With eight weeks to go to the next election on March 20, South Australian Premier Mike Rann is doing his best to distract the South Australia masses with a party that runs right up to election day.

First up in this bread and circuses blur is the Tour Down Under, which runs for the next week, followed closely by the Australian Track Cycling championships, the Adelaide Festival and its Fringe, WOMADelaide, the Adelaide Cup horse racing, the Clipsal 500 car race and, for the boofheads who would rather watch rugby than vote, the Rugby 7s on election day.

Many of these events are scheduled far in advance or are always held at this time of year. And the election is held on the fixed date of the 3rd Saturday in March four years after the previous one.

But you can be sure that Rann and his seriously cashed-up South Australian Labor Party will be doing their level best to distract the public from their active participation in the that other celebration — the festival of democracy known as an election — over the next two months.

There is nothing particularly new or inherently sinister in this — governments of all persuasions have been doing the politics of joyous and lavish distraction for centuries. But in South Australia right now there are some serious and unanswered questions about the secrecy surrounding Rann’s largesse.

Last year about this time Crikey asked Rann to confirm rumours of a large payment — some suggestions were as high as $3 million — made to the American cyclist Lance Armstrong for his attendance at the 2009 Tour Down Under.

As the Boulder Report noted at the time there was a fair bit of confusion, even among Rann’s insiders, as to how much was paid to whom and for what:

“… no one’s talking. South Australia Premier Mike Rann refused to discuss any negotiations, and other than saying that any money paid will go to his charity,” Rann’s spokesman Lachlan Parker declined to discuss the matter further with reporters.

“… It’s less the donation than the secrecy surrounding it that seems strange and excessive … But [appearance fees] made with taxpayer dollars, in an ostensibly democratic and open government, fit a different standard of disclosure.”

Parker’s line that Armstrong would give his money to charity was exposed by the New York Times. Armstrong:

… did not specify the amount of his fee but said Saturday that, contrary to what had been reported here last week, he was not donating the fee to his foundation but treating it as income, the same way he has his other speaking and appearance fees since retirement.

And the only response that Crikey received from the South Australian government to our questions in 2009 was this short statement:

Any payments associated with teams or cyclists taking part in the Tour Down Under are commercial in confidence. This has been the case since the inception of the race 11 years ago.

A week ago Crikey again put several questions to Rann about the 2009 payments to Armstrong and asking how much he, and other riders, might be being paid in 2010 by way of appearance money.

At the time of going to press we’ve not had a response.

But it seems that plenty of people here still have concerns about how Rann is dispensing public money. On Saturday local journalist for The Australian Pia Akerman ran a piece headed: “Payout to cycle star Armstrong to stay secret”.

Akerman quoted Rann’s tourism minister Jan Lomax-Smith, who came up with  another version for the secrecy behind the payments to Armstrong:

“There are many people who’d like to steal our major events and our sports and arts activities,” she said. “We don’t want to help those people who we know are sniffing around by giving them an idea of how they’re managed.”

Akerman’s piece also reveals an interesting fact about how close to the edge of political reality Rann may be skating. Jay Weatherill, demoted by Rann 18 months ago and widely regarded as the coming man in local Labor, told Akerman that the payments to Armstrong and another recent celebrity visitor to South Australia, ex-tennis player John McEnroe, hadn’t even been run past Rann’s Cabinet colleagues.

Late last week Crikey spoke to David Winderlich, ex-Democrat and current independent in the upper house and who is up for his first election in March. He reckons that accountability in Rann’s South Australia has gone haywire:

“I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t disclose how much they are spending on sportsmen like Lance Armstrong — unless of course they are ashamed of it.”

And Opposition sports spokesman Terry Stephens agrees but can see another way around Rann’s reluctance to come clean — he told Crikey that we should go straight to the Texan:

“… let’s remember that it is not Mike Rann personally that is paying Armstrong — it is the people of South Australia. Now that Armstrong has decided that Mike Rann is a terrific Premier I think that he should make his commercial agreements public.”

Over to you Lance.

To see the list of questions Crikey put to South Australian Premier Mike Rann go to Bob Gosford’s Crikey blog The Northern Myth.

Peter Fray

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