John Bannon: a quiet giant of politics

Former state premier John Bannon at the wedding of Mike Rann and Sasha Carruozzo in the Botanic gardens Adelaide, in 2006. Photo: David Mariuz Bob Hawke plants the first of a promised one billion trees, with ACT chief minister Rosemary Follett, and the premiers of Victoria, NSW and SA – John Cain, Nick Greiner and John Bannon in 1989. Photo: Joe Sabljak

Former South Australian premier John Bannon dead

JOHN BANNON: 1943-2015

Even now when I’m grinding out the kilometres in Canberra, I often rely on something John Bannon once confided about distance training. He said when your body wants to stop, you can always go a bit further, and you will be glad you made that choice.

To most people this prosaic observation might seem unremarkable but it stayed with me because it is just so true – any runner knows it. It’s the reward for pain – immediate, if also, entirely private.

I’ll never be in his league, but the fact is, I probably only run these days because of the example Bannon set when he was South Australia’s decade-long premier and treasurer combined. If he could find time, I figured, who couldn’t?

Long before there was a full calendar of well-organised fun runs teaming with bucket-listers and fashionable fluoro-narcissists, the understated Bannon was a runner, out privately pounding the miles, enduring the solitude of the road, and doubtless, using the private time to contemplate.

That Bannon was able to run 28 Adelaide marathons – 11 of them under 3 hours – between 1979 and 2006, is nothing short of astounding. But boasting about this colossal achievement was simply beyond his ken.

Running, however, provides a metaphor for Bannon’s career – a life lived in public yet one which seemed extraordinarily private. And a life of discipline, fitness, and moderation, which was nonetheless betrayed by a cancer – just as his own integrity and hard work as moderniser and champion of the state had been betrayed by some second-rate spivs and cowboys.

The uber-successful premier was shy – a rarity in politics. An introvert in an extrovert’s game. A gifted writer and advocate, his political achievements still came more from actions than from words.

The guts he showed to keep running, even when he was ill, came from the same place as the chutzpah he showed to take the leadership of the state ALP in 1979, corralling its roiling factions to achieve an amazing victory in 1982. Amazingly, it ensured David Tonkin’s Liberals got just one term in office after Don Dunstan had departed before ceding another whole decade to Labor.

In office, Bannon professionalised government, elevated talent, modernised the public service, and energised a state that despite its reputation as a social and artistic laboratory, was falling behind as its manufacturing base faltered. He made the state believe it could mix it nationally and even internationally.

His success in attracting the formula one grand prix might look passe from this distance, given Melbourne’s current ownership, but it was horizon-changing for 1985 Adelaide, even if it summoned up a rising damp of eastern-suburbs NIMBYs and naysayers.

Bannon however forged ahead, using the event and several major projects, including the Olympic Dam uranium mine, to redescribe the state’s economic parameters.

It was the cruellest of ironies then that the State Bank collapse did more to define his government than anything positive. As other writers have noted, if this was a failure of Bannon’s leadership, it was one born of trust. The state had been punching above its weight division with the government-owned bank being a big part of that. Treasury coffers had been swelled by its investments.

But when it turned out the bank’s incompetent management had overreached, it was Bannon who got the blame – and who accepted it with dignified equanimity. There was no suggestion of corruption, nor personal gain.

Yet, for a premier who had overturned processes of public administration, attacked feather-bedding, and made professionalism his hallmark, it was a body-blow.

Bannon was actually a giant in Australian politics – a man of unimpeachable ethics, prodigious intelligence, and enormous personal discipline. It’s just he never said so.

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