Tuesday, 28 November 2023

Don Dunstan Lecture

It is an honour to be invited to deliver the first in the Don Dunstan Lecture Series to commemorate, indeed celebrate, Adelaide Festival Centre’s 50th Anniversary.

I have been asked to explore the role of cultural diplomacy and the value of the arts to society and relish the opportunity to do both.

I intend to speak from the perspectives firstly of a teenager in Adelaide in the 1970s, secondly drawing on my experience as a career diplomat, and thirdly, as Governor.


Unlike some of the people I have spoken to in preparing for this lecture, I don’t have clear memories of the Festival Theatre’s beginnings fifty years ago. I know I wasn’t at the official opening.

I felt sure, though, that my teenage diaries, mostly unread since they were written, would reveal attendance at performances with my parents and my siblings, Christine and Stuart, which would explain why I feel a sense of excitement and inspiration when I think about the arts in South Australia during the 1970s.

Fortunately, they did - along with many other details, presumably important to me then, but now better forgotten.

In 1977, I wrote of having seen HMS Pinafore with Edward Woodward (“which I pronounced “a fantastic performance”) and Macbeth, (which I rated “extremely well done”) with Myra Noblet, my school drama teacher appearing as one of the witches.

At the 1978 Adelaide Festival of Arts, I saw Oedipus and later in the year the Glass Menagerie, my first “interesting” encounter with Tennessee Williams.

In 1979, after I had left school and was buying my own tickets, I saw Dracula, directed by Robert Helpmann and starring John Waters, Hamlet, the Australian Youth Orchestra, a “thought provoking” production of American Buffalo, the Twenties and All That Jazz, Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, which Christine and I enjoyed greatly.

Like many South Australians who were interviewed by Samela Harris for her lively 50th Anniversary book, I discovered I could be transported in time and place, culture and emotion, all from a seat in the Adelaide Festival Centre. It was absolutely mesmerising and so full of possibility.

Whether you have been a regular patron over the past 50 years, or have just been to your first performance, I expect you all feel much the same.

Enjoying the Festival Theatre, Dunstan Playhouse, Space and Amphitheatre – not forgetting Her Majesty’s Theatre - it is difficult to imagine what life must have been like before they were here.

Forgive me, as this is the first Dunstan Lecture, if I retell what will be so well known to some of you that it may feel like a favourite bed-time story.

In his book “By Popular Demand – the Adelaide Festival Centre Story”, published to mark the Centre’s 25th anniversary in 1998, Lance Campbell tells the story thus:

  • In 1960, the Adelaide Festival of Arts, was held for the first time with, I might add, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother as patron. Later that year, the Board of Governors reported encountering “great difficulties in finding places in which to present Festival performances” and “..respectfully suggest[ed] to the Government that a multi-purpose festival hall should be built in Adelaide ­for the people of South Australia.”.
  • The Premier, Sir Thomas Playford, took some persuading, but persuaded he ultimately was, and the Festival Hall (City of Adelaide) Act of 1964 got things moving.
  • The concept received strong support from the Adelaide City Council and the arts community, and, once it started to take shape, from the public. But as with any major construction project in Adelaide, it was not without controversy.
  • The originally chosen site, Carclew in North Adelaide, and the original concept, a 2500 seat concert hall, both underwent change, under Don Dunstan’s leadership as Premier in 1967 and 1968, and then during Steele Hall’s term from 1968-1970, when the present site was settled upon and work began.
  • With Labor’s re-election in June 1970, earlier work Dunstan had commissioned from a New York theatre consultant recommending a lyric theatre/concert hall, drama theatre, exhibition space and gallery areas, came to the fore, and in August 1971, with some additional railways land added, it was settled.

The Festival Theatre was opened by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on Saturday 2 June 1973. He predicted it would be “a source of great pride to the people of South Australia and the City of Adelaide” and “an inspiration to the whole of Australia”.

And Whitlam was right. South Australians were proud of what was the first major lyric theatre in the country and proud of it having opened before the Sydney Opera House.

To quote Lance Campbell again, “This was a bloody good theatre – good to look at, good to be in, good for South Australia”.

Fifty years later, we still feel that way, only even more so because we have explored, created and experimented, and we understand more deeply the value of the arts to society, not just performed at a biannual, now annual, festival, but through what are now more or less continuous festivals and events.

It will be clear from what many of you know and what I’ve said that Premiers Playford, Hall and Dunstan all played a role, if you will excuse the pun, in the realisation of Adelaide Festival Centre.

And to this day, their political parties debate the apportionment of credit in that broadly reassuring, gentle, very South Australian way.

