Mike Ranns: politics of the possible Centre Liftout South Australia

Sunday, 01 September 2002


    Premier Mike Rann is a practical man. Despite criticism within his own party he wants South Australians of every political hue to join in reinvigorating the state. He tells John Arbouw of present deeds and future plans.

    It is hard to escape the conclusion that South Australia is a very politically conscious state. Currently it has four representatives in Federal Cabinet, Nick Minchin, Alexander Downer, Robert Hill and Amanda Vanstone. And it is also the heartland of the Australian Democrats. While the other states have comfortable Labor majorities, Mike Rann leads a government with a paper-thin majority thanks to several independents. It makes life politically interesting, not least because the Speaker of the Parliament, an independent, insists on expressing his own opinions during Parliamentary debates. Rann takes this in his stride. He believes triumph over political adversity will come from steady leadership and good policies. He also believes that South Australia is at the cross-roads in its development and that he and his Treasurer Kevin Foley are a winning combination similar to Jeff Kennett/Alan Stockdale in Victoria during the middle '90s, Hawke/Keating in the late '80s and Howard/Costello today. He realises the last thing South Australia can afford is a Labor government obsessed with ideology rather than ideas. It is why he moved quickly to reassure business leaders that his Government is strongly committed to finding new ways to diversify and improve the economy.

    "When we were preparing for government after eight years in Opposition it was recognised that it was no use winning government only to mark time," says Rann. "There are two kinds of people in politics, those that want to be and those that want to do. "We went out to business every week whether it was small or large and asked them what they most needed from government and to tell us about their relationship with government. The message that we got was that people felt that they were shoved from pillar to post and that they couldn't get a no, let alone a yes, from government." But a bureaucracy which becomes obsessed with its own process rather than a measurable outcome is not unique to South Australia. "The previous government had a core centre mentality in that they were heavily into business welfare. Anyone who came along was given a handout and there were massive subsidies provided to companies to set up here. What was missing was any strategy. "Following our discussions with business, we realised that if there was to be government assistance, it had to be performance based rather than ribbon cutting.

    "We decided that we were going to totally change the way of doing things. Kevin Foley and I looked across the business spectrum to find the right people to drive the economic agenda and we both chose Robert Champion de Crespigny. In terms of social justice we chose Father David Cappo and in terms of science and innovation we chose Tim Flannery. "We approached all three and they all said yes. I offered Robert one dollar a year in pay and he said it was too high. He is spending a huge amount of his own time." The first demonstrable success of the new Government and its non-party politics approach to business was the deal to cement Mitsubishi's future in South Australia. While financial incentives were certainly involved, this was also tied into creating new business such as designing Mitsubishi cars. It is a benchmark and a methodology that the Government hopes to replicate elsewhere. "What we have tried to do is adopt a philosophy of not propping things up and not becoming susceptible to people who put a gun to our heads and say unless you give us money we will leave town. What we are doing is using whatever government resources there are available in a much more strategic manner," Rann says.

    "The first test was Mitsubishi. If we had lost this it would have been catastrophic for the economy, the components industry and jobs. The other industry was a functional genomics centre that we helped to establish and this is one of only three such centres in the world." Mitsubishi and the genomics centre were the immediate problems. The difficult bit is a long-term vision tied to real economic and social outcomes. No premier since Playford and Dunstan has as yet been able to turn vision into reality. "In setting up the Economic Development Board and giving it the brief to come up with a plan we wanted to make sure that the right people were appointed. "Rather than the usual suspects that have always been on everything in Adelaide, Kevin Foley and I wanted people on the board who could do the job regardless of their politics. "We thought Caroline Hewson (ex Schroeders) would make a substantial contribution. We thought of Fiona Roche (Roche Industries) from Perth and we chose Cheryl Bart (non-executive director of ETSA Utilities). Essentially it was about opening the windows on ourselves and letting some fresh air in. Other directors include Scott Hicks (film director), Bob Hawke, Maurice Crotti (MD San Remo Macaroni), Andrew Fletcher (senior vice-president, Global Infra-structure & Asia Pacific, KBR), David Simmons (Hills Industries), Bill Wood (Austin Ventures), Peter Wylie (Advertiser Newspapers) and John Bastian (former CEO, Sola Optical). "We asked the board to challenge the Government. If they think we are doing something wrong, we want them to tell us. Kevin Foley and I have given Robert de Crespigny our total backing in this economic development." When the EDB delivers its economic strategy plan next year, it isn't only implementation that will be difficult. There is little doubt that the comfort zone enjoyed by South Australians will get a shake-up and this will require political management. Of major concern to voters and government is the lack of natural resources in terms of water and wind power. The privatisation of the SA power industry has so far not delivered the consumer benefits promised and the quality and quantity of water coming down the Murray River to Adelaide is a constant problem. "We endorse public/private partnerships but we are opposed to any further privatisations of state assets such as hospitals or the Lotteries Commission. We are not unscrambling the egg. Where privatisations have occurred we will honour them. But we are certainly going to ensure that where lease-back or outsourcing contracts have occurred that they will be honoured by the private sector."

    But the public sector hasn't always had the skills base to deal adequately with the private sector not least in arranging or managing contracts. "We want people that we appoint to government boards to have director experience and we are moving to ensure that people take the AICD Company Directors Course so that they understand governance issues. I have to say that this could also apply to the private sector." In approaching the problems of South Australia and trying to implement solutions, Rann has already proved that he and his Government won't be bound by political convention. As a former staffer with the Dunstan government, he has taken over the arts portfolio and is determined to resurrect the South Australian film industry – at one time a national leader with such films as Storm Boy and Breaker Morant. "Don was very much the maestro of the possible when he was premier in the 1970s and that was basically by showing leadership," says Rann. "Not everyone agreed with what Dunstan did but everyone recognised that we were fighting above our weight nationally in terms of population size."

    Four years down the track voters will have a chance to decide whether a combination of Playford economics and Dunstan's social and arts agenda is creating the kind of place that can keep its young from moving interstate. Playford once opined that a community will go ahead by the enterprise of its citizens and anything that can stimulate the enterprise, anything that can enable a person to improve his position, obviously improves not only himself but the whole community. The enterprise of the Rann government will be judged on similar lines.


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