Much has been said in recent days about the achievements of Neville Wran, NSW Premier from 1976 until 1986, who died last weekend. Much of the praise is deserved.
His government did pass anti-discrimination laws, environmental legislation and other progressive reforms. But there has also been some nonsense written, including ALP leader Bill Shorten’s statement that Wran was a man of the "utmost integrity".
From reading the obituaries, you would have no idea what it was like to be in Sydney at the time. Wran presided over a state in which hundreds of prisoners paid their way out of prison. The police force was routinely corrupt and included detectives who killed people. Court cases were fixed, key judicial figures mixed with organised crime, and corruption in the property, racing and gambling industries was rife and backed by heavies.
At best, Wran resisted reform in these areas. At times, he actively conspired to cover it up. By the time he retired in 1986, his government had an appalling reputation for corruption in the administration of justice, which is why Liberal leader Nick Greiner was in the position to win victory in 1988 on an anti-corruption platform, including the establishment of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Wran’s own worst moment was undoubtedly in 1983, when the Street Royal Commission was set up after the ABC Four Corners report, The Big League. The story told how NSW Rugby League's President, Kevin Humphreys, had misappropriated funds from the Balmain Leagues Club and was charged by police.
It alleged that NSW's Chief Stipendiary Magistrate, Murray Farquhar, had intervened to have those charges dismissed and had told another magistrate that he was acting at the request of Wran. Wran refused to be interviewed by Four Corners and after legal advice and the approval of the ABC Board, it went to air.
The report created a political storm. Eleven days later a Royal Commission was set up and Wran stepped aside as Premier. Laurence Street, who was then the Chief Justice, found that Farquar had intervened — but not at the request of Wran, who denied he had been involved.
Farquar was later sentenced to four years imprisonment. But the Street Royal Commission did not really lay the matters to rest, as Wran himself knew. Evan Whitton, who was awarded Journalist of the Year in 1983 for for his "courage and innovation" in reporting of the Commission, regarded the terms of reference to be very narrow. The approach was "technical" rather than one of following up relevant questions as they arose. Whitton’s sketches and a diary of the commission that were published in the Sydney Morning Herald highlighted many of these flaws.
An underlying issue was the relationship between Farquar and organised crime figure George Freeman. This relationship had been revealed by The National Times in 1977. Instead of properly investigating these allegations, Wran, against the advice of others, supported extending Farquar’s appointment until 1979.
All these matters continued to fester. During this period many in Sydney knew that if you had enough money you could pay your way out of jail. An investigation by then National Times reporter Marian Wilkinson led to the Minister for Corrective Services, Rex Jackson, being charged with receiving bribes to release three prisoners. Jackson was charged and also went to prison.
Wran felt deeply wounded by the Royal Commission and other negative coverage of corruption in his government. But he was by no means the only one to suffer. At least one senior magistrate, who was known to have spoken to Four Corners about his belief that Farquar was corrupt, knew that his career was over.
Wran has been quoted as saying that an illegal police phone tapping operation that revealed widespread corruption in NSW was an organised crime conspiracy. This is far from the truth. The police who conducted this operation were "incorruptibles", who conducted the operation with the tacit approval of the Federal Police.
Their decision should be seen in the context of prevailing conditions in the police force, that meant that police officers were punished if they did not go along with frame-ups and perjury. Wran’s view was that the dubious nature of their methods was a bigger problem than the evidence of high level corruption they revealed.
Wran's own approach to tackling corruption was similar to those Liberals who believe NSW ICAC has too much power and overreached by triggering Senator Arthur Sinodinos decision to stand down as Assistant Treasurer. This view holds that authorities who have evidence of corruption should charge people and prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Further inquiries should be internal or secret. Unfortunately, such an approach encourages rather than eliminates public corruption.
There have been many discussions about whether Wran took bribes or merely tolerated corruption. Regarding Wran's environmental and planning reforms, his friend, the NSW Land and Environment Court judge Jim McClelland, widely regarded to be incorruptible, told many that Wran had undermined the court and was corrupt — but provided no direct evidence. In my own experience, most leaks about Labor party corruption came from the progressive side of politics, from people who believed that it was inequitable and damaging to the rule of law, but most feared the consequences of speaking out.
Wran professionalised government public relations and perfected the TV "grab". He also hated the ABC and the investigative reporters at Fairfax. He described them as part of a Liberal conspiracy to bring down his government. It did not matter that most of the journalists involved had no credible history as conservatives. If anything, most had records as progressives when students.
I was one of those and my own last direct contact with him was when I submitted a batch of questions to his office in 1985 about some renovations. He sent back a message to say he had put them in the bin. I was told that he complained to one of the then owners, James Fairfax, about me. He withdrew state advertising from Fairfax as punishment for its reporting.
Wran grew up in Balmain when it was a working class suburb. He was a Balmain Boy who stuck by his mates. But Balmain Boys change. He lived in the Eastern suburbs rather than in his electorate of Bass Hill. He gave Darling Harbour's ugly Monorail to business mate Peter Abeles and the highly lucrative Lotto licence to racing magnate Robert Sangster and media bosses Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer, who was also the godfather of one of his children. He went into business with his friend, the now Liberal Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull.
When the history of Sydney in the age of Neville Wran is later written, I suspect that the ABC and Fairfax’s journalism will be regarded as far closer to the mark than the hagiographies of the last week.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.