Neville Wran, the Labor Premier of New South Wales from 1976 until 1986, and the man who provided a template for modern Labor leadership, has died from complications arising from dementia. He was was 87.
In the aftermath of the Whitlam Dismissal and a decade of Coalition rule in NSW, Wran was the Labor leader who returned his party to government with a majority of one seat.
Wran won three more elections in 1978, 1981 and 1984 and retired undefeated in 1986 when he memorably announced his departure to the NSW State ALP Conference.
With the slogan, “Wran’s Our Man”, Wran led the ALP to a landslide victory in 1978 that saw the party poll an unprecedented 57.8% of the primary vote and the Opposition Leader, Peter Coleman, lose his seat. The “Wranslide” was repeated in 1981 when the ALP won its biggest majority ever, reducing the Liberal Party to 14 seats with the Opposition Leader, Bruce McDonald, losing his seat. There was a swing away from Wran at the 1984 election but he still won a large victory.
Born in Paddington, Wran attended primary school in Balmain, Fort St Boys’ High School and the University of Sydney. In response to difficult times, he famously said that “Balmain boys don’t cry”.
After a career as a barrister, Wran’s political career began in 1970 when he was appointed to the Legislative Council. In 1973, he moved to the Legislative Assembly, winning the electorate of Bass Hill. His challenge to the leadership of Pat Hills resulted in a tie on the second ballot but Wran was declared the winner because he had polled the most votes in the first ballot. His election had the support of factional leaders of the Left and Right, notably Jack Ferguson and John Ducker.
Wran’s 1976 victory came at a time when Labor governed only in South Australia and Tasmania and the party was demoralised following the Whitlam dismissal. In 2011, one of Wran’s ministers, Terry Sheahan, said: “One guy in one state, seemingly alone, gave us all hope, led the most reformist and successful government in our history, and paved the way for the great national Labor recovery of the 1980s.”
Wran’s government democratised the Legislative Council, turning it from an appointed body to one elected by the people. Other electoral reforms included the introduction of four-year terms, public funding of elections and donor disclosure rules.
The Wran government preserved the rainforests of NSW. It invested in infrastructure and regional development. It introduced anti-discrimination legislation, legalised homosexuality and introduced heritage protection laws.
The government supported the Arts, developed Darling Harbour and supported reforms such as random breath testing and banning smoking on public transport.
In 1983, Wran stood aside as Premier while a Royal Commission investigated whether he had tried to influence the magistracy over the committal of Kevin Humphreys, the Chairman of NSW Rugby League, on corruption charges. The allegations arose out of an ABC Four Corners program called “The Big League”. Wran was cleared by the Royal Commission but its findings resulted in NSW Chief Magistrate Murray Farquhar being jailed.
Nearly three decades after Wran’s premiership, the NSW ALP suffered a savage electoral defeat under his lacklustre successor, Kristina Keneally, with the ALP polling just 25.55% of the primary vote. The election debacle followed years of leadership instability and revelations of corruption in the ALP.
Around the nation today, the ALP struggles with a plummeting primary vote and the loss of government in all jurisdictions aside from South Australia and the ACT. In the coming days, many will look to Wran as the exemplar of a leader the party could admire and the electorate wanted to vote for.
This leaflet is from the ALP’s 1984 election campaign in NSW:
This leaflet was part of the Wran government’s campaign in support of the June 17, 1978 referendum to introduce direct elections for the Legislative Council:
Statement from Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal member for Wentworth, Minister for Communications.
Farewell Neville Wran 1926-2014
Lucy and I were very sad tonight to learn that our dear old friend Neville Wran has died. He was 87. We send our love and condolences to his family especially Jill, his wife, and his children Kim, Glenn, Harriet and Hugo.
I first came to know Neville well in 1976 when I was a political reporter at the State Parliament and he was just about to be elected Premier of NSW. He was a formidable politician – eloquent, brilliant, always active. He was not one of those politicians solely and cynically focussed on being re-elected, devoted to spin. He was a true believer, a doer, a reformer and a builder. He was also a tough partisan player, a ferocious political opponent unforgiving in his attacks on the Liberal Opposition and equally formidable as he defended himself from the slings and arrows that came his way.
In 1986, after he retired as Premier, we went into business together.
Neville was a wonderful business partner, friend and mentor. He had the capacity to be the sage older man – he was 60 and I was 32 – but at the same time he was young at heart, innovative and mischievous. He was always the best company, erudite, wickedly funny, but never, ever self important.
We had a lot of adventures whether it was starting Ozemail and other technology companies, cleaning up the mess left by WA Inc, sorting out Fairfax, Ten, Bond Media and other media deals in Australia or negotiating with Russian officials about gold in Siberia or Chinese officials about a zinc mine in Hebei Province. We had ten years together in our own firm and then after 1997 Neville and I continued to work together for a few years at Goldman Sachs.
We worked together for years as founders of the Australian Republican Movement throughout all those campaigns culminating in the Constitutional Convention in 1998 and in the 1999 referendum. Neville must have said to me a thousand times “I want to make sure Australia is a republic before I die.” Sadly that is one goal we could not achieve.
Lucy and I couldn’t have asked for a more loyal or trustworthy friend and colleague than Neville. He was true to his word. And he was straight, he would tell you what he thought clearly and concisely. If he didn’t agree he would say so and why. There were more than a few occasions when we had cause to be grateful that we had such a tough and loyal partner – there was nobody better to have on your side in a crisis than Neville – a remarkable combination of sagacity and solidarity.
We have lost a great man, a great mensch, today. Rest in peace old mate.