The Wran era: ‘A sometimes volatile period’

Tony Smith

Troy Bramston (ed), The Wran Era Leichhardt, The Federation Press, 2006 (310 pp). ISBN 1-86287-600-2 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

It will surprise no-one who lived in New South Wales during the 1970s and 1980s that a book called The Wran Era focuses almost completely on Neville Wran. It may be a cliché to say that as Premier from 1976 to 1986, Wran dominated state politics in ways that no-one could have predicted before he became parliamentary leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Still, clichés express truths, and even readers who remember the period with less enthusiasm than that shown by many contributors to this volume will be interested to know exactly how Wran achieved and exercised such tremendous power.

For the record

All outstanding political leaders polarise opinions, but some matters of undisputed record give Neville Wran greatness. While Troy Bramston has succeeded in editing much of the likely repetition out of this volume, Wran’s achievements are noted by several contributors. Wran spent his childhood in the then working class suburb of Balmain, and referred often to his roots. Indeed one of his most quoted lines has been ‘Balmain boys don’t cry’. He was a keen actor and engaged in radio quizzes, activities that helped him to develop the presence, composure and communication skills that later enabled him to present such an appealing media image. Wran became a barrister and senior counsel with a lucrative practice in common law and industrial cases. He joined the ALP in 1954 and became seriously active in 1970 when he entered the then unelected upper house, the Legislative Council, as a Labor nominee. Within two years he was Labor leader there.

With the Labor opposition facing a fourth successive election defeat in 1973, Wran was preselected for the seat of Bass Hill in the Legislative Assembly. Upon returning to the opposition benches, Labor caucus, which then consisted only of lower house members, elected Wran leader. Wran then began to swing support around to Labor, and in 1976, secured a one seat majority. In Chapter 3, psephologist Antony Green documents the extent of Wran’s ten year electoral domination. Wran saw off five Liberal leaders, won four general elections including two by ‘Wranslides’ and in 22 by-elections he lost no Labor seat, and took two Liberal seats. He retired on his own terms undefeated.

Neville Wran retired on his own terms undefeated.

Most contributors credit Wran with rescuing Labor from despondency following the defeat of the Whitlam Federal Government in late 1975. Brian Dale, Wran’s press secretary for eight years, says Wran gave Labor ‘relevance, hope and a future’ (p. 19), Graham Freudenberg, Wran’s speechwriter for ten years, describes New South Wales under Wran as the sole ‘Labor bastion’ (p. 99) and Terry Sheahan, who held various portfolios in Wran cabinets, asserts that ‘without him there would have been no Hawke Government nor any Cain, Bannon, Goss or Burke Governments’ (p. 230) (of Australia, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia).

Contributors range widely in their praise of Wran government achievements in policy and reform. Naturally, Wran’s political opponents will disagree about the changes introduced, and later Coalition Governments dismantled some. The popularity of the Wran governments suggests however that most of these changes were needed and generally applauded. Consistently mentioned by contributors are the areas of conservation, the economy, transport, education, health, Aboriginal affairs and women’s affairs. The consensus among contributors is that there was less success in some areas such as prison reform and tackling police corruption.

In his foreword, and with perhaps ironical understatement, Wran describes his time as premier as ‘a sometimes volatile period in the political history of New South Wales’. He goes on to say, modestly, that ‘we made New South Wales a slightly better place in which to live’ (p. v). His resignation speech, Appendix 1 (pp. 253–62), gives greater detail, and he was obviously proud of making the state a fairer place. Wran gave priority to electoral reform: he introduced four year terms for state parliament; he ensured that the upper house was fully elected and that the number of voters in lower house seats could vary no more than ten per cent from the state average; and he introduced public funding for election campaigns, which lead to publication of political donations and members’ pecuniary interests. Both by legislation and administrative initiatives, Wran also worked to end discrimination based on race, creed, sex or disability. He was so committed to ending discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation that he introduced a Private Members Bill on the issue, a move that is unusual for any government member, let alone a premier.

