SOUTH AUSTRALIA’S REPUTATION for progressive reform extends back to its origins in Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s scheme for imperial systematic colonisation. Wakefield’s grand plans, which inspired followers and shaped several colonies in Australasia, aimed to rid Australia of convict transportation and to assist respectable free settlers. While land policy would limit the expansion of the frontier and regulate class relationships, those who worked hard would be able to acquire land, and settlers would have a voice in the framing of their laws. Wakefield’s scheme was born in the milieu of early nineteenth-century British philosophical radicalism. Jeremy Bentham died before South Australia was settled, but he was a keen supporter of its planning, and suggested that it be named to reflect its radical promise: ‘Felicia’, ‘Felicitania’ or ‘Liberia’. Regardless of just how well the state has lived up to those early rosy hopes, its sense of reformist exceptionalism has been woven into its history. One of its most important political leaders, Don Dunstan, the democratic socialist and nationally influential premier from 1967–68 and 1970–79, self-consciously adopted this tradition by titling his 1981 political memoirs Felicia.
Though he never set foot in Australia, Wakefield’s politics were to be shaped by his own imperial experience in Canada and New Zealand. His colourful life story is widely, if only partially, known. But what is less well known is that the state’s nation-leading reforms in the 1960s–70s also had imperial roots. Dunstan was born and grew up in Fiji, and much of his passionate commitment to racial equality, as well as his antipathy to colonialism and to petty official tyranny, derived from what he observed there. He knew and would say that his experience in Fiji had shaped his politics.
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