GUEST POST: Law Reform and the Death of Dr Duncan

law reform and the death of dr duncan

Fifty years ago, Dr Ian Duncan’s murder led to major law reform, as South Australia became the first state to decriminalise homosexuality. In this special guest post, Robert Hicks discusses the political impacts of Dr Duncan’s death.

Read his fascinating piece below.

Feast Festival is hosting a commemoration event for Dr Duncan on Thursday 24 November at 11 am at Centennial Park. Find more information on the event here.

Sometimes known as the ‘City of Churches’ due to its diversity of faiths and the religious tolerance espoused by the city’s founders, Adelaide holds a place in Australian history as a progressive beacon of religious freedom and progressive reform. But it also has a reputation among those in the state (and across state borders) as a big country town, with all the bells and whistles of a stereotypical conservative parish.

The truth is more chequered.

Our story begins in the 1960s and 70s with two men: the 35th Premier of South Australia Don Dunstan (South Australia’s then-Attorney General), and Adelaide University law lecturer Dr George Duncan.

Right: Premier Don Dunstan

Don Dunstan led the charge for reform

Don Dunstan, George Duncan and legal reform

Don Dunstan, now an icon of progressive reform and famed for his contemporaneously flamboyant fashion choices, had attempted to repeal laws banning homosexuality – becoming the first politician in Australia to attempt so. But a perceived lack of support convinced him otherwise. Dunstan would become premier in 1967 until 1968, and again from 1970 to 1979, when he resigned due to ill health. In late 1971 his government set up an enquiry to review South Australian criminal law, with the decriminalisation of homosexuality as a consideration. Dr Ian Duncan was a gay law professor who moved to Adelaide in March 1972 to take up a lecturing role at the University of Adelaide. Homosexuality was illegal at the time, but several popular meeting places existed. One of these was the southern bank of the River Torrens, where on 10 May, months after moving to Adelaide, he was attacked by three men and thrown into the river, where he, unable to swim, drowned.

‘This Adelaide University Law Lecturer was just down by the River Torrens minding his own business, so to speak, and ended up drowned because he was a gay man,’ says Feast Festival General Manager Helen Sheldon.

‘It’s a dark part of our history but it did bring reform.’

Public outrage creates political change

Public outrage regarding the murder led to political change. Liberal Party member Murray Hill introduced a bill in the Legislative Council in July 1972 to amend the law that criminalised homosexuality, but further amendments before the bill passed only allowed private homosexuality for those above 21. Later in 1973, Labor member Peter Duncan introduced a new bill, but it was defeated twice in the upper house. Two years later, the bill by Duncan was reintroduced and defeated three times before passing that day, becoming the first Australian jurisdiction to do so.

South Australia would become the first jurisdiction to introduce conviction expungement in 2013, a year ahead of the next state to do so, albeit with a caveat; those charged with homosexual activity must apply to have the charges cleared from their record after several crime-free years. South Australia also became the first state to allow people to change their sex on their birth certificate without the pre-requisite of undergoing sex reassignment surgery.

South Australia was the last jurisdiction to abolish the gay panic defence in December 2020, following several high-profile cases that used the defence unsuccessfully, and the last state to allow same-sex couples, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and stepparent adoption in 2017. Australia under the Turnbull government legalised same-sex marriage in 2017 after a postal survey returned 61.60% in favour of legalisation.

The festival state pays tribute to Dr Duncan

Today, South Australia is nicknamed ‘the Festival State’. One of its 13 festivals is the LGBTIQIA+ Feast Festival, held annually since 1997.

Feast General Manager Helen Sheldon laments Adelaide’s conservative reputation.

‘I think there is still an impression of Adelaide as a small country town, and so I think, particularly in South Australia, it is really essential to have a festival like Feast because I think it is about setting that tone and saying South Australia is a welcoming, inclusive place for all.’

‘That is a feeling of being part of a safe and inclusive space where you can be whoever, whatever you want to be, it doesn’t matter. As long you’re happy, it doesn’t matter.’

‘Hopefully you feel like you’ve found your tribe, found your group.’

Appropriately, this year Feast Festival – on its 25th birthday – is paying tribute to Dr Duncan, with a series of events, ending in a commemoration.

Robert Hicks is a South Australian writer and tertiary student at the University of South Australia. He is currently studying for his Bachelor of Journalism and Professional Writing, and Bachelor of Creative Writing and Literature.

The Death of Dr Duncan

The drowning of Dr Duncan in the River Torrens in 1972 remains one of Australia’s most notorious unsolved murders. His death shocked the local community and still reverberates 50 years later.

Tim Reeves is an award-winning author and the acknowledged authority on the Duncan case. He pulls together the complex strands of a police investigation, coroner’s inquest, New Scotland Yard enquiry and trial. He also examines the attempts at gay law reform in the state that were triggered by Duncan’s killing.

This meticulously researched and tautly written book tells a story that is disturbing yet captivating, distressing yet ultimately uplifting.

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