Neville Wran: A Hero For Our Times

Of all the Labor Greats in the second half of the 20th century, Neville Wran is the most relevant for our present tough times.

- By Graham Freudenberg

None showed greater courage in adversity. None understood better the strengths and weaknesses of the Labor Party. None exceeded him in the unshakable conviction that Labor must always be the driving force in Australian political life. A spirit of optimism, not nostalgia, pervaded the memorial service at Sydney Town Hall on 1 May. We were recalling events of 30 and 40 years ago. But as Paul Keating, Bob Carr, Rodney Cavalier, Michael Kirby and Jill Wran spoke, I came to realise how fully Neville meets the test that Gough Whitlam always set as the standard for Labor success in policies and performance – in Gough’s words “the test of contemporary relevance”.


I use the word “relevant” in the broadest sense. It applies to the whole Party, not just the leadership. In speaking of “the Wran Model”, I mean a whole mind-set of attitudes and assumptions about Labor, in opposition and in government. His press secretary, Brian Dale, puts it this way: The ALP was not only his vehicle, it was his passion… Wran had a real and deep-seated loyalty to the ALP and although he would sometimes disagree with some of its actions or the policy directions of some of its members, he would never deny that loyalty. He would be criticised by some of its members, he would adapt some of its policies and he would work to keep it in tune with developing community thinking. He would never, for any personal advancement or gain, put himself before his Party. He was one of the most successful and long-serving State Premiers but had the firm and unrelenting view that, for the Party and its members, holding national government was preferable to holding one or all the state governments. - The Wran Era ed. Troy Bramston (2006) p. 10 Brian Dale’s point about ‘keeping the Party in tune with developing community thinking’ is central. It is the key to Wran’s “contemporary relevance”. His performance was essential in preventing the Party sinking into despair after the catastrophe of 1975. As Paul Kelly writes in his 1992 book The End of Certainty: Wran’s election as NSW Premier in May 1976, just six months after Whitlam’s dismissal, was proof that Labor could surmount its crisis. Wran gave Labor the best tonic any political party can have – election success. It came at the precise time that Labor’s self-doubt was all-consuming.


Wran, of course, learnt lessons from the fate of the Whitlam Government, specifically in the handling of Cabinet and Caucus. He rejected the conventional line that the trouble with Whitlam was “too much too soon”. In his view, the problem was the method of implementation of the It’s Time mandate. He said: “The Australian community is a relatively conservative community which does not take kindly to having radical change pushed down its throat”. The people, he said, would not “tear out an arm and a leg” if a government found itself “unable to carry out an election promise”. This view was expressed in a interview in 1978. Perhaps he might have revised his view in the light of recent experience with the carbon tax, or the deserved backlash against Abbott over the 2014 budget. But the real point he was making in 1978 was that policies, and particularly sudden changes in policies, had to be carefully explained to the electorate and to the Party. The Wran Government was an activist, reforming government from beginning to end. He knew that coming up with good policies was only half of the battle. The next battle was getting them implemented, and that meant explaining them in ways the people could accept and understand. It meant awareness that a good cause could become a losing one if not communicated properly. It meant “keeping the Party in tune with developing community thinking”. Wran had an instinctive sense of what the public and Party would wear. But on at least one occasion, he underestimated the electorate. He was very sceptical about Bob Hawke’s call for national reconciliation and consensus in 1983. He thought that Hawke was being too “visionary”. But Hawke persevered, with the National Economic Summit and the Accord becoming the foundation for the transformation of the Australian economy under Hawke and Keating.

Perhaps it was not so much Wran’s underestimation of the people but an underestimation of Hawke’s understanding of them. But both shared a deep respect for the intelligence of the Australian voters, if properly informed.


