It’s been pilloried in song by Paul Kelly as a stuffy and boring place where nothing interesting ever happens, but if someone made a film about the past five months of politics in the City of Churches it would probably attract an MA rating.
Economically and culturally South Australia is humming along. Just 10 years ago, in the backdraft of the $3.15 billion collapse of the State Bank on Labor’s watch, it was an economic basketcase which young people were queuing to leave.
Last Thursday, on the day I started this piece by sitting down with Premier Mike Rann, the national employment figures confirmed that SA has yet again registered the lowest jobless rate in the land.
Arriving at the airport I’m told that all the hotels are full and they’ve almost run out of hire cars, as the city fills with joyful bogans for this weekend’s Clipsal V8 race, capping two months of awesome good times which have included Lance Armstrong’s visit for the Tour Down Under, the Womad world music concerts and the Adelaide Festival and Fringe.
SA has got its groove back. People are moving back here, property prices are up, every time someone turns over a rock they find a lucrative mineral deposit. And in the midst of all this, the once-unassailable Mike Rann should be cruising to victory as he seeks a third term in a government that, until recently, had been untroubled by scandal.
All that changed back in October when Mike Rann was punched repeatedly in the face with a rolled-up copy of Wine State magazine (hey, this is Adelaide after all) by Rick Phillips, the utterly ropeable estranged husband of former parliamentary waitress Michelle Chantelois, who shared a friendship which Rann insists was never more than “flirty”.
In her subsequent paid interview on Channel Seven, the content of which was furiously denied by Rann and the subject of defamation action, Chantelois claimed it went well beyond flirty, with wild, detail-laden tales of secret dalliances.
Many people in SA have felt sympathy for Rann over this episode. He was not married at the time of his friendship with Chantelois, who issued a fairly audacious demand in her interview for the unmarried Rann to apologise to her husband, even though she was the only one in a position to have broken her vows.
But other South Australians have interpreted the Chantelois episode as an example of Rann’s spin, and their conviction that the man disparaged as “Media Mike” could talk his way out of anything.
Beyond that it’s simply been a massive distraction, with Chantelois crashing the opening of an art gallery by Mike Rann and his wife Sasha Carruzzo, and only last Thursday, Rick Phillips buying a seat for a debate between Treasurer Kevin Foley and his Liberal opponent, commandeering the microphone to make a series of wildly defamatory claims about Rann which cannot be repeated here.
At these times it has looked more like the sequel to Fatal Attraction than an election campaign. Labor clearly is worried about the impact it has had, with Rann’s wife even doing a front page interview with The Adelaide Advertiser where she spoke genuinely of Mike’s decency and loyalty, and her unyielding trust for him.
When I meet Rann at his office in Victoria Square he is relaxed. And without using Bill Clinton’s famous quote, he has one key message – it’s the economy, stupid.
The former journalist, like his good friend Bob Carr, is an easy guy to interview as he speaks in methodical sentences, doesn’t umm or ahh, and it’s a contrast with his new opponent Isobel Redmond who is very much at the unpolished end of the political spectrum as I’ll find in my interview with her.
And on the economy Rann has a good story to tell and he tells it well.
“There’s 114,000 more people in work – that’s more than two AAMI Stadiums full of people,” he says in reference to the home ground of the mighty Adelaide Crows.
“There was not a national commentator eight years ago who did not refer to us as rustbelt or rustbucket – now, there’s not a single commentator in the country who is saying that.”
“I’ve been in the state since 1977 and decade after decade we have always had higher unemployment than the rest of Australia. None of these things come about by chance, they come about by choice.”
Rann says that the foundations for SA’s new growth were laid when he came to office and, with respected business leader Robert Champion de Crespigny and his knockabout Treasurer Kevin Foley, rented a room at the Hyatt hotel for a weekend to “war-room” a blueprint for the state’s economic recovery.
Central to this was the decision to pull back from support for failing manufacturing industries such as whitegoods and cars and to use government money to co-fund drilling projects in the mining industry.
