Neville Wran: a great Labor lawyer


As the tributes flood in for Neville Wran, a great Labor Leader, it pays to remember that Neville Wran was also a great Labor Lawyer. The two facts are not disconnected. 

Before Wran entered parliament he was a senior barrister – a QC no less – with twenty years of legal experience. He was known around the Sydney bar for his prodigious work ethic and his incredible attention to detail.

Once in parliament, Wran put his legal training to good use, and pursued law reform with vigour. He came to represent an era in state Labor politics, when progressive law reform was much more at the forefront than it is now.

During the time that Wran was Premier: homosexuality was decriminalised; the death penalty was abolished; crimes targeting at the poor, like begging and busking, were repealed; anti-discrimination legislation was introduced; the Summary Offences Act was repealed; and the NSW Legal Aid Commission was set up. In these reforms and others, Wran was ably assisted by his Attorney-General, Frank Walker, another key legal reformer.

The Wran/Walker changes were not all easy reforms. Some were ahead of community opinion and may not have polled well at the time. The repeal of the Summary Offences Act saw Walker personally targeted by the NSW Police Force. However, as the “Wranslides” of 1978 and 1981 prove, brave law reform is not anathema to electoral success. 

It is dead wrong to suggest that only lawyers can deliver progressive law reform. But lawyers have a head-start on the task. Legal training helps with the interpretation of legislation. Vocational experience in the law shows how the law really works in practice – exposing the gaps, grey areas and niggly clauses that have unfortunate results.  Most significantly, the experience of applying the law gives lawyers an acute understanding of its oppressive power. Lawyers know better than most the gulf that often exists between law and justice. 

The experience of working as a lawyer also gives Labor politicians the confidence and motivation to pursue progressive law reform. Former High Court judge Michael Kirby argued as much when he said:

“If a political leader were actually interested in law reform (as Neville Wran was) much could be achieved. But if the leader was not a lawyer or, even if he was, was not especially interested in the subject, legal reforms were much harder to accomplish. Law reform reports would lie unread and unimplemented. 

But the connection between Labor and progressive law reform runs deeper than the successes of people like Neville Wran. Progressive law reform is not merely something that lawyer-politicians are interested in. Rather, progressive law reform is central to what sets Labor apart from the Liberal and National parties.

Why do conservative governments, as a rule, shun progressive law reform? Because progressive law reform changes rights and obligations, and this upsets the interests of the powerful.

Progressive law reform takes gumption. It requires a commitment to justice that overrides a desire for popularity. This attitude to government and law reform is in Labor’s DNA. It is literally carved in stone above Ben Chifley’s final resting place: “…if an idea is worth fighting for, no matter the penalty, fight for the right”

Understanding the law, and being bold enough to reform it, is often the best way to achieve the profound and lasting change that the Labor Party exists to deliver. So as talk turns to reform of the party itself, let’s remember Neville Wran, a great Labor Lawyer who became a great Labor Leader. 

Labor hasn’t had a lawyer as Premier since Wran. If progressive law reform is the beating heart of the Labor movement, then re-engaging the legal profession must be a critical part of the rebuilding project. Law and order politics will drive the legal community away. But a renewed commitment to achieving justice, fairness and equality through the law, will allow Labor to attract more people of Wran’s calibre in the future. 

Hannah Quadrio is the President of the NSW Society of Labor Lawyers