Condolence Speech for The Hon. Neville Wran: Legislative Council 15/05/2014

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Delivered in the Legislative Council, May 15, 2014.

I move:

(1) That this House express and place on record its deep regret in the loss sustained to the State by the death on 20 April 2014 of the Hon. Neville Kenneth Wran, a former member of this House, and former Premier of the State of New South Wales. (2) That this resolution be communicated by the President to the family of the deceased.

Neville Wran led the Labor Party in this place, and in the other place. He entered the Legislative Council in 1970. Reg Downing had led the Labor Party in the Legislative Council through all of the 24 years of unbroken Labor rule from 1941 to 1965 and through the first seven years of Robert Askin's conservative government. Reg Downing suffered a heart attack in 1971 and, with his support, Neville Wran succeeded him as Labor's leader in this House in February 1972. At the November 1973 election, Neville Wran successfully transferred to the Legislative Assembly as the member for Bass Hill. Days later he was elected leader of the New South Wales Labor Party. All of the achievements that followed—a famous victory in 1976, four election triumphs and 10 years at the helm of a reforming Labor government—have been recorded at length and in depth since Neville's retirement in 1986. There is nothing I could add today that would enhance the recorded history of Neville Wran's achievements. I have hosted the annual Wran lecture here at Parliament House since I entered the Parliament, and I hope that the organisers will continue to afford me that honour.

Today I want to address the assaults on Neville Wran's reputation while he was Premier, assaults which curiously ceased after he resigned as Premier and did not revive until after his death. Neville expected the attacks to revive. He predicted such a revival to his friends over the years. In addressing this matter I seek to be calm and dispassionate. I was six years old when Wran became Premier and 16 when he resigned the office. I have an emotional distance from the towering rage of those who served with him about how Neville was traduced. The allegations against Neville Wran had their day in court, scores of days. The Street royal commission was the time and place when hearsay and vile rumour had their confrontation with the laws of evidence and forensic probing.

I need to expend some detail. The ABC program Four Corners broadcast a program on the administration of rugby league on 30 April 1983. The program broadcast an express accusation that the Premier of New South Wales, Neville Wran, in 1977 had formally directed Chief Stipendiary Magistrate Murray Farquhar not to commit to trial one Kevin Humphreys, then President of the NSW Rugby League and executive chairman of the Australian Rugby League.

Members should remember the political context: the Hawke Government had been elected in March, and Neville Wran was the Australian Labor Party national president. For most of the Fraser years the Wran Government was the only mainland Labor administration, and suffered accordingly. Now there was going to be a better deal for New South Wales from federalism. The same month Nick Greiner had become Leader of the Opposition. The royal commission fell into Mr Greiner's lap. At the very moment when politics was about to change, Neville was laid low by the accusation. The Government established a royal commission on 11 May 1983. The commissioner was the Hon. Sir Laurence Street, Chief Justice of New South Wales and Lieutenant-Governor. That such base accusations could be broadcast on the ABC revealed that a coterie in its current affairs department was well connected to rumours that had been swirling inside an inner-city circle of Left critics of the Labor Party, a circle notable for its incestuousness. Those who had expected jobs in the Wran administration and missed out were among the most bitter, and the most inventive.

The mainstream vehicle that contributed so much to the circulation of rumour was the National Times, a journal which died of exhaustion inside four years. The journal had many good stories. It contributed to public debate. It was a worthy vehicle for long-form journalism and investigative reporting. What it lacked was respect for the presumption of innocence. The progenitor of its ethos to publish and not worry about consequence was Evan Whitton, who was editor of the paper from 1978 to 1981. By 1983 he was on a roving commission with Fairfax. Whitton was impressed by the justice system in parts of continental Europe in which the roles of judge and prosecutor are merged. The most enthusiastic purveyor of the ethos was Wendy Bacon, who has distinguished herself since Neville Wran's death by a brutal attack on his reputation. For Whitton, Bacon and their coterie, once they had cause to believe rumour then rumour was truth. Reportage by these people of the daily proceedings of the royal commission was built on the certainty of Neville Wran's guilt. One infected by the same certainty was the reporter for the ABC who laced his reports with editorial comment. His bias caused a memorable exchange in the conference that took place immediately after Neville's total exoneration:

NEVILLE WRANAre you from the ABC?

REPORTERI am.

NEVILLE WRANYes, then I won't answer your question at this conference.

What these reporters had in common was an incapacity to see beyond the story of the moment. The weakness is pernicious, a danger to civil society. For them your story is just another story. For the subject, it is his or her life—the only life they are going to live. Politics and media coverage in the 1980s seems cockeyed from today's perspective. A left-wing Labor Government by today's standards was attacked from the Left. In a tribute at Neville's funeral Paul Keating explained New South Wales politics as the 1980s unfolded. Keating said:

In the glory years of the Suich-Gardiner regime at the Herald, Labor leaders were attacked from the Left. The implicit charge against people like Neville Wran, and I might say later Bob Hawke and me, was that we were not really Labor—we were faux Labor, because in their opinion, we did too much for and had too much to do with the business community. I christened that particular clutch of journalists, the "Glebe Point Gulag".

In her most recent denunciation of Neville after his death Wendy Bacon made note that of the firmest believers in corruption "most had records as progressives when students". But of course. The royal commission sat through May to July. The terms of reference asked the commission to inquire into two questions and answer them. One was to establish an interference in the course of justice by Farquhar. The second required an answer to a question that was as follows:

… whether the said Murray Frederick Farquhar was acting at the direction or request of the Honourable Neville Kenneth Wran.