David Hill headed Wran’s Ministerial Advisory Unit, inevitably dubbed the Mau-Mau after Kenyan terrorists. He notes in Chapter 5 that as Wran ‘changed the culture’, he sometimes felt resistance from the traditional bureaucracy. So he ‘introduced a raft of new government machinery’ such as the Women’s Co-ordination Unit, the Family and Children’s Services Agency, the Community Justice Centres and the Residential Tenancies Tribunal (p. 65). To fund initiatives, he plundered funds ‘squirreled’ into dormant accounts or ‘hollow logs’ by statutory authorities over the years (p. 64). Wran commissioned the highly respected Peter Wilenski to review government administration, and his report formed the basis for ongoing reform of the bureaucracy.

Later in his premiership Wran suffered some serious setbacks.

In all, there are twelve chapters on policy, some from men who held the portfolios such as Laurie Brereton on health, some from people involved directly in other ways and some from leaders of pressure groups. The policy section of the book contains the only chapters by female contributors. Pat O’Shane gives an Aboriginal perspective in Chapter 19 and Carmel Niland writes on Women’s Policy in Chapter 18. Niland describes a decade in which New South Wales ‘Led the World in Women’s Rights’, and lists six areas including efforts to address domestic violence and twelve in which it led Australia, including mandatory equality of employment opportunity. Wran insisted that as long as women were poorly represented in parliament and other agencies of power he would retain a Women’s Advisory Council. Niland and other femocrats describe Wran as a ‘luminary’ (p. 184) who achieved a ‘paradigm shift’ (p. 192).

Despite this impressive record, later in his premiership, Wran suffered some serious setbacks. He recovered remarkably well from almost losing his voice in 1980, but within a few years, lost some cabinet ministers and friends and became politically paralysed by corruption scandals. In Chapter 9, political scientist Tiffen lists four major episodes (pp. 112–13). In 1982, the state’s second most senior police officer was found to be acting corruptly and the government appeared to fail to pursue him rigorously. In April 1983, an ABC television program alleged that a senior rugby league executive had embezzled funds but had been exonerated by the Chief Magistrate on Wran’s instructions. Wran sued the ABC for defamation and stood down as premier while a Royal Commission investigated, and although he was cleared, Wran believed that the allegations had damaged him. In October 1983, prisons minister Rex Jackson resigned after acting corruptly. In 1984, Wran’s close friend Lionel Murphy, High Court Judge and formerly federal Attorney-General, was accused of perverting the course of justice. Wran declared that Murphy was innocent, and although he claimed that he meant Murphy was entitled to the presumption of innocence, he was found guilty of contempt of court.

Several chapters outline the events which probably accelerated Wran’s decision to resign. These included the resignation of the experienced Jack Renshaw as Treasurer, and of Jack Ferguson as Deputy Premier. Ferguson and Wran had shown each other strong and warm loyalty, and Ferguson kept the Left of the ALP disciplined. Wran’s protégé Attorney General Paul Landa died suddenly during the 1984 election campaign and Lionel Murphy died in 1986 following a long illness.

The Wran style

Almost every contributor alludes to Wran’s exceptional personal skills, and particularly his management of the media. And although many chapters allude to a ‘Wran style’ the best analyses distinguish aspects of Wran’s approach. As Tiffen remarks, the rather negative style required of an opposition leader criticising and seeking to embarrass a government differs from that of a premier trying to control policy and administration. And a freshly elected leader has advantages and difficulties that differ from those faced by a leader of ten years’ standing. Wran himself acknowledged in 1986 that the excitement had gone from the role.

Wran’s most obvious asset was his mastery of the media.

Wran’s most obvious asset, and the one that enabled him to secure the leadership of a party tired of losing in 1973, was his mastery of the media. He could see that the future was in electronic media, especially for a party that was attacked regularly by the press. Various authors argue that Wran’s experience as an actor and as an advocate gave him excellent skills of presentation. His public image exuded empathy and intelligence, and with the assistance of advisers he managed the media agenda well. He would hold the journalists from the print media back until he had done a joint interview for radio, then individual interviews for each television channel. He timed announcements perfectly to gain direct access to the people on the evening news bulletins, cultivated talkback radio hosts and pioneered the Sunday news conference. As the parliamentary opposition became so small in numbers and was belittled by Wran’s fierce attacks, control of the media increased his power.

