Last updated on December 14, 2023
Members of Parliament have paid tribute to Neville Wran, the former Premier of New South Wales, who died last month.
Following yesterday’s condolence motion in the House of Representatives, 8 Labor MPs and the Liberal Party’s Malcolm Turnbull spoke about Wran in the Federation Chamber.
- Watch Malcolm Turnbull (20m – transcript below)
Hansard transcript of remarks by Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal member for Wentworth, in the Federation Chamber.
Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth—Minister for Communications) (10:28): Neville Wran was my best friend. I certainly never had a better friend than Neville. I was in business with him for over a decade and we spent pretty much every working day together for well over a decade. He always used to say that he knew me before I knew him because he was a university friend of my mother’s. He would regularly assert that he knew me when I was still en ventre ma mere, a legal term he was very fond of. I got to know him when we were two adults, although I was only barely an adult, when I was a young journalist in the press gallery in New South Wales starting in 1975 when Neville was the opposition leader. He was clearly the coming man. He had an urbanity, a wit and eloquence that had no parallel on either side of the house.
The Labor Party in those days was very different to what it is today. It is a much more tertiary educated, sophisticated group of people, albeit from a pretty narrow caste, I suppose—the apparatchik class. In those days the trade union officials in the parliament were horny-handed sons of toil—people who had worked with their hands, like Jack Ferguson, who was Neville’s great friend. Neville was this extraordinarily urbane, beautifully dressed, extremely handsome man. Neville was a great heartthrob at university, my mother always told me, and he was a very handsome guy—an actor—and I suppose he could have been a movie star if he had turned his mind to it. So, he was quite remarkable.
Needless to say, it did not take long, despite the family connection, before we were coming to blows with each other. As the member for Sydney intimated, Neville had a take no prisoners approach to opponents. He was scathing—though always funny—in his attacks on his political opponents or opponents in the press. The Abbott government is accused of being critical of the ABC, but nobody could have been more scathing of the ABC than Neville Wran. I got to know him and we got on well, although in a fairly confrontational way sometimes. Towards the end of his premiership I was chatting to him and I said, ‘What are you going to do—are you going to get out of politics?’ He was quite bored with state politics by that stage. In fact, Neville told me 18 months after he became Premier that he was bored. The tragedy is that he never came to Canberra. It was one of those dreadful accidents of history and timing. He had had an operation on his throat—he had lost his voice and that would have made it difficult. Then Hawke came onto the scene, and the opportunity was no longer there.
I asked him what he was going to do and he mentioned a very good friend of his, Peter Valkenburg. He said he thought he might go into business with Peter. I asked, ‘Neville, why would you want to go into business with someone as old as you?’ When I was talking to Neville about this, he was exactly the same age I am today. I often think to myself that I was 31 years of age and I thought this bloke was just about knocked up—he was so old. I said to him that we should do something together. Bruce McWilliam and I had just set up our own law firm. I was in the middle of the Spycatcher case and we had a good practice, and I said that maybe there was something we could do together. Anyway, I told him, ‘Don’t hang around with people your own age, hang around with younger people.’ That was definitely good advice.
Anyway, time went on and we worked together and then we set up an investment banking business called Whitlam Turnbull, with me, Nick Whitlam and Neville. Neville used to say it was one of those rare occasions when he was the smallest ego in the room. Nick left us in 1990 but Neville and I continued right through to 1997, and in fact some time after that, and it was a terrific partnership. It was very successful financially, but we had so much fun together. He was the best of men, such a wonderful friend. He was completely and utterly loyal. I have never known anybody whom you could count on more than Neville Wran. If I had to pull anybody out to stick with me in a tight corner, Neville was the most solid. Look at the way he stood by Lionel Murphy when Murphy was going through all of his travails. At one point Neville observed that he thought Murphy was innocent. To my great surprise, he was charged with contempt of court. To this day I do not know how you can be in contempt of court by saying you think somebody is innocent, because everyone is innocent until they are proven guilty. In any event, Neville was convicted in a decision that I must say I thought at the time was clearly wrong in law. It was after Neville was Premier, and he was fined $5,000 or something like that. I asked whether he was going to appeal to the High Court, and he said, ‘No, no, son; the Labor Party loves a martyr.’ He knew he would win on appeal.
He suffered dreadfully when he was in government because of accusations of corruption, which were baseless. I say they were baseless because the Liberal government that succeeded Labor in 1988 set up ICAC. Again, I must say I urged Nick Greiner not to do that; I had very strong views about star chambers, having represented Packer in the Costigan royal commission. And anyway, Nick set that up and it brought him down. But they certainly did not succeed in even making a coherent allegation against Wran.
Neville was very hurt by all of those allegations, really deeply hurt—that wounded him. He went through the royal commission over the Kevin Humphries rugby league allegations, and it hurt him. I can just say this about Wran: I knew him better. I would say there would be no man outside of his family that would have known Neville better than I did and, certainly, no-one who would have known his affairs better than I did. Neville Wran, when he got out of politics, had a pension and he had a house, and that was it. So all of those allegations about Wran being corrupt were simply baseless. But it is a rough business and I guess one cannot overdo the sympathy for him in that regard because he was a very tough partisan politician himself; he was playing in a rough game.
We had some amazing adventures together. At one point we were involved in a gold project in Siberia. We were financing a gold project in Siberia. Neville came on one trip to Siberia, and at the same time we had another gold project in Ghana. He took me aside after meeting all these bizarre people we encountered in Siberia—large men with guns and all this stuff. I thought it was pretty frightening. He took me aside and said, ‘Son, here is the deal: you do Russia, I will do Africa.’ So I commuted to Siberia and Neville commuted to Ghana!
