After 17 years as Leader of the Labor Party in South Australia and nine years and 230 days as Premier, Mike Rann resigned in October 2011. NSW Labor General Secretary Sam Dastyari asked Mike about his life in politics from the earliest days in England and New Zealand to the lessons he draws as one of the most successful State Premiers in Australian history.
DASTYARI: You had a very interesting background for a South Australian politician. You were born in England, educated in New Zealand and rose to become the Premier of South Australia. I want to explore what drove you into politics and to South Australia. Let’s begin with your family in London.
RANN: I was born in South East London. My Dad was an electrician, my Grandfather, Great Grandfather and Great-Great Grandfathers were all London “dustmen”, or garbos. But my Dad was a soldier for six years during World War II. My Mum also came from a very working class background and she worked for a place making parts for Spitfires during the war.
DASTYARI: Were your parents members of the British Labour Party?
RANN: My Dad was a member of the British Labour Party. He wasn’t greatly active but we always knew we were Labour. My first political memory is of my Dad driving people to the polling booth on the 1959 general election day. The reason I remember it is because we had Labour posters in the window of our house and there were Tory posters in the windows of other terrace houses. I remember my Dad used to use his Thames van to ferry people wearing red ribbons to the polling both. And I remember that the Tories had blue ribbons and drove Jaguars.
DASTYARI: What took your family to New Zealand?
RANN: Mum and Dad immigrated to New Zealand to give their two sons a better chance. My personal experiences have made me a great supporter of migration and multiculturalism.
When we arrived in New Zealand, having gone from a fairly grey part of working class London to a really rural part of New Zealand, Dad worked on the hydro-electric scheme and I went to the local school. The first thing I was aware of was that half the people were Maori and that in this pristine environment, there were no shops. It was the complete reverse of everything I’d been used to and because I was the only kid with a London accent within a hundred miles, I became very close friends with the Maoris. That’s where I started to develop this lifelong passion to support indigenous peoples. It also helped that there were added advantages in having big friends while at school.
My family went to Auckland when I was 14. At high school a teacher asked the class what we wanted to be when we left school. I said I wanted to be a journalist and a MP, and everyone laughed. New Zealand was very good for me. I got involved in politics, the debating society at school, and then went to university and did a double major in politics. My co-student from the first day and right the way through was Phil Goff, who is now the leader of the New Zealand Labour Party. Two years ahead of me, but with the same professors, doing the same Master’s, was Helen Clarke (NZ Labour Prime Minister 1999-2008). When I think about the small group of us talking about our future, I remember saying I want to go into parliament and become New Zealand’s foreign minister one day. Of my mates, all four got that job [Helen Clarke, Mike Moore, Phil Goff and Murray McCully].
At university I became heavily involved with NZ Labour, door-knocking in marginal seats, being the leader of the anti-French nuclear test movement on campus, being involved in the anti-apartheid movement.
DASTYARI: You were quite tied up in student politics, weren’t you?
RANN: Yes. I was national vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; I was involved in Greenpeace and edited the student newspaper. So I was studying politics, but I was also mixing with lots of political figures.
While I was in my late teens and early 20s I’d go on television and radio to talk about what we were doing to stop testing at Mururoa Atoll and sending boats across the sea to sit on the testing zones to defy the French.
DASTYARI: So how did you find yourself in Australia?
RANN: After my Master’s, I became a political reporter for about 18 months working for NZBC, New Zealand’s ABC.
I was travelling back and forth spending holidays with my brother in Adelaide when Robert Muldoon was in power in New Zealand and Malcolm Fraser in Australia. The Don Dunstan government in South Australia was the only Labor government at the time in either country.
A friend who later became head of the Trades Union Congress in Britain, Clive Jenkins, said the Dunstan Government was a beacon of light in the night of Australian ignorance. On one of my Adelaide visits with NZBC, I saw this job in the Dunstan Government, the Premier’s Department in the Industrial Democracy unit.
It was about worker participation in management, about which I knew nothing. I thought this would be great for a couple of years, working for the Dunstan Government in the public service side.
I spoke to my mates in New Zealand and they said “yeah go over there, then come back, work for us and then go into parliament in New Zealand”. But after about six months, I heard that Don Dunstan’s chief Press Secretary and Speech Writer had resigned.
My then boss, said “you’re too young, you’re 24, but why don’t you put your hat in the ring, you’ve got no chance of getting it, but you know, you’ll be noticed and maybe you’ll get a job with a junior minister.”
So I went down for an interview with the Premier. I was terrified. He was there in his white safari suit. He was just enthralled that I was a journalist with a Master’s degree in politics, who had been involved in all of these campaigns, some of which had received international attention.
Then Gough Whitlam, who at this time was the Federal Labor leader, arrived in the office and just to make me even more nervous, Don asked if I would like to go out with Gough and Margaret that night and meet them. Don did the interview and afterwards Gough said to me, “What are you doing here?” When I told him I was applying for a job as the Premier’s Press Secretary he said, “Go east young man, go east.” Gough has since reinterpreted this to mean that he convinced Don Dunstan to hire me.
DASTYARI: What kind of a mentor was Don Dunstan?
RANN: I worked for Don during the very heady days. What he taught me was that you could be progressive but pragmatic at the same time. He was idealistic, he was a great reformer but he also believed in getting elected, getting re-elected and re-elected again, rather than just being a flash in the pan. Dunstan forged a great political alliance electorally between working class voters and the middle class, intellectual class, environmentalists, teachers, professionals. It was a great experience because South Australia was a national and international leader in many areas, from women’s rights to gay rights, first for Aboriginal land rights.
DASTYARI: You moved on from being a staffer to being an MP, winning preselection for a safe Labor seat. Following an election rout you became SA Party Leader, a position you gained unanimously. It was a dark time for SA Labor – how did you keep your head up in those hard times?
RANN: When I became Leader of the Party, we had been steadily working for the first three years in opposition to whittle down Dean Brown, and the mission that the Party gave me was that you’ve got two terms to bring us back and we want to see you get half way by the half-way mark. That was the unwritten, unspoken, but often repeated, mantra and we made considerable headway against Brown. We brought down a couple of ministers and what we did most was exploit divisions between the wets and the dry Liberals using the Robert E Lee principal of going constantly for their weakest points. It worked. We ended up being leaked to by both sides of the South Australian Liberal Party. I was getting cabinet documents. These leaks caused massive damage to the Liberal Party and allowed us to run good policy with great tactics and good strategy.
DASTYARI: The Liberal Party did, however, get their act together leading into the 1997 election. Weeks out, published polling was predicting a comfortable Liberal win but you reduced them to minority Government. What happened?
To read the extended interview subsribe to voice by clicking here.