The Neville Wran I knew
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, April 21.
He gave a lot away in a talk when I was stumbling in my first years as Premier. We stood in the sun at Greenwich to witness harbourside land being handed over for public park, one of his pet enthusiasms. He looked at the crowd and gave me advice: “They’re all happy … that’s the secret. Just give them what they want – it’s easy.” Later he said “Think about that day at Greenwich. Sure they’re never satisfied but who cares? Forget the budget, just spread bread on the waters.”
“Spread bread” was pure Wran.
I admired him most in the toughest phase of his dazzling career, after his 1984 re-election – his fourth and what he called “the sweetest ever” – when the climate soured and mere pub gossip got aired as allegation. I loved his striding performances in the Legislative Assembly when he forensically shredded the mad notion that something called ‘the Age Tapes’ hovered above him. As he fought back I thought of Billy Joel’s lyrics to 1985’s You’re Only Human: to us he was the figure in the song, “the boxer in a title fight” who had to walk into the ring all alone. We knew he’d made mistakes; but who else could pull a primary vote of 57 per cent?
One approach to Labor’s challenges is to tinker with structure – a bit more for the branches here, a bit less for the unions there. There is a different approach – to focus not on structure but ethos and leadership. The ALP, like the conservative parties, is improvised and cobbled together. What animates and unites any ramshackle old party is clever, crafty leadership; winning speeches and punchy one-liners to lift its spirits and direct scorn at its opponents. Wran of course exemplifies the leadership principle; making it up as you go along if it’s done with flair, intelligence. And if it’s entertaining.
His distinctiveness owed a lot to the working class, 1940s inner-city world. Rod Cavalier recalls him talking about criminal gangs firing from the back of a truck “like Tom Mix”. I once heard him refer to old-fashioned opponents in the cabinet as the “plug uglies”. When I told him that he’d need his hiking shoes for an inspection we were making of Kosciuszko he said, “Well what did you expect me to take – my dancing pumps?”
When he stepped down in 1986 he said his proudest achievement was beating the Liberals. This was perverse modesty. And later he volunteered his greatest achievement was saving the rainforests of Northern New South Wales which married Labor politics to nature conservation and – followed Federal and State – produced a rich inheritance for future generations.
If he put votes before economics – “just give them what they want” – there were no financial catastrophes or bank failures and his spending as a share of state product was the most cautious of any state. Return always to the basics. Once he told me, “You’ve got to think of the bloke who makes $400 a week. His wife’s got a lump on her breast. His fibro house at Liverpool is missing a panel. He has a drink going home, she’s locked his dinner back in the oven. He doesn’t care what’s happening in the Upper House, what scandal’s happening … he’s concerned about his job, her health.”
In retrospect long periods of dominance look easy. But my diaries recall Wran told his cabinet once that the government had come through a fight with the doctors which closed the hospitals, a public service campaign over superannuation, a war with the teachers and a strike with the Water Board employees which was pumping “excrement onto the beaches”. Now, he said, we need some peace. Too many cycles like that and retirement beckoned.
I overheard him tell a newly elected Nick Greiner, at the top table for an official function: “Your ministers are irrelevant. They just want to be driven around town in their cars. The fact is everything you need you got to do yourself.” In an egalitarian party he reflected a touch of the Bonapartist.
This is another way of saying he seemed to understand the entrenched pattern of NSW politics post-1941: periods of domination by strong leaders (McKell, Cahill, Askin) and intervening periods of mostly short premierships. The doctors’ strike or the Briese affair and the two-man crewing of trains are forgotten. What’s left, as he says, was a better quality of life. And, as we see it now, a decade flavoured with his big personality.
During his 10 years as Premier, even during the period when on the defensive at the end, nobody doubted we had a leader – not the party or the state, not the business elite nor the broader public like the bloke in the fibro cottage and his wife. Nobody doubted we had a leader. And he never doubted he was that.