Classic Ellis: Mike Rann, 2011

The dinner with Yasser Arafat was off, our Israeli hosts told us, and we foolishly believed them. Yasser turned up of course and waited for us in the restaurant and after an hour and a quarter went away. “We could have brought peace to the Middle East,” Mike Rann murmured, ruefully smiling, the way he does.

We were nearly killed a few times on that trip (Jerusalem, Galilee, Negev, Caesarea, 1999), by stoned Palestinian police with rifles in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, in a crush of pilgrims at the Damascus Gate, and once when his little daughter Molly pulled him out of the path of a speeding truck he had sauntered, jet-lagged, in front of.

I remember us looking for the keys to the Holy Sepulchre with a drunk Filipino priest who had unwisely lost them between millennia and was in big trouble with the ailing Pope if he didn’t find them. I remember the flying saucer over the Negev in broad daylight, and the Lawrence of Arabia sandhills at Beersheba and the driver asleep at the wheel on a cliff edge as a bus careened towards us and I screamed and saved all our lives. It bonded our friendship and added a vocabulary of anecdote we didn’t have before. It made us confederates, Ghostbusters, road-movie joshing buddies. I made a film about him, one of my best, still widely unseen, Run, Rabbit, Run, because of it. And so it went.

He was born a Cockney and his father fought at Dunkirk, Alamein and Monte Cassino and his mother put together parts of Spitfires on an assembly line. Their house was bombed and he grew up, like Spike Milligan, in Lewisham among dodgy relatives (poachers, ferret keepers, minor thieves) he called “the Timsons”. When he was nine his father said they were going to Rhodesia, and then, on second thoughts, to New Zealand. But the ship was delayed and the job went to somebody else, and a series of other jobs, on half the wage, followed, in a series of hydro towns. He was always the new kid with a funny accent in the corner of the playground and only the Maoris would talk to him. “I learned then,” he said, “the value of having big friends.” He has been like that ever since, moving on, making friends, moving on, new friends; the Orphan Syndrome, I call it.

He was the only Rann in a thousand years to go to university after a teacher begged his father to let him stay on at school, and at Auckland Uni on the student paper and the debating nights in the Labour Club and in the Rainbow Warrior campaign did well enough to be a TV interviewer at twenty-two and the campaign manager of Mike Moore, twenty-four, later the youngest Prime Minister. He came at twenty-five to the wedding of his brother Chris in Adelaide, fell for a girl and applied for a job and was soon Don Dunstan’s speechwriter, and stayed. He is the glum woolly-haired young man behind the fraught frail Don resigning in his dressing gown. And so it went. Then he was an MP and then Minister for Youth, Employment and Aboriginal Affairs and then Opposition Leader with nine colleagues left and an eight-year plan (it took eight and a half) to regain, improbably, government.

I lived with him in the three drab days he spent wooing Independents after the hung election and not succeeding, knowing he’d be rolled in an hour if he failed, and was with him when the daft Peter Lewis took, like Oakeshott last September, twenty-two wavering, agonised minutes to convince himself he was supporting Labor, and no-one knew - not least himself - which way he would go.

And so it came on, the Rann Era, praised by Carr, Blair, Gore, Suzuki and Schwarzenegger, the greenest, most progressive elective government thus far on Earth. You might not have known it, so diligent and salacious and sadistic was The Advertiser in a one-paper town, a town where Rupert Murdoch practised each new dirty trick before he unleashed them on the world. It published only five handsome pictures of Mike in twenty-two years, four of them yesterday.

Nonetheless, he got going. He added a hundred and thirty-four thousand new jobs, and eighty billion dollars of new projects, doubled the money spent on health, halved rough-sleeping in the streets, gave jobs to Aborigines, gave an area the size of Belgium back the Maralinga people, spent a quarter of a billion on mental health. He put up so much wind power that SA is second only to Denmark in wind power, and developed Hot Rocks, which looks like the answer to everything. He put the Public Service under Solar Power. He invented the Festival of Ideas and Adelaide’s Resident Thinker. He invented the idea that film festivals fund movies (Look Both Ways, Ten Canoes, Samson and Delilah, Snowtown, Forbidden Lies). He swelled universities, subsidised theatres, added Guggenheim galleries to the life of the town. He made WOMAD, the Fringe and, lately, the Adelaide Festival annual. From January through April Adelaide swarmed with festival-hungry tourists at bike-races, boat-races, beer festivals and the world’s best theatre. The economy went from a basket case to a nation leader, as did the school standards, the literacy, the university enrolment numbers.

