Neville Wran, the former New South Wales premier who set the benchmark for Labor’s political dominance of the state since the 1970s, has died, aged 87.
Mr Wran’s family issued a statement on Sunday evening saying he died just before 6pm. He had been suffering from dementia and living in an aged care facility, Lulworth House, in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs, for the last two years.
His wife, Jill Hickson, said in the statement that despite their sadness, his death was “in fact a blessed release for Neville. Dementia is a cruel fate and I have been grieving the loss that comes with it for some years.”
Mr Wran was Premier for more than 10 years, between May 1976 to July 1986, before suddenly stepping down as Labor leader after 13 years.
He resigned undefeated as the state’s longest serving premier, a record eclipsed by Bob Carr 19 years later.
Wran also spent six years as national president of the ALP, 1980-86.
Born in 1926, Wran grew up in then-working class Balmain and famously said “Balmain boys don’t cry”.
He studied law at Sydney University and began practising in 1951, his success as a lawyer earning him the nickname “Nifty Nev”. He had considered acting, but the law was better paid and he started out running workers’ compensation cases, then as a barrister, dealing in negligence and industrial law, becoming a Queens Counsel in 1968.
The persuasiveness Wran used so effectively in court made him one of the first contemporary political masters of the media, knowing how to manage and spin the news to his advantage.
Mr Wran led a seemingly charmed political life, building on narrow victories to become a dominant figure in Labor politics and reviving the party’s fortunes following a decade of state Liberal rule and the dismissal of the federal Whitlam government. He saw off six Liberal leaders during his reign.
Wran initially entered politics via the Legislative Council in 1970, aged 43, before transferring to the lower house as the MP for Bass Hill in 1973.
Shortly afterwards, he challenged the ALP leader of six years, Pat Hills, and when second ballot was a tie, Mr Wran won because he had one more vote than Hills in the initial ballot.
He narrowly won the 1976 election, which was in doubt for several days before the seats of Gosford and Hurstville fell to Labor, by 74 and 44 votes respectively, giving the ALP a one-seat majority.
From there Wran’s political dominance grew, leading to 1978 and 1981 wins dubbed ‘Wranslides’, which also cost two Liberal leaders their seats. By 1981, the Coalition had just 28 seats to the ALP’s 69.
At one point Wran’s popularity hit an unprecedented 80% in polling.
He used that mandate for reform, tackling a moribund public service and opening it up for women and Aboriginal people, in part by replacing the seniority system with merit. He also shifted the focus to “customers” and “consumers” in line with modern economic theory and appointed a woman as the first director of equal opportunity and employment.
Wran created the Anti-discrimination Board, Ethnic Affairs Commission, Women’s Advisory Council and a minister for Aboriginal Affairs, as well as tackling land rights. However, his government’s ambitious bill to outlaw discrimination was watered down to cover just race, sex and marital status, abandoning age, religion, disability and sexual orientation at the time.
His vision shaped modern Sydney, setting the pace for its redevelopment in the 1980s. His government created the Darling Harbour precinct from a disused shipping cove to “return it to the people of Sydney” (although that included the now dismantled monorail), as well as four-year fixed electoral terms, and perhaps reflecting his love of acting, Wran personally oversaw the establishment of The Wharf, home to the Sydney Theatre Company, wresting control of the site from a reluctant Maritime Services Board.
Wran also started an environmental push that led to the creation of 20 new National Parks, including World Heritage listed areas around Barrington Tops and Border Ranges in northern NSW.
But there were controversies, including his 1983 appearance before the Street Royal Commission following claims, aired on the ABC, that as Premier, Mr Wran had tried to influence a magistrate, Murray Farquhar, over embezzlement charges against the former ARL and NSWRL chairman Kevin Humphreys.
Mr Wran stood down as Premier for three months, during which time he addressed the NSW Labor Conference at Sydney Town Hall and said “Balmain boys don’t cry. We’re too vulgar, too common for that. But if you prick us with a pin, we bleed like anyone else.”
He was ultimately exonerated, but observed at the Conference that “The mud will stick”. He sued the ABC and settled out of court.
Farquhar was jailed for attempting to pervert the course of justice, while Humphreys was fined $4000 and given a two-year good behaviour bond.
Mr Wran’s bitterness towards the ABC led to another famous phrase: “Are you from the ABC?” He boycotted questions from its reporters.
Yet claims of corruption dogged his government from 1981 onwards, starting with deputy police commissioner, Bill Allen, who rose rapidly under Wran, resigning in disgrace amid links to organised crime and illegal gambling.
Corrective services minister Rex Jackson was jailed in 1987 for accepting bribes to release prisoners early.
Then there was the “Age tapes”, illegal phone taps by NSW police, which embroiled Wran’s mentor, High Court judge and former Labor attorney general, Lionel Murphy, in claims of attempting to influence the course of justice in a case involving solicitor and former colleague Morgan Ryan, the man who nicknamed Wran “Nifty”. Declaring Murphy’s innocence earned Wran a $25,000 fine for contempt of court.
And in 1981, the state endured a series of blackouts due to breakdowns by crumbling power infrastructure, despite earlier Government assurances to the opposite.
Wran’s famously raspy voice was the result of a throat infection in 1980 that saw him lose his voice and require an operation involving Teflon injected into his vocal cords, which led to repeated commentary about how he was “Teflon-coated”.
Wran’s philosophical outlook was best exemplified by the eulogy he gave for Lionel Murphy following his death in 1986. In it, Wran observed:
“The Australian value, to be cherished and valued above all, is the openness and equality of our society. There is no ultimate meaning in our history, if it is not the struggle to break down the barriers raised against human fulfilment by differences of class, background, sex, colour and creed.”
After politics he built a successful career as a company director and chairman, and was in partnership in a merchant bank with the now federal communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, a close family friend.
Neville Wran married for the first time in 1946, to Marcia Olivier. They had a daughter, Kim, and he adopted her son, Glenn. They divorced in 1976. Soon after becoming Premier he married Jill Hickson, 22 years his junior. They had two children, Harriet, in 1988 and Hugo in 1991. In 2006 the couple separated and their marriage endured repeated upheavals over the next few years before they reconciled in 2011, not long before Mr Wran went into care.
Ms Hickson and Harriet were with Mr Wran when he died.
New Premier Mike Baird said he would offer the Wran family a state funeral.
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