Sex, power & politics
In contemporary politics poor polling leads to the removal of party leaders, and South Australian Premier Mike Rann is the latest victim.
In contemporary politics poor polling leads to the removal of party leaders, and South Australian Premier Mike Rann is the latest victim. FOR such a steady, earnest and almost studiously monotone political leader, the revelation that South Australian Premier Mike Rann had been beaten around the head with a rolled-up wine magazine by the husband of a Parliament House waitress was at least intriguing.When the waitress in question, Michelle Chantelois, went on TV and in a paid interview claimed she and Rann had indulged in sex on his parliamentary desk and had fondled each other in a car by an Adelaide golf course, South Australian voters were left to ponder whether they knew their Premier at all.Rann later declared he had been subject to false allegations and described his friendship with Ms Chantelois as nothing more than ''funny [and] flirty''. Within a few months, he received an out-of-court settlement from the Seven Network and an apology for the suggestion that his friendship with Chantelois had affected the performance of his duties as Premier.The problem was that the soap opera played out in the months and weeks leading to the South Australian state election in March, 2010.If, as some observers contend, it didn't directly chisel votes from Rann and his Labor colleagues, it proved a massive distraction to the government's attempts to run an effective election campaign.After years as one of Australia's most successful political leaders - and a period when he was the most popular leader in the nation's history - Rann was suddenly struggling against what in less fraught times might have been seen as an unconvincing opposition led by the latest Liberal leader, Isobel Redmond.When the election was over, Labor limped back into power having suffered a huge swing of 8.4 per cent against it and losing the two-party preferred vote.Rann's uncontested hold on the premiership was over and he knew it.According to those close to him, he quietly planned to hand over to a successor next March. It would have put a decent distance between the Chantelois unpleasantness and an orderly transition, it would have granted Rann a neat 10 years as Premier and it would have made him the longest-serving Labor premier in South Australia. (But impatient Labor powerbrokers had different ideas. Even though South Australia's next election is not due until 2014, public polling has Labor - particularly the large number of its MPs sitting in seats reduced to precarious margins by last year's election - seriously spooked.The Labor Party's slide in popularity has accelerated since the election, and on the most recent Newspoll figures, which reveal a two-party preferred vote of 54 per cent to 46 per cent in the Liberal opposition's favour, Labor would be crushed at the next vote.Rotten polling in contemporary politics increasingly translates to the removal of leaders, as a swag of NSW Labor premiers and former prime minister Kevin Rudd can attest. Last Friday, Mike Rann became the latest verity of this canon.There is a circularity to events in the political world. Back in 1994, one of the most powerful of South Australia's Labor factional brokers, Don Farrell, engineered the wheeling and dealing that gave Mike Rann the leadership of the state Labor Party. Farrell was then the big cheese in Australia's biggest union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (known as the Shoppies), and exerted influence through the right-wing Labor Unity faction.Farrell became a senator in 2008, and continued to use his factional power to considerable effect. When the numbers were being assembled to chop off prime minister Kevin Rudd's political head last year and replace him with Julia Gillard, Farrell, late of the Shoppies, was crucial to assembling the numbers.Farrell and the Shoppies may have brought Rann to power, but in the wake of last year's election, it had become clear to those behind the scenes that if he didn't go, he would have to be pushed.Last Friday, the Shoppies struck. Farrell's successor as state secretary of the union, 30-year-old Peter Malinauskas, brought the news to Rann in person. The Premier was given until the middle of September to leave his office, though Rann has since insisted he will decide when the handover occurs.The Shoppies and the forces of the Right, ruthless pragmatists all, had made a deal to deliver a man of the Left to replace Rann. Education Minister Jay Weatherill, it had been decided, would be the next Premier because in a government desperately short of saleable figures, he appeared both smart and popular, whatever his faction.Weatherill, a lawyer, has been on the quiet rise in politics since his days at Adelaide University, where he was boyfriend to Penny Wong , who was then in control of the university Labor Club and is now Finance Minister in the Gillard government.He and Wong were members of what was known as the ''Bolkus Left'', proteges of former South Australian Labor senator Nick Bolkus.Some of the relationships between those who played Labor politics hard at university together have since fractured as power plays became more real. One of Weatherill's old allies from the Bolkus Left, for instance, was Patrick Conlon, now Infrastructure Minister in the Rann government.Last year, Weatherill unleashed his ambition by challenging then treasurer Kevin Foley for the deputy Labor leadership. It proved an unsuccessful tilt, but Conlon was so incensed he quit the Left faction, which is headed by Weatherill.Adelaide has the ability, particularly in