David O’Loughlin is arguably South Australian Labor’s last best hope for election victory at the state election in March. But while an ageing government is looking to him for salvation, he’s not interested in populism.

Conversations with O’Loughlin tend to have a recurring theme: leadership. The tall mayor of Prospect and state candidate for the seat of Adelaide is sitting in a Prospect Road cafe telling me about when vision butts up against the limits of power. “In local government … you learn to be patient,” he said, dark hair now flecked with grey. “You can’t make anything happen by yourself. But equally nothing happens unless determined people with a good vision focus on what they to achieve and keep driving toward it.

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“Whilst in Australia we tend to bag our political players, I’ve found the community absolutely want leadership. They want to have a discussion, but at the end of the day they want someone to say, ‘This is the direction that I think we should go and these are the reasons that I think we should go there, who’s with me?’ There’s nothing worse than a dithering politician who tries to agree with everybody and at the end of the day achieves nothing.”

This is typical O’Loughlin. Unafraid to take on controversial issues. Always looking to be a creator (he signs his emails “creating the city we love!”). One eye to the future. Progressive. And keen to lead — even if he laughs off any designs on future ministry.

“I thought Keating had a pretty good grip on it,” he said. “He had a view that said you can’t be complacent as a country because you’ll be overrun by the rest of the world who are going to take over and are starting to call the shots. If we wanted to take our rightful place we needed to step up to the plate.

“When [John] Howard came in … and he said his vision for Australia was that he wanted us to feel relaxed and comfortable, I felt incredibly disappointed — that here was a country as lucky as us that our leader would suggest that we should take our foot off the pedal. I felt that was a vacuum of inspiration.”

Later, he laughed and added: “I’m no Keating. What Keating had in spades was vision and determination. What he lacked was empathy with the common person.”

In addition to being typical O’Loughlin, the message about politicians who try to agree with everybody is also a subtle shot at his electoral opponent, Rachel Sanderson — who was condemned by one opinion columnist in The Advertiser for a lack of leadership after she told InDaily that she supported gay marriage but would vote against it because she believed that was the view of her electorate.

Populism, you sense, wouldn’t sit easily with O’Loughlin. He’s happy to give unpopular answers. For example, when I asked him how he would make the buses run on time, he admitted that it probably couldn’t be done — at least not at a price anyone would be willing to pay.

“I’d love to have more frequency in the public transport system, but with our density it’s incredibly expensive. I’m not sure if we ask the community whether they’re prepared to pay for it to the extent that they want, that the community would actually choose to pay that level of taxation. So we’ve got to find the right compromise for us,” he said.

“I meet a number of other people who say no more taxes. That’s fine, but don’t expect there to be improvements, because the compromise that the no-tax people want is that there’s no extra revenue to do new things. You just need to keep constantly talking to the community about that compromise because it’s not manna from heaven.

“The community can ask all it likes for new roads, but how do you pay for them in the context of falling revenue? You go back to them and you say, ‘Are you prepared to pay more tax?'”

O’Loughlin agreed to meet me at Muratti’s, a Prospect Road cake shop and cafe — although he would only give the interview if InDaily first secured one with his opponent Sanderson. The cafe is right in the middle of what should be his heartland. As mayor of Prospect since 2006, O’Loughlin has presided over a major urban renewal of the shopping strip with wider footpaths, lower speed limits and public art, which has led to the development of one of Adelaide’s most vibrant cafe cultures (he also lives on the road in a heritage-listed Art Deco house).

It is here that his principles — development, design quality, embracing change — are most realised. He spent his childhood in Whyalla on building sites with the family company before studying architecture at university (he dropped out before he finished the course). More recently, he founded and convenes the Adelaide Art Deco Society. He won a swag of urban design awards for the medium-density UNO apartments development while director of major projects at government developer Renewal SA.

Prospect was the largest booth in the Adelaide electorate at the last election, and it broke in Labor’s favour 55-45. O’Loughlin will be backing his work in Prospect to help him increase that margin and pick up votes in neighbouring booths in Prospect North and South.