But you never heard about any of this. You heard he was “Media Mike”, a slick politician driven by spin and shallow as cardboard. He was treacherous, sly and insincere, the Advertiser insisted. Every time he won an election the Murdochists went into road-rage. They were in it still when he was tapped on the shoulder on Friday night. It’s Time To Go, the headline said in the Murdoch Sunday Mail. At last, at last.

Like all good leaders, he both excited and relaxed you. His Michael Caine, Bob Hawke, JFK, Don Dunstan and Gough imitations, his tuneful bursts of sudden grand opera, his campaign-trail stories of Ted Kennedy and Mike Moore, his weekends off at film festivals, his restaurant banquets with visiting Kiwi friends, his off-the-record conversations with the Queen, his eccentric tales of Biden and Schwarzenegger, his friends with George Best, Lance Armstrong and Glenda Jackson, his disastrous forays into cricket, made him a boon companion on any night over any Asian meal. You could bring all your friends and he would pay the bill and back at his house watch a movie. His staff adored him, worked round the clock for him … And so it went.

He obsessively revisited World War II (Biggin Hill, Churchill’s bunker, Alamein) and the best speeches we wrote together were of the Battle of Britain, VE Day and Vera Lynn …

And he didn’t sleep enough, and was rattled, sometimes, by the death threats to his children, and the foolishness of some of his colleagues after 3 am. He hated the unfairness of Murdoch, and couldn’t believe, each time, it was happening.

The Chantelois “scandal” really upset him. For unlike other things in his past, it wasn’t true. Did a News executive talk with Chantelois and Phillips before the assault on Mike? Was this another Murdoch election cheat? Were text messages hacked, a husband informed, a deal arranged? Should Bob Brown know about this? Was money discussed? Was it given? We have a right to know.

His popularity went from 80 percent to 30, and though he lost only two seats the damage was permanent. In a state where adulterous Premiers are not the exception but the raging rule Murdoch once again told us what to care about: the American waitress, the flirty texts, the car rides, the horror, the horror. Four months before the election, there was a headline every day, and what a coincidence that was. And so it went.

His achievement was greater than any Premier’s in our history, Carr’s perhaps excepted, and so it went.

History will be nicer to Mike Rann than his envenomed tabloid harassers, and I will see more of him now, and that is no small thing.

But it’s a pity.

He was a good man felled unfairly by squalid, sluggardly hacks, and it’s a pity.

  1. I like that you like Hot Rocks Bob, but if you liked Solar Thermal more, that would be better, because Solar Thermal is actually happening, in Spain, and it could and should happen here. Hot Rocks, for all it’s potential, just isn’t happening.

    • Neither was the bicycle for five thousand years. What is your point? That it’s a good thing ill lost? Or a bad thing and good riddance?

      Please explain.

      • Your bicycle comment got a big chuckle out of me but the problem is we don’t have 50yrs, let alone 5000, to address Global warming. I certainly don’t think Hot Rocks is a bad thing and good riddance, I think Hot rocks is great and would like to see it start to happen. I tend to think though, thta Solar Thermal is a better option, but the situation re Global Warming is dire enough in my opinion that any form of renewable energy ought to be used where possible. I asked Mark Ogge, from ’100 % Renewables’ why that organisation doesn’t promote Hot Rocks, and he said that they are wanting to show the community what could be done with what is currently producing renewable energy - Solar Thermal and Wind are more functional at the moment.

        I thankyou for the insights you have given into Mike Rann’s life - he’s a fine example of a human being. I appreciate that the focus of your article was him, and not renewable energy, but it’s a topic I’m passionate about so I can’t help commenting on anything that touches upon it.

  2. As a former South Australian who made the move to Sydney in 1980 I missed out on living in the Rann era, so thanks for this biog., and I have to say it saddens me somewhat to read of the bastardry of the Murdoch minions in their incessant expression of their boss’s bigotry and willingness to reflect his obsessive agenda.

    Now I’m a reluctant expat living in China, and the question of where to lob on my eventual return beggars me on a daily basis. Perhaps SA? I presume Mr Rann’s legacy continues…

  3. Yes, Qld is a possibility. A year spent on the western Darling Downs in my late teens and another in CQ a decade ago have given me a good impression of the joint. Plus odd visits to my oldest mate, another ex-Adelaidian who now calls Brisvegas home. It’s a possibility…

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