Nifty And The Nurses


We were well into a two week strike by mental health nurses over the 1983 Richmond Report, and we were in the Premier's office looking for a solution. Ron Mulock, the Minister for Health, was raging at us and the mental health nurses around the table with me were smiling.

I found out many years later that Neville "Nifty" Wran was out in the corridor, saying to his aide “I hope that f*****g Ron Mulock has got this right!” If only we had known that was what he was thinking. And so typical of him to give us credit, when so many wouldn't.

My first memories of Neville Wran were from when I was still a student nurse in the early 1980s, when the Wran Government announced the Beds to the West Program. Huge numbers of beds in the inner city were to be closed to free up money to build and develop hospitals and health services in the west, south-west and north of Sydney. To do so, Wran wanted to close stately old hospitals like Crown Street and Sydney Hospital.

There was no doubt that health services in these areas needed development. They also needed doctors and nurses to move to those areas to staff the facilities. But we in the union objected to the closure of beds. Why wasn’t there government money to develop health services in the suburbs, before looking at what needed to be closed in the city.

I ran on a Nurses Reform Ticket in the 1982 NSW Nurses Association elections. The old leadership of the Nurses Association had done very little to protect its members affected by the cuts, and many were shocked when we won office. Neville was a formidable opponent. He had garnered the support of the Right and the official Left of the ALP. We were painted as selfish, and the tools of the Australian Medical Association.

Over the next five turbulent years many things changed for nurses. We had to fight for wage and career structure reform, and put in place protections for nurses affected by cuts. Then the Richmond Report arrived. The proposed community alternatives for mental health care were grossly underfunded, and had to be stopped. We opposed the decisions and strategies of the Wran Government, but Neville himself was always approachable, always someone you could talk to.

I remember being in the lift at the Randwick Club on the day that Bob Hawke took over from Bill Hayden. Nifty got in at the last minute as the doors closed. As we left the club he offered me a lift to the city. I turned him down, because I feared that I would be compromised by a private discussion. To this day I regret that decision.

Nurses in the 1980s were moving towards university education. In an attempt to pacify the raging nursing profession, in 1984 the Wran Government announced the closure of hospital based schools and the transfer of nurse education to Colleges of Advanced Education. The educators and managers were thrilled but fearing for the impact on the nursing workforce numbers, the union urged the phasing out of hospital based schools and the phasing in of university education.

Again, we met the Premier. I well remember him saying, “Beware the Ides of March…” but I wasn’t sure what he was referring to at the time. Later I understood that he was then under challenge for the leadership in his own government, and he knew the perilous position of the Nurses Reform leadership.

Nifty stayed in government until July 1986. I remember walking into the NSW State Conference where he announced his retirement. There was a stunned silence over the room. I had been out buying a coffee. He was announcing his retirement as I walked in the gallery and people in the conference were yelling “No, no!” Female compatriots of Wran were crying. Everyone was shocked. Barrie Unsworth was blessed by the factions as Wran's successor.

Rumours had been circulating for a while, after the Street Royal Commission. As Wran himself once said, “If you lay down with dogs you get up with fleas”. Nothing was proved, but he had made the decision to go.

Neville was a lawyer with a distinguished career behind him when he became Premier. He was a Labor man through and through and led the Labor Party through turbulent times. He was a reformist and a committed social democrat. The reform of the Upper House was one of his best achievements. Compared to the so called political leaders of today he was a giant among men.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.