Remembering Dr John Charles Bannon

I believe it is important in this place that we pause and take time to acknowledge those who have made a tremendous contribution to our nation and our political movement, and I firmly believe that Hon. Dr John Charles Bannon AO was one such man.


It was clear from an early age that John Bannon was going to make a significant contribution to public life. At university he was an active student, co-editor of the student university newspaper and president of the student's council as well as the Australian Union of Students. He plunged himself into student and university life.

He was, as the member for Brand has observed, an adviser during the tumultuous Whitlam years—he was the chief of staff to Whitlam minister Clyde Cameron. I had the opportunity of talking to Rodney Cavalier who, in a very Rodney way, had taken copious notes, only Hansard could be envious of, of John's funeral and wake on 21 December—I will have more to say about those notes and observations of Rodney during my contribution. Rodney observed, when I spoke to him earlier, that John was a committed Christian. However, he was never certain whether he loved Christ more than he loved cricket. He loved both of them with a deep, deep passion.

He cut his teeth as an adviser during the Whitlam years and, no doubt, that influenced his approach to government when he received the honour of being elected the Premier of South Australia. At the end of the South Australian parliament in 1977, he was a cabinet member within just one year. Only four years after that, he had returned to Labor, Labor to government, as their leader. It was, in anyone's language, a meteoric rise.

He remains South Australia's longest-serving premier and his achievements profoundly and continue to affect the state that he loved so much. During his leadership, we saw the introduction of submarine building in South Australia, a legacy that Labor—state and federal—remains committed to preserving. As the Prime Minister and the member for Maribyrnong said yesterday: he was the father of the nation's submarine industry. His primary concern was always to build a solid economic base for the state of South Australia, because he understood that, with a strong economic base, it could provide economic opportunities for those who were not born with them. He focused heavily on economic development of the state, opening up new opportunities and new investment.

Many years later, as a young man, I travelled throughout the country, including to South Australia, and worked at the grand prix, a fixture that was brought to Adelaide and truly put that international event and that city on the map. He saw the creation of the Adelaide Convention Centre and he established the Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine. He promoted the arts and tourism within those sectors and within South Australia.

In relation to the Olympic Dam uranium mine, it probably may not be obvious to many of us today but, at the time, these were incredibly controversial issues, including incredibly controversial issues within the Australian Labor Party. I think, whichever side of the argument you were on—I happened to have been on a different side of the argument to John Bannon—everyone has to stand back and admire the way he managed the difficult politics, both internal and public politics, of that particular issue.

This was all a part of his determination to make Adelaide a modern city that could lure international and national investments, and big events. His urban renewal projects reinvigorated Adelaide's inner suburbs and, under his reign, South Australia became, I think everyone would agree, more bolder, more interesting and innovative, more energetic and willing to seize opportunities.

He understood the state needed to diversify and become open to new ideas. The state is richer and the country is richer for his legacy. He was a strong and convincing leader, as the member for Brand has observed, and the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition observed in their eulogies yesterday.

He was, to both friends and critics, one of the most influential South Australian political figures of the post-Playford era. He never shied away from responsibility. After the collapse of the state bank—as the member for Brand has observed, he was not responsible for—he maintained, that as the Premier of the state, the buck stopped with him—even though others certainly played a more significant part in its crisis.

His friend Michael Jacobs has said that he 'absorbed all the blame, all the shame and the humiliation, all the pain and the anguish of this catastrophe' that took so long for the state to recover from. Hardly anyone else put their hand up to admit their responsibility, but John never shied away from his public responsibility. He never complained about the injustice of it all.

I am indebted to Rodney Cavalier and his notes from the funeral and the wake. He writes of a very moving story that was relayed at the wake by a former minister in this place, Ian McLachlan, and a long-time friend of John Bannon and his family. And he wonders about whether the story of John's young brother Nicholas—who tragically died at the age of 16 during a family bushwalking catastrophe in the Flinders Ranges—was a motivating force for John's sense of responsibility, both public and private. Ian McLachlan was part of the search party that was looking for John's younger brother at the time. And he says:

We failed because we looked in the wrong places and we didn't look high enough. The search involved one of the largest deployments of volunteer and professional rescue staff that Australia has ever known.

It was a couple of years later before the remains of John's brother were found. Many people have retold this story. John himself did not talk about it—even to those who were closest to him—but many who knew John and knew the story often thought that this was a part of the motivating force that moved the man.

Following his career in politics, John dived into the world of academia. He did not want to leave the state that he loved, and it is a sign of his dedication and humility that he opted to stay in South Australia and continue to contribute. He gained a PhD in political history at Flinders University where he studied his beloved state's transition from a colony to a state.

He accepted an appointment to the ABC Board in 1994, which was his first foray into any form of office after his term as Premier. Following that, he was appointed by Ian McLachlan to the South Australian Cricket Association Board and the board of Cricket of Australia. He was active in this role until the end. He saw through a number of milestones in his final weeks that would have made him tremendously proud of his state. He was there to see the first Australian day-night test cricket at the new Adelaide Oval—a spectacle that South Australians were incredibly proud of.

John's ongoing battle with illness did not prevent him from continuing to speak publicly. On 3 November—only weeks before he passed away—he addressed the 30-year anniversary lunch of Adelaide's first grand prix. And just before his death he spoke passionately about his father, an artist, Charles Bannon, while opening a public exhibition of his works in St Peters Town Hall.

He will be remembered—in this place and elsewhere throughout the nation—as an honourable man, a caring father, a leader of integrity, a visionary intent on progress and a decent individual who refused to shy away from responsibility when things got tough. I pay my condolences to the family of John Bannon. His friends, and his memories and his deeds will live long after him.