Inside Story

Portrait of the politician as a young man

In this extract from Mike Steketee and Milton Cockburn’s biography, first published in 1986, Neville Wran – who died earlier this week – arrives in Balmain, leaves Balmain, appears on the radio, considers becoming an actor, and joins the Sydney University Liberal Club

Mike Steketee & Milton Cockburn 22 April 2014 5563 words

Neville Wran at Fort Street High School in 1942.

I’m more working class now than ever I was. Just because I don’t drop my aitches all the time and spit on the floor while eating my lunch doesn’t mean I’m not working class. Everyone aspires to do a little better. That’s what being in the working class is all about: how to get out of it.

— Neville Wran, 1982

NEVILLE WRAN is not so much a Balmain boy as a boy from Balmain. He lived there from his birth on 11 October 1926 – first in an 1891 terrace house still standing at 117 Darling Street, the main street, and later at 11 Nicholson Street, in a cottage rented from Harry West, a sailmaker. He can therefore claim to be part of that working-class Labor ethos which Balmain epitomised and which has been so much romanticised since. In fact there was nothing very romantic about Balmain in the 1920s and 1930s: it was a crowded, dockfront, industrial suburb at the back end of Sydney – a far cry from the desirable inner-city living estate agents now offer.

Wran did not linger there. His mother Lillian, the driving force in the family, moved the Wrans to Lenore Street, Five Dock, just across the Iron Cove Bridge from Balmain, when Neville was ten. It was a better class of suburb. “The old lady was always trying to better herself, you know,” said Joe Wran, Neville’s brother and the oldest surviving member of the family.

Neville Wran followed his own dictum and left the working class behind him. But he likes to recall his origins, which help his political image. Balmain is a suburb with a rich history and folklore: the first Labor Electoral League was formed there in the 1890s, giving it claim to the title of birthplace of the Labor Party. As well, it has nurtured such diverse figures as Billy Hughes, John Storey, “Doc” Evatt, and John Kerr. By contrast, Wran never talks of life in Five Dock, although he moved there at a young age. When he was premier, Michael Maher, the member for Drummoyne, suggested during a campaign visit by Wran that he be photographed by the local newspaper in front of the family home in Five Dock, which was part of Maher’s electorate. Wran refused.

Yet Wran’s Balmain origins are part of him, however much he may have moved above and beyond them. In private, in the company of Labor colleagues, groups of working-class people and sometimes journalists, Wran does drop his aitches and spice his speech with the patois of the working class and the epithets you would expect of Balmain in the tough years of the 1930s. On Saturdays, Wran often buys fish at the Pyrmont markets, drives on to the plain semi-detached cottage with the concreted front yard in Campbell Street, Balmain where Joe has lived since 1929, and shares with him cooked fish and beer and political conversation.

The two faces of Neville Wran – the street-smart boy from Balmain, rough and ruthless in running his cabinet and caucus; and the polite and polished public politician – were the secret of his political success, a success which, in terms of winning seats in elections, was rarely matched in Australian politics. Wran has some of the same qualities as Bob Hawke: he can look as much at home in the pub chatting with men in blue singlets as he can at a meeting of pinstriped captains of industry. As Murray Sayle, a journalist who has known him since his school days, put it, “He combines the respectability that Australians crave with the kind of engaging informality and friendliness which they like.” An accomplished actor, he is also a political chameleon.

WRAN was the eighth and last child born to Joseph Wran and Lillian Langley Wran. He was, in the words of his brother Joe, “a real afterthought.” The children spanned twenty years. Marjorie, the eldest, was, according to Joe, the smartest of them all. “If she had had the opportunity, out of all of us she would have been prime minister,” Joe said. After her husband died in the 1950s, she travelled overseas and learnt Italian. When she came back, she said, “I’m not going to sit on my arse all the time,” and she became a nursing sister. Joe was the second oldest and was followed by Alec, who died at eighteen months of meningitis. Next came Beatrice, who worked as a receptionist, looked after her mother in old age and never married. Lillian, known as Ann, worked in Anthony Horderns, married Sydney Robyns, a businessman who made commercial films for advertising, and lived in one of Sydney’s best suburbs, Bellevue Hill. She was followed by Dorothy, a receptionist, who married Eric Woods, the wealthy owner of Christies nightclub, later to become Chequers. They lived in Vaucluse, on the eastern harbour peninsula and later in St Ives, in the northern suburbs. The brother nearest to Neville in age, Doug, was a welder who died in his late forties or early fifties. Joe, Ann, Dorothy and Neville were the surviving members of the family in 1986. Wran is particularly close to Joe but also maintains regular contact with his two sisters.

His mother Lillian came from a working-class family at Waverley, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Joseph’s family had been in Balmain for two generations: Neville’s great grandfather was a stonemason who sculpted the coat of arms on the Balmain Post Office. His grandfather carried on the trade, together with a Balmain tradition – heavy drinking. He lost a leg after falling off a horsedrawn cart.

