In the context of the first budget of the newly elected Abbott federal government and the widespread hostility it has engendered, it is perhaps timely to mention certain aspects of Neville Wran’s administration of NSW which were not given prominence in the plaudits he received on his recent death, write Jeremy Gilling and Christine Williams.
Two mostly unremarked qualities of Wran’s government were the high value he placed on culture and education – despite his sometimes earthy turn of phrase – and his informal alignment with the humanitarian values of the Left of the ALP, even in the face of his praxis approach to politics.
It was during Wran’s tenure as premier that the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were established in 1979.
The awards were the first set of premier’s awards offered in Australia comprising, that first year, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction and the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature. The Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry was first awarded the following year.
And the first Special Award – a general recognition of a writer’s achievements – was awarded in 1982 to Christina Stead herself to honour her exceptional talent as a novelist. She had spent forty years outside of Australia and been awarded honorary membership of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Commenting on the purpose of the awards, Wran said:
‘We want the arts to take, and be seen to take, their proper place in our social priorities. If governments treat writers and artists with respect and understanding, the community will be more likely to do the same.’
Also missing from most of the praise for the late Neville Wran has been mention of the importance of the Left’s Jack Ferguson as his deputy premier for all but two years of his record-breaking term as NSW premier. When Jack assumed this office, the two were described as merely acquaintances, coming as they did from different factional traditions within the party. Jack in particular was somewhat suspicious of Neville’s political and ideological credentials. It is a measure of the calibre and fundamental decency of both men that they became the firmest of friends and the closest of confidantes; their ‘odd couple’ partnership was a major factor in the government’s rock-solid stability and astonishing political and electoral success over this 10-year period.
It took Neville Wran four attempts to gain a seat in the NSW Legislative Council, but from that time forward he never lost an election or a seat at a by-election. He won the 1976 election by a single seat just months after Labor’s humiliating 1975 federal loss, then followed two astonishing ‘Wranslides’, in 1978 and 1981, where the ALP captured around 60 per cent of the two-party preferred vote and a succession of coalition ‘heartland’ seats, several of them in rural NSW. At this point the Liberal Party no longer represented the seats of its previous five leaders. A more normal but still comfortable victory followed in 1984.
Wran and Ferguson epitomised the grand Labor tradition of pragmatic idealism: that while governments must show the courage to tackle reform, they needed to bring the people along with them. While at the time the pace of reform may have seemed slow, looking back the Wran government’s achievements are impressive: the Anti-Discrimination Act; public funding of election campaigns; democratic elections for the upper house; fixed four-year parliamentary terms (the measure that enabled Bob Carr to usurp Wran’s record as the state’s longest-serving premier); one vote – one value; the XPT train; Darling Harbour; the Powerhouse Museum (one of the achievements of which he was most proud); the University of Western Sydney; and the Eastern Suburbs railway. NSW also led much of Australia – and the world – in legalising gay sexual relationships.
While Wran certainly enjoyed the support of the right-controlled party administration, he was never formally aligned with the right and had good relations with much of the Left. He was never backward in crediting the Left with generating much of the party’s policy and philosophical direction. Indeed, in some areas he pressed ahead in defiance of the right – notably in regard to the environment and his championing of national parks. He recalled to the ABC how important his wife Jill was in strengthening his environmental commitment, and of visiting the Washpool rainforest near Grafton at the behest of certain right-aligned Labor MPs who wanted to persuade him of the merits of logging the area: his visit had precisely the opposite effect – it convinced him that this and other pristine areas should be protected in perpetuity.
Touching on Wran’s relationship with the NSW police. Fairfax journalist Milton Cockburn says ‘Wran’s government did more than any predecessor to rid the police force of its then endemic corruption’. He took particular exception to the practice of ‘verballing’ suspects – fitting them up with false confessions – and indeed probably coined the term. He also harshly criticised the police for their reported lack of enthusiasm for conducting random breath tests in the rain.
Wran governed for the entire state, not just the inner city elite. He ordered the redistribution of hospital beds from the well-supplied inner city and eastern suburbs to under-resourced outer suburban and rural areas – a move that did not endear him to the medical establishment. Wran and his ministers also stood firm against a fervent NIMBY campaign to prevent the construction of a public housing estate on the former Mort Bay site in Balmain. He and his ministers regularly visited country areas and often held cabinet meetings outside Sydney.
For workers, artists, writers and thinkers alike, his legacy is worth guarding.
If a philistine is said to be an anti-intellectual who hates or devalues art, beauty, spirituality and the intellect, in retrospect Neville Wran might now be honoured as a champion of those very necessities of life through his funding and support of education and the arts.
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