Wran achieved unprecedented levels of popularity. Bramston points out that ALP polling showed that he had not only a 97 per cent approval rating among Labor voters but also 64 per cent among Liberal voters. In the Wranslide elections of 1976 and 1981, the campaign slogans were ‘Wran’s our man’ and ‘It’s got to be Wran’. Significantly however, as Wran’s personal standing declined so too did the presidential style and the 1984 campaign slogan was ‘Building a better NSW’ (p. 48).

Wran’s mastery of the media and the good relations he had with the press gallery early in his leadership might well have disposed him to later impatience when he received questions that he considered hostile. From 1982, the relationship became tense, perhaps because Wran anticipated that questions about corruption would blur and frustrate his policy messages. Denis Shanahan, a print journalist in the press gallery during Wran’s final years, recalls that ‘Wran would go on the offensive, refusing to hold an inquiry, denigrating the “alligators” and maintaining the innocence of all involved’ (p. 241).

Insights and inside dope

While much of the material on Wran’s achievements and style will be familiar to students of politics, it has not been presented previously in such a comprehensive collection. What makes this volume unique is that contributors sometimes provide stimulating insights or provide genuine ‘inside dope’ on the politics within the Wran Governments.

Rodney Cavalier, who held portfolios in the sixth, seventh and eighth Wran cabinets and who has remained an important figure on the party’s Left gives an especially valuable description of life inside the cabinet. When Wran became premier, memories of the disintegration of the Whitlam Government were fresh and Wran insisted on complete cabinet solidarity. He took the Whitlam disaster so seriously that when appointing Gerry Gleeson to head the Premier’s Department, he charged Gleeson with ensuring that there would be no repeat of Whitlam’s mistakes in New South Wales. He would not abide any minister defeated in cabinet going to caucus as a second appeal.

Cavalier outlines how Wran exercised discipline through insistence on solidarity, creation of an inner unit called the Priorities and Policy Committee, personal control of media announcements which were sometimes ‘pre-emptive’, and astute judgment about the extent of his support. Wran controlled the agenda within cabinet, which was free of factional influence. The premier had an instinct for what would be accepted by the electorate, and frequently asked ‘What’s in this for Joe Blow and his missus?’ (p. 79). As Cavalier says, ‘Away from the headlines, McKellism – as adapted by Wran – worked because it delivered’ (p. 68). (William McKell was the first of five premiers who headed modern Labor governments from 1941 to 1965. McKell made the interests and re-election of the party paramount considerations. He consulted widely, relying for advice not on political staffers but on people who lived and worked in the real world. He believed that it made good sense to put the interests of the state first, even if that meant opposing organised labour in the unions.)

Wran insisted on complete cabinet solidarity.

Cavalier does not ignore Wran’s problems. He describes Wran’s ‘hallmark’ as a ‘combination of private restlessness and public patience’. He notes Wran’s severe attitudes to those he disliked, and says that ‘using prisons as a punishment for the Minister instead of the inmates made for bad government’ (p. 75). Another kind of problem arose when Ferguson retired, so breaking a special ‘bond between Leader and Deputy’ (p. 70) was gone forever. Perhaps because of his need to balance factions and negate his opponents, Wran failed to adequately groom a successor and the ensuing manoeuvres by the party machine tainted Barrie Unsworth’s leadership.

Cavalier describes two occasions on which cabinet proposals encountered difficulties. On the renaming of the Bank of New South Wales, caucus resisted until Wran persuaded members to change their minds and he, ‘ever the thespian frowned throughout as if he was the one humbled and ever grateful for this lesson in where sovereignty resided in the ALP’ (p. 81). On the other occasion, Wran was booed and catcalled at conference over his reluctance to admit upper house members to caucus.

