The Australian political community has lost a gentleman this week, with the death yesterday of former South Australian state Liberal leader Dale Baker after a long battle with motor neurone disease. He was 73.
Baker spent 12 years in the SA Parliament from 1985, leading the Liberal Party in opposition from 1990 and 1992; these were dark times for the SA Liberals, having lost in 1989 to John Bannon’s Labor ALP juggernaut for a third consecutive time.
Respected on all sides of politics for his humour and wit as much as for his integrity, Baker took on the leadership of his party at a low point, and with no turnaround in its fortunes in sight, set about preparing it for an election due in 1993.
In an exquisite irony, the SA Liberals were knocked into serious shape for the first time in nearly two decades on Baker’s watch, yet he singularly failed to take the public with him or to gain their favour.
The scandal over the State Bank destroyed Bannon’s credibility; this and similar fiascos over responsible government were a boon to the Liberal Party, yet these never translated into any sort of positive affection or public approval for Baker.
One weekend in 1992, former state leader and two-time election loser John Olsen — having spent some years in the Senate — and former Tonkin government minister Dean Brown returned to the SA Parliament in concurrent by-elections; the purpose of those by-elections was to facilitate a ballot for the Liberal leadership, which was won by Brown.
Following the landslide win recorded by the Liberal Party at the 1993 state election, Baker remained in Parliament for one further term before retiring at the 1997 election.
But following his vacation of the leadership, old enmities and grudges resurfaced; Olsen and Brown had been less than friends in their first stint in the SA Parliament, and very soon after Brown’s thumping win in 1993, the tensions resurfaced in the form of leadership instability.
These eventually resolved in Olsen’s favour, who went on to fight the 1997 election and recorded the loss of the Liberals’ entire majority — from a 39-8 win over the ALP in 1993, the Liberals in 1997 were reduced to 22 seats and forced to rely on independents to continue to govern.
And thus, the gift of Baker to his party — a cohesive unit ready to fight and win an election, which it did — was rent asunder by the re-emergence of decades-old tensions which, once again, tore his party apart.
Dale Baker’s reputation for honesty and decency follows him to his grave; it’s testament that people who are far from thoughtful or kind, and either opposed outright to him or advancing their own agendas at the time behind his back, acknowledge the decency of a gentleman and a character.
It’s hard enough to get such people involved in public life at the best of times; it is, today, virtually impossible to tempt the likes of Baker into the fray in this “modern” era of personal attacks, fabricated allegations, and gutter politics generally from some quarters.
Baker spent the last four years battling motor neurone disease; typical to the end, one of the items from the coverage of his death featured a picture of him holding a whiteboard after the disease robbed him of the ability to speak. It simply read: “People did not listen when I could talk, so this is more effective.”
Following his diagnosis in 2009, he told a journalist that “Many people, particularly a lot of children and younger people, have been dealt a worse card in their lives.”
It is a great shame that more like Dale Baker have not graced the chambers of our Parliaments in this country, but it is a greater shame that he was never embraced for what he was. Indeed, the man was never given the opportunity to fight an election, and the legacy of his work rebuilding the SA Liberals was, in the end, squandered on a personal feud between others.
Baker is survived by his wife, two adult children, and four grandchildren. He died at home in Adelaide with his family around him.
The Red And The Blue wishes to minute condolences to Baker’s family and his friends, and reflects for a minute on a quiet larrikin who was tough but fair, but ultimately too good for the vocation he chose.