The spectacle of Australia's longest-serving Premier announcing his retirement after a tap on the shoulder from a little-known union official has excited much comparison with Labor’s recent leadership shenanigans federally and in New South Wales. But from another perspective, Mike Rann's premiership and the manner of its ending marks a significant departure from the party's recent practice.
The arrival of the Rann government in March 2002 completed an ALP clean sweep of the nation's six state governments, a process that began when Bob Carr came to office in New South Wales in 1995. His other counterparts at the time were Peter Beattie, Premier of Queensland since June 1998; Jim Bacon, who came to power in Tasmania the following September; Steve Bracks, Premier of Victoria since October 1999; and Geoff Gallop, elected in Western Australia a year before Rann.
By September 2007, all of these leaders had gone -- and unlike Rann, not a single one had been pushed. Carr, Bracks and Beattie left entirely on their own terms in August 2005, July 2007 and September 2007 respectively; Gallop resigned in January 2006 after announcing he was struggling with depression; and Bacon quit the previous June due to a battle with lung cancer, which would claim his life three months later.
By very stark contrast, Rann has lingered well beyond his use-by date, and while the particular manner of his execution might be questioned, it seems a little unfair to tar its architects with the brush of Sussex Street. Rann has led the state for 9½ years and the party for nearly 17, and despite strong performances in 1997 (when Labor nearly returned to power one term after the 1993 massacre) and 2006 (when his government was handsomely re-elected after a successful first term), not even the most charitable assessment of his electoral record can argue that he deserved more time.
The chart below benchmarks Rann against other mainland Labor state governments by plotting their two-party election results against their length of time in office. This shows four of the five with remarkably similar trajectories for their first terms, before South Australia breaks away with a much sharper decline going into the subsequent election (Western Australia, of course, is an even odder man out; more on that shortly).
However, a mitigating circumstance becomes apparent if we work off real time rather than each government's year-zero. The chart below suggests either that the election of the Rudd government in November 2007 was a watershed event (the occasion of which is crudely marked by the vertical line), or that it happened to coincide with an acceleration in the various state governments' natural rates of decay.