2001 | 10
The unluckiest politician in Australia
Here it is folks, the definitive piece on fallen South Australian premier John Olsen, pulled together like never before in the mainstream press by an insider with deep knowledge.
21 October 2001
The Liberal Party scarcely prospered under his successor, Dale Baker, despite the collapse of the freewheeling State Bank and subsequent resignation of Premier John Bannon in 1991. In 1992, former deputy premier and longer serving leading right-wing figure Rodger Goldsworthy announced his retirement, with the idea of letting Olsen return to state parliament and take the Liberal leadership once again.
Another veteran, Ted Chapman, had other ideas. He resigned his seat, too, so that the man Olsen had beaten for the leadership in 1982, Dean Brown, who had lost his seat in 1985 when challenged by de-selected right wing renegade Stan Evans, could return for a shot at the top job.
The two by-elections were held on the same day in 1993. Olsen and Brown were both elected. After a fortnight of frantic plotting, dealing and lobbying, Dean Brown was elected leader. Eighteen months later he led the Liberal Party to an overwhelming victory in the state election. The man who would be premier, John Olsen, had to make do with the Industry Minister's job.
Brown followed the example of the Kennett Government, and ordered an audit commission into the state's finances. The similarity ended there. Unlike Kennett, Brown did not control the Legislative Council. Liberal conservatives who had argued for property franchises and electoral boundaries that favoured rural voters as recently as the 1970s had been so terrified of Don Dunstan winning a majority in both houses that they had accepted only those electoral reforms that made it virtually impossible for the government of the day to control the Council.
True, Brown enjoyed massive moral authority as a result of his enormous majority but he never seemed to wield it.
His massive backbench was a very mixed bag. There were MPs like Joe Tiernan, a bluff and likeable Irishman who had doorknocked virtually ever house in what had been impeccable Labor territory, only to tragically die six months into office. Then there was Joe Rossi, a moronic slob preselected for being a party timeserver in what everyone considered an unwinnable seat, who was carried in on the tide. They ranged across the factional gamut, of course, but Brown kept the ineffectual and mild mannered John Meir on as whip.
No-one ever sat down and read the riot act to them. No-one even told them how MPs should behave about the only time Rossi came to public attention was when the Speaker threw him out after he walked into the Chamber munching on a pie. The Liberal Party had been in power in South Australia for only five of the last 25 years. No-one ever told them that the best way for them to stay there was for them to work their electorates but otherwise shut up and do what they were told.
Not only did Brown not just fail to use his authority on the party. He failed to take the opportunity to use the Premier's position as a bully pulpit to push through the extensive economic reform desperately needed to rescue the state from Labor's disastrous economic management.
Adelaide is a one newspaper town, and most mornings the Advertiser sets the media agenda for the rest of the day. It strongly supported the new government and could have been an invaluable ally in putting in the radical long term policy changes acknowledged by the Kennett Government let alone first aid measures like Kennett's short term poll tax. (Ironically, it would be Olsen and his advisers who took this approach to force through legislation needed for a controversial beachside development as a sign of "business as usual" in the wake of the 1997 election debacle.)
Change significant change occurred under Dean Brown, but at much too slow a pace. The backbench was unruly. Ugly factional divisions festered and to top it all off, the Premier's "Dean Beige" personality scarcely inspired a sense of confident leadership with a clear direction for the future. Naturally, this was all reflected in the government's popularity ratings.
As the polls dropped, backbench murmurings rose and other forces started into work.
One of Brown's strongest backers for the leadership had been Joan Hall, wife of former Premier Steele Hall, who lead the breakaway Liberal Movement group in the 1970s. Hall felt her talents had not been significantly recognised, and developed an unlikely relationship with party animal Dale Baker, the man who had surrendered the leadership in the hope it would go to Olsen. Hall persuaded another moderate, Graham Ingerson, who had served briefly as Brown's deputy in opposition, to join her, and Olsen was installed as Premier with Ingerson as his deputy after a coup in November 1996. That month saw other developments, too.
The Coronial Inquest into the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires had concluded that the emergency services radio network needed significant improvement. A whole-of-government network was later recommended, and consultants suggested in mid 1993 that Motorola technology would be most suited.
Motorola contacted the new government in December 1993 about establishing a software centre in Adelaide. A number of incentives were considered by the government as the government, represented by Industry Minister Olsen, worked with the company. The government received advice in April 1994 that Motorola had decided to establish the centre in Adelaide and a contract was signed in June by Premier Dean Brown. Later that year, in September, Olsen told Parliament that there had been no discussion with Motorola over the radio network contract and little more was heard on the matter until November 1996.
On November 14, the opposition claimed that the state government had spent $16 million to lure Motorola to South Australia. Eight days later, it was announced that Motorola was the preferred supplier for the long awaited government radio network, costed at $60 million.
