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The Neville Wran I knew

April 22, 2014

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.

  1. April 23, 2014 7:32 pm

    Sorry Bob, this is NFP but a shortcut I use to get in touch with you.

    I do have a bee in my bonnet with you in regards to the asylum seeker situation, especially the conditions on Manus island and the creation of same.

    Where my bee is buzzing was watching you before the last election on the 7.30 report proclaiming that 70% of asylum seekers are economic refugees.
    Whilst some of that was true, especially in regards to highly skilled Iranians that were using boats to gain entry, you must have realised at the time that for everyone of them there were at least two genuine refugees that attempted to use that means as entry.

    I do speculate that your comments at the time were made to stop Labor from a total annihilation in the polls and to secure some sort of stability to parliament and the process of government, as a total landslide by the opposition would have done enormous damage to Australia.

    Fair enough Bob, if that was the strategy, but setting up Manus island and leaving the running of that camp to the New Guina authorities was a huge mistakes.
    To then appoint a Sinhalese Sri Lankan into the position as commander of this camp was even more surprising, considering that information about this mans past is unobtainable, even his name is in doubt.

    Bob, even the limited information that we receive about Manus is one of appalling conditions and torture, hardly an environment that genuine refugees should be subjected to.

    I hereby call on you to make amends, as a caring human being, and either create a cause or throw your weight behind a movement that sees Manus being closed down and refugees processed in Australia.
    How hard can it be to determine if an applicant is an economic refugee or a persecuted person?

    Life is strange and all of us make mistakes a lot of times. But your mistake is causing misery right now, so Bob, go and fix it for the sake of showing humanity on behalf of the Nation.

    With regards

    Rainer Sdorra

  2. Ivan Pagett permalink
    May 3, 2014 7:15 am

    I have heard many comments about Neville not suffering fools and about his capacity for swearing which was truly Olympian etc. it makes him sound like a bully but he was not. Wran new how to fight, knew when to fight and he knew who to fight. In the times that I dealt with him as Teachers Federation President he could have squashed me like an irritating mosquito. Instead he was decent and on a few occasions the best word I can find is kind.

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