31 January 2016
Plenty of memories would’ve been jolted among dedicated voters of the Labor Party, once described as the “true believers”, after the death late last year of John Bannon, who was Premier of South Australia from 1982 to 1992. Bannon was among several State Labor leaders to win office around Australia just before Bob Hawke led Labor to a Federal election win in 1983, and they were later considered the upholders of a great Labor era, as well as the ones to bury bad memories after the end of the Whitlam Government in 1975.
Bannon led Labor to victory in SA after a single term out of office in late 1982. He’d go on to win elections in 1985 and 1989, before a series of scandals, including the collapse of a major bank, triggered his departure.
In the year before Hawke was elected Prime Minister, Labor had won office in Victoria and SA, with John Cain being elected Premier of Victoria ahead of Bannon in SA, although between these triumphs Labor lost office in Tasmania after years in power. Then Brian Burke led Labor to victory in Western Australia shortly before Hawke’s triumph. Cain governed until 1990 and Burke governed until 1988, so Bannon outlasted both of them. In the meantime, another Labor leader, Neville Wran, had been Premier of New South Wales for years before Cain, Bannon, Burke, and Hawke came to power.
But in a broader context, Bannon’s triumph was probably less grand than it seemed. His win in 1982 came after Labor had lost office in 1979, and before that Labor hadn’t lost a state election in SA since 1968. After 1982, Labor governed in SA until losing office in 1993, and nearly regained office in 1997, before regaining office in 2002.
SA has been strong for Labor for some time. Going back 50 years to 1966, Labor had been governing only since the previous year, when it won an election – before then, it hadn’t governed in SA for many decades. The Labor record here from 1966 was an election defeat in 1968, an election victory in 1970, defeat in 1979, victory in 1982, defeat in 1993, and victory in 2002, since which it’s remained in office despite a few near-misses at elections. With Labor’s 1970 and 1982 wins following defeats in the elections immediately before them, and a near-miss in 1997 following defeat in 1993, the 1982 win might seem more like a Labor power pause, if I could put it like that, ended by Bannon.
Having strong leaders like Bannon would’ve helped Labor in SA. Before Bannon, Don Dunstan was Premier for many years, and after Bannon it was Mike Rann who had a long stint as Premier. Without them, Labor wasn’t as strong, and lost office after both Dunstan and then Bannon left. After Rann left, new Labor leader and Premier Jay Weatherill narrowly held on to win an election in 2014, despite being expected to lose.
At the same time, a lack of strong opponents also would’ve helped Labor. Until the defeat of the Coalition Government in Victoria in 2014, the Labor Government in Tasmania in 1992 was the last to lose office after a single term, and before that it was the Liberal Government in SA in 1982 to meet this fate, although the Liberal Government in SA in 1997 came close to meeting this fate as well. After the 2014 election in SA, I spoke to a guy who was once a Liberal MP – he described the Liberal Party in SA as a basket case.
In terms of how strong SA has been for Labor since 1966, it’s worth noting that SA has been Labor’s strongest state. Labor has governed there for a total of about 36 of those past 50 years. In that same period Labor has governed for a total of about 32 years in Tasmania, 28 in NSW, 23 in Victoria, 22 in Queensland, and 21 in WA.
In 1966 there weren’t governments in either the Northern Territory or the Australian Capital Territory. They didn’t come until the 1970s in the former and the late 1980s in the latter. Labor’s total time in office has been 11 years in the Northern Territory, and about 19 years in the ACT.
The death of Bannon late last year would’ve left many Labor people remembering better days. More such memories will stir when other successful Labor leaders have passed on.