But no one doubts that Don Dunstan was both a political reformer and a performer, metaphorically and literally, on the state and national stage. While at university he had also studied piano at the conservatorium. When Premier, he danced on stage at Her Majesty’s Theatre and read poetry during a Festival performance at the Zoo. Friends describe him as a frustrated thespian. And he was a storyteller; of our stories to us and to the world.

One can only wonder how he would have described himself on his Facebook page should social media have been on the scene then. I am confident he would have embraced it exuberantly.


The striking thing about Dunstan, even to me as a teenage schoolgirl at the time, was that he was changing things in exciting ways and that South Australians were changing too.

We took pride in Adelaide Festival Centre – the building and festivals and performances which took place in and around it.

As several former Arts ministers have described it to me, the Festival Centre became part of our identity.

In a personal memoir, Helen Covernton, the well-known arts writer recalls interviewing Anthony Steel, the first general manager of the Festival Centre (also artistic director of the Festival of Arts) – here this evening - and quotes him as saying “The Adelaide Festival Centre is attended by a wider cross-section of the community than an equivalent centre anywhere in the world.” True to the aspirations – perhaps even exceeding them – of the Festival Board of Governors in 1960.

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the State Theatre Company becoming a legislated entity and the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the South Australian Film Corporation, about which Mike Rann will speak in the second Dunstan Lecture. This year, we mark the 50th anniversary of Adelaide Festival Centre and JamFactory Contemporary Craft and Design.

Dunstan was very busy fifty years ago, not just with the arts, but with social reform – racial and sexual discrimination legislation, aboriginal land rights, support for decriminalisation of homosexuality, pioneering modern multiculturalism - all areas in which he was pacesetting, as he described it, for the rest of the country.

The reason I mention these reforms in this lecture, is that one way or another they all contributed to who we are as South Australians; to our identity, and to how others see us, nationally and internationally.

Soft power

They also contributed to our “soft power”, a concept developed and popularised by Joseph Nye, a former United States Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration.

In the Foreign Policy White Paper, prepared while I was Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and launched in 2017 by Prime Minister Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, we described soft power as “having the ability to influence the behaviour or thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas.”

The arts are obviously part of Australia’s soft power, and South Australia’s too. As the White Paper said, “Collaboration on cultural projects helps build influence and partnerships internationally and creates shared understanding.”

That’s where “cultural diplomacy” comes in. Successful cultural diplomacy enables us to engage with others, drawing on our soft power, to build awareness of who we are and what we stand for and how we can work together, whether in the arts, or more broadly.

During my career as a diplomat, I saw time and again while on postings in Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing and London how world-class performances by Australian orchestras and ensembles, and ballet, modern dance, opera and theatre companies changed perceptions of who we were as Australians and what we were capable of. This often evoked a positive response well beyond the audience.

And it was not just performances, but the kind of deeper engagement I saw the Sydney Symphony Orchestra develop while I was Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China.

The SSO’s strategy of building cultural connections to support business and diplomacy included performances in a wider range of Chinese cities than was usual. It covered exchanges of musicians, masterclasses, and ensembles for diplomatic and business events in both the PRC and Australia. The SSO also provided mentorship in areas of orchestral management, marketing, and subscription models to China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts.

In 2019, while I was DFAT Secretary, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra performed to great acclaim in Zhuhai, Shanghai, and Beijing.

I should add it’s not just diplomats who can feel a change in the chemistry of a bilateral relationship when a visiting company achieves excellence in the performing arts. The performers do, too, and know they are making a difference.

Next week, the City of Adelaide will welcome a delegation of members of Penang Island City Council visiting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment by Don Dunstan as Premier and Dr Lim Chong Eu, Chief Minister of Penang, of our Sister City Relationship.

The relationship was built on common elements of our history – Captain Francis Light having founded Penang, while his son, Colonel William Light, laid out our own City of Adelaide. However, it was given impetus through Dunstan’s recognition of Adelaide’s increasing connection with its neighbours in the Asia Pacific region. The focus, naturally, was on promoting and expanding arts and culture, business, sports, and tourism.

Again, this was Dunstan in tune with the times, but also ahead of them, drawing on his personal connections, and his understanding of Adelaide and the world, to forge a link which remains relevant today – arguably increasingly so - to city and state-level public policy, and economic and people-to-people relations.

In August, I made an official visit to Malaysia and in my meetings with Ministers in Kuala Lumpur, I spoke about the Adelaide-George Town partnership, our history, the contemporary exchange of writers and ideas through the George Town Literary Festival and In Other Words, the literary component of OzAsia Festival. George Town as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Adelaide as Australia’s only UNESCO Creative City of Music.