“We anticipated a three-fold increase in mining exploration and we got a 10-fold increase,” he says. “They found stuff everywhere.”
The regional growth has not just been driving by mining but renewable energy - with 8 per cent of nation’s population SA has 47 per cent of its wind farms – and much of this has come about through Rann’s aggressively pro-development stance.
“We basically changed the regulations, there was none of that not in my backyard syndrome that was happening in the eastern states.”
For the city, the biggest contributor to the economic turnaround has been defence, with SA winning $44 billion worth of defence contracts.
“We knew that the most important thing that we had to get back was our confidence,” Rann says. There was always this sense that our kids had to go interstate to find careers. That’s not there any more.”
Rann has gone from a whopping 70 per cent high in the approval ratings to a more vulnerable 45 per cent. His party now sits 50-50 with the Liberal Opposition with predictions of a hung Parliament, or worse, an unceremonious Kennett-style exit in the middle of an economic high. Rann appears frustrated with this.
“People think that these things just came about. We have to remind people that this did not come about by accident. People have to ask themselves who is best equipped to keep the momentum going.”
He says the Liberals have failed to provide any costings on their promises and have fabricated their attacks on government’s policies, principally the contentious rebuilding of the Royal Adelaide hospital and the Adelaide Oval upgrade.
He believes the media has been negligent in failing to hold the Liberals up to scrutiny. But he bristles at suggestions that it’s principally been the distraction from the Chantelois and Phillips circus that is knocking the government off message.
“People are sick and tired of it,” Rann says of the episode’s continuing emergence in the campaign.
“People come up to me in the street and say they are sick and tired of hearing about it. I was campaigning in the marginal seat of Norwood and people were stopping me saying they were sick of it.”
“It’s an obsession of some parts of the media because it’s easier to report than disability policy or education policy. Some of the coverage here – like on Channel Nine for two nights running after the debate the news coverage was about the makeup that was worn during the debate. South Australians deserve better than that and we are picking that up out there in the electorates.”
Down at State Parliament the following day, Isobel Redmond has scored something of a coup. The political novice started her career as leader eight months ago with some unusual stunts – she volunteered to be shot with a taser gun so she could better inform her law and order policy, she was photographed milking a cow, she introduced a swear jar at Party Room meetings to make Liberal MPs clean up their language.
Today she’s been joined by the most popular politician in South Australia, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon from the No Pokies Party, who’s fondness for political vaudeville has earned him the nickname the stuntman.
Xenophon’s tacit endorsement of Redmond is significant. He’s a dogged campaigner for greater government transparency who has attacked Rann over his opposition to the creation of an Independent Against Corruption. Today he’s backing the call by Isobel Redmond for all all government advertising to be vetted by the Auditor-General to make sure it does not contain a party political message.
Xenophon says at the press conference that he stood in the same room with Mike Rann in 2001 when John Olsen’s Liberals were in power, and heard the then Labor Opposition Leader denounce the conservatives for pilfering public funds for political ads.
“Mike Rann broke that promise spectacularly,” Mr X says.
I ask Redmond at the press conference if she thinks she’s on a winner in attacking Rann over political ads and his general media style, in contrast to her more homespun approach.
The former lawyer says that she hopes people draw that contrast.
“I think it’s an issue in that people are identifying spin for a what it is. A lot of what is said in politics doesn’t tell people anything, it’s either political spin or bureaucrat speak, you can’t even understand it.”
After the presser we retire to her office – she’s on a schedule as like the rest of Adelaide she wants to go to the V8s – and the first thing she says is that she’s having a lot of fun as Opposition Leader and is clearly chuffed that the Libs are now competitive.
“When I became leader I would not have anticipated that I would not have enjoyed it as much as I have,” she says.
She says she didn’t covet the the job either and, funnily, that she’s never even had a burning ambition to become premier.
