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Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Page: 2512

Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (22:21): Almost 2,000 years have passed since the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, 'Life is like a play: it is not the length but the excellence of the acting that matters. Neville Wran's first love was acting. He thought to make a career of it. And it is a blessing for the Australian Labor Party that he was not a better thespian. But it is important tonight, on the first occasion that the Senate has sat since his death, that we remember Neville Wran, his performance on the political stage and the contribution he made to the Australian Labor Party, his state and this country.

Neville Kenneth Wran was born on 11 October 1926, the youngest of eight children to Joseph and Lillian. His father was a merchant seaman, we are told an affable and gregarious man from whom Neville was to inherit his larrikinism. From his mother it is said came the ambition that would propel him from humble origins to the New South Wales premiership. Ambition was Neville Wran's fuel; the vehicle was education. Wran was dux at Drummoyne High. The reward for his effort was a scholarship to Fort Street Boys High, a place where Doc Evatt preceded him and Michael Kirby soon followed. From Fort Street, Wran won a scholarship to study arts and law at Sydney University. But life took on a new trajectory thereafter. For a decade he worked as a solicitor, often negotiating on behalf of workers in matters of industrial compensation. Jim McClelland, Lionel Murphy and Ray Gietzelt became acquaintances. In 1956 Gietzelt encouraged Wran to go to the bar. By 1968 he was a QC.

In 1970 Pat Hills and Reg Downing from Labor's Right and the Left's Lionel Murphy and Ray Gietzelt engineered Neville Wran's entry into the New South Wales Legislative Council. A mixture of good fortune, finesse and fate was to see him rise to become Labor's leader in the upper house within two years. This rapid rise coincided with a time of conservative dominance in New South Wales politics. The Askin government had been in power since 1965 and after Labor's third consecutive state election defeat the party was desperate for someone to lead it out of the political wilderness. So the Right's John Ducker sought support from the Left's Jack Ferguson and Ray Gietzelt in making Wran leader—electoral misery makes strange bedfellows. The safe seat of Bass Hill was cased and Neville Wran was preselected unopposed as Labor's candidate. On 17 November 1973 Wran was elected as member for Bass Hill. While Wran won Bass Hill, the general election saw a fourth defeat for New South Wales Labor.

Neville Wran was to move quickly and decisively in the wake of that election defeat, nominating for the state parliamentary Labor Party leadership just three days later. The 1973 New South Wales state parliamentary Labor Party leadership ballot between the incumbent, Pat Hills, and challengers Neville Wran and Kevin Stewart was won on a countback. On the morning of the ballot Arthur Gietzelt reminded Jack Ferguson that in the event of a tie after the distribution of preferences the winner would be the candidate who polled the greatest number of primary votes. Jack confirmed the countback practice with the caucus returning officer, Vince Durick, before the vote. Wran polled 18 votes, Hill 17 and Stewart nine. After the distribution of preferences it was Wran 22 and Hills 22. Returning officer Durick duly declared Wran the winner on a countback of primaries.

The new leader wasted no time. He brought energy and determination to the parliamentary leadership. He focused on issues vital to people's lives—health, education and public transport—and perhaps for the first time since Bill McKell New South Wales had a Labor leader who focused on the needs of those west of the Great Dividing Range. Wran's verve and skill were rewarded when Labor formed government in 1976. It was a narrow victory again but its significance should never be underestimated. Wran's victory showed that Labor was still viable when many doubted its future. Graham Freudenberg has argued that the election of the Wran government only months after the dismissal of the Whitlam government spoke to one of the enduring themes of Australian history, the Australian Labor Party's struggle for legitimacy. The Wran government's stability, reassurance and responsibility demonstrated that legitimacy and ensured that the narrow victory of 1976 became overwhelming majorities, the Wranslides of 1978 and 1981. In 1978 the ALP received 57.8 per cent of first preference votes. In 1981 it was 55.7 per cent. Wran would win again in 1984 with a diminished primary vote but a commanding majority nevertheless.