Sanderson took the seat at the last election and holds it with a 3.9% margin — but she’s only the second non-Labor MP to hold it since it was established. With the electoral tide seemingly running against a Labor government about to celebrate its 14th birthday, Adelaide seems one of the few contests where the party stands any chance of picking up a seat, rather than just sandbagging.To govern in its own right, the Liberal Party needs to pick up six seats, after a 7.7% swing delivered the party four seats in 2010. On paper, at least, it’s a tough ask, considering the conservatives won the majority of the popular vote last time and it still wasn’t enough to return them to government. If O’Loughlin can pinch a seat, Opposition Leader Steven Marshall’s task becomes a lot more difficult.

All of which may be why, in the dying days of September last year, O’Loughlin received a phone call from Premier Jay Weatherill. “Many people have asked me for a long time to run for office, to run for politics,” O’Loughlin said. “It’s always a matter of timing, what’s the best time for your family or your career.

“I recently resigned from Renewal SA, it’s coming up to another term at council, it’s at a time when we’ve had some tremendous achievements at Prospect that I can talk to the community about how to convert vision to real results. In terms of my career, I had a window in which I can look at the opportunity.”

Getting a call from the Premier asking you to stand isn’t the usual way a candidate wins preselection. Nor does a first-time candidate attract people like Mike Rann’s former deputy chief of staff Jill Bottrall to fundraise for the campaign. Late last year, after O’Loughlin accepted Weatherill’s call — he says he thought about it for a week before saying yes — Weatherill told me he was surprised and delighted by O’Loughlin’s nomination and felt it gave his party a real shot at winning the seat.

While O’Loughlin hopes his achievements in revitalising Prospect — he described the area before his term as “a dull and uninteresting place in many ways” with “such dull and dysfunctional main streets and no decent shops” — are his electoral selling point, they may yet be his Achilles heel.

The state government’s series of planning changes aimed at increasing urban density in the city and inner rim have ignited a storm of controversy, with residents’ groups mobilising in opposition, suburban-rim mayors holding crisis meetings and the Local Government Association recently saying it had lost faith in the planning process.

Amid all that, O’Loughlin and his council have been a strong and often sole supportive voice of the government’s agenda — although in some cases that has required the mayor to convince his concerned council of their merits. Will this hurt him in booths he needs to win in an electorate that stretches much further than his council area? He seems unconcerned.

“I think governments should have these discussions, and they should inform community debate. Governments are elected to lead, and that means leading community debate. In Prospect we led that discussion. What we needed to do was stand up and fight for what our community wanted, and we knew exactly what our community wanted because I and the other councillors had had those discussions over a number of years with our community,” he said.

“We wanted partnership with state government. We didn’t want to have an adversarial us versus them. Out of the councils that have recently been rezoned we have the lowest height increases of any of them.”

O’Loughlin wants to bring that brand of leadership to the square mile. “The key issues for people here are what is the future of the city,” he said, nominating the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute and the redeveloped riverbank as two signs that point to a possible future.

O’Loughlin, like Sanderson, believes Adelaide needs a second public high school (like Sanderson, he’s a private school alum, graduating from Blackfriars in 1982), which he would locate on the site of the old Royal Adelaide Hospital, alongside a contemporary arts museum. Next to it on the same site would go something he calls an “incubation facility”, which would link research done at the state’s universities to Adelaide’s entrepreneurial community.

“We can be like Austin in Texas, we can be like Portland, Oregon … We can be one of the world’s best small cities at innovation, new technology and commercial development and research outcomes. The Royal Adelaide site presents opportunities to provide some of the physical space that might go with some of those conversations,” he said.

In October he made some comments to The Advertiser that appeared ambivalent at best on the issue of the Labor government’s CBD parking tax. This time round, he’s stronger in his support — and again he wants to make it an issue of vision.

“It’s people that bring the innovation, the ideas, the jobs, the wealth, the prosperity in the city. It’s not cars, it’s people. And we’ve got to work out how to have more and more people in the city without necessarily having the streets choked.

“The uses of the tax are crucial to the advancement of the public transport system. That levy will raise money that will fund those park and rides … It will fund an upgrade to the transport network. Those things that work so well in other cities in mass transport can work here — but they have to be paid for somehow. So the levy is aimed directly at doing that.”

O’Loughlin’s willingness to not only champion but push through ideas that attract public opposition sets him up in stark contrast to his opponent, and makes this contest, in addition to potentially decisive, fascinating.

What sort of a government MP would he be? Perhaps the more interesting question to my mind is how would he deal with the powerlessness of opposition — the inability to carry through on vision — should the dice fall that way?

*This article was originally published at InDaily

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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