Motorola was just one of the issues the new Premier was battling. Political conditions failed to improved. The Government went to the polls in October of 1997, hoping politics would take a backseat to the Adelaide Crow's AFL Grand Final hopes. The Crows came out winners, but Olsen was the definite loser in a disastrous debate with Opposition Lead Mike Rann in the last week of the campaign. Olsen gave an almost comically wooden performance, and kept the comedy going by managing to refer to Labor's mismanagement of the State Bank in almost every statement. For the first few hours of the election night, senior Liberal sat ashen faced in party headquarters on Greenhill Road, convinced that they would lose as senior figures such as Dale Baker saw his safe seat fall to an independent. In the end, Olsen was able to form a minority government with support from two independents and the sole National MP, but he had suffered a massive psychological defeat. Labor had gone into the poll with just 11 of 48 seats. Virtually all of Dean Brown's gains of 93 were lost and the position in the Legislative Council was worsened. From then on, life for Olsen and his government would be on a knife edge.
After ruling out a privatisation of electricity in the campaign, it was decreed to be the government's greatest priority six months later, an essential fix needed to solve the problem of the legacy of State Bank debt. This was true, in part. Had Brown shown more political courage, ETSA could have been sold for the premium prices companies keen to take advantage of the first opportunity to gain a foothold in the Australian market paid later in Victoria. However, the money was also needed to fund election promises and a cave-in on public sector wages.
Whatever the reasons, the decision scarcely proved popular. It was steadfastly opposed by Labor and the Democrats and collapsed at the end of 1998 when Upper House Independent Nick Xenophon backed away from an earlier indication that he supported the move. A challenge was expected to come to Olsen any day, but the Brown forces never mustered their strength.
Olsen returned to electricity in 1999, and in the greatest triumph of his career persuaded two Labor Legislative Councillors to support the legislation. He had won the battle, but had destroyed all his political goodwill. The final compromise reduced the returns and the final deals were poorer than expected, too. Ingerson had been forced to resign over allegations of mismanagement in a moment of high farce when journalists and camera crews crowded into a lift with him as he tried to sneak out of his office. He sulked on the backbench. Joan Hall had finally received her wish and been made a minister after the 1997 election. Dean Brown's decision not to put her on the frontbench was proved more than right. She made a woeful employment minister, and had to be shuffled off to cope with photo-ops and openings as Tourism Minister. And through all of this, Motorola failed to go away.
At the end of 1998, the Government was forced to establish a committee of inquiry under a former chief magistrate, Jim Cramond, to investigate if the Premier had mislead Parliament over the contract. In February, it was revealed that the cost of the deal had more than quadrupled to $248 million. This was mitigated two days later when Cramond's report was released stating there had been no side deal done, but he still made the finding that Olsen had unintentionally misled Parliament over the contract. The Government decided to compound its miseries by introducing an emergency services levy on all homes, cars and boats to pay for the radio network cost blowout.
Motorola popped up again in February of this year, when opposition frontbencher Pat Conlon revealed leaked documents he claimed were withheld from the Cramond inquiry. In March, silk Dean Clayton was appointed to inquire if documents were deliberately withheld.
We now have his findings that comments Olsen made to Cramond were "misleading and inaccurate", "dishonest" and had "no factual basis". Clayton found that there was a commitment to Motorola based on a letter not supplied to the Cramond inquiry and that "it is hard to accept that the minister who created the commitment was unaware of it". Clayton says that Olsen's former chief of staff, Alex Kennedy, submitted "misleading, inaccurate and dishonest evidence" and that despite their denials, Kennedy, then a consultant, and Olsen's then senior press secretary who became his last chief of staff, Vicki Thomson, had gone through Motorola documents stored in the Department of Premier and Cabinet days before the Cramond report was established.
John Olsen has been forced from the job he wanted for so long in disgrace. The key people who put him there, Joan Hall and Graham Ingerson, were forced to resign in disgrace themselves over another matter only a fortnight ago. His premiership has been inexorably tarnished. Since Tom Playford began his long reign in 1938, South Australia has had only had 10 premiers. Of these, only one other than Olsen has been forced to resign, John Bannon. His fall was due more to the incompetence of the State Bank and its board and management than his own misdeeds. Olsen bought his doom upon himself.
South Australia's policy makers might like to draw one lesson out of all of this. They might care to look at South Australia's industry policy, a policy that dates back to Playford's days and consists of chucking cash at anyone willing to set up shop in South Australia. Back when Playford became premier, South Australia was an agricultural economy. Today, primary industry still offers the best hope for the state. While manufacturing has got smarter, massive amounts of public money have been spent to create a rustbelt. The ongoing Mitsubishi saga shows just how vulnerable South Australia's industrial base is and, despite the hype its parent, Daimler Chrysler, has only committed itself to keeping the Adelaide plants until 2005 If they go, Adelaide will suffer a devastating blow. Of the other areas the Government has concentrated on, defence is largely a beneficiary of federal government porkbarrelling and the electronics industry, while growing, has scarcely turned Adelaide into Silicon Valley. Education remains another possible growth area, but the competition is tough.
South Australians as a whole politics, business, media and the community -- need to recognise this. Adelaide and the sources of employment it has provided for the last forty years or so will continue to shrink. However, South Australia is the only state where regional unemployment has not risen. Its exports are not driven by Magnas and Veradas. They are driven by its excellent wines, by its seafood, by the quality of the fresh produce it can fly straight into Asia. It needs to continue to develop these industries, win new markets and increase local value adding.
Tipping money at companies had not created a booming economy in South Australia. Instead, the opposite has occurred. An offering "incentives" can all too easily open governments up to polite corporate blackmail and create the environment where side deals are done away from the light as we have learned with the fall of John Olsen.
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