Mike Rann ended his premiership a diminished figure, as they all mostly do. The price to be paid for a prolonged period in power is people inevitably grow sick of you.
Regardless of how highly you once rated in the opinion polls, public enthusiasm cools by degrees until only defeat and exile will satisfy the mob. It is one of the charms of democracy.
The one minor consolation for Rann is he did not suffer electoral defeat. He did not depart in shame and disgrace. The Labor Party hard heads, testing the electoral wind, got in beforehand.
Rann may well see it as martyrdom, the blameless victim of deceitful and conniving enemies within the parliamentary ranks. To the very end he believed he was the best person to lead the Labor team. Still does in all likelihood, although his party opponents were not to be distracted.
He was correctly judged to be an electoral liability who would lead Labor to defeat in 2014. He was no longer a unifying leader, except in the sense that people had united against him.
The growth in his power was matched by the rise of his hubris, as so often happens with political leaders over the long term. He became puffed up with his own central role as premier. He was the government and the government was him. He could not see the difference. It took the factional heavies to prick his bubble.
One problem was Rann could not imagine any good news announcement being made without his attendance front and centre. He churned out the chaff of media statements, confident of getting a run from his favoured journos, who faithfully reported almost verbatim whatever tripe he served up. They know who they are.
However, as the public mood turned against him, Rann grew surly. He rarely held all-in news conferences because he could not stomach the stroppy journos all at once. Increasingly he tweeted and made his own news videos.
The impression he gave was he didn’t give a damn for the media, which returned the favour by gleefully depicting him at his worst: the Rann fleshiness squeezed into a Lycra cycling outfit; the moth-eaten moustache he grew for Movember; and the red-raw welts he wore after being whacked in the face with a copy of Winestate magazine by the estranged husband of Michelle Chantelois.
Fairly or not, the downturn in Rann’s political fortunes can be dated from the Chantelois chain of events before the 2010 election. He befriended the Parliament House waitress, a woman with marital problems; she said it was much more than a friendship; he said he was just being “flirty”. Whichever, his denial became the core issue, rather than the alleged affair, as an acid test of his character. Many women did not see him as a role model of how to treat women.
Even so, voters in sufficient numbers gave him the benefit of the doubt long enough for Labor to limp across the line in 2010. Truth was, the opposition offered no ready alternative.
After the near-defeat, Rann announced that Labor had learnt its lesson. From now on his government would pay more attention to the community voice, he promised.
People were not deceived. Nothing changed. The self-serving spin continued apace. People stopped listening.
I do not think that South Australia ever warmed to Rann, even when his popularity peaked at a record 64% in the Newspoll of early 2007, apparently because he was perceived as a competent economic manager. In any case, his demise did not induce visible signs of grief in the populace.
By the end the notion had taken hold that he represented the grubby side of politics, the graceless spinner who would do or say anything. In politics, it’s the glib self-serving clichés that cause public cynicism.
Moreover, people had come to desire political civility and decency and Rann instead gave them the attack dog. He couldn’t help himself. Opposition leader Isobel Redmond had only to stand there and to cop it sweet for her popularity to rise.
The proverbial take-out from the Rann premiership is that leadership is entrusted, not bestowed, and those who think they can remain embedded in power beyond their shelf life have another thing coming. The popular will always finds a way to assert itself.
The J-curve graph that represents Jay Weatherill’s temporary ascendancy in the opinion polls indicates that by discarding Mike Rann, Labor has revived its hopes of winning again in 2014.
The tone of political discourse has softened with Rann out of the way. A nice clean slate, as the faction leaders had hoped.
Though still very early days, this unexpected outbreak of niceness seems to have disoriented the Liberal opposition. Redmond, so steadfast against Rann’s unforgiving brand of politics, looks bemused in the face of Weatherill’s Mr Bland. She has yet to get a proper fix on how best to combat his slippery, low-key pleasantness.
With two years to go until the next election, the Libs still have plenty of time to mount a convincing strategy against Weatherill, or else the wheels will fall off Redmond’s leadership fairly quickly.
Meantime, what of Rann? It is still too early to make a detached judgment about his political legacy; and anyway I am not the one to make it.
Too much broken ground has divided us over the years. Don Dunstan stood between us. Rann was Dunstan’s press secretary when Mike McEwen and I co-authored It’s Grossly Improper, the book that precipitated Dunstan’s resignation as premier.
It is assumed Rann will resign from the parliament sooner rather than later. On top of everything else, his wife has fallen ill with breast cancer and they both deserve compassion for the trying times ahead.
Why bother hanging around in the backbench shadowlands? What’s to be gained? Money is hardly a problem, since his indexed parliamentary pension has a starting point well north of $200,000 a year.
If Rann intends to depart early, then the electorally convenient time is right now.
A byelection for his seat of Ramsay ought to be held on February 11, the same day as the byelection for Port Adelaide vacated by his one-time deputy Kevin Foley. For a joint byelection to occur, Rann needs to hand in his resignation by the end of this week.
Weatherill would doubtless prefer Rann not to hang around like a bad smell. To have him as a potential spoiler in the ranks would be too destabilising (just ask Julia Gillard what she thinks of that stinker Kevin Rudd).
Or does Rann dream of a recall, the former and future premier, should Labor be defeated in 2014? Stranger things have happened in politics. For the Rann of those safari-suited Dunstan days to rise to the premiership was beyond my imagination.
Of course his chances of a resurrection are a political fantasy, just like Rudd’s, except that having exceeded my low expectations once, I would never rule out Rann’s ambitions until he has actually resigned.
*This article first appeared on InDaily