Rodney Cavalier: Neville Wran has passed from our midst


On Good Friday very late a family member rang to say that the end of Neville Wran's life was nigh. We needed to prepare ourselves for what needed doing. It was a very long conversation.

Tonight Bob Carr rang me to say it was over.

You will have woken to the news if you did not hear this night. In this memo I do not intend to repeat the fine words being written and spoken elsewhere, or to list the considerable achievements of the Wran era.

The period when Neville was Premier of New South Wales and Jack Ferguson was his deputy (1976-84) presents itself in my memory as a time of hope and achievement and a sense of glory to be part of such wonderful times. Graham Freudenberg reflected on the Wranslide of 1978 in terms that truly sent me shivering: "not to have lived through 1978 is not to know the possibilities of politics".

Those years seem so very beautiful it is hard to believe they were real. 

Many times I have been asked what was the secret of the Wran success. I, of course, do not know. Often I asked Neville this question. Or put the question in different ways.

What is the most important element in political success, Neville?

Not hard, mate. It is timing. Get the timing right and you can do anything.

Neville posed a basic question to his ministers, a question one fears is not posed in the modern era because practitioners have focus groups and staffers to reinforce their groping in the void. After a long exposition on merits and costs and benefits by any of us, Neville asked: All very good but tell me this - what's in this for Joe Blow and his missus? Such a good question that took you, the proponent, back to the basics.

The little picture fascinated him. He did not permit the big picture to blind him to all the little pieces that made the big picture work. In his first term it was not beneath the Premier to study timetables for trains and buses to see for himself how regular and often were services to Labor areas in contrast to the hostile. He ensured that the location of the new Mercedes bus fleet went to depots like Randwick and Ryde first, not Willoughby.

I remember standing with him in the corner of his ultra-modest office on Level 8 of the State Office Block (now demolished) because he had asked me to "take a look at this". The “this” were pigeons in an alcove of the building opposite. Neville had been watching generations of pigeons procreate, he saw the individuals, see who was the boss, the chicks come into the world, their first flight. He knew the creatures by sight and rattled off a narrative of the lives he had observed. By such measures he retained a vibrant sanity.

He was the first Premier to use light aircraft to get to distant parts of NSW and back in a day. Because he wanted to be home with Jill, sitting hours of the Assembly became civilised. He was inclined to attend functions, work the room, take a first course - and be home for dinner with Jill at nine or so.

He loved Jill. He loved Jack Ferguson. "I love Jack more than life itself," he told me after Jack retired. On the day Jack was dying, I made the call on behalf of the family. "This is the last time I am speaking to you today, Rodney. I cannot bear the thought of this life without Jack. So when it happens, you tell Denise because I don't want you to hear my reaction."

At a 1980s ALP Conference in the Sydney Town Hall - a conference and a party culture that was vexatious, rudely democratic - a woman emptied a bag of flour over him from the gallery above. He talked without pause. I like the idea of an ALP gathering in which the police and security were expelled even with a premier or prime minister present. All matters of security were handled by party stalwarts; unlike today where identity has been proven to contractors and the person of a leader is sacred, as is appropriate for a godhead. The flour thrower was not even arrested. 

Neville tried to be ordinary. He loved Minder and was usually out when it was showing. This was the dawn of VHS so he recorded. That seemed a miraculous possibility.

On Saturday mornings when in Sydney he loved to visit the fish markets which were completely overhauled on his watch. In retirement his love of the markets did not diminish. A subscriber, then 14 years old, told me this night of the wonder in being able to carry a foam box full of seafood to Mr Wran's vehicle.

Awe for Neville did not diminish. At the epic Annual Conference of 2008 held at Darling Harbour, at the lunch break on Saturday, he asked could he dine with me. Of course, said I, but I am committed to John Faulkner. Do you think he'll mind if I join you? Neville, you know the answer to that question. We three headed to the restaurant he had his heart set on. The restaurant was closed. I spoke to a young man who was unlikely to have been out of primary school in 1986 - I have Neville Wran with me. Neville Wran!!! He looked and confirmed and opened the restaurant just for we three.

He was a child of Sydney and proud to be from Balmain and Fort Street and the Law School at Sydney Uni. He knew that the sacrifices of his brother Joe had made possible his education and the advantages he had in life. Unlike the Williamson-Thompson-Obeid-Macdonald dictum, Neville did not think advancement was about self. The Labor Movement existed to give back.

He knew Sydney inside out. Sydney in its many iterations. Wartime Sydney and the Sydney that had changed so much since 1945. He knew its flows - traffic, power, personalities of note. His antennae for trouble was second to none. What he could not see for himself, he had brother Joe and the watchful Jack. Inside the public service he has Gerry Gleeson with his thumb on everything. The ALP machine under Ducker and Richardson was at its height.

Old faces he did not forget. My godfather - yes, dear Reader, I had a godfather - told me tales of a very young Neville after the War around Surry Hills. At the 25th anniversary of saving Kellys Bush in Hunters Hill, my godfather came with my parents and my babies and Sally to a ceremony. Neville and Lou took just one look at each other. "Lou," pronounced Neville. He could not have seen Lou in more than fifty years.

Neville thought ALP conferences were sovereign. Conference voted against private ownership of Lotto. Private ownership did not proceed until he turned the party around. Neville turned the party around by visiting branches and electorate councils of his critics. That was the McKell Model in living operation.

He had a blind spot on unions which I had been wearing down. He loved the Labor Party with all its faults. He was a great teller of stories, a devastating interjector, fabulous at puncturing bombast, a killer with invective. He dominated the Legislative Assembly and Question Time almost effortlessly, so it seemed. So it seemed if you had not observed his preparations. 

Do not ever forget that in 1978 the Wran Government polled 57.7 per cent of the primary vote. The slogan was "Wran's our man". You identified with Neville and you won. We won seats on the north shore like Manly and Wakehurst, even Willoughby (in which Nick Greiner went down). We went within 500 votes of winning Hornsby and Vaucluse.

His values were old-fashioned Labor and liberal-Left. He did not get knocked between pillar and post by adverse polling. On the presumption of innocence, for example, he was fundamentalist. He stood by Lionel Murphy without flinching. He insisted on Rex Jackson's right to a trial; that meant Rex could and did win Labor preselection for his seat, then the following state election. That attitude won few votes and no editorial support.

I remember being alone in his office. There was a function elsewhere for another Labor leader who had been smashed by the vicissitudes of politics and was now a hero. Neville was reflective: They don't love winners, mate, this party. I'll have to die before they love me.

Neville, you could not have been more wrong.