On message, even when up to his neck in it
A few weeks after he was clouted in the face with a rolled-up wine magazine, and on the same day that Channel Seven ran salacious allegations about his relationship with former parliamentary waitress Michelle Chantelois, Mike Rann wrote an article about the sex lives of pandas for our opinion website The Punch.
The timing was somewhat awkward. Rann, an early adopter of Twitter and one of the first politicians to use blogging as a new and direct way of talking to the voters, was spruiking the arrival of breeding pandas Wang Wang and Funi at the Adelaide Zoo. He explained how male pandas were sexually lethargic, difficult to arouse, and how zoos overseas had resorted to showing them films of mating pandas in a bid to fire them up.
Our website, driven as it is by robust and comic interaction with the readers, decided it would be best to hold the column for a while. Not out of any desire to protect the Premier – whatever scandals he was involved in were his problem, not ours – but because the job of keeping the reader’s comments within the boundaries of taste and libel would be impossible.
I asked Rann’s speechwriter to explain this to the Premier but the answer came back that he was still happy for it to run, that as far as he was concerned it was business as usual, that no sleazy TV beat-up, as he regarded it, would distract him from his job.
We stuck with our decision and held the piece anyway. When we ran it a few weeks later, the comments were every bit as unmanageable as we expected, and often amusingly so. To give you a sense of it, the first reader drew on Bill Clinton with the simple comment: “I did not have sexual relations with that panda.” And so on.
The Chantelois scandal should not be the defining story of Rann’s premiership, which comes to an end this weekend. But his handling of that scandal spoke volumes about his political style, which combined pig-headedness, a desire for control and a sense of persecution to produce a surprisingly winning formula. It is remarkable that Rann managed to overcome the spectacular distractions of that soap opera to secure an improbable and unfancied victory at last year’s state election. It is a rare thing to see a politician emerge from such a distraction with their job, let alone to deny their opponents what should have been an easy victory.
Rann has always been driven by a sense of total self-belief and a steadfast and irritating refusal to engage on any issue he did not want to discuss. I interviewed him last year during the election campaign and asked him whether it was proving difficult to sell his message with the Chantelois scandal festering away in the background. He answered that there were now more wind farms in South Australia than anywhere else in the country. His critics would see this type of an answer as hot air. It also showed that Rann is one of the few politicians of his generation who has managed to identify and stick to a consistent narrative about what his premiership stood for.
There would not be a person in South Australia who, whether they like Rann or not, does not associate him with the conviction that SA had been a rust-bucket state and that it was the job of government to rev the joint up by encouraging investment in mining and defence.
This consummate on-message politician stuck with this story from the get-go. It has even informed his mildly farcical determination to stick around and hold Jay Weatherill’s hands for the past few awkward months, as he ostensibly puts the finishing touches to deals such as Olympic Dam, which were already going ahead anyway. The lure of a few more photo opportunities wearing hard hats and nodding sagely next to the bloke driving the really big truck proved too great for Rann as he used his final three months as premier to cement his chosen status as the pro-jobs, pro-investment premier.
It may often have been grand-standing and window-dressing but it still fits with the brand which Rann carved out for himself over the past decade. Despite his unglorious exit, forced aside earlier than he wished (if indeed he did wish to leave at all), history on balance will be kind to Rann. The manner of his victory last year showed that voters are prepared to cop a bit of soap opera - not just Rann’s but also the much more compelling private meltdown of former treasurer Kevin Foley – if they believe that the government is still doing a decent job of running things, or is better than the opposition. It’s a contrast from the shambles of NSW Labor, where the personal scandals involving a string of ministers were a metaphor for the total neglect of state infrastructure and public services.
As Rann busies himself carving out his legacy there are a couple of points which go beyond his successful political style, and are worth considering in the broader political context.
One is his assertion that, upon winning minority government, he took the tactical decision to govern as if he had a 10-seat majority. This assessment is an obvious reflection on the failures of Julia Gillard to command respect from the voters over the past 13 months, as she struggles to balance the competing demands of Greens, Independents, and her own divided Caucus on a raft of policy issues.
Rann’s analysis of how he governed with bravery ignores the fact that, as the premier of a small state, where you’re essentially a mayor on steroids, the challenge of minority government comes with a much lesser degree of difficulty than it does in Canberra. Beyond that though I’d say he has a very valid point about Gillard’s style as a communicator with voters and as an inspirer of her team.
The second point is Rann’s late-onset conversion to the calls for factional decency, inspired as it obviously was by his being shafted by both the Left and the Right in an unexpected knifing, details of which were subsequently leaked by the party’s left wing.
As a putatively independent MP, never aligned to a faction, Rann is now making much of the fact that these so-called faceless men should not be allowed to call the shots. This of course ignores the fact that in securing and retaining the leadership, particularly when he stared down a failed challenge by Kevin Foley, Rann was wholly reliant on the faceless men to keep his job.
His final reshuffle was a total suck-job to the Right Faction and proved the maxim that if you want a friend in politics you’d better buy a dog, as you will eventually get dumped anyway, however gifted a communicator and salesman you may once have been.
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