OPINION: Don Dunstan the environmentalist

By Mike Rann, Chair, Climate Group Global and UK Boards |

Sometimes people say that while Don Dunstan championed civil liberties, equal opportunity, anti-discrimination and Aboriginal land rights, he really didn’t focus on environmental issues.

That isn’t true. 

In 1970 Don appointed Glen Broomhill as Minister for Conservation and then established the Department of Environment and Conservation. 

Together they oversaw a range of initiatives including the Coastal Protection Board, a large increase in the area of national parks and wetlands, and measures to improve the Hills Face Zone.

He also pursued international collaborations, led by South Australia, on dry land farming. That expertise is even more important today as we are forced to adapt to global warming to feed the world. 

One piece of Dunstan’s legislation was world leading, the introduction in 1975 of Container Deposit legislation. It led to a massive reduction in cans and bottles that had previously littered our roadsides and natural environment. It also kick-started a recycling industry, helped fund charities and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Dunstan resisted pressure from industry who threatened that, if passed, the legislation would cause jobs to disappear, force up the price of beer and close local factories.

It has taken nearly 50 years for other Australian states to catch up.  In the meantime, progressive governments in North America and Europe followed South Australia’s lead.

For me Dunstan’s legacy is his insistent summons for us to look forward not back. He believed a small state like ours could act as a laboratory for reform nationally and sometimes internationally.

Twenty years ago my government, assisted by Thinkers in Residence from around the world, decided to follow Don’s example by embracing areas of reform where SA could be a leader, not a follower.

One of those areas was climate change where Australia was (and still is) seen as lagging behind most other advanced countries. So SA pursued early mover leadership in the roll out of renewable energy, capturing the lion’s share of national investment in wind and solar. 

We strengthened and expanded Don’s Container Deposit legislation and we were the first state to ban non-reusable plastic bags because every year 400 million of these bags polluted our state’s environment, clogging our waterways.

Like Don years before, we faced vigorous opposition from business who argued that jobs would be lost and consumers wouldn’t cop cloth shopping bags. Sadly, other states backed down. We didn’t and our initiative proved both effective and popular.

We expanded our Zero Waste policies, massively increased areas under national park status and legislated for an important but controversial Marine Park network. With our Nullabor Wilderness Protection Area we doubled the area of land in SA under environmental protection.

South Australia was the first state to introduce a solar feed-in tariff that ensured we led the nation in the installation of rooftop solar panels.

We also introduced the Climate Change and Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Act 2007, which saw us become the first Australian state to legislate targets to reduce carbon emissions.

Last year academics writing for the respected international journal ‘Climate Policy’ recognised South Australia’s world leadership in setting targets. Now with bipartisan support our state will derive 100% of its power from renewables by the end of this decade. 

These days I’m involved with the United Kingdom headquartered Climate Group. We operate in 50 countries working with 260 state and regional governments on every continent to help them reach their targets of achieving zero emissions by 2050, with tough, measurable benchmarks along the way.

We are currently working with the financial sector to advance the deployment of trillions of dollars away from fossil fuels and into sustainable investments.

The pace of change is accelerating with coal-fired power stations closing because they can no longer compete with cheaper renewable energy.

With a membership of more than 500 corporations, the Climate Group is helping business in a range of sectors to more rapidly decarbonise. We are also working with policy makers around the world to advance the embrace of electric vehicles.

More than 40 years since Don Dunstan was Premier his inspiration continues.

He was right in arguing that leadership by states such as South Australia can drag reluctant national governments along the road of reform. However, to truly set a compelling example to others requires leadership and courage. Those two qualities define Don Dunstan. 

That is his continuing inspiration for us in so many areas of public policy, including tackling the most pressing issue facing our planet, global warming. He’d be telling us to hurry up but assuring us that commitment, perseverance and resilience will get us there in the end. 

About Mike Rann 

Mike Rann, South Australia’s 44th Premier, was Don Dunstan’s press secretary and speechwriter.

He now chairs the Climate Group’s Global and UK boards, and is a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute of King’s College London.