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The year in South Australia
by Andrew Male

South Australia's year was dominated by an event which took place three months before it started.

The near defeat of John Olsen's Liberal Government in October 1997 generated an environment of instability so profound that the year ended in much the same way that it began - in economic and political gridlock.

The election result meant the Olsen Government held power only with the support of three Independent members in the House of Assembly. All were from rural seats won from sitting Liberal politicians. In the Legislative Council another new face, Independent 'No-Pokies' MP Nick Xenophon, meant further complications for the Olsen Government.

The Government, beset by internal divisions, was in for a tough year.

John Martins' closure

It started with bad news in January with the announcement John Martins, an Adelaide social and retail institution which opened its doors in the 1860s, would be closed by David Jones, which bought the company in the 1980s.

In a State buffeted by news of high unemployment and stories of businesses relocating to the eastern seaboard, the John Martins closure seemed to symbolise a community on the brink of vast and unwelcome changes.

At the other end of the ledger, some of the State's highlights came in the artistic sphere.

Adelaide Festival a success

The Adelaide Festival was hailed as a creative and fiscal triumph. Director Robyn Archer emerged as one of the winners of 1998 with a festival that left critics, accountants and tourists happy.

Writers Week and the Festival Fringe pumped life and literature into Adelaide's famous East End.

Later in the year, Adelaide was at the centre of world opera with the first performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle drawing crowds from around the world.

The event generated $15 million in the State and underlined the impact of cultural tourism on the South Australian economy.

While the artistic and creative life of Adelaide flourished, there was more than a whiff of political stagnation about.

ETSA for sale

In a move some commentators saw as a circuit-breaker, the State Government announced in March that it would offer the Electricity Trust of South Australia (ETSA) for sale.

Market analysts predicted the asset to be worth about $5 billion on the open market, Premier John Olsen said the sell-off was unavoidable if the State was to have any hope of recovering from the crippling public debt incurred during the 1980s.

The ETSA sell-off would dominate South Australia's domestic politics for the rest of the year. It led to the July resignation from Cabinet of Deputy Premier Graham Ingerson after he was found to have misled Parliament on details of the proposed sale.

But there was plenty more to come.

The Labor Opposition and the Democrats had the numbers in the Upper House to block the sale and they did. Few could have predicted what would happen next.

Terry Cameron resigns

Labor Party MLC Terry Cameron rocked the party he had been involved with for more than 30 years when he announced on ABC's Stateline that he would cross the floor and vote with the Government to support the sale of ETSA.

Suddenly deemed a "rat" by party colleagues he had once called friends, Mr Cameron resigned from the Labor Party.

This effectively handed the decision as to whether the sale would proceed to 'No-Pokies' MP Nick Xenophon.

Mr Xenophon, with less than a year's parliamentary experience, suddenly held the future of the most contentious piece of legislation in recent memory in the palm of his hand. He took advice and attacked the handling of the matter by both major parties.

In November, after much debate, Mr Xenophon refused to support the Bill.

While the intrigue continued in Parliament House, further north things seemed to be reaching new heights of weirdness.

The Marree Man

In outback Marree, an anonymous artist drew the Marree Man, a portrait of an Aboriginal man which stretched for four kilometres across the desert floor.

The figure, which could only be made out from the air, mystified the nation and soon attracted the nation's media to the tiny far north town.

Whether it was art, a prank or environmental vandalism will be debated long after the "man" has gone back to dust.

Tankard parts company with ADT

Back in Adelaide another debate was raging, this time over the future of the Australian Dance Theatre (ADT).

The internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer Meryl Tankard parted company with the ADT after a prolonged dispute with its board. She marked her departure with a sell-out retrospective season.

While South Australia mourned the loss of the prodigious Tankard there would be cause for celebration in other areas, especially in the sporting arena.

Back-to-back premierships

The Adelaide Crows won the Australian Football League premiership for the second season in a row. This led some Victorian-based clubs and commentators to reconsider earlier assessments of the Crows, including some who theorised that the 1997 premiership victory was a fluke.

The Crows' achievement was far from the only victory in South Australian sport.

The Adelaide 36ers won the National Basketball League grand final, the Adelaide Thunderbirds took out the National Netball League, and the Adelaide Lightning won the National Womens Basketball League title.

The streets of the capital filled as more than 50,000 people gathered to honour their sporting heroes in October.

The general elation was tempered with some sadness in December as the Adelaide Rams rugby league club was canned after chief financial backer News Limited withdrew its funding.

On the land

South Australia enjoyed its best start to the season for more than 15 years with long, soaking rains in April.

The wine industry went from strength to strength, with more ground given over to vine production than at any time in history.

The National Wine Centre in Adelaide, slated for an abandoned bus shelter adjacent the Botanic Gardens, sparked controversy among parkland preservation campaigners. They were angered at what they saw as another encroachment into Adelaide's green belt.

Offshore, the fisheries continued to flourish with increased exports of all seafoods from the Southern Ocean.

On a more sombre note, the unexplained deaths of millions of pilchards in November - just three years after an identical kill - seems destined to remain one of the mysteries of the waters.

The economic downturn in Asia affected commodity prices and hence some of the State's mining companies felt the strain, although Roxby Downs (adjoining Western Mining Corporation's Olympic Dam) remains one of South Australia's wealthiest towns.

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