The Honourable Dr John Bannon, AO, as Premier and Treasurer of South Australia and a leader of the labour movement and Australian Labor Party nationally, played a major role during a period of industrial and social transformation in South Australia in a career in public life from the 1960s. In his early years, prior to entering Parliament, he was a radical student leader, ALP activist, member of the Australian Universities and State debating teams, and professional stage and radio performer. Graduating in law, he was a union advocate, and later an industrial relations and higher education policy advisor to state and federal Governments. After service in the State Parliament he completed a PhD and, as an academic historian, published and lectured mainly on his specialist interest of Australian Federation and Commonwealth/State relations. He was a member of the ABC Board in the 1990s, and Master of St Mark’s College for eight years from 2000. The arts and sports always played an important part in Dr Bannon’s life and this passion is reflected in other activities over the years, both in and out of politics.
The Early Years
John Charles Bannon was born in Bendigo, Victoria in 1943, and was educated at East Adelaide Primary School and St Peters College, where his father was the art master.
He graduated from the University of Adelaide in Arts and Law and was editor of the student newspaper ‘On Dit’ (1964). He was President of the Australian Student Labour Federation (1965-6), the Adelaide University Students Representative Council (1966-7) and the Adelaide University Union (1969–71), and full-time President of the National Union of Australian University Students (1968-69).
Before entering the South Australian Parliament he was industrial advocate for the Australian Workers Union; policy advisor to Clyde Cameron in the Whitlam Government; and Assistant Director of the South Australian Department of Labour & Industry.
Dr Bannon was elected to the South Australian House of Assembly in 1977, retiring at the 1993 election. He was Minister of Community Development, Arts, Recreation and Sport and Local Government in the Dunstan and Corcoran Governments (1978-9) and the Leader of the Opposition (1979-1982). From 1982 to 1992 he was Premier and Treasurer of South Australia and Minister for State Development and the Arts.
He was National President of the Australian Labor Party from 1988 to 1992.
His administration was marked by a big agenda of social justice policies and new initiatives in health, welfare, the environment, Aboriginal land rights, the arts, public housing, prisons and criminal justice, as well as major public sector administrative reform. Public debt as a proportion of State GSP was substantially reduced during the 1980s and a strong capital works programme pursued.
In 1985 he brought the Formula One Grand Prix to Adelaide.
Initially constrained to oppose development of the world’s largest copper, uranium and gold deposit at Olympic Dam, he was instrumental in changing both State and Federal ALP policy to allow the development to proceed, and in 1988 after much controversy the mine and town of Roxby Downs was opened.
In 1987, the largest defence contract to that time was signed between the Australian Government and the Australian Submarine Corporation after an intensive campaign to establish Adelaide as the prime national site. This decision provided the basis for the major defence industry developments in South Australia.
Despite South Australia outperforming the other states in a number of areas during the 1980s, the national recession of the early 1990s and resulting financial crisis found the State Bank of South Australia exposed to the downturn and support from Treasury to keep it solvent. The Bank was managed by an independent Board, but as Treasurer Bannon took responsibility and after stabilising the situation through two budgets, resigned in September 1992. The bank collapse overshadowed many achievements of the Government.
His expertise and interest in Commonwealth/State relations and Federation led to Dr Bannon’s role as a member of the Expert Advisory Panel for the Department of the Prime Minister’s Reform of the Federation White Paper in 2015.
Dr Bannon’s love of the arts was first inspired by his artist father, Charles Bannon AM, although his own chief interest was in theatre. From the age of nine he took roles in radio plays for the ABC, and later acted professionally in radio, TV and stage; and in many amateur stage productions, including the University Footlights Revue.
He took special interest in arts policy and development as Arts Minister and Shadow Minister. After politics he was a Board member for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Australian Exhibitions Touring Agency. From 1994 to 1999 he was a director of the ABC.
Native plants and gardening
One of Dr Bannon’s interests was the environment and a passion for Australian native plants dating from his earliest gardens in the 1960s. As Life Members of Trees for Life, he and his wife Angela propagated and planted thousands of seedlings both for landholders in different regions of the State and for their twenty acre block in the Hills. This was a bare stock paddock, but natural re-growth, direct seeding and tube planting have turned it into a park over the course of twenty-five years. Documents relating to this enterprise, to membership of TFL, the Nature Foundation, the Society for Growing Australian Plants and Greening Australia, and to domestic beekeeping, fruit and vegetable growing and backyard bantams are in the Collection. When in Government, his initiatives included the first Act to control clearance of native vegetation, and a massive extension of conservation parks.
From 2000 Dr Bannon was Master of St Mark’s College at the University of Adelaide, a position he would hold for eight years. The importance and perpetuity of education is a key theme that is carried throughout Bannon’s life: through his university years, political career, teaching roles and as an academic and historian.
He was an Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Adelaide, a Visiting Research Fellow at Flinders University, and held residential Fellowships at Kings College London and the University of Edinburgh.
Dr Bannon had a strong commitment to lifelong education and learning. Prior to entering Parliament he served on the councils of the University of Adelaide, Sturt College of Advanced Education, the Australian Graduate School of Management, the Trade Union Training Authority, and the WEA.
Latterly he was Chairman of the National Archives of Australia Advisory Council, a member of the Australian Information Advisory Committee, Trustee of the C.A.S. Hawker Memorial Scholarship Fund, President of the History Council of South Australia, and an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.
Publications include The Crucial Colony, a monograph; Supreme Federalist, the biography of Sir John Downer, (Wakefield Press, 2009) and the chapter on ‘South Australia and Federation’ in the Centenary Companion on Australian Federation, (Cambridge University Press). He co-edited The New Federalist, the national journal of Federation history.
In 2007 Dr Bannon was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia Honour “for service to politics and to the South Australian Parliament, to history, particularly through researching and publishing in the subject area of Australian Federation; and to the community through sporting, cultural and welfare organisations" (http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au).
He passed away on December 13th 2015 in Adelaide.