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Campaign Diary: Duncan, Ashbourne and the hard edge


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The Labor Party’s ‘Legend of Lombok’, Peter Duncan, was one of many very experienced old hands helping Labor in key marginal seats in the last week of the election campaign.

His one-time Lombok co-habitant, Randall Ashbourne, the man who supposedly negotiated independent Peter Lewis into supporting Mike Rann in 2002, remains silent, however, on the art of convincing independents from conservative seats to back Labor Governments.

Campaign Diary has enjoyed a trip down South Australia’s political memory lane in recent days as we await the Electoral Commission’s counting to resume.

Duncan, 69, is a former Hawke and Keating minister, South Australian Attorney-General and founding partner in the law firm Duncan Basheer Hannon.

Back in the day, when he held the safe seat of Elizabeth in the Dunstan Government, the young Peter Duncan’s equally young electorate officer was Frances Bedford, the current member for Florey who on Saturday successfully held off the Liberals in her marginal seat.

In the last week of the campaign, Duncan was in Adelaide, pounding the streets with Bedford’s volunteer campaign workers including Labor left lawyer David Wilson.

Peter Duncan in Adelaide in 2007. AAP photo

Peter Duncan in Adelaide in 2007. AAP photo

“I just have been to SA to witness the state election at which most  pundits had the Liberals winning in a landslide,” Duncan told InDaily from Lombok.

“Funny how quiet all these experts were about their predictions on Sunday morning as we flew out of Adelaide to Lombok.

“Whether bias, promises of media jobs with an incoming Liberal Government, straight incompetence or ignorance or editorial  direction was responsible is open to conjecture.

“What is not in doubt is the fact that they now collectively and individually look pretty dopey.”


More of Duncan’s scathing analysis shortly; but let’s first recall the political legend’s remarkable rise and fall.

Duncan was 28 years old when he won the seat of Elizabeth in 1973.

Two years later Don Dunstan made him his Attorney-General.

As Duncan will tell you (and he often did in the front bar of the British Hotel) it was he who rolled out most of the social reforms that are commonly credited to Dunstan.

By 1984 he was restless and he went to Canberra as the member for Makin, joining the ascendant Hawke Government.

When I met him again (in Darwin), he was Transport Services Minister and, unlike his South Australian state colleagues, he had a genuine interest in the Adelaide to Darwin railway.

His political career, however, came to a sudden halt in 1996 when he lost his safe seat to Liberal Trish Draper who, like the Duncan of old, had been pounding the pavements talking to the voters.

And that’s where it started to get wobbly.

Duncan, a lifelong member of the socialist left, went into business.

We bumped into each other at the 1998 launch of On The Square, a venture co-funded by the Adelaide City Council (where Randall Ashbourne had again surfaced) and various restaurateurs.

It pitched al fresco dining in Victoria Square where you could order your entree, main and dessert from the kitchens of separate restaurants fronting the square.

A special guest at the launch from Vogue Entertaining told me “it won’t last three months”.

It didn’t even get that far.

It went bust in six weeks.

The Adelaide City Council had burnt hundreds of thousands on under-pavement works and road closures, and the financial backers were left holding an empty plate.

Next up came a recycling business, OmniPol.

OmniPol went bust, but most media attention centred on how and why the venture had attracted Commonwealth grants totalling $1.5 million.

Duncan’s marriage had collapsed and he had bolted to Lombok when investigators filed their report and he was ordered to stand trial on three counts of dishonesty.

He pleaded not guilty and was acquitted, but the saga had stretched on for six years.

Channel Seven’s Today Tonight went in search of Duncan and the confrontation between him (on a Honda 90cc scooter) and reporter Paul Makin remains classic ‘current affairs’ footage.

(Makin also had another win on the Lombok trip when he inadvertently stumbled across a sitting member of the State Parliament, allegedly with an Asian call-girl in tow – but that’s another story.)

Duncan did it tough in Lombok (albeit on a parliamentary pension) and he shared digs for a while on a boat with the aforementioned Randall Ashbourne.

A former political editor at Rupert Murdoch’s The News, Ashbourne was a media adviser during Mike Rann’s ambitious run from Opposition Leader to Premier.

He was a sharp operator and legend has it that it was Ashbourne in 2002 who convinced independent MP Peter Lewis to tear up his agreement with incumbent Premier Rob Kerin and back Rann.

Ashbourne was well rewarded with a high paying job in Rann’s office.

But it fell apart quickly when he became emboiled in the Ashbourne/Atkinson/Clarke affair, a jolly ramble through the corridors of political manoeuvres by those in the outer circle.

Rann sacked him, he was charged with corruption, acquitted and succeeded in getting an estimated $400,000 payout for unfair dismissal.

The last I heard of Ashbourne he was running a business advising investors on how to apply astrology to stock market trading.

The business operates from a website

His e-book The Idiot and the Moon, claims: “It is simply a clearly demonstrable fact that trading The Moods of The Moon – the monthly phases of the lunar cycle – produces steady and reliable profits across any long-term timeframe.”

I rang Randall this morning to get his thoughts on negotiating with independents. I’d barely spoken the words ‘Kevin Naughton from InDaily” when the phone was slammed down.

One man who knows only too well the turbulence created by the Ashbourne/Lewis deal is Dr Bob Such, who had also played a key role on that day in February 2002. Maybe he’d have better luck getting a response.

And so, back to Peter Duncan and why the Liberals can’t win elections.

Ignore statewide polls, he says … it’s all about working the streets.

“Such polling will miss a popular sitting member’s personal support.

“The so-called pundits should study the above primer and follow the advice of not taking advice from or relying on state-wide polls.

“This has been true time and time again. A few other factors will need to be taken into account in the future.”

He points out the regular redistribution undertaken between elections has served to only make it harder of incumbent MPs in marginal seats; but that’s had the effect of making them work even harder.

Conversely, he argues, the Liberals have tended to “wait for the win”.

“On the results of the last two SA state elections you would have to say that if  their campaign team was paid by results they would be out of pocket.

“The seats they have won from Labor at this election (two at this stage of the count) were won on the basis of new  boundaries more favorable to the Liberals and nothing else.

“On the basis of the result on Saturday past and the earlier elections in SA you might hope that the professional predictors might learn the lessons of history.

“I suspect I will be able to write a similar piece in four years’ time.”

And maybe that was the difference.

Labor’s old hard heads have been out there repeating the successful hard-edged campaign tactics and skills honed over several decades.

The Liberals’ small target strategy and waiting for a government to lose appears lazy by contrast.

Perhaps they might benefit from a chat with Peter Duncan – he’s back in Lombok, building a hotel in Senggigi behind his restaurant The Taman.

You either learn from history or are certain to repeat it.

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