Bannon was SA's marathon man

Tim Dornin
AAP

If you wanted to understand John Bannon the politician you only needed to look at John Bannon the runner.

He wasn't fast and didn't have the best style, but he had stamina and a deep determination. He simply never gave up.

Before, during and after his time as South Australian premier, Mr Bannon was well known around Adelaide as the marathon man.

He ran more than 30, an astonishing achievement for anyone, but even more so considering the demands on his time for much of his life.

The state's longest serving Labor premier died in hospital on Sunday aged 72.

What he showed on the running track, he also brought to his political life.

After the heady days of social reform under the flamboyant Don Dunstan, Mr Bannon was a much more conservative Labor leader.

He understood the importance of sound economic management, took his time to find his feet and paced himself carefully over the three years he spent as leader of the opposition.

The Liberals, led by David Tonkin, had defeated Labor in the 1979 election and looked likely to retain office for some time.

But Mr Bannon knew that if he could convince voters that Labor could be trusted with the state's finances, a return to power was possible.

Like in his marathons, he started slowly, hardly critical of Mr Tonkin in the first year, often emphasising that the government of the day had a mandate and was entitled to get on with the job.

But he never lost sight of the ultimate prize, running the perfect race to oust the Liberals in 1982 by just one seat.

Further emphasising the importance of having a firm hand on the economic levers, Mr Bannon also took on the role of treasurer throughout his time as premier.

It was a period of growth and excitement in South Australia.

The state won the contract to build the first fleet of navy submarines and cleared the way for the Roxby Downs uranium and copper mine.

The Bannon administration also won the right to stage the Formula One grand prix and opened Adelaide's first and only casino, converting part of the Adelaide Railway Station.

In 1985, Labor won a second term with an increased majority as Mr Bannon continued his steady as she goes approach.

At this stage he clearly had a vision for where the state was headed, even if the strategy - a form of economic rationalism mixed with a liking for expansionary projects - was somewhat contradictory.

By the late 80s, cracks were starting to show and an emerging recession caused significant problems for a state that was strongly reliant on manufacturing.

The downturn led to a hefty swing against Labor at the 1989 poll and the premier only clung to power with the support of two independents in a hung parliament.

Worse lay ahead with the collapse of the State Bank in 1991.

As the owner, the state government was forced to provide a $3 billion bail-out.

As both the premier and treasurer, the buck stopped with Mr Bannon.

But as with any of his marathons, he wasn't about to quit, at least not easily.

He stayed on through a series of investigations, including a royal commission, and was ultimately cleared of any personal wrongdoing.

Content with having crossed that "finish" line, he stepped down as premier and announced he would not contest the 1993 poll, which Labor lost in a landslide.

It was an inglorious end to a more than impressive political career, and not the way he would have liked, or deserved to depart and be remembered. Mr Bannon had served in the South Australian parliament for 16 years and spent 10 of those as premier.

He had come to the house by way of a law and arts degree at the University of Adelaide and schooling at the prestigious St Peters College.

After politics he returned to university, studying for a PhD in political history and later lecturing as a professor.

In 2007 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day honours.

And he continued to run.

One man who knew Mr Bannon well was another long-serving Labor premier, Mike Rann, who said he did not know anyone in public life more deserving of the title "honourable".

Such respect was earned not only by the positions he held or by the extraordinary length of his service, Mr Rann said, "but by his character, his conduct in good times and bad times, his innate decency, his grace under immense pressure, his self-effacing sense of duty and his abiding courage".

Mr Bannon is survived by his wife Angela. The family has been offered a state funeral.