After 17 years as Leader of the Labor Party in South Australia and nine years and 230 days as Premier, Mike Rann resigned in October 2011. NSW Labor General Secretary Sam Dastyari asked Mike about his life in politics from the earliest days in England and New Zealand to the lessons he draws as one of the most successful State Premiers in Australian history.
- By Sam Dastyari, NSW General Secretary
DASTYARI: You had a very interesting background for a South Australian politician. You were born in England, educated in New Zealand and rose to become the Premier of South Australia. I want to explore what drove you into politics and to South Australia. Let’s begin with your family in London.
RANN: I was born in South East London. My Dad was an electrician, my Grandfather, Great Grandfather and Great-Great Grandfathers were all London “dustmen”, or garbos. But my Dad was a soldier for six years during World War II. My Mum also came from a very working class background and she worked for a place making parts for Spitfires during the war.
DASTYARI: Were your parents members of the British Labour Party?
RANN: My Dad was a member of the British Labour Party. He wasn’t greatly active but we always knew we were Labour. My first political memory is of my Dad driving people to the polling booth on the 1959 general election day. The reason I remember it is because we had Labour posters in the window of our house and there were Tory posters in the windows of other terrace houses. I remember my Dad used to use his Thames van to ferry people wearing red ribbons to the polling both. And I remember that the Tories had blue ribbons and drove Jaguars.
DASTYARI: What took your family to New Zealand?
RANN: Mum and Dad immigrated to New Zealand to give their two sons a better chance. My personal experiences have made me a great supporter of migration and multiculturalism.
When we arrived in New Zealand, having gone from a fairly grey part of working class London to a really rural part of New Zealand, Dad worked on the hydro-electric scheme and I went to the local school. The first thing I was aware of was that half the people were Maori and that in this pristine environment, there were no shops. It was the complete reverse of everything I’d been used to and because I was the only kid with a London accent within a hundred miles, I became very close friends with the Maoris. That’s where I started to develop this lifelong passion to support indigenous peoples. It also helped that there were added advantages in having big friends while at school.
My family went to Auckland when I was 14. At high school a teacher asked the class what we wanted to be when we left school. I said I wanted to be a journalist and a MP, and everyone laughed. New Zealand was very good for me. I got involved in politics, the debating society at school, and then went to university and did a double major in politics. My co-student from the first day and right the way through was Phil Goff, who is now the leader of the New Zealand Labour Party. Two years ahead of me, but with the same professors, doing the same Master’s, was Helen Clarke (NZ Labour Prime Minister 1999-2008). When I think about the small group of us talking about our future, I remember saying I want to go into parliament and become New Zealand’s foreign minister one day. Of my mates, all four got that job [Helen Clarke, Mike Moore, Phil Goff and Murray McCully].
At university I became heavily involved with NZ Labour, door-knocking in marginal seats, being the leader of the anti-French nuclear test movement on campus, being involved in the anti-apartheid movement.
DASTYARI: You were quite tied up in student politics, weren’t you?
RANN: Yes. I was national vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; I was involved in Greenpeace and edited the student newspaper. So I was studying politics, but I was also mixing with lots of political figures.
While I was in my late teens and early 20s I’d go on television and radio to talk about what we were doing to stop testing at Mururoa Atoll and sending boats across the sea to sit on the testing zones to defy the French.
DASTYARI: So how did you find yourself in Australia?
RANN: After my Master’s, I became a political reporter for about 18 months working for NZBC, New Zealand’s ABC.
I was travelling back and forth spending holidays with my brother in Adelaide when Robert Muldoon was in power in New Zealand and Malcolm Fraser in Australia. The Don Dunstan government in South Australia was the only Labor government at the time in either country.
A friend who later became head of the Trades Union Congress in Britain, Clive Jenkins, said the Dunstan Government was a beacon of light in the night of Australian ignorance. On one of my Adelaide visits with NZBC, I saw this job in the Dunstan Government, the Premier’s Department in the Industrial Democracy unit.
It was about worker participation in management, about which I knew nothing. I thought this would be great for a couple of years, working for the Dunstan Government in the public service side.
I spoke to my mates in New Zealand and they said “yeah go over there, then come back, work for us and then go into parliament in New Zealand”. But after about six months, I heard that Don Dunstan’s chief Press Secretary and Speech Writer had resigned.
My then boss, said “you’re too young, you’re 24, but why don’t you put your hat in the ring, you’ve got no chance of getting it, but you know, you’ll be noticed and maybe you’ll get a job with a junior minister.”
So I went down for an interview with the Premier. I was terrified. He was there in his white safari suit. He was just enthralled that I was a journalist with a Master’s degree in politics, who had been involved in all of these campaigns, some of which had received international attention.