“No. I think that’s why I have stayed relaxed. It’s never been about me having any desperation to become premier, but I have a desperation to get rid of this government because it’s so awful.”
I tell her about Rann’s economic story and she sounds cynical. It’s the kind of response which Labor has used to attack her as anti-South Australian, and as carping and negative in questioning its new economic strength.
She argues that Rann is manipulating the figures and that the State still has some ways to go to reclaim “our culture of vibrancy”.
“I agree that there’s something of a sense of optimism but let me give the lie to what he says,” she starts.
“Our national share of business has gone from 7 per cent to 5.2 per cent. If we had kept up with national growth we would have created 19,000 more jobs. When we were at the very darkest hour in this state, the government was paying $2 million a day in interest. But the forward estimates show state debt is $6.8 billion so they have got us back to that same point.”
Redmond also accused Rann of taking credit for projects that were Liberal initiatives, such as the Tour Down Under, and says that Mike Rann with his Twitter buddy Lance Armstrong has become part of “the cult of celebrity” which she shuns.
The one indignant moment in the interview, is when I put to Redmond the Labor theory that Michelle Chantelois and Rick Phillips have been working in concert with, or on behalf of, the conservatives.
“Not at all, I have issued explicit instructions to all my MPs, all candidates and all staff to say do not go anywhere near this.
“We have no more idea than he does when they are going to pop up. It has made a difference to his campaign because he is obviously having to watch over his shoulder a bit.”
Redmond sounds sincere when she says that she’s not even interested in the whole issue, and it fits with her libertarian views. She describes herself as “quite left wing on social issues” – she supports gay marriage for example. But despite this she’s got a strong friendship with Tony Abbott who has applauded her straight-talking style.
She says that she wants to win the election on the basis that SA can do better – not off the back of some morality scandal.
While Labor might still scoff at the denials, Michelle Chantelois herself tells The Punch that she is not now nor has she ever been a political player.
I had tried to line up a face to face meeting with Ms Chantelois but she’s been lying a bit low the past few weeks – certainly not crashing any more events as her estranged husband did last Wednesday. Requests for interviews with her are now meant to go through her lawyers but I tracked her down direct and we had a brief chat over the phone.
“I’m well and truly over it,” she says, before adding ominously: “…but it’s something that is just going to be lingering around, because of it’s out his control.
“Unfortunately that’s what happens when you avoid situations and don’t face up to your actions. That’s why it won’t go away, because he won’t address it.
I’m not doing it. I just exposed it and it’s taken on a life of its own.”
She says she thinks Mike Rann has become paranoid about her and that it’s rubbish for anyone to suggest that she and her husband are collaborating to damage the Premier and his Government.
She says she and her ex-husband “are definitely not together” and that she hasn’t spoken to him for more than a week, just before the court case when he pleaded guilty to charges of assaulting Mike Rann.
“At the end of the day Rick and I are co-parents and we have to work together on that, but that is it. People think we are creating this whole thing and collaborating, but we are not.”
In this final week of the campaign, the Adelaide Sunday Mail published a comprehensive Galaxy poll yesterday showing Redmond and the Liberals have hit the front, 51-49, and remarkably, the novice Redmond has overtaken the polished Rann as preferred premier. The paper also reported that Mr Rann is planning a last-minute blitz of regional marginals, similar to Anna Bligh’s 30 seats in three days extravaganza at the last Queensland poll. Except in SA now, some have attributed this regional focus as a desire to avoid any surprise appearances by Chantelois or Phillips.
Mike Rann says the public is sick and tired of it – and he is quite obviously sick and tired of it. But with the economy doing well, and aside from the distraction of Treasurer Kevin Foley’s philandering ways, an absence of any ministerial scandals, the only significant change in the SA political landscape since October is the emergence of Michelle Chantelois.
If Rann loses it will be because this one left-field saga has forced enough voters to focus not on his policy performance, but on him, and to draw an unfavourable conclusion about what they see.
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