This item was originally published on The Drum.
Neville Wran, premier of New South Wales for a decade, brought professionalism, class and wit to Australian politics. Clothed in a good suit and armed with a sharp wit, he dominated his government, the Labor Party and the state.
I first encountered Neville Wran as a little tacker. I was at the Sydney Fish Markets with my parents when the premier walked by, said hello and patted my head. Even to a child, it was obvious that he was a giant.
The obits today describe Wran's achievements in office: a strong economy, the saving of the rainforests, great public works, electoral reform, swingeing law reform and so on — and, of course, the four consecutive election victories that enabled all of this. But they don't fully capture the style of the man.
In a meeting of Cabinet or a sitting of Parliament, Wran was magnificent. There was a famous instance when a Country Party MP insisted on heckling Neville at the dispatch box. Increasingly infuriated, Neville fixed a cold eye on him and warned: 'If the honourable member does not cease to interject immediately, I shall be forced to acquaint the House with a particularly villainous act he has perpetrated in the past month.'
The opposition MP immediately became pale and silent. Afterwards one of Neville's colleagues approached him and asked the premier what he had on the recalcitrant MP. 'Nothing,' replied Neville. 'But you can be sure that a bastard like that will have done something dreadful in the past month!' Read More
This morning I spoke with Graham Freudenberg, Neville's speechwriter and the dean of Australian speechwriters. He told me that Wran was 'the best politician of my time in his ability to see the opportunities and pitfalls and to understand what the public would wear.'
Neville was immensely loyal to his friends, often to his cost. But Graham reminded me that he also 'enjoyed his hates'. One of these was the arch-conservative Country Party leader, Leon Punch. One day in parliament, when Punch was droning on, Wran turned to his deputy Jack Ferguson and said: 'If I go before you, and this bastard stands up in the valedictories, move the gag.'
I got to know Neville in my second year at Sydney University, when I joined the national committee of the Australian Republican Movement. The committee was chaired initially by Tom Keneally and later by Malcolm Turnbull. Apart from the UNSW student representative Lorand Bartels and me, the committee was comprised of the great and the good: Geraldine Doogue, Donald Horne, Harry Seidler, Faith Bandler, Colin Lanceley, Franca Arena and others. Neville dominated its meetings with intelligence and humour. He would usually arrive late, cut through the café talk, employ a few choice colloquialisms and bring us all to the point. He was pure crystal.
Inevitably he would make a little joke under his breath, in his hoarse voice, to the junior members of the committee. There was always a wink and a grin. As Malcolm Turnbull noted yesterday, Neville was young at heart — wickedly funny and entirely lacking in pomposity and self-importance. His loyal staffers called him 'Mr Wran' but he always introduced himself as 'Neville'.
I never saw Neville show bitterness or regret that he didn't make it to Canberra. But what a show he would have put on in the national capital! His interests were always larger than state politics. He was convinced of the merits of Paul Keating's push into Asia, and served as Australia's representative on the Eminent Persons Group of APEC. He was interested in foreign policy, and he was a regular presence in the audience at the Lowy Institute until a couple of years ago.
And, of course, Wran believed that Australia's head of state should be one of us. Famously, he danced with Diana. I'm sure he would have been pleased to dance with Kate, too. But he held to the simple proposition that the highest office under the Australian constitution should be held by an Australian — someone who had chosen to make their life with us and among us. A term at Timbertop simply did not cut it.
One of Wran's greatest strengths, Freudenberg observed to me today, was his ability to communicate his enthusiasm to others. When he was working on the plans for Darling Harbour, he would say to public servant Gerry Gleeson: 'There has to be something happening there all the time. Every time someone visits, we need to excite them!'
And in many ways this was Neville's whole approach to life. He was a giant figure — an enlarger not a straightener, according to Manning Clark's dichotomy — and a great Sydney character.
Vale the Hon NK Wran, AC, QC.