Olsen was twice the parliamentary leader of the South Australian Division of the Liberal Party of Australia in the South Australian House of Assembly, from 1982 to 1990 and again from 1996 to 2001. He unsuccessfully led the party to both the 1985 election and 1989 election. After the 1989 election he left South Australian parliament to fill a casual vacancy in the Australian Senate. He returned to the South Australian parliament in 1992, but was defeated for the Liberal party leadership by Dean Brown.
However, in 1996, Olsen successfully challenged Brown for the Liberal leadership, and hence became Premier. He led the party to a narrow victory at the 1997 election, and remained Premier until 2001. He was forced to resign in 2001, after he was found to have misled parliament during the Motorola affair. Olsen is the longest-serving Liberal Party of Australia Premier of South Australia and the fourth-longest-serving Leader of the Opposition.
After politics Olsen worked as a diplomat and political lobbyist. He became the State President of the South Australian Liberal Party in June 2017. He previously held that position from 1976 to 1979.
Olsen was first elected to the South Australian House of Assembly at the 1979 election as a Liberal in the Barossa Valley seat of Rocky River. He had previously been the last mayor of the Corporate Town of Kadina from 1974 to 1977. He represented this seat, renamed Custance at the 1985 election, until 1990.
Olsen's political career was marked by a bitter rivalry with Dean Brown, the two representing the conservative and moderate wings of the South Australian Liberal Party respectively. After the 1982 election and the electoral defeat and retirement of David Tonkin, Olsen defeated Brown for the state Liberal Party leadership and became Leader of the Opposition. Up against the Labor premier John Bannon, Olsen lost both the 1985 election and 1989 election. In the latter election, the Liberals won a majority of the two-party vote (52 percent) with a five-seat swing. However, most of that majority was wasted on landslides in the Liberals' rural heartland. Even with the likely support of the one National Party MP, the Liberals were still one seat short of making Olsen Premier.
Olsen resigned as state Liberal leader soon after the election and returned to the backbench. He was appointed to the Australian Senate in 1990 to fill a casual vacancy caused by the resignation of Tony Messner.
However, in 1992, after less than two years in the Senate, he resigned to return to state politics. The Bannon government was under pressure from the collapse of the State Bank of South Australia. However, Olsen's successor as state Liberal leader, Dale Baker, was unable to gain significant ground. Baker resigned as state Liberal leader in 1992 and called a spill for all leadership positions, intending to hand the leadership back to Olsen as soon as he was securely back in the legislature. To facilitate this, former Deputy Premier Roger Goldsworthy, a leading member of the Liberals' right wing, resigned his seat of Kavel, based on Mount Barker, and handed it to Olsen. However, several members of the party's moderate wing were unwilling to see Olsen take the leadership uncontested. They arranged for leading party moderate Ted Chapman to give up his seat of Alexandra and hand it to Brown so Brown could challenge for the leadership. Olsen returned to the House of Assembly at the 1992 Kavel by-election, on the same day as Brown at the 1992 Alexandra by-election. This time, Brown narrowly defeated Olsen in the leadership ballot, and thus became premier when the Liberals won the 1993 election in a landslide where the Liberals won 37 of the 47 seats available, the most that any party has won since the abolition of the Playmander. Olsen became Minister for Industry and Minister for Infrastructure until 1997, when a cabinet reshuffle saw him become Minister for Information Technology and Minister for Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs.
Soon after taking office, Olsen led negotiations with Motorola to build a software centre in Adelaide. Motorola decided to open the centre in April after winning a number of incentives, including becoming the supplier for a government radio network, and a contract was signed in June. During a September Question Time, Olsen stated that there had been no discussions with Motorola about the radio contract. This statement would ultimately prove to be his undoing.
By late 1996, however, the Liberals' poll numbers under Dean Brown were stagnating in the face of factional battles and concerns about the slow pace of reform. With a statutory general election due in 1997, two prominent Liberal moderate backbenchers, Joan Hall (wife of former Premier Steele Hall) and Graham Ingerson, threw their support to Olsen. With Hall and Ingerson's support, Olsen challenged Brown for the party leadership in November 1996. This time, he succeeded and was sworn in as Premier, with Ingerson as his deputy.