Wran was a winner, Wran was powerful, but he used power for a purpose. Neville Wran's premiership did bring reform to New South Wales. The Wran government democratised the New South Wales Legislative Council, introduced public funding for election campaigns, established antidiscrimination laws and implemented gay law reform. The Wran government built important infrastructure, including electrifying the railways from Sydney to Wollongong and Newcastle, developing Darling Harbour and the Sydney Entertainment Centre, constructing Parramatta Stadium and the Sydney Football Stadium and modernising the coal industry in New South Wales with new coal loaders and rail lines.

The Wran government made an immense contribution to the arts in New South Wales, including programs that saw great artworks displayed in Western Sydney at the Riverside Theatre and the Campbelltown City Gallery. New wings were built at the State Library, the Australian Museum and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The Powerhouse Museum and the Wharf Theatre were opened and the Premier's Literary Awards created.

The Wran government protected the New South Wales natural environment and preserved many heritage buildings. The Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, the Heritage Act and the Coastal Protection Act were passed and the Land and Environment Court was established. The Historic Houses Trust was founded and Macquarie Street and the Hyde Park Barracks restored. Much of the native forest in northern New South Wales was conserved.

Neville Wran's dominance of political life in New South Wales was so pervasive that his departure came as a shocking surprise. In 1986 he left politics undefeated and unbowed to cries I will certainly never forget of 'No, no, no' from Labor Party annual conference delegates on the floor of Sydney's Town Hall. He left the political stage on his own terms at a time and temper of his choosing—a rare feat in public life.

Life after high office was taken up with chairing the CSIRO and engaging in successful business ventures. His loyalty to the cause of Labor did not diminish. He continued to work hard and to travel far in the Labor interest. In 2002 the Hawke-Wran review into the Australian Labor Party lamented the limited life experiences of the political class—an observation that remains as poignant today as it was more than a decade ago.

Neville Wran was hard to know—outwardly charming yet intensely private; sophisticated, yet faithful to his roots; erudite, yet earthy in extremis. He was a performer equally at home in company boardrooms as he was in the backstreets of Balmain. The cadences and patois of Depression era Sydney lay just beneath the surface of the suave QC.

Neville Wran's family and friends and party farewelled him at a funeral service at the Sydney Town Hall on 1 May. Paul Keating, Rodney Cavalier, Michael Kirby, Bob Carr, Jill Wran and other members of Neville's family did him proud. Rodney Cavalier told a story at the funeral that said much about this extraordinary politician. Rodney recounted that one day in question time Neville became irritated beyond endurance by the constant interjections of a backbencher from the Nats. Neville stopped mid-answer. He was a master of the studied pause, a prolonged silence, permitting the noisome to flay against the rock of his calm. He said, 'Can I say this, Mr Speaker: if the member continues to interject then I will be forced to acquaint this House with his behaviour in the past fortnight—behaviour that, even by his standards, is particularly wicked.' The member fell silent and, I am told, changed colour. Afterwards Rodney asked Neville what he had on the fellow and was told: 'Nothing. Nothing at all but it's a safe bet with a bastard like that he has done something wicked in the past fortnight.' This anecdote was retold faithfully—though, I can inform the Senate, with countless expletives deleted!

My own relationship with Neville Wran changed markedly over the years. He found my views about his government—expressed privately and publicly when I was a party official in the early 1980s—offensive. He was right. I was too harsh and I certainly said some things that I should not have. But time healed those wounds. In recent years we had the odd lunch together. He journeyed to my office from time to time for a chat and a cuppa. It was a privilege to talk with Neville Wran about contemporary politics and the challenges facing the Labor Party.

Neville Wran was intensely private. He kept a studied distance between himself and others, with few exceptions—perhaps only Lionel Murphy and Jack Ferguson, apart from Neville's family, were able to bridge that gap. But countless citizens of New South Wales and Labor Party members were to benefit from his political leadership. His contribution to the Australian Labor Party and the state of New South Wales was huge.

Neville Kenneth Wran passed away on 20 April this year. He was 87. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, speaking at Neville's funeral, said this:

I doubt there would be a soul here who would not believe the public of New South Wales owes him a great debt. Because, the Labor Party certainly does.

If life, as Seneca said, is like a play, then Neville Wran's was a great performance. It was an honour to join with other party members and follow Neville's coffin as he left the Sydney Town Hall—the scene of so many of Neville Wran's political triumphs—for the last time. Vale Neville Wran—a Labor giant.