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The Coopers Sparkling premier


In 1982, South Australia elected the fresh-faced marathon runner John Charles Bannon to take its premerial management chair.

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Being the isolated village Adelaide is, it was impossible for a young hack to avoid getting to know him; even call him a mate.

Bannon would abide ‘a good red’ but he was really a posh Coopers Ale bogan: a Saints boyo. Way back before cloudy became fine. He was outstanding as a law school student for stuff like dressing as a mediæval peasant with Tony Brady to hand Prosh magazines to the gentlemen coming and going from the Adelaide Club.

But wine? Bannon’s Minister of Environment and Planning and Deputy Premier, the protestant preacher Don Hopgood, was in charge when 25 hectares of the Penfolds Grange vineyard was removed from the Register of State Heritage to permit its subdivision and destruction by the unholy alliance of John Spalvins, managing director of the Adelaide Steamship Company, beleaguered owner of Penfolds, and the former Lord Mayor of Adelaide, the developer John Roche.

I’d been campaigning and lobbying to have the entire Grange MacGill/Magill property saved as the Australian Wine Centre. It was all under threat. There was nowhere on earth, I argued, where one could come off an international flight, get in a car, turn right, drive in a straight line through the prettiest, most naïve city and be in that country’s most famous historical wine complex within 30 minutes.

Max Schubert cried when they pulled his vines out. They broke him. He was my friend.

Roche spent some of his profits developing a vineyard at Frankland in Western Australia. That was the first vineyard I watched die of salt. Spalvins can still be spotted here and there, dining on beef, drinking old vintages of what was Penfolds most right-wing wine, Bin 707.

Then Bannon and his Agriculture Minister, Kym Mayes, were suckered again by the big wine ghouls: Penfolds, Lindemans and Orlando, the PLO. Under the guise of relieving an oversupply of grapes they came up with the evil Vine Pull Scheme.

The PLO sought a Barossa and McLaren Vale that looked like Coonawarra or the Riverland. They hated dealing with so many peasant grape-growers. They wanted cheaper, vaster, mechanical monoculture.

Folks like Brian Croser, keen to develop the thing he called the Adelaide Hills around himself, and vineyard development consultant Di Davidson, who made money putting new broadacre vineyards everywhere, were suggesting that Barossa viticulture as it stood on the old hand-hoed father-to-son scale was over. Just over. Full stop. Finito. Verboten. Kaput.

There was a report, commissioned by and paid for by the Bannon government, which led to that Vine Pull destruction. Not to mention the wasting of many millions of taxpayer dollars they then threw at growers who pulled up and pulled out.

In doshing out our cash like that, Bannon’s government diminished the quality of the wine we were addicted to buying from the unionists in the bulk discount bins. The pattern was set: to this day they ensure that ethanol remains our only permitted self-administered drug. Through their stranglehold over the Australian Labor Party through the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, these Woolies/Coles/Colonel Sadness/Macca’s/Bunnings/Shoppie shelfstackers now dictate our town planning, our cuisine and ethanol types; its price …

Before I get too far into that, let me explain I got sick of writing that old men were crying in the Barossa pubs because the PLO wouldn’t pay them fair money for their fruit.

“I just bulldozed my great-grandfather’s garden,” they’d sob. I’d sob. The smoke hung around for three years.

Thirty pieces of silver.

I have tried for 30 years to procure a copy of that report that we, the people, paid for. Patrick Conlon, as Minister in the Rann Labor government, sincerely assured me eight years ago that he’d spent ten grand of taxpayers’ money attempting to find a copy in the government files. Last time we spoke, he guaranteed it still wasn’t there.

Now Patrick’s not there.

For fuck’s sake. Labor spent millions of our money butchering this country’s irreplaceable viticultural heritage, and they haven’t got a copy of the report? Folks who write such diatribes at the taxpayers’ expense are obliged by law to keep a copy for inquisitive folks. Gimme. What have they got to hide?

The other mob’s no better. Thanks to folks like Croser, the National Wine Centre rose from my old Penfolds Magill idea. But he insisted the Shangri-La should be new, and his Liberal mates agreed. They dared to put it our Botanic Gardens. The joint was virtually bankrupt before it even opened. It was run by the person who’s just landed in the Senate, Ann Ruston, more or less the deputy deputy Prime Minister Bananaby Joyce’s assistant minister for all the water in the Murray-Darling Basin if there’s any left and Bananaby lets her. She owns Australia’s biggest rose garden in the Riverland. Now, the National Wine Centre’s our most ridiculous wedding shack, with a wing which seems to be full of the offices of the hipster equivalent of the children of the wine bureaucrats who put it all up there at the small consideration of about $50 million of our money.

Roses. Roses everywhere. Weddings.

But Labor’s back in, of course, and such tasteless nonsense is repeating through the current government’s Regional Development Fund, where taxpayers’ money is being shloshed around like somebody else’s water. Who are these people? From where I stand, not one serious grant has made much sense: $2 million to Wolf Blass? $2 million to Chester Osborn? There are more of these extravagances coming. It’s our money, not the government’s.

But back to John Charles Bannon. At our first official encounter he came out from behind his desk, sat on the easy chair beside me, put his right leg over his left knee, pulled his sock down and his trouser up and played with a hair on his tight marathon-running calf for about half an hour.

Then the State Bank splattered all over the wall behind him while his dad, the great artist, Charles, began nudging the rubbing strakes beside me in The Exeter. John’s gubmunt was crook; Charlie Bannon was in even worse shape. The hospital was a block away.

Everyone in that pub knew that the bank was down three or four billion, yet it had never been mentioned in parliament or the press. It took a respectful conservative, Jennifer Cashmore, to eventually stand up in the house and ask the big question: is the bank crook, too? Upon which everyone feigned aghastment. Two years too late.

When Charlie was really full-bore dying of cancer he phoned and asked me to get his war service revolver from the glove box of his ute in the car park and smuggle it into his ward so he could step away from the horror at his own leisure.

He teased me when I explained I’d be an accessory to his slaughter. Illegal. Heaven for him; gaol for me. Instead, we smuggled proper food in, and the odd good red.

In the middle of all that I was on the local ABC891 doing the morning show and I’d just fanged through a half hour of queries about the bank and asked who’d got all the billions and why wouldn’t the Premier answer our calls. That was hard work that stuff, because I still admired John and his commitment and ordinariness and knew far too much of who’d ripped this naïve state off and what that Premier’s own father thought of his son’s management capacities and how much he thought that son of his felt obliged to prove.

I ran down the corridor to the toilets in the newsbreak. When I got back the producer said “Whitey, Bannon’s on the phone. He called back. He’ll only speak to you.”

He told me Charles was dead and asked whether I’d eulogise at the funeral gathering in the Don Bradman Room a few days hence.

“He loved drinking with you blokes in The Ex,” he said.

That, I thought, and think more, was a mark of John Bannon’s greatness. He was jealous of his Dad’s ability to sit in the pub and drink Coopers with his mates. And he was simply, country boy naive. He never expected to find real bad guys in his town. And he really loved his Cooper’s.

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