Then Gough Whitlam, who at this time was the Federal Labor leader, arrived in the office and just to make me even more nervous, Don asked if I would like to go out with Gough and Margaret that night and meet them. Don did the interview and afterwards Gough said to me, “What are you doing here?” When I told him I was applying for a job as the Premier’s Press Secretary he said, “Go east young man, go east.” Gough has since reinterpreted this to mean that he convinced Don Dunstan to hire me.
DASTYARI: What kind of a mentor was Don Dunstan?
RANN: I worked for Don during the very heady days. What he taught me was that you could be progressive but pragmatic at the same time. He was idealistic, he was a great reformer but he also believed in getting elected, getting re-elected and re-elected again, rather than just being a flash in the pan. Dunstan forged a great political alliance electorally between working class voters and the middle class, intellectual class, environmentalists, teachers, professionals. It was a great experience because South Australia was a national and international leader in many areas, from women’s rights to gay rights, first for Aboriginal land rights.
DASTYARI: You moved on from being a staffer to being an MP, winning preselection for a safe Labor seat. Following an election rout you became SA Party Leader, a position you gained unanimously. It was a dark time for SA Labor – how did you keep your head up in those hard times?
RANN: When I became Leader of the Party, we had been steadily working for the first three years in opposition to whittle down Dean Brown, and the mission that the Party gave me was that you’ve got two terms to bring us back and we want to see you get half way by the half-way mark. That was the unwritten, unspoken, but often repeated, mantra and we made considerable headway against Brown. We brought down a couple of ministers and what we did most was exploit divisions between the wets and the dry Liberals using the Robert E Lee principal of going constantly for their weakest points. It worked. We ended up being leaked to by both sides of the South Australian Liberal Party. I was getting cabinet documents. These leaks caused massive damage to the Liberal Party and allowed us to run good policy with great tactics and good strategy.
DASTYARI: The Liberal Party did, however, get their act together leading into the 1997 election. Weeks out, published polling was predicting a comfortable Liberal win but you reduced them to minority Government. What happened?
RANN: As we had no money, we basically thought: okay we’ve got to use the last 10 days of this campaign to turn it around. It involved managing to win debates and consistently dropping leaks on them. At the start of the 1997 election I thought my political life as leader of the Labor Party would last for another four weeks, because the polling showed us at almost no chance of getting half-way there.
Well, at the half-way mark of the campaign we ended up getting 95 percent of the way there. It just shows you that things can change even from the dark days of an opposition when everyone was predicting we were going to be obliterated.
DASTYARI: Was that your most satisfying campaign?
RANN: Oh yeah, this was more satisfying than winning the biggest ever majority in South Australian Labor history. It was the sweetest defeat of them all, because we nearly won and we weren’t expected to.
DASTYARI: Bob Carr has written in his published diaries about the dark days of opposition here in NSW. What was the hardest time in opposition for you? What was the darkest moment?
RANN: The first year, the first 18 months, when people, who had once wanted to see you all the time would now almost cross the road to avoid you.
The hard times were also when you came out with a great policy initiative and no one would come to the news conference or when you said something positive and they turned off the cameras. The message from Bob Carr was very important to all of us; it was that this will change. Bruce Hawker, too, has been a great support to all of us, and simply said that the media will stop wanting to be the cheer squad, they’ll get bored with it and want something else. Often the things that go wrong for a government occur in the first year – particularly a new government that comes in with an unbalanced majority. They think it’s because of their personal attributes and then they start acting badly and – though they don’t come out for a few years – there are ticking bombs. But the first 18 months were undoubtedly dark. It was like being on death row, the shadow front bench were treated like a police line up. We had so few seats that the Liberals had to sit on our side of the house. They were surrounding us!
DASTYARI: How much were you, and the Labor Party in South Australia more generally, haunted by the State Bank legacy of your predecessors?
RANN: It was a huge legacy to overcome. We put ourselves up as fiscally responsible in every media statement released; everything was costed. We were beyond responsible, because we knew we had to be financially credible. That’s where Kevin Foley as Shadow Treasurer played a very important role. First, we had to fix up the State finances, get the economy going, then grow the economy, grow the State, invest in infrastructure and do good things in the environment and social policy. We had to shake off that State Bank legacy of financial irresponsibility, which they kept throwing at us at repeated elections. Then we got the AAA credit rating back and we kept it. We were also tough on law and order. I had 150 public meetings when I was Leader of the Opposition, asking what the community expected from Labor in opposition and what they expected from us in government. They wanted jobs, a decent healthcare system, a decent education system and they were sick and tired of being done over by criminals and wanted us to come down hard on them.
DASTYARI: You were part of a generation of Labor Leaders who all have now exited the political stage – Bob Carr, Steve Bracks, Peter Beattie, Geoff Gallop and Claire Martin. What do you see as the common thread among you?
RANN: We were economically sound and progressive at the same time. There’s got to be that combination, and I’ve got to say it was a wonderful period because all of us looked out for each other. Bob Carr, especially, was extremely generous to the rest of us and that’s one of the great symbiotic relationships. The message for all of us was to be economically responsible and socially progressive. I think that’s the winning formula for Labor.