Besides caucus and conference, the other great locus of power for a Labor government is the industrial wing represented by the Labor Council. In Chapter 21, Michael Easson, who held various positions in the Labor Council and was Assistant Secretary from 1984 to 1989, gives an insider’s account of this ‘symbiotic, reinforcing relationship’ and describes the Wran era as ‘golden’ (p. 209). Easson asserts the importance of John Ducker, described by Wran as the ‘most significant Yorkshire man to visit Australia since Captain Cook’ (p. 214), but also notes that Ducker’s support for Wran as a leader produced a ‘myth’ about where the Labor Council stood. The partnership did have direct importance in industrial relations. Easson lists achievements including legislative changes, greater employee participation on the boards of government bodies, and the funding of specialist units in the Labor Council on, for example, Drugs and Alcohol, Ethnic Affairs and Arts and Cultural Activities (p. 219).

Of more general interest perhaps is the influence that the Labor Council sought to exert on the general direction of government programs. Traditionally, Labor governments would give prominence to the rights of workers and set its priorities appropriately. However, as the environment issue grew in importance, Wran gave priority to his perception of overall state interests. Wran expressed confidence that his government would be remembered for saving the rainforests (p. v) and Jeff Angel, director of the Total Environment Centre, in Chapter 17, notes that ‘the themes of the new environmental passion and long established loyalty to working class occupations jangled the ALP’ (p. 182). The government showed that it was prepared to put the environment before timber workers where it considered this to be the correct decision.


In his Foreword, Mark Arbib, General Secretary of the ALP in New South Wales, describes the book as a ‘fitting tribute’ to Wran and his achievements (p. vii). Editor Bramston asked contributors for a ‘critical retrospective on a particular topic, giving a fair and balanced overview’ (p. 3). While it might be unrealistic to expect objectivity from men who were ministers in Wran’s cabinets, readers can be assured that The Wran Era contains a diversity of views and includes both explicit and implicit criticisms.

Some contributors are indebted to Wran, and others are admirers.

No volume will satisfy every reader. While The Wran Era has photographs and appendices with excellent supporting material including election statistics and ministries, scholars could wish for an index of Wran’s speeches, and cartoons would make a worthwhile addition because they help to give a flavour of an era. Still, there is plenty of humour in these pages, as Freudenberg describes Wran as being like Eddie Coogan from the Ginger Meggs comic strip (p. 102). Wran himself described the alternative to his gradualism as being like cutting your wrists with rusty razor blades (p. 51).

By gathering writers of diverse backgrounds, each producing largely original material, the editor has ensured a healthy range of perspectives. Obviously, some contributors are indebted to Wran, and others are admirers. It is difficult to imagine anyone not being fascinated by the Wran phenomenon, and even political opponents who were savaged by him must have longed to emulate his success. The addition of a chapter by a Liberal or National Party opponent might have lent the book another dimension, but such breadth of view is rare in volumes like this.

Readers should not expect to find definitive generalisations about the quality of Wran or his governments. The volume provides excellent material for reflection and further research and so deserves to stand as an important addition to the historical record. While critics said that Wran was too cautious and Wran himself sometimes questioned whether he achieved much, few objective observers could fail to see the importance of Wran or his governments. What emerges most clearly from these pages is a sketch of the skills and attitudes that qualified Neville Wran for political greatness. Wran saw aspects of society that were intolerable, decided on ways to achieve change, inspired others to adopt his vision, thought strategically about how to secure the support of stakeholders and the public, anticipated reactions, insisted on working within budgets, scrupulously addressed legalities, and worked himself hard. Wran seems to have had an ambition to be prime minister, and had he attained that office it is likely that he would have discovered new personal resources to meet Canberra’s challenges. If aspiring leaders manage to study only one premier or prime minister, Wran should be the one.

Tony Smith is a regular contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs. He has taught Australian Politics at the Australian Catholic University, Charles Sturt University, the University of Technology Sydney and The University of Sydney.

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