Turning Points, Chapters in South Australian History

Turning Points

Turning Points
Chapters in South Australian History

Edited by
Robert Foster and
Paul Sendziuk


South Australia has often been represented as different from the other colonies. It was established on rational economic principles, there were no transported convicts, it was more enlightened in its attitudes towards Aboriginal people, and more progressive in its social and political development. Some of this is true, some of it is not. The story is much more complex. South Australians have taken great pride in their history, especially in the nineteenth century. So how different is South Australia really from the rest of Australia?

Bill Gammage makes it abundantly clear and beyond doubt that the Aborigines did manage their environment by selective burning, creating parkland landscapes on the Adelaide plains and as far north as the Clare Valley. Their fire regimes were distinct he says, repeated and integrated to maintain particular plants and animal habitats. It does put to rest the often repeated statement that it was the mines that caused the removal of all the trees for mine props and firewood for the smelters.

Henry Reynolds discusses Terra Nullius, Native Title and the importance of the Letters Patent which were the foundation documents of South Australia and recognised the pre-existing Aboriginal property rights. Although the Colonial Office was serious about this, Reynolds argues that they were deceived by the planners who turned a paradise of dissent into a paradise of deception.

The Letters Patent were just not taken seriously. Although they referred to lands in actual occupation or enjoyment, and although it may have been possible before Mabo to say that such phrases simply did not mean anything, this is no longer a viable option.

According to Robert Foster and Amanda Nettelbeck South Australia was unique among British colonies in being established by an Act of Parliament, a legal instrument employed in the belief that it would enshrine the planners’ economic principles and further their social and political ambitions. Among its many provisions the Act expressively outlawed the importation of convicts.

The essay by Paul Sendziuk provides some interesting reading. There were no convicts transported to South Australia, but that does not mean that there were no convict. They have been in South Australia from the very first. Convict were transported to Australia well before 1788 and when the first settlers arrived at Kangaroo Island they found them there as well. South Australia’s planning itself was based on the principles set out by convict Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

Many South Australians were opposed to Federation because of the other convict tainted colonies. What was conveniently forgotten was the important contribution convicts, ex-convicts and runaways had made to South Australia. They had previous experience of surviving and adapting in a new country. They were employed by the pastoralists and others as stock keepers, shepherds, paling and shingle splitters, sawyers, whalers, sealers, police constables and build fences and houses.

One of the better known ex-convicts was Emanuel Solomon. It was Solomon who bought the land that was subdivided to create Port Pirie. Although a Jew he provided living quarters for Mary MacKilllop’s Sisters of St Joseph and finally became a Member of Parliament.

Susan Magarey’s essay concentrates on sex and citizenship. Her focus is on two legislative events which contributed to the citizenship of women; the achievement of the vote for all women, including Aboriginal women, in 1894, in the presence of Mary Lee, Catherine Helen Spence, Rose Birks, and Elizabeth W. Nicholls. The other important Act was the prohibition of discrimination against women in 1975, which was introduced by David Tonkin the day after the death of his mother.

Jill Roe’s contribution is about life on the Rural Frontier and the changes which have taken place during the twentieth century with particular references to Koppio and Eyre Peninsula in general. Whereas before some of the classic works of South Australian histories have dealt with the rural experience, today it is a neglected subject.

One of her interesting points is the importance of something as mundane as fencing wire which heralded a profound change in rural life. It made life far easier for both farmer and stock owner but meant, among others, the end of the shepherd, a vital figure of the pastoral age.

Mark Peel has concentrated on Post-war South Australia through the eyes of its migrants. It is particularly illuminating as he singles out Elizabeth which was populated mostly by British and to a lesser extent by German and Dutch migrants as well as a good number of Aboriginal families.

He proposes that no other Australian state managed so great a venture in town planning as South Australia. No other Australian state housing authority endeavoured to bring affordable housing and land, work, shopping and recreation into the kind of alignment the Housing Trust managed in its new town. Nothing of this kind, nor extent, has ever been tried anywhere in Australia. A real turning point!

Other turning points in South Australia’s history have been the contributions made by three great political figures. Charles Kingston the radical premier led South Australia into federation. Thomas Playford industrialised a primary-producing state to match the eastern states. Last but not least there was Donald Allan Dunstan.

Dunstan, says Neal Blewitt, was an admirer of Kingston and he was committed to his social and democratic cause and wanted to make South Australia a model for the rest of the world. His only problem, in the words of one of the old guard, being that he never had ‘used a pick or shovel in his f… live’. Maybe he didn’t but it was Dunstan who finally got all citizens the vote for the Legislative Council.

He was the most charismatic of all the late twentieth century politicians, the Nureyev of Australian politics and the most dynamic force in South Australian politics. Among his many achievements listed by Blewitt were his successful fight to remove Labour’s commitment to White Australia, supporter of the political movement against the Vietnam War, and gave South Australia the fairest electoral system in mainland Australia.

Dunstan was a bold and adventurous politician according to Blewitt, willing to take risks for causes he believed in and his Aboriginal policies guided Australia much of the twentieth century. He prevented the execution of Rupert Stuart and was the architect of multiculturalism nationally. He abolished the antiquated licencing and gambling laws and relaxed citizens’ laws. He also made possible the appointment of (Dame) Roma Mitchell to the Supreme Court. And the list goes on and on.

Still, there were many other innovations and policies which he tried to introduce but was unable to do so. Regardless of his many achievements many people disliked his flamboyant emotionalism and theatrical flair. South Australians were particularly upset when he left the state to become Director of Tourism in Victoria. No biography of Dunstan has been written yet.

Finally John Hirst asks: ‘How distinctive was South Australia after all?’ He is convinced that South Australia was distinctive in its origin but not much different from the other states now. However it is and remains a central state, at the heart of Australia, as it has always been, at least geographically.

Robert Foster and Paul Sendziuk have put together these essays, by ten eminent historians from South Australia, and elsewhere in an easy to read book. The essays explore different themes by examining some key turning points in South Australia’s history. The contributors have produced a truly remarkable set of essays on many important but different aspects of South Australian history.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Turning Points, edited by Robert Foster and Paul Sendziuk,
with extensive chapter notes, index and photographs,
is available at $29.95, from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8362 8800


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