During the ensuing 1997 election campaign, most commentators agreed that Olsen lost the leaders' debate against Labor's Mike Rann. The election was extremely close; on election night many Liberals feared that Labor had managed the 12-seat swing it needed to take back government (Labor had taken two Liberal seats at by-elections). Ultimately, the Liberals suffered a 9.4% swing and lost 11 seats, Olsen was forced into a minority government supported by National and independent MPs. It was the first time that the main non-Labor party in South Australia had won a second term since adopting the Liberal Party label in 1974. After one of those crossbenchers, former Liberal Mitch Williams, returned to the party in December 1999, Olsen held a one-seat majority for eight months until he expelled longtime Liberal maverick Peter Lewis in July 2000.
Among a number of controversial policies, Olsen's government undertook the privatisation of the state-owned electricity industry (ETSA), partly to improve the government's parlous financial situation due to the State Bank disaster and partly in response to the introduction of the Australian National Electricity Market, despite promising not to do so at the 1997 election. The fiscal arguments for privatisation were vigorously criticised by a number of economists. Sharp increases in the retail price of electricity, a consequence of the working of the National Electricity Market, contributed to the growing unpopularity of the government. The management of the state's water supply was privatised in 1996 with a $1.5bn 15-year contract being awarded to United Water, a subsidiary of Veolia.
Olsen steered water management and conservation projects, including the recycling of water from Adelaide's Bolivar Water Treatment Plant to the Northern Adelaide Plains. He also endorsed and facilitated the Barossa Water Project, a water distribution scheme from the River Murray to the Barossa Valley floor, alleviating the Barossa Valley winegrowers' water irrigation problems and boosting annual production by $30 million.
While in office, he negotiated a $850 million ‘smart-city' redevelopment of Adelaide's northern suburban area (Mawson Lakes) and facilitated the contract negotiations and construction of the Adelaide-Darwin Rail line.
The Olsen Government also secured major sporting events including the Tour Down Under and V8 Supercar Series. The Tour Down Under has become an economic plus for South Australia generating almost 40,000 visitors and $50million in economic benefit during the annual 5 day event. The V8 Supercar series attracts more than 270,000 attendees most years
He pursued a vigorous program of economic reform through the corporatisation and privatisation of government services which included the single largest public outsourcing project of its kind at the time in the world – the outsourcing of the State's water industry, a contract which included the establishment of a private sector water industry.
By the end of 1998, questions about the Motorola deal had grown so voluminous that the government was forced to establish a committee of inquiry into the matter, chaired by former chief magistrate Jim Cramond. The inquiry ultimately found that Olsen had misled parliament, and also found that Olsen had made representations to Cramond that were labelled "misleading and inaccurate", "dishonest" and had "no factual basis".
Olsen denied any wrongdoing, saying "...I absolutely refute Mr Clayton's assertion. The report clearly indicates there are no criminal activities, no illegal activities." Nonetheless, amid speculation that he would face a leadership challenge, he resigned as Premier on 10 October 2001. He did not stand for re-election in 2002.
Since leaving South Australian politics, Olsen was appointed by the Howard federal Liberal government as Australian Consul-General to Los Angeles. On 7 December 2005, his Liberal Party colleague and fellow South Australian, Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer announced that Olsen would become the new Australian Consul-General in New York. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in January 2007.
Most recently[when?], Olsen was appointed as Deputy chairman/CEO of the American Australian Association Ltd.
As of 2014 Olsen is the President of the South Australian National Football League (SANFL), and is also the Chairman of the SA Football Commission, positions he has held since 2010. He is also a Life Member of the West Adelaide Football Club with whom he was the No. 1 ticket holder for 17 years.
On 24 May 2017 Olsen announced that he had been asked to stand for the position of State President of the SA Liberals at a party vote on 16 June with cross-factional support, after incumbent Steve Murray stood down from the position on 23 May to contest Davenport at the 2018 state election. Olsen was successful. He had previously served as state president in 1979, before giving up the post to enter parliament.
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- "Former South Australian premier John Olsen to become state Liberal Party President: The Advertiser 24 May 2017". Adelaidenow.com. Retrieved 9 September 2018.
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- "'Factional war is definitely coming to SA' - InDaily". Indaily.com.au. 12 July 2017. Retrieved 9 September 2018.
- Parliamentary Profile: SA Parliament website
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- "John Olsen: The unluckiest politician in Australia". Crikey. Archived from the original on 26 October 2001.
| Leader of the Opposition in South Australia
| Premier of South Australia
|Parliament of South Australia|
| Member for Rocky River
|New district|| Member for Custance
| Member for Kavel
|Party political offices|
| Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia (South Australian Division)
| Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia (South Australian Division)
| Australian Consul-General in Los Angeles
| Australian Consul General in New York