We had some success in both of those emerging markets. But where we had a lot of success, frankly, was in China, where we worked together. It was something Neville and I were both very proud of. We got started and set up the first Sino-Western mining project, which is still extant, but was sold a long time ago. It was a big zinc mine in Hebei province. It was back more than 20 years ago, quite an achievement at that time.
He was, as the member for Sydney said, a leading member of the republican movement. In fact, the Australian Republican Movement was founded following a lunch between him and Tom Keneally over a bottle of chardonnay. I just wish they had not said that, because we were always accused of being chardonnay-swilling elitists as a consequence. But he was a key member of the ARM. He recognised that for the republican movement to be successful it could not be seen to be a Labor Party campaign in and of itself. So he was delighted when I became—in fact he encouraged me to become—the chairman of the ARM because, obviously, I had a background in the Liberal Party but at that time was not a member of any political party.
He was a source of extraordinary wisdom, always, in all of our years in the republican campaign. I have to say—and this is a matter of public record—that the ARM was largely funded by Neville and me for years. We were by far the largest financial supporters of it, and kept that campaign going for a very long time. Those people among us who have raised money for political parties know how hard that is; try raising money for something like that, where there is absolutely no power—it is just a constitutional reform agenda.
Neville has often been described as an enigma. I am not quite sure what people mean by that. I would say he was just very circumspect about himself. He did not open his heart generally or widely, but when you got to know him he had a generosity of intimacy that was quite remarkable. His close friends recognised that—and obviously Jill and his children were foremost in that regard. Many of his close friends are no longer with us, Jim McClelland and Lionel Murphy being two obvious examples. But for so many others, he was always the barrister. He always had that legal sheen, that legal shell that he put around himself.
We had an extraordinary time together. I think he was a role model in politics. The member for Sydney said that he made an enormous contribution to the Labor Party, winning in 1976 after Whitlam’s catastrophic immolation in 1975. What Wran was able to do was restore Labor’s reputation for management. Whatever people may say about Gough Whitlam’s government, its passions and its reforms and so forth, it was a hopeless administration—it was mismanagement on an appropriately magnificent Whitlam-esque scale.
Wran was an extremely good manager. He ran a very competent government and he ran surpluses. When he left office the state Treasury was in surplus. Indeed, when Labor was finally defeated after his successor Unsworth was defeated in 1988, they had money in the bank. So it was a very responsible approach to government. He was also totally focused on doing things—and this is a big distinction between him and a number of the Labor governments that succeeded him. Neville was not a professional politician. He did not go into politics because he wanted a job. He was not an apparatchik. He had huge reservations about the way the Labor Party was being taken over by a sort of professional, apparatchik political class, as many of the Labor people of his generation have said elsewhere. He saw his job as being to get in and do things whereas so many of his successors saw the business of politics as simply staying in government. Wran had none of that. He was an absolute activist, whether it was on law reform or on building things, and Darling Harbour has obviously been mentioned. He had a massive commitment to action in government. I think that is a good example for all of us, whatever our politics might be.
It is very sad to say farewell to Neville Wran, but I have to say his last few years were very, very tough. As another old friend of mine once observed, old age is not for sissies, and Neville did it very, very hard. He hated getting old. He hated getting old even before he became ill. He showed great courage in those final years. His fortitude in that time is an example to all of us, although I do not think any of us would want to spend the last few years of our lives in the way Neville did. There is something rather sad of course when great men or great women die at such great ages. We wish everyone a long life. But, of course, Neville Wran ceased to be Premier in 1986, nearly 30 years ago. He became Premier in 1976, nearly 40 years ago. So, so much of what he did, so much of what he stood for and so much of the impact that he had is only remembered. I was reflecting yesterday in the House when the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition both spoke very well about him that neither of them really knew him as a contemporary.
Even though we were not contemporaries—he was the same age as my father—I only got to know him closely by an accident of having worked with him for so long.
Farewell Neville Wran. He made an extraordinary contribution to this country. He was a great patriot. I am very sorry that we are not a republic, not least because Neville always said to me that he was worried we would not become a republic in his lifetime. But who knows, we may be able to fulfil his ambition at a later date. At the Constitutional Convention in 1998, Wran was part of the ARM’s delegation—one of the elected delegates. Boy, that was a fractious arena. That made the Senate look like child’s play with all the different agendas and groups, and people running around. Neville’s charm and ability to pull people together was in full force. We would not have got an outcome out of the Constitutional Convention without him. There would not have been a republican movement without him. Sydney would not be the great city it is without him. He was one of the great men of our times, but he was also one of the best of men and he is sadly missed.
Like the member for Sydney, speaking on my own behalf and on Lucy’s, who was also a very close friend of Neville’s, Neville was family, basically, we pass on our condolences, as we have already, to his children: Kim, his daughter from his first marriage to Marcia; Glenn Wran, Marcia’s son; and, of course, Harriet and Hugo, his children with Jill, his widow. All of them have wonderful memories of Neville—we all do.
In closing, I just say this about Neville Wran. It is hard for those of us who saw him in his last years not to have our minds seared by the sheer sadness of his predicament. But we really have to put that aside and we have to remember Neville, as he would want us to remember him—hair full of boot polish, eyes flashing, eloquent, savage, witty, magnificent in his formidable, forensic power. That is the Neville Wran we should always remember. He was such a great man and I miss him terribly.