945.

But this was a period of great instability in Victorian politics, and the ALP government was replaced in 1947 by a conservative coalition; consisting of the newly created Liberal Party, and Country Party. Dunstan, while no longer a viable option as Country Party leader, still managed to claim the key post of Health Minister.  But Premier Thomas Hollway was suspicious of Dunstan, and quietly had him removed from  Cabinet a year after the election.

Towards the end; Dunstan as health minister in 1947.

As his eventful career in politics was finally winding down, Dunstan also received the highest civilian honour available at the time; in 1948 he was knighted.

His final two years in state parliament passed quietly as an independent private member. In 1950, shortly after a tour of his own electorate, Dunstan died of heart disease at the family home in Camberwell. His decade at the top makes him Victoria's second longest serving Premier, but his political methods and manipulation of the system make him one of the most controversial figures state politics has produced.

At the very least, he is an unusual choice for the subject of a statue outside the state Parliament. Also of interest is the way the statue has been arranged to make it look as if Dunstan is in conversation with former Liberal Premier Henry Bolte. Bolte's loathing of Dunstan was well known and he publicly described the UCP as 'political prostitutes' for their ousting of Stanley Argyle.