Certainly, Wran was a pragmatist, a practical politician with a very down-to-earth approach. As Rodney Cavalier writes in his insightful essay in The Wran Era: “Wran was inclined to ask of any measure ‘What’s in this for Joe Blow and his missus?’ If the answer was not satisfactory, the measure did not survive”. But in the same essay, Rodney Cavalier gives a superb account of the struggle in Cabinet in 1983 to save the NSW rainforests – a revolution in NSW Labor thinking at that time. As Cavalier writes: “A government representing a party created by the trade unions in the 1890s to represent the interests of working people was in 1983 going to place the interest of all people in New South Wales and the planet itself ahead of the immediate prospects of those whose jobs and way of life involved chopping down forests” (The Wran Era p82). Yet even here, Wran’s pragmatism and electoral savvy worked in Cabinet. Eric Bedford, the Minister for Planning who did the heavy lifting on the issue, convinced a majority ‘that the electoral arithmetic was no less compelling. Although Labor was enjoying record primary votes in the Wranslide of 1978 and 1981, Wran was looking ahead and wanted to garner the green votes or write preferences which, for good or ill, we have needed ever since.

As the rainforest achievement shows, Wran’s mastery of Cabinet and its processes was no dictatorship. It was not even a one-man band, for all his skill at orchestration and showmanship. His Cabinets were remarkable for discipline and solidarity. He himself put it: “Naturally we have our arguments and our differences, but when we’ve had a really big one, as we’re walking out, I say to them: “Now let’s wash the blood off the walls and grin when we go out and stick together”. Wran’s goal was solidarity rather than a false façade of unity.


The Wran experience demonstrates the paradox that the factions can operate as a force for solidarity and stability, provided there is an overriding Labor loyalty. Wran himself did not belong to either faction, nor did he try to create one of his own. He accepted the factional division of right and left as a fact of Labor life and history. The shadow of the 1955 split – and even the Lang splits of the 1930s – still hung heavily over the Party in those days. In an ideological sense, the factions were more authentic than today’s groupings. But it no more occurred to Neville Wran to curse the factions, than to curse the Labor history which had created them. He was never one for going against the grain. He knew he had to live and work with the factions he had inherited.

In any case, it was a matter of necessity. He had been levered into the Legislative Assembly by John Ducker, Secretary of the NSW Labor Council, in the glory days of the NSW Right. Wran described Ducker as “the greatest Yorkshireman to come to these shores since Captain Cook”.

After the 1973 State elections, he was elected Leader of the Parliamentary Party by the narrowest possible margin, indeed only on a technicality. It was made possible by the support of younger members of the right like Terry Sheahan and Laurie Brereton and, above all, the influence of Jack Ferguson, leader of the left. In his first Cabinet, elected by Caucus on 14 May 1976, eleven of the eighteen ministers had voted against him for the leadership in 1973. But the defeated leader, Pat Hills, never allowed himself to behave like a leader-in-exile, or like the leader of a faction. That is one of the reasons why in the first term, 1976-78, Wran was able to govern as if he had a majority of ten rather than a majority of one. Of course, after the Wranslides of 1978 and 1981, Wran had a huge personal following across the Caucus factions. Nevertheless, he never despised or disrespected the means by which he had risen. And that included the machine and the factions, in Sussex Street as well as Macquarie Street. Indispensable in all this was his relationship with Jack Ferguson, who became Deputy Premier.


While Wran insisted on Cabinet solidarity, and used it to advance his agenda in Caucus and at Conference, he never used it to impose a false conformity over specific issues. It’s a sure sign that a Party leader is in trouble if he or she pleads for unity, when the dogs are barking that the Party is deeply divided over this or that particular issue. Wran never made that mistake. Nothing does more to weaken the spirit of the Party at all levels than the idea that debate on contentious issues must be stifled in the name of a spurious unity. Wran believed that fighting it out in Caucus, or at Conference, would invigorate the Party rather than damage it.


Nor did he simply get his own way through the clout his electoral success gave him. It is significant that his two hardest fights took place between the first Wranslide of 1978 and the second in 1981. These were his proposal to privatise Lotto and TAB in 1979 and his reluctance to admit elected members of the Legislative council into the Caucus in 1980. He had to compromise on one and surrender on the other.