politics, to remind observers that it is not a big town. Among Weatherill's, Wong's and Conlon's contemporaries at university (albeit from the opposing Right faction) was Jack Snelling, now Rann's treasurer. It was Snelling who accompanied Peter Malinauskas last Friday to deliver the news to Rann that he was finished.Indeed, it was reported yesterday that Snelling had been plotting to move against Rann himself, but couldn't secure the numbers. Another of those said to have been plotting on their own behalf was Rann's deputy, John Rau, who Rann is said to have assumed would be his successor next year.The South Australian government, in short, was not a happy ship. Rann must have known of the intrigue seething around him. But it's clear that last Friday he didn't see the blade coming.Rann, a former journalist long known as ''Media Mike'' for his keen interest in how to keep his profile in the public eye, is one of the most enthusiastic tweeters in the Twittersphere.On Friday, as his would-be executioners sharpened their knives, the Premier could be followed happily tweeting himself around electorates north of Adelaide. He sent messages from Mark Oliphant College (''a thousand students using laptops and iPads!'' he messaged. ''School covered in solar panels. Amazing tech studies equipment. Watched the robots!). Soon his Twitter stream revealed he was with Tony Piccolo MP at the Gawler Racecourse, and then on to Immanuel Lutheran Primary School, followed by a visit to the Amcor bottling plant.His last tweet on Friday concerned a political retirement, but it wasn't his own.''Paul Holloway has announced he's retiring. He has been an outstanding MP who will go down in history as the minister behind the mining boom,'' Rann punched into the ether. Holloway, a former mining and industrial relations minister, had declared during the day he was retiring because he believed it was ''time for new blood, for transition''.Suddenly, late Friday afternoon, there was a silence from @PremierMikeRann. He had been visited by his future and, we might imagine, he was contemplating the wider and more personal meanings of blood and transition.However, what the plotters had meant to be a relatively smooth generational change - Weatherill is 47, Rann is 58 - looks to be a poorly planned mess.Rann, still insisting he will remain Premier until he has completed negotiations with BHP Billiton to expand the huge Olympic Dam mining operation (a task that could take months), has flown off to India on a trade mission as if nothing has happened and South Australia did not have an extremely lame duck for a Premier.Indeed, his tweeting ability returned as he touched down in India. ''In Delhi and will be moving from city to city. India is now SA's third biggest trading partner, up from 16th five years ago,'' he informed his followers. ''India now SA's biggest source of migrants for the first time. Exports in last year up 62%.''Rann enjoys talking big about South Australia. Only last week, in a speech celebrating the 175th anniversary of European settlement in the state, he declared that by 2036, on its 200th birthday, South Australia would be the home of the world's biggest resource operation, with the Olympic Dam site the ''mother ship'' of more than 50 mines.The state's intellectual capital would be at least equal to its resources wealth, with the City of Adelaide ''a vibrant super-campus in itself'', and the growth of submarine and shipbuilding would support ''a myriad of high-skilled, high-tech industries''.In the end, though, Rann, like all leaders brought low by time, circumstance and their colleagues, has not much more to offer than expansive talk about the future.But the British-born, New Zealand-raised man of ambition has a rare collection of memories and achievements.He and his government may be in the boondocks now, but it was Rann who led Labor out of the terrible wilderness that engulfed it after the State Bank of South Australia collapsed in the early 1990s, engineered in 2002 a minority government with the support of independent (and former Liberal) Peter Lewis, retrieved his state's triple-A economic rating and so controlled the political landscape by 2003 that the opposition was left with just 15 out of 47 seats in the state Parliament.Rann has long claimed his style of administration, in which he set a long list of 10-year economic and social targets for his state's government and business sectors, was a model for governments elsewhere, and many South Australian voters clearly bought this grand vision.Rann's personal popularity and that of his government sailed high to 2007, and even as time and political tide took its toll later, the stumbles were relatively benign.Less than a year before the 2010 election, Rann and his government still appeared well placed. The Liberal opposition of Martin Hamilton-Smith helped by descending into chaos over the so-called ''dodgygate'' affair, in which Hamilton-Smith falsely accused Labor of accepting donations from the Church of Scientology.By mid-2009, however, Hamilton-Smith was replaced by Isobel Redmond, who, as the election drew near, turned out to be a tenacious Liberal leader. Within months, Mike Rann, the curiously boring South Australian political superstar, would find his career under furious attack from two women: Michelle Chantelois and Isobel Redmond.They failed to defeat him, but he was left the political equivalent of a dead man walking. The Labor factions, who can smell blood well before it is spilled, recognised Mike Rann's vulnerability before he could engineer his escape. And now, having made him in the first place, they are taking him away.Tony Wright is national affairs editor.