And I talked about it in the context of our national level comprehensive strategic partnership and our shared interests in scaling up renewable energy, securing supply chains for critical minerals and educating our young people to meet future challenges together.

In George Town, the focus was on our shared food cultures as well as the links between the arts, tourism and business. Food for thought as I walked through the morning markets with Adam Liaw.

In this and other ways, South Australia contributes to the achievement of Australian objectives through cultural diplomacy, drawing on our soft power acquired over decades, but much of it able to be traced back to the cultural and social policy foundations laid in the Dunstan decade.

Having spoken to former Arts ministers, three of them Premiers, over the past 25 years, it is evident they have all relished the role, but also that they have sought actively to build on the legacy they inherited, sometimes ambitiously creating, sometimes refurbishing, but all mindful of the value, in all its dimensions, of the arts to our society.

In this they have been massively assisted by some of the world’s most capable festival directors and arts administrators, generations of them, and to my mind among our most valuable imports and exports.

They’ve been creative, bold, controversial, opinionated and have put and kept Adelaide on the map. As one former arts minister and premier told me, if you want preference from the rest of the world, you need awareness and you can’t have awareness if no one knows what you are doing.

Economic Impact

Successive governments have sought to leverage and quantify the economic impact, firstly of Adelaide Festival and later of the arts more broadly. Seeking to quantify the net economic benefit of the festival was a project worked on by one of my fellow Adelaide Uni Economics graduates, Stephen McDonald, in 1988 through the SA Centre for Economic Studies and something we discussed at the time.

A 2022 study for the South Australian government shows that 96% of South Australians engage with the arts, 83% acknowledge the significant positive impact the arts have on their lives, 69% believe arts and culture make for a richer, more meaningful life, and 56% experience the arts as improving their sense of wellbeing and happiness.

In 2020-21, South Australia had more than 10,000 creative businesses employing an estimated 15,000 full time equivalent employees, contributing $1.8 billion directly to the state’s economy and growing at 9% per annum, faster than the rest of the economy.

We have the second largest fringe festival in the world, selling more than one million tickets this year, making it the largest arts and cultural festival in Australia.

At the national level, “A New Approach” (ANA), an independent think tank funded by 11 philanthropic partners, champions effective investment and return in Australian arts and culture. ANA has sought to enhance our understanding of the benefits of the transformative impacts of arts, culture, and creativity on a much wider range of areas, including society and place, innovation, health and wellbeing, education and learning and international relations.

Cultural Diplomacy

From my own perspective as a former diplomat, I can say that Australian foreign ministers have been quick to grasp the value of cultural diplomacy in changing stereotypical images of Australia, building our reputation and our influence, and forging forward-looking partnerships.

It is striking that those with strong connections to South Australia seem to have been among the most forward leaning.

Alexander Downer, Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister and later Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, reasoned that promoting Australian artists in the major cultural capitals of the world would have most impact and focused his and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s attention on London, New York, and Los Angeles.

There John Olsen, Consul-General and a former Premier of South Australia, developed G’Day LA and G’Day USA, highly successful avenues to promote Australia cultural and business endeavours.

Julie Bishop, Australia’s first female foreign minister, added an emphasis on fashion and promoted Australian, including South Australian, designers through what came to be known as her signature fashion diplomacy – fashion obviously being something dear to Dunstan’s heart also.

Penny Wong, Australia’s first foreign minister of Asian heritage, has drawn on her own personal story to increase awareness overseas of Australia as a multicultural nation, telling an audience in Malaysia last year:

My Malaysian heritage is one of the 270 ancestries now represented in Australia. Half of the Australian population was born overseas or has a parent who was born overseas. Australia will be reflecting this rich character back to the world, so the world can see itself in Australia.”

Dunstan recognised a need for the state and nation to engage with our region and that was seen as far sighted at the time, although I should reassure you that Australian diplomats were already on the case.

The Adelaide Festival Centre’s CEO and Artistic Director, Douglas Gautier describes Adelaide Festival Centre’s current role as:

“ ….aim[ing] to provide a context for South Australia and Australia’s place in our geographical and cultural region of Asia Pacific. Adelaide Festival Centre’s OzAsia Festival nurtures powerful relationships with neighbouring countries and Australians with Asian heritage. Cultural exchange and understanding, at home and within our region, are even more important today than when Adelaide Festival Centre was built in 1973.”

