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The self-sacrifice of John Bannon


It was a measure of the man that the late John Bannon took on all the blame and humiliation of the State Bank disaster without complaining about the injustice of it all, writes his long-term friend Michael Jacobs.

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John Bannon is dead. What can you say?

You can say this:

This was a prince among men, a human being of barely imaginable grace, decency, moral courage and capacity for love.

You can say this:

His decency gave him a blind spot – a difficulty shared by the occasional person still in public life. Because of their decency and morality, such people sometimes don’t see what is coming; the values they have internalised make them vulnerable to being blind-sided by various expressions of venality, manipulation, incompetence, hubristic aggression and simple bastardry.

This happens not because they are stupid or weak, but because such things are not only outside their own range but beyond their imagination.

And if you don’t see this stuff coming, it will get you.

That happened with the State Bank disaster which has blighted his reputation – blighted it not least because of the long-running Royal Commission which he could not avoid setting up to examine the financial fiasco which had emerged after he had been an eminent and successful Premier for the greater part of a decade.

I believe I am obliged to record at this point, by way of declaration, that that Royal Commission was presided over for most of its existence by my father.

I also record, as a measure of John Bannon, that he did not allow this acutely difficult circumstance to damage a long-standing friendship, despite the temporary constraints on its expression.

The State Bank collapse which destroyed Bannon’s political career was indeed a dreadful affair, but in the end it was not even remotely as bad as the $3 billion headline, once the slow processes of prudent asset realisation had been done when the market was ready, once determined debt-recovery had clawed back what could be gathered in.

What was eternally dreadful about it was that not a single other person raised a hand to say ‘mea culpa’ – let alone ‘mea maxima culpa’ – over the shambles of the State Bank and its associated entities radically bungling the business of banking, to the unjust enrichment of many who were responsible and to the equally unjust impoverishment of the morale of the State.

Bannon absorbed all the blame, all the shame and humiliation, all the pain and anguish of this catastrophe which was the fault of others. He did not just absorb it. He drew it to himself. He copped the self-serving whining of weak-kneed people who asserted that he had been deaf to their timorously veiled warnings when their responsibility had been to shout those warnings loud and strong. He copped the lot, and he copped it sweet.

You can say this:

For his people, he bore it, and he made no public complaint about the manifest injustice of it all. If you wonder why anyone would do such a thing, you could do worse than take a careful look at the Christian tradition which was central to his life.

You can say this:

When you think about the role of the Christian tradition and belief in John Bannon’s life, don’t forget that the Christian story includes a spectacular episode of disruption of a tacky and rorted market being operated within the walls of the temple.

John Bannon was no milksop. He was not afraid of a stoush if it was forced on him, and he was not so dainty that he would not pull on a blue if he thought there was no other way. But there are two further things to say about that. First: in combat, all his punches landed above the belt, and he was not a kicker. Second: he could usually find another way.

You can say this:

He refused several overtures to accept a role of some undefined kind from the Labor governments which have held sway in South Australia since 2002 – a role, never precisely defined because of his responses, which would have given him an opportunity to be of some further direct service to the State.

In doing so, he did serve the State. He gently repelled these invitations because he thought the presence of Banquo’s ghost at the banquet would not, in the wider scheme of things, assist his party or the government – and, and because of the political inevitabilities, it would not advance the common weal.

And the common weal was what mattered. Bannon was above all a citizen, in all the richness of meaning that the various strands of our histories can bring to that word.

You can say this:

His moral courage and his resilience was so great that he bore all this, and then fashioned a new life of service and commitment: to history – including a fine biography of Sir John Downer – to scholarship, to service to the National Archives, to the processes of reform of our federal system, to cricket – in which his later-life administrative and human skills vastly exceeded the technical abilities he had commanded as an enthusiastic player. And he lived that life, notwithstanding the ravages of ineradicable cancer, with enthusiasm, joy, and all the vigour he could muster to within a day or two of the end of his life.

You can say this:

Above all, he was a good man. If you happen to encounter another such as him on your journey through life, count yourself lucky. People of the calibre and grace of John Charles Bannon don’t turn up all that often.

You can say this, and you should say it to Angela, who has lived with him, and borne all this with him, through the decades:

We agree. He was someone to love.

Michael Jacobs is a journalist and former lawyer and public servant. John Bannon initiated their friendship when Bannon was a prominent senior student at the University of Adelaide and Jacobs was trying to find his way through the first weeks of first year.

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