Neville Wran: A beacon for a party in the wilderness

Neville Wran was Leader of the State Opposition in 1975 when I first met him. At the time I was a young reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald assigned to cover the proceedings of the NSW Parliament.

Little could I have imagined that within a year I would be working in the Premier’s office, the very inner-sanctum of political power in NSW, in a role that was then referred to as press secretary.

Sadly now, with the passing of Neville Wran, a very significant era, not just of Labor politics but of state politics more generally, has come to an end.

Neville Wran had an innate sense about how things, but most importantly people, worked and used this to great advantage, particularly in the dark days for Labor that followed the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in November 1975.

His leadership was the beacon that lit the path for the party to achieve a stunning win — by just one seat — mere months later at the state election on May 1, 1976.

Neville had been Opposition Leader since 1972 and had forged what would be a vital political alliance and ultimately a life-long friendship with another Labor hero, Jack Ferguson, who would become his trusted deputy in government.

The last time I saw or spoke to Neville was when I was a reporter on the Parramatta Sun, and he joined Jack Ferguson’s widow, Mary, at a simple ceremony at Guildford railway station on a sunny morning in July, 2009 to unveil a plaque and dedicate a garden to Jack’s memory.

Neville was by this time quite frail, dementia was starting to take its toll but he spoke with warmth of the man whose loyalty had quite literally enabled his entire premiership.

A far cry from happier and more heady times when Neville and Jack would get together for a quiet drink, or two, to discuss political strategy at the end of a long, hard-working day.

As a distinguished barrister and Queens Counsel, Neville Wran had had a mind like a steel trap.

Also, much to the frustration of those in opposition, he also possessed a sharp wit and, as others have also observed, an incredible sense of timing.

Apart from injecting a vitality and sense of purpose that had long been lacking in the shades of grey world of state politics at the time, Neville Wran also possessed  enormous empathy and compassion for his fellow human beings.

In those early days in government Neville enjoyed a popularity as premier that was almost rock star-like when he moved around in the community.

I recall accompanying Neville to an evening meeting of ethnic communities at Ashfield Town Hall, perhaps in the second-half of 1976. Understanding the changes that migration had brought to Australian society, Neville had elevated the ethnic affairs portfolio to a higher status within the Premier’s Department.

As his official car as ferried us along Parramatta Road that evening he read the briefing notes I’d prepared.

As was often the case, he’d asked only for one A4 page of points about the people and the event, placing the folded piece of paper into his breast pocket when he finished, and didn’t look at it again.

Such was his popularity, when Neville entered the hall that night, the room erupted before he said one word, even as he made his way to the stage to a standing ovation of unbelievably rapturous applause.

Then after he delivered his speech  — all the points from the briefing notes worked into an eloquent and amusing speech without notes — came more genuinely rapturous applause and another standing ovation from an adoring audience. I’d not seen a performance like it before, and rarely since, from any politician anywhere.

Others have and will write of his legislative and policy legacies, which have and will continue to endure, but I am sad that there is a world that is now without Neville Kenneth Wran. Vale.

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