The row over Lotto in 1979 still echoes today because it was the first big fight over an issue involving privatisation. It also involved Wran’s relations with the unions. The Public Service Association and other unions demanded that Lotto should be run by the State Lotteries Office. They claimed they were defending the ALP Platform on public ownership. Wran’s priority was raising the most revenue for the State Treasury. Frankly, he thought that the unions’ claim that gambling should be a state monopoly was humbug and told them so. Of course, it didn’t help his cause that the beneficiaries of the privatisation were Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch. Wran and Ducker crafted a compromise by which Packer, Murdoch and the lottery office each got one third ownership of Lotto. The resolution of this conflict came only after a very public brawl in the branches and at Conference. It was after this struggle that Wran would say: “I like fights. I like a brawl. I think in that sense I’m slightly bizarre. I almost like being pushed into a corner because you have to fight your way out”.

On the MLC issue, Wran had to back down in the face of the NSW Right’s determination that now that the Legislative Council was an elected body, its Labor members were entitled to be in Caucus. He had to accept the logic of his own success in the 1978 referendum to democratise the Council. The most serious aspect of the dispute was that it briefly threatened his relationship with Jack Ferguson, who resented his surrender to the Right. Their partnership, which became a deep mateship, is absolutely fundamental to the whole Wran story.

But I make two points. First, nobody suggested that the outcome of their very public and messy disputes weakened Wran’s prestige or authority. As for the voters, they returned the Wran Government with nearly 56 per cent of the primary vote, when the memory of these slogging matches in the Party’s forums was still fresh.

I maintain that at the heart of Wran’s dominance in these years was his attitude to Cabinet, Caucus and Conference as the great engines for the development, explanation and implementation of Labor policy. He accepted that brawls over genuine issues were a valid and important part of this process. He worked on his Conference addresses harder than any other leader I worked with, with perhaps the exception of Bob Carr. The result was a sense of shared participation, a sense of belonging and of having a stake in the fortunes of the Party and the Government that permeated the membership at every level.


Wran’s fighting instincts were, of course, aimed overwhelmingly at the real enemy, the Liberal-National coalition. In particular he could never abide their hypocrisy and their “right to rule” mentality. He once said to Jack Ferguson, sitting beside him in Parliament when Leon Punch, the leader of the Country Party (as the Nationals still called themselves): “If I go before you, if this hypocrite gets up to speak on the condolence motion, move the gag”.

He enjoyed being “the captain of the only Labor ship afloat” in the Fraser years. Fraser embodied the conservatives’ “born to rule” mindset. This was one of the reasons why Neville decided to become ALP National President in 1980, while he was still recovering from the throat operation which had threatened to deprive him of his voice, a rather serious handicap for a politician. In the film clips shown at the memorial service, it was quite painful to be reminded of how splendid and strong Neville’s voice had once been, instead of the rasp most of us remember. It was all of a piece with his indomitable courage, and his will to win for Labor.

Wran pursued Fraser with a single devastating line: “No double taxation”. This was his spin on Fraser’s “new federalism”, which raised the spectre of State income tax. It was a real blow against Fraser at the height of his power and arrogance.

I am convinced that the Abbott coalition has just handed us an even more powerful weapon against it. By coincidence, it was published on the very day of Neville’s memorial service. I refer to the so-called Report of the Commission of Audit – the Shepherd Report. This Report was meant to set the stage for the 2014 Budget, to justify all its broken promises by reinforcing the myths about Labor debt and deficits. The Shepherd Report is not a one-off affair. It is a blueprint of Liberal plans and intentions for the next of this decade and beyond. It provides a vivid picture of the Australia they want – a more sophisticated and therefore more menacing version of the American “Tea Party” agenda. It is specific about the destruction of our health and welfare systems. And it means, inevitably, the creation of something we have not had in ‘Australia since the Great Depression – vast underclassses of our fellow-citizens, among seniors dependant, the unemployed and the under-30s. There has seldom been a political document which so starkly explores the nonsense that there is no difference between the major parties. The 2014 Budget is merely the first installment of the Shepherd Report.

I take it as a good omen for Labor that the Shepherd cat should be let out of the Liberal bag on the day we honoured Neville Wran at the Sydney Town Hall. If we use it in the way I know Neville would have, with unrelenting zeal, we can make May Day 2014 the day Labor began to see clearly ‘the way ahead’.