Douglas, as many of you know, has for the past decade chaired the Association of Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centres, AAPPAC, positioning Adelaide Festival Centre as a leader in performing arts centre management in our region.

Douglas’ deep knowledge of the Asia Pacific, some of it gained through his years spent in Hong Kong, has enabled him further to strengthen Adelaide Festival Centre’s role in Australia’s cultural diplomacy and in supporting South Australia’s commercial interests throughout Asia and globally.

OzAsia Festival is at the centre of this engagement and has been actively supported by my predecessor the Honourable Hieu Van Le AC from the moment he became OzAsia’s inaugural patron in 2007, while still Chairman of the South Australian Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission.

The four original pillars – performing arts, visual arts, cultural debate, and community involvement - are still holding strong.

I’ve found the panel discussions between authors during the literary festival within OzAsia – In Other Words – at this and last year’s festivals to be deeply thought provoking and providing real insights into what Shankari Chandran described at this year’s festival as the “stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others and the stories told about us.”

Our very oldest stories are of course those shared with us by First Nations Australians. As a teenager growing up in Adelaide in the 1970s, I knew very little of these.

As a diplomat, I saw how powerfully indigenous Australians, whether diplomats or non-diplomats, communicated with other First Nations peoples, whether in the Pacific, Asia or at the United Nations. I also saw the impact of performances by Bangarra Dance Theatre in London, or wherever they travelled, indigenous art works specially commissioned for the Musee du quai Branly in Paris, and Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters shown in Australian embassies across our network.

I came to understand how very special it is to live in a country which is home to the world’s oldest continuing culture.

As DFAT Secretary, I launched on behalf of the department’s indigenous staff, an Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda and came to appreciate that in my own country indigenous people had been practicing diplomacy between groups and across lands and regions for millennia.


Returning to South Australia as Governor, I was proud to meet among the many descendants of the Adamsons who arrived in South Australia in 1839, Tiahni Adamson, a Torres Strait Islander Woman, and 2024 Young Australian of the Year for South Australia.

I’ve had a lot of catching up to do with all forms of Aboriginal Art: the acclaimed Tarnanthi Festival at the Art Gallery of South Australia; Daniel Reilly at the Australian Dance Theatre directing and choreographing Tracker, the story of his Great-Great Uncle; singers like Nancy Bates, First Nations work taking centre stage at Adelaide Festival and Truth telling, some of it “pacesetting” in the spirit of Dunstan.

With the assistance of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Rod and I have made a modest contribution ourselves, setting up “conversations” between the AGSA artworks displayed at Government House.

Governors, properly, do not involve themselves in politics or policy, but on occasions such as this it would be reasonable for an audience, while being confident I won’t be crossing a line, nevertheless, to expect me to have something to say.

The Federal Government’s National Cultural Policy - Revive: a place for every story, a story for every place was launched in January and set directions for Australia’s arts, entertainment, and cultural sector for the next five years. It is structured around five pillars and deliberately and explicitly puts First Nations “first”.

Here in South Australia, the Premier and Minister for Arts announced in September the development of a new cultural policy to be released in mid-2024. We all await that with keen interest.

As is well known, Rod and I are keen supporters of the arts. We are “all kinds of festival” enthusiasts and love supporting South Australian performing arts companies, as well as young artists and musicians. We attend their exhibitions and performances, and they kindly accept our invitations to perform at state dinners and at our monthly picnics on the lawns, which are open to all.

We were delighted when the Board of State Opera South Australia recently invited us to become the company’s patrons, complementing what is already an eclectic mix of arts organisations we have the honour to support.

And whether it’s attending large-scale events such as Carols by Candlelight, Citizens Orchestra, WOMADelaide, and Tutti Arts’ Big Fringe Singalong; or facing uncomfortable truths in Watershed, STC’s searing production of Girls and Boys, and Adelaide Film Festival’s Made in SA awards, we are privileged regularly to experience the value the arts bring to the people of South Australia.

Not just at Adelaide Festival Centre, but at venues across the city and the state.

The future

The arts don’t stand still, and neither should we.

If, on the occasion of the centenary of Adelaide Festival Centre, an invitation were to be issued to the Governor of the day to reflect on the arts in South Australia, I hope they would be able to cast their mind back to the 2020s and remark on: the completion of a long-awaited concert hall; a world-class Centre for First Nations Cultures, Tarrkarri at Lot 14; and a state which had continued to accumulate its soft power through the arts, building confidently and ambitiously on the contribution of its First Nations peoples and its multi-cultural community, tightly connected to its neighbours in the Indo-Pacific and its partners across the world.

South Australia pacesetting.

Coming events