Mike Rann’s legacy in South Australia

Mike Rann waves goodbye on his last day in office at Parliament House in Adelaide. AAP/James Baker

Mike Rann has handed the South Australian Premiership to Jay Weatherill, after nine years in the State’s top job.

Labor Party power brokers tapped the man who had led their party for 17 years on the shoulder in July, believing he didn’t have a fourth term in him.

Insisting on a ten week handover, Rann made sure to push through the controversial expansion to the Olympic Dam. The $30bn project will become the world’s biggest mine should it be approved. But his support for it plagued him to the last, with a protester interrupting his final public function.

The Conversation spoke to Clement Macintyre, of the University of Adelaide about Rann’s nine colourful years leading the state, and the impact his seventeen years as leader of SA Labor had on the party.

What is Mike Rann’s legacy as Premier? What kind of impact has he made in South Australia?

At one level he’s been a very successful Premier over nearly ten years and in my mind there’s no doubt that the state is now in a better situation than when he took office.

I think that South Australians have got a better sense of self-confidence and a better sense of engagement with the State.

When Mike Rann became Premier I think South Australia was still suffering from some economic troubles. And also a sense of continuing industrial manufacturing decline.

As Premier, he, together with Treasurer Kevin Foley, has overseen a much greater level of stability in the economy.

Now I know it’s been a bit rocky in the last few years with the global financial crisis but I think every domestic economy in a sense has suffered because of the consequences of that.

But South Australia is in a stronger position in terms of the fundamentals than it was ten years ago.

There’s some other changes also in terms of the level of investment in infrastructure and some different priorities on arts and the environment that he also oversaw.

What did Mike Rann do for the South Australian Labor party?

We have to remember he took over the leadership of the Labor party in 1994. The party had been reduced to ten seats at the 1993 election, 10 out of 47 in the assembly.

It was at a very low ebb. People talked about the Labor party being out of office for a generation, three or four terms because of the size of the majority that the Liberals had.

Mike Rann was able to turn that around in two elections, and brought back Labor back into office in 2002.

And so in many senses, his long period as leader - 17 nearly 18 years - has enabled the party to move from the very low position it was in in the early nineties to re-establish itself as really what is, in many senses, the natural party of government in South Australia.

And so his contribution to and dominance over the Labor party over a long time is certainly one of his achievements. But as a Premier, I think there is plenty that he will look back on and take some pride in.

What were the highlights his career?

As premier, I think without question economic restructuring and the re-building of the reputation of Labor as sound economic managers. The re-establishment of the AAA credit rating under Kevin Foley as Treasurer is something that the government put a lot of time and energy into and holds very dearly.

At the same time, I think there was a re-thinking of economic priorities so the reputation of South Australia as a rust bucket state meant that the government had to start thinking about where it was putting its energy and its resources and I think it has been able to find alternative forms of employment successfully as the decline took place in manufacturing and particularly in car assembly in South Australia.

Part of that process has been a considered investment in infrastructure. So investment particularly in transport and more recently in the re-location of the Royal Adelaide hospital and other projects has indicated that the government is thinking of the longterm needs of the economy.

And the low lights?

When Mike Rann came to office he talked about health, he talked about police and law and order, he talked about education.

Now there are significant criticisms to be made, those who work in health and education will point out a number of ways in which they think that he’s not lived up to the promise that he made.

And everyone, in a sense, can find ways in which more money could be spent in those areas.

But the general overview picture of the investment in infrastructure I think has been an important part of his accomplishments.

Then there are other areas where he has been less successful. I think the government has not travelled as well over the last three or four years.

I think it was a very good government between 2002 - 2006, it was a minority, it needed to work with an independent member, Rory McEwen and the Nationals’ member, Karlene Maywald.

They brought them into the cabinet and I think it thought through policy better and presented policy after some greater consideration.

When they won the 2006 election (http://www.abc.net.au/elections/sa/2006/) with a landslide, I think that sense of focus began to dissipate when they had the numbers in the lower house and the government became a bit less disciplined, and certainly less consultative and a bit less tight in its consideration of how to present policy.

And then of course, that was compounded by a growing concern over the private lives of two of the key figures – Kevin Foley was assaulted in the street twice. He was the victim in both cases, but it doesn’t look good having a Treasurer on the front page as the victim of an assault, being out on the streets late at night.

And of course, Mike Rann famously was assaulted by a person who accused him of having an affair with his wife.

What did those scandals mean for his career and for the Labor government?

I think the way in which the Premier responded to that was probably understandable, I’m not sure any public figure would deal with that sort of accusation very smoothly, but I think that it meant that Labor was wrong footed during the campaign leading up to the 2010 election (http://www.abc.net.au/elections/sa/2010/).

They were less confident, they were, in a sense, always slightly anxious about an ambush at the campaign and that there would be a distraction from the main message.

And for me really the beginning of the decline of levels of support for the government began to grow from some time around early to mid-2009.

People started to get a sense that the government was listening less, that the Rann ministerial team was a bit more focussed on spin and the message rather than the substance of policy issues.

And then when both Kevin Foley and Mike Rann hit the headlines for the wrong reasons I think that’s sort exacerbated that general disenchantment with the government.

Now they won that election narrowly, they lost the two-party preferred vote but they had the votes in the right seats.

But I think from that point on it was clear that Mike Rann as Premier would probably not be the right person to take Labor to the next election.

And therefore, it’s no surprise that the factions decided that now was the time for change and to move to Jay Weatherill who has, if the polls are to be believed, a fair degree of endorsement by the voters of South Australia.