The answer from Sir Laurence Street was as follows:

No; Mr Farquhar was not acting at the direction or request of Mr Wran.

There it was and there it is, set out on page 1 of the Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Committal Proceedings Against K. E. Humphreys. With forensic thoroughness, rendered in beautiful prose, Sir Laurence Street set out to answer how a baseless tale had taken hold. Something improper had indeed occurred in 1977: Farquhar had indeed acted corruptly. The problem was that the essence of truth had acquired a carapace of invention. Invention had taken over. The observations by Sir Laurence Street contain universal truths about the power of self-reinforcing rumour. At pages 9 and 10 of the report on the Street royal commission Sir Laurence wrote:

In the intervening five or six years, rumours waxed and waned. In some cases suspicion underwent subtle change to belief, which itself progressed to reconstruction, which in turn escalated to recollection. No presently stated recollection could be safely assumed not to have progressed upwards and not to be the product of one of these earlier stages. The sheer frailty of human memory of necessity required a most anxious and critical appraisal of the evidence of the witnesses, no matter how credit-worthy they might be.

It became apparent that in the years since August 1977 the recollections even of those with undoubted first-hand knowledge have in some instances faded, in some instances fermented, and in some instances expanded. Moreover, in many cases the realisation of the significance—indeed, the enormity—of what had occurred has tended to transmute into a more or less cynical acceptance of what had, or was believed or rumoured to have, taken place.

Exactly what the royal commission described was the body of hearsay that Four Corners had picked up and run with. Chris Masters was the ABC reporter responsible. In a memoir, Chris Masters acknowledged the wrongness of the accusation against Neville Wran. He reflected that the trashing of a man's reputation was an unfortunate outcome in the pursuit of justice. The report of the royal commission isolated the time of the alleged phone call from Neville Wran to Murray Farquhar. At that moment, and for all of the hour around it, Neville was in a conference with the Secretary of the Treasury, another Treasury official and two private staff. He did not leave the meeting. He could not have made the call. I might say that Neville Wran would not be the last Premier of New South Wales to suffer from a grandstander wanting to demonstrate he was a big shot with connections. Sir Laurence Street acknowledged how difficult it is to prove a negative. In accepting those inherent difficulties, the report set out to be an impressive demonstration of what happens and what does not happen when the evidence is followed. Sir Laurence probed the possibility of a triangle of Wran-Farquhar-Humphreys. He explored the three corners and all the lines in between. He found no links. He found the likelihood that such a triangle had ever existed as beyond reasonable possibility. The royal commission declared the innocence of Neville Wran. The findings went beyond doubt and beyond not proven to a declaration that the case against Neville Wran was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The finding of innocence was unequivocal.

For Whitton, Bacon and company, the exoneration of Neville Wran was scarcely a setback. According to them, Sir Laurence had asked the wrong questions, had failed to ask the right questions, had called witnesses in the wrong order, and had failed to request an extension of the terms of reference. They stated it was wrong for the head of the judiciary to sit on the matter. Here is the rub: When accusers are so convinced of the guilt of their quarry, nothing the quarry does will satisfy them. The truth is that appointing the chief justice reflected the gravity of the accusation. The appointment reflected the determination of Neville Wran to out the truth at whatever cost. Instead of applause, to the accusers it was the wrong appointment. Who could have possibly been a correct appointment, if the most senior judicial officer was not a correct appointment?

Let me remind the House of who Sir Laurence Street is. Sir Laurence is the son and the grandson of chief justices of New South Wales. His mother was Jessie Street. No-one ever has suggested Sir Laurence was pro Labor, or pro Liberal for that matter. Sir Laurence was a jurist with an international reputation who was undertaking a solemn duty. Sir Laurence is now an old man. He is frail, yet he made a supreme effort to be present at Neville Wran's funeral to honour a great Australian. Does his presence that day affirm the unyielding view of the Wran belittlers that the royal commission was a fix?

The notion that the Premier of New South Wales could and did interfere in the course of justice defames the memory of a great man. It also defames those who were closest to him—those from whom he kept no secrets. A conspiracy could not have happened without the knowledge of the late Jack Ferguson, Gerry Gleeson and Denise Darlow. They either were part of the conspiracy or knew of it, and chose to ignore what was happening. To think in those terms is monstrous.

The accusations that resulted in the Street royal commission did have an impact on Neville Wran. Even such a comprehensive dismissal took a toll. Never again did Neville feel the same joy in the job, and Neville was a man who enjoyed being Premier in all its aspects: the hard grind of Cabinet, jousting in question time, exchanging barbs in caucus, media conferences, getting out and about, travelling across New South Wales, meeting people of all backgrounds and representing New South Wales at Premiers' conferences. When Jill was away, he was likely to call in his private staff to share pizzas with him late into the night in the private flat on level nine of the old State Office Block. After 1983, it was so very different. Correctly, Neville noted the accusations, the rumours and the whispers and that none of them would cease, not completely. Malice drove the rumour mongers—malice with a purpose. Diminish Neville Wran and you diminished New South Wales Labor.

For those who knew Neville Wran, the notion that he would interfere in the administration of justice was preposterous. We are speaking of a man who was a Queen's Counsel and a founding member of the Council of Civil Liberties. On each and every occasion anyone anywhere made an allegation of crime, either in the media or on the floor of either House of this Parliament, the response of Neville Wran was the same: place whatever evidence you have before the police for investigation. In all the years since, no-one has emerged to give flesh to the accusations on Four Corners or to any of the other rumours that used to float up and down the street outside like a crimson fog. The attacks on Neville Wran should cease. Let him rest in peace.