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Rann on Bannon: A leader of calm decency and courage


As John Bannon is farewelled at a state funeral today, fellow former Labor Premier and long-term colleague and friend Mike Rann writes for InDaily about Bannon’s character and legacy.

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The news of John Bannon’s death was what his friends had feared for so long yet was somehow still a shock. In the days following, many images of John keep recurring in my memory: a grim faced young Premier standing amidst the devastation of Ash Wednesday, very much in charge of relief and recovery efforts; being lowered on a line from a Navy helicopter on to the deck of a surfacing submarine off the NSW coast and then launching SA’s audacious bid to build the Collins Class subs 500 feet under the sea; running the London Marathon in less than three hours the day after getting off the plane; addressing Frankfurt bankers in fluent German and then joining his staff and a couple of journos in an end of trip drinking session in a beer cellar doing brilliant Churchill and Hitler impressions!

John Bannon could have excelled in any profession. He could have become a barrister then Supreme Court Judge; a professor then vice chancellor, or stayed within the public service to become its head. He could have entered federal politics and ended up anywhere he wanted to go. But John Bannon was always destined to be Premier of South Australia. In 1978 all of us on Dunstan’s staff expected Don to continue and win the next election due in late 1980, and perhaps one more, and then hand over to John Bannon, seasoned by a few more years as a Cabinet Minister. It wasn’t to be. Don became very ill, stood down in February 1979 and a few months later Des Corcoran called a snap election and lost to the Liberals’ David Tonkin, another good and decent man.

So 36-year-old Bannon became Labor leader. Very few thought he had much of a chance to quickly return Labor to power. John didn’t waste time. His winning mantra was simple: first the party, then the Parliament and then the people. The first part proved the hardest with one group in the party working hard to undermine and defeat him at party conferences. They did not want him to win. But he did, and in one term Labor was back.

In government John didn’t want South Australia to slip into the lazy psychology of defeat that believed we could never prevail against the bigger states. That’s why securing the submarine project was so important. Sure, it was about building a new high tech industry but it was also important for South Australia’s morale and self-belief. Winning the submarines gave us the skills base to win the Air Warfare Destroyers, build Techport and hopefully secure even bigger projects in the decades ahead. The same was true with the Grand Prix. Winning and running an international event like Formula One gave us the confidence to successfully stage other world class events, from WOMAD and Clipsal to the Tour Down Under and a Mad March of arts festivals every year.

Today’s political toxicity was alien to John Bannon’s nature. He was loyal to his predecessors, his successors, his colleagues and his friends.

It wasn’t just about projects. There was Bannon’s major drive to build affordable housing through the Housing Trust; the building of Golden Grove; the expansion of tourism infrastructure with the Convention Centre and Casino, a big increase in the retention rate in our schools, important law reforms, ground-breaking native vegetation protections, Aboriginal land rights at Maralinga, the appointment of Roma Mitchell as Governor and sister-state agreements with Shandong and Campania.

Dr John Bannon was probably the most intellectual of SA’s 45 premiers. Many leaders are smart, clever or wily but John had that rarer commodity – wisdom. He applied reason to tackle problems and meet challenges and in so doing took the long view in decision-making.

Thirty years ago, in giving my maiden speech, I said John Bannon was rare in having the “courage to be cautious”. By that I meant he didn’t govern day to day, act on impulse or lightly react to pressure from media, interest groups or opponents. In making decisions he wanted to do the right thing by our state for the long haul not just for the next election, let alone the next opinion poll or editorial. In looking forward John, probably more than any other Premier, had the deepest understanding of our history and its currents, and why and how we had got to where we are. And in making decisions I never saw him lose his temper, act unfairly or with prejudice or malice towards others.

Today’s political toxicity was alien to John Bannon’s nature. He was loyal to his predecessors, his successors, his colleagues and his friends. It would never have occurred to him to gain personal advantage by leaking, undermining or backstabbing. His calm decency was not a pose. It was real.

John wasn’t just principled, he was also courageous. I saw that when he faced down an angry mob at the national ALP conference to push through policy changes to enable Olympic Dam to go ahead. He showed courage again in his handling of the State Bank crisis. He wasn’t to blame but took responsibility. Instead of heeding calls to immediately resign he kept working tirelessly to confront the problems and challenges facing his government and community as well as front the inquiries and Royal Commission.

It was not in his character to cut and run despite the tidal wave of abuse he copped for years through the media, at events and even in the street. He didn’t bend or break but the viciousness hurt him deeply even though he wore his scars silently and with great dignity.

After the funeral and official wake today his old staff will reunite to honour his memory with, I hope, irreverent stories about John. He would like that!

That courage was never more evident than in his eight year battle against cancer. He wanted not just to stay alive but to keep on contributing right to the very end. And he did, briefing Malcolm Turnbull on ideas to reform federal-state relations and giving a brilliant speech at an auction and exhibition of his father’s art in the days immediately before he died.

And through good times and bad times the wonderful Angela was always there for him. A strong, independent woman with an artistic career, she stood by John through the living hell of the Bank and his gruelling battle against cancer. His final marathon.

She was a superb First Lady. Sasha and I were so privileged that John and Angela came to see us in London and Rome. Together John and I had led the Labor Party in SA for 30 years, including almost 20 years in the Premier’s chair. We both also shared memories of the miserable, daily grind of being Opposition leader, and the hard yards of having to fight our way back into government. There were many stories to tell and John was the best storyteller, with dry wit and brilliant mimicry. We would all end up convulsed in tears of laughter.

After the funeral and official wake today his old staff will reunite to honour his memory with, I hope, irreverent stories about John. He would like that!

When they die the lives of most leaders are defined by their careers, their titles, their honours, the statistics of their time in office. Many politicians have the word “honourable” affixed to their name in perpetuity. John Bannon earned that description not by length of time served or positions held but by his character, his conduct, his innate decency, his grace under extraordinary pressure and self-effacing sense of duty.

His was a life much richer than politics. He had a diverse hinterland that included being a loving father, planting thousands of trees in the Adelaide Hills, mentoring students at St Marks, chairing the National Archives, his commitment to public broadcasting, beekeeping, theatre and music, writing history, encouraging indigenous opportunity, running marathons and his beloved cricket.

For John Bannon it is stumps, but “not out”. His great legacy of service, his inspiration and his loyal friendship will live on forever in the memories of those of us who loved him.

Mike Rann was Premier of South Australia from 2002 to 2011.

He is Australia’s Ambassador to Italy, San Marino, Albania and Libya.

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