Life after politics: The story of Lynn Arnold

Image source: Gil’ad Zuckermann

Leon Georgiou | @leon_georgiou

The 2019 Federal Election saw several high-profile politicians bow out from the political arena, including Julie Bishop, Kate Ellis, Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott.

For these MPs, the question now is: what comes after life in politics?

I spoke with the former South Australian Premier, the Honourable Reverend Dr Lynn Arnold AO, who left politics in 1993, to discuss his post-political journey, and found his life out of the public spotlight was as extraordinary as his life in it.

Mr Arnold was elected state leader of the Labor Party on September 4 1992.

It came after previous Premier John Bannon resigned due to the collapse of the State Bank of South Australia.

Commentators, analysts and the Labor Party all knew a landslide defeat awaited them at the next state elections which Mr Arnold would call in December 1993.

“We fought darn hard to try and win it,” Mr Arnold said.

“We put a lot of policies out there…but we knew in our heart of hearts we couldn’t win.”

Labor entered the 1993 State Election with 23 seats and left with 10.

Taking the reins at such a time was a death knell for Mr Arnold’s political career, but he sees it differently.

“People have said it was a poisoned chalice and so on, but you know, things don’t work like that,” he said.

“The party needed somebody who could fill a gap and then prepare for a new leadership… so it was just the natural thing to do.”

The ‘game plan’ as Mr Arnold explains it, was for him to lose the 1993 election, then stay on as leader of the opposition for four years.

He would then likely lose the 1997 election, as Labor was unlikely to win after such a large defeat, before being replaced by Mike Rann.

“This was all a reasonable proposition and I was happy to go along with [it] at the outset,” he said.

However, after six months of being Leader of the Opposition, Mr Arnold found his enthusiasm for politics had waned.

By this point, he had been in politics for fifteen years, eleven years in Cabinet and fifteen months as Premier.

Feeling uncertain about whether to leave politics, Mr Arnold would undertake a period of reflection during Pasxa/Lent within the Greek Orthodox Church; a seven-week period of intense fasting, prayer and liturgy.

“I went without alcohol, meat, yeast products, dairy products and almost totally without seafood,”

“I followed that with an extra rigorous bible reading and prayer program, that was designed to try and help me clarify my own thinking.”

Though not baptised within the Orthodox Church, he had become interested in the faith and its approach to life.

Easter would fall on May 1 1994, and in June, Mr Arnold would visit Prime Minister Paul Keating to discuss his thoughts.

Mr Keating expressed his support for Mr Arnold, noting that 45 was a good age to make a change.

On September 15 1994, after discussions with his wife Elaine, Mr Arnold announced his resignation and left politics.

Of his time in office, Mr Arnold joked, “a third of my time was good, a third was bad, a third was terrible”.

But when all was said and done, he acknowledged he had been greatly privileged, and appreciated all the opportunities afforded to him.

Having reached the highest political post in state politics; one might ask, where could he go from here?

There were, in fact, many great achievements yet to come.

Mr and Mrs Arnold had now started discussing moving to Spain.

When he told his parents of his family’s plans, his mother thought that he would ultimately miss life in politics.

“She is very wise…but she was wrong,” said Mr Arnold.

For Mr Arnold, the challenge of moving overseas with his wife and five children was so great that he did not have a chance to dwell on what he had left behind.

He had consciously taken a page from the book of one of his mentors, Don Dunstan, who had relocated to Perugia to learn Italian after leaving politics.

Mr Arnold would begin his PhD in sociolinguistics, focussing on the study of the Asturianu language spoken in the Northern Spanish province of Asturias.

He would be awarded his PhD from Adelaide University in 2003.

But Spain would not just be a sea-change, while in politics, Mr Arnold had much contact with the corporate world, and he was now considering an executive level career.

He spent his second year in Spain studying at a business school within Barcelona, and upon returning to Adelaide, he took up a role as an executive consultant.

The pay was good, and he was back home in Adelaide, so the next phase of his life seemed settled.

