Statement of Condolence on the death of Neville Wran

14 May 2014

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (11:42): I associate myself with the fine words of the member for Grayndler and all the speakers who have spoken before about the passing of such an extraordinary human being and amazing man, Neville Wran. Of course, it was a sad day for Jill and for the kids when Australia lost Neville Wran. It was also a sad day for the country and for his state of New South Wales. From my point of view, it is a sad day for anyone who has a Labor heart, because Neville Wran really was in lots of ways the gold standard for people who care about what Labor can do for our community.

I had the honour and the privilege of working with Neville for six months in 2002. Neville Wran had agreed to write the blueprint for some party reform that we were doing at the time, with Bob Hawke and also Tim Gartrell, who was then the Assistant National Secretary of the Labor Party. The four of us together wrote the party reform blueprint of 2002. The reason I signed up for that as a young PhD student—a young Labor kid, basically—was that I wanted to spend some time going around the country with Neville and Bob, learning from them and helping them come up with some recommendations for how the party conducted itself.

It is a little known fact that this day could have come about 12 years ago. We almost lost Neville one day about 12 years ago when I drove right through a roundabout with Neville in the passenger seat and we narrowly escaped tragedy. It was just outside this building, actually, on one of the many roundabouts in Canberra. I was a young fellow and I was petrified that he would be very angry about it. He looked at me after this car whizzed past, centimetres from us, and just gave me a wink. He gave me a wink to let me know it was all right that I had almost taken him out. I would have been a real villain in the Labor Party if I was responsible for that.

That was the day that the report that Bob and Neville had written was released. My enduring memory of that day, apart from almost taking Neville out on the roundabout, is of later in the day, about one minute before we went out to do our press conference, when we were having some sort of morning tea. Just as Neville was walking out, Jenny Macklin noticed that he had a big dob of cream from the bun that he was eating on his tie. My enduring memory is of Jenny Macklin licking a tissue and cleaning up Neville's tie for him before he went out and gave a press conference on that day, late in 2002.

When I met Neville, I was really struck by two things—and other speakers have spoken about these two sides of his personality. Neville was really the best mix; he had a commanding side and he had a caring side. Those two things were not inconsistent, but they were rare in their intensity in one human being. He was, of course, a commanding presence; he was a huge deal in New South Wales and right around the country because he was so commanding and charismatic. But, at the same time, he never forgot who he cared for and why he was in politics. In many ways, that was the most impressive thing about him.

He was also brutally funny, as other people have spoken about. I remember one time he told me that he was getting a rough time as Premier in the New South Wales parliament. He walked around to the shadow minister who was giving him all this grief and said, 'If you keep this up, I'll tell the whole parliament what you got up to last night.' When he got back to his seat, his colleague said, 'What did he get up to last night?' Neville said, 'I don't know, but he's an awful bastard and so he probably got up to something.' The shadow minister shut up from that point on, which was a funny story. I was also really impressed by what Paul Keating said in his eulogy at the state funeral, that Neville 'had a PhD in poetic profanity', which is something I can recall as well. He was a very creative, ingenious speaker when it came to some of the language that he used.

Another thing to appreciate about Neville Wran is that he did not luxuriate in the past. When he was Premier, it was not a case of the older he got the better he was. He was always a forward-looking guy, in my experience. He cared deeply about an Australian republic, for example. He cared deeply about issues beyond his premiership. The fact that he put his hand up to help the Labor Party out in the early 2000s is another example that he was not a guy who rested on his laurels. He had interests that endured and he cared about the future of the country.

Labor history has a whole lot of heroes, and we celebrate our heroes probably better than any political party in the world. From Neville Wran we get the model for long-term reforming state governments, a model that others have picked up. In my own state of Queensland, I know that Wayne Goss is really a bit of a Neville Wran type. A lot of the same legal reform, for example, that Neville did in the eighties in New South Wales was done by Wayne Goss in the late eighties and early nineties in Queensland. Whether it is Wayne Goss or any kind of leader, there has not been a leader of the Labor Party who does not in some way owe something of their style and experience to that model that Neville Wran created in the seventies and eighties in New South Wales. In that sense, his influence extends well beyond New South Wales, and I think that his influence will extend well beyond his sad passing quite recently.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: As a mark of respect, I invite honourable members to rise in their places.

Honourable members having stood in their places—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I thank honourable members.


Also available on the Hansard