There has always been this great relationship between South Australian and NSW Labor. When the party in NSW was out of office, we were out helping get them back in, and when we were out NSW Labor would do the same. The great thing about NSW Labor is they don’t forget their friends in the bad times. I came over and helped out in the Neville Wran and Barrie Unsworth campaigns. When Labor lost government and Bob Carr became Opposition Leader I came over and helped in the planning to get back in because Bob was a huge supporter not only to me but to other Labor leaders.
DASTYARI: Looking back on your term as Premier, what are you most proud of?
RANN: We faced a difficult set of circumstances when I was elected. South Australia was a rust bucket state with the highest unemployment in the country. The day I was sworn in [6 March 2002], I was told that the population was declining and unemployment was continuing to rise. We had a majority of one, and I said to my team that Labor was going to hit the ground running, as if we had a majority of 15. I also said first and foremost we had to fix the economy. We had to diversify, so we had to get mining going. We stopped giving handouts to companies to keep them alive, but instead went with a major mining exploration initiative which has paid multi-billions, into trillions of dollars.
We got mining going and we revitalised our manufacturing industry by getting defence contracts, winning the two biggest defence contracts in the country’s history.
DASTYARI: Would you classify those economic reforms as your greatest successes?
RANN: Ultimately, you want to leave your State better than when you found it. We’ve had record job growth, record employment growth, the lowest unemployment in the nation during the GFC, the lowest unemployment ever recorded in South Australia and the highest number of jobs. We’re seeing $80 billion worth of projects coming through. In that sense, we’ve been pro-jobs, pro- mining, pro business, pro growth, but at the same time we’re a leader in environmental reforms in renewable energy and tackling climate change. We have 21 percent of our power coming from renewables. If South Australia was a nation not a State, we’d be second only to Denmark. So that’s why I took on the portfolio of economic mobility and climate change; to prove that they aren’t mutually exclusive. Labor governments should never be frightened of reform but must always remember that the key to social problems is employment.
At the same time we’ve halved homelessness in the city with our social inclusion policy, we’ve had a 16-year high in terms of kids completing school, doubled spending on health in nine years; all of those things we’ve been able to do because we’ve been financially responsible and because we’ve stuck to growing our economy.
So I think we have been pragmatic and reformist in economic and social policy. What I learned also is that it’s important to get elected then re-elected and re-elected again to implement those reforms. It’s not for me to define my legacy or our legacy but I think most people would say that the Labor Party 17 years ago was in a pretty terrible place. The State has never been better positioned for greatness than it is now.
DASTYARI: Having been leader for 17 years, how do you see yourself continuing to contribute in your new role outside of elected office?
RANN: I hope to continue being involved in good causes, whether it’s on climate change or social inclusion. I’d like to do some teaching, but in terms of the Labor Party I’d like to do some mentoring. I would like to help the NSW Opposition on its way back to power and Labor in other States too. I’d like to help the Federal Labor Government get re-elected because God help the country if Tony Abbott should ever become Prime Minister. I’ve had a good innings, I had very good mentors, people like Bob Hawke and Don Dunstan and others over the years have been extremely generous to me and I’d like to do the same for those coming along.
DASTYARI: Do you have some advice for the Party?
RANN: We’ve got to widen our gene pool. We’ve got to stop being fearful. It was really important for my government to bring in someone like Jane Lomax Smith, for example, who joined the Labor Party, was preselected, and was put straight into cabinet when she was the Mayor of Adelaide. It was important for us to get the Mayor of Norwood who wasn’t a member of a faction to become our candidate. We wouldn’t have won government without her. The Labor Party has to be big enough to be broader, to not be frightened of bringing in talented people from outside the party. Safe seats and upper house seats should be given to future leaders as opposed to what we often see, which is our best and brightest being put in marginal seats while our safest seats go to those with little talent who have just been slavishly obedient or branch stacking.
DASTYARI: A suggested response to those challenges, originating in NSW, is to shift to a community preselection (primaries model) where candidates have to prove themselves to the local community, not the factions. It’s very controversial in NSW. A lot of rank and file members see it as a direct threat to their role within the Party. What’s your view of primaries?
RANN: I would like to see it tested. For instance in my seat – I’ll be stepping down shortly – there is an opportunity in this seat which votes between 69 percent to 80 percent Labor, for it to be reserved for someone who is a potential future Premier, or future Treasurer or future Deputy Leader.
What I would like to see is the primary system trialled but ultimately I see it coming down to this: there is no point in the Labor Party squabbling over the spoils of defeat in opposition. We have to be in government. We can only be in government if we remember what Neville Wran and Don Dunstan did all those years ago, which was to forge a coalition between working classes, people from a migrant background and professionals and intellectuals. As soon as you lose the last you lose the first.