Unfortunately, the corporate world was not as engaging as he had hoped.

“Something was just missing, it wasn’t the dream I dreamt of,” Mr Arnold said.

“I didn’t actually find Corporate negotiations that stimulating…it wasn’t me.”

Attending Church as he regularly did, Mr Arnold would serendipitously be tapped on the shoulder one morning by an acquaintance who happened to sit on the board of World Vision Australia.

The acquaintance explained that the organisation’s CEO had left, and he asked if Mr Arnold would consider going for the role.

Mr Arnold’s initial reaction was ambivalent, it would take the family to Melbourne, upending the kids again.

He considered simply staying on in his role as a consultant until the children had finished high-school, and then pursue something else.

But it was his wife, Elaine, who encouraged him to go through the interview process at World Vision and see what would come of it.

The board offered Mr Arnold the role, and after consultation with his family, he decided to take the position and make the move to Melbourne.

World Vision was a crowning experience in his working life and proved to be exactly what he was looking for.

“I suddenly found myself in a place [where] I really really wanted to be; and 11 years at World Vision would provide for me a work experience that to this day remains the best one I have had,” he said.

He would be the Chief Executive of World Vision Australia from 1997 to 2003.

Then he became the Regional Vice President of World Vision Asia Pacific Region from 2003 to 2006, a position based in Bangkok.

By now, his children had moved from home, so Mr Arnold moved with his wife to Thailand where he handled an annual expenditure of $300 million and around 6000 staff.

He was responsible for shepherding 25 national offices while meeting the expectations of the countries that gave World Vision money.

Perhaps the most intense aspect of his work was visiting people within the region who were afflicted with diseases, injuries and poverty; which was at times immensely distressing and emotionally taxing.

But the work spoke to the sense of social justice both he and his wife had carried with them throughout their life.

Mr Arnold highlights a visit with his wife to see a small child infected with HIV Aids.

“There was a little girl who was full of lumps all over her body, she really was visually affected by her condition and Elaine just picked this little girl up and hugged her because nobody else would,” he said.

His time at World Vision was filled with many similar cases, the kind that can emotionally shatter a person.

In 2003, Mr Arnold would suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

But his work at World Vision brought a sense of fulfilment that could not be compared to any other work he had undertaken in his life.

“I found it much more enriching personally, and in a kind of way, it affected more people [than my time in politics],” he said.

“But it’s hard to do a comparison; it was at that time of my life exactly what I was looking for.

“And if I had been told that I had a free ticket back into parliament and into cabinet, would I have taken it? I would have said no.”

He was next appointed Senior Director (Board Development and Peer Review) for World Vision International between 2006 and 2008.

This last role was based in Los Angeles, though Mr Arnold worked from Australia. But World Vision pushed for Mr Arnold to move to the U.S full time.

He therefore decided to move on from World Vision by joining Anglicare as the Chief Executive from 2008 to 2012.

It always seemed as if Mr Arnold knew when to embark on a new chapter of his life.

But Mr Arnold believes each decision fell into place naturally.

“Events that were not satisfying or happy, actually helped something else take place,” he said.

Eventually becoming frustrated with various internal tensions at Anglicare, he looked for the next adventure.

Once again, Mr Arnold would undertake Lent within the Greek Orthodox Church to help him decide what to do.

“It was a really tough Lent not just physically…but this was spiritually a very tough one. There was a real tussle in the middle of it, and it got quite dark,” he said.

In the end, he decided to leave Anglicare and began studying theological studies, becoming a full-time student for 18 months.

He was not yet sure where his studies would take him, ultimately it led to ordination as a priest within the Anglican Church.

Sitting and chatting away, Mr Arnold seemed content.

I asked him what he hoped would be his legacy, he replied,

“That I tried to be an agent for change, for a fair and better community in whatever job I did.”

Mr Arnold is now a minister at St Peter’s Cathedral and a teacher of public theology and church history at St Barnabas College. He also hosts a radio show on 1079 Life FM.

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