Wran’s father was, according to brother Joe, “a carefree man, very kind, very likeable.” In his younger years he worked as a seaman, travelling to America and Canada and later, perhaps as a concession to the growing family, between Newcastle and Sydney. His job was to shovel coal into baskets that were winched out of the ships to be sent ashore. On one occasion, the ship he was on was rammed and sunk by a bigger boat in Sydney Harbour. The crew was picked up by the Manly ferry and went to the pub to celebrate their survival. As Neville Wran told the story, “the inevitable happened: they all got drunk. They eventually got home about nine o’clock next morning and told the story to my mother, who just wouldn’t have a bar of it.”

During the Depression, Wran’s father was often without work. He would walk from Balmain to the city and back – about ten kilometres – looking for a job. He worked as a cleaner at the Theatre Royal, then as a caretaker at Her Majesty’s – a job arranged by a brother who worked at J.C. Williamson. The free tickets his father brought home gave Neville his first contact with the stage.

His mother was the dominant influence. Joe described her as “a remarkable woman, very clever, canny, a great organiser. She held the reins.” Neville Wran said of her: “My Mum was a stern lady. She had to be with all those kids and a husband who was a pretty lively sort of bloke. Our household was a really warm household – a lot of fun.” Despite the large family, the fact that Joe senior drifted in and out of jobs, and the Depression, they were never short of essentials. “My mother could always put her hands on a few bob,” said Joe.

In Balmain, Wran went to Nicholson Street Public School, which produced mainly labourers and tradesmen and shopkeepers, and the occasional lawyer or member of the other professions. Neville Wran stood out because he was good at his schoolwork and so was thought of by some of his fellow pupils as “a bit of an egghead.” Fighting and football were not his strengths, and he was uncomfortable in the very physical environment at Nicholson Street school. “I could never fight but I had to fight every afternoon, out the back by the side of the school. You had to take your turn to have one. It was bloody awful. Sometimes you’d get a hiding.” His schoolmate Harry Leo, who later played first grade Rugby League, reached an agreement with Wran to teach him football in return for Wran teaching him to be a scholar. “After about a month, I said to him: ‘There’s a rough chance of me being a scholar but you’ve got no chance of being a footballer.’”

Joe is the only one of the seven surviving children to stay in Balmain. He bore the brunt of the Great Depression, which blighted the prospects of a generation of young people, just as continuing high unemployment in the 1970s and the 1980s has robbed another generation, or at least part of it, of livelihoods and careers. Yet Joe, who ran a greengrocer’s business in Balmain, managed better than most. At one stage during the Depression, he was the only tenant who could still afford to pay the rent to his landlady. He married in 1929, moving in to the Campbell Street house, which he later bought and, to support himself, extended his round to Double Bay because “no one had a zac [sixpence] in Balmain.”

Joe remembers Neville as being studious – “he would always do his homework” – and “cagey”: “Ask him anything and he would never know. He would always say: ‘Beg your pardon?’ One of the [Wran] girls was going with a chap who was supposed to be well-educated. He would try to trick Neville with questions and Neville would say: ‘I beg your pardon, I never caught what you said?’ He would be thinking all the time. He would never commit himself unless he knew it.”

Neville Wran himself remembers Balmain as “a great place, a great society – a much smaller, more generous community probably than it is today. Everyone knew everyone else and people shared things when times were tough. If someone caught fish, everyone in the row of terraces would have fish that night. Because my brothers were pretty good fishermen, our standing was pretty high.”

The Depression touched Wran only lightly. In 1930, he was four, whereas Joe was twenty-two. As the youngest in a family of eight, he had some privileges. “He was well looked after by the family because we were all doing all right,” said Joe. “He had a good way about him, Neville. He could bite you [for money] and do what he liked with you.” Wran said he was the only child at Nicholson Street in the early 1930s who had shoes, though photographs of the period suggest that is an exaggeration.

Neville Wran’s next step in upward mobility came when he topped the year at Drummoyne High and won a scholarship to Fort Street Boys’ High School, a selective school with a reputation as the best state secondary institution in Sydney. It was there he spent the last two years of high school. Wran’s fellow pupils remember Fort Street as a school with a strong pride and spirit, where the school song was sung at assembly every day.

Wran was gregarious and popular. In 1941, in fourth year, he won the Baxendale Special Prize for a lecture on a modern author and was first in history. On 25 April, he represented Fort Street at an Anzac Day commemorative service. But his academic performance was hardly spectacular. In the leaving certificate in 1942, he topped the year in modern history, gaining second-class honours. He received an A in English but only Bs in Latin, French and chemistry, as well as passing qualifying mathematics, a subject for matriculation purposes. He was placed equal eighteenth in the class of seventy.

It was in acting and debating that he made his mark. The school journal, Fortian, of December 1941, said of the performance of the play Friends: “This Irish comedy of circumstances went over well, the fighting scenes particularly. Packer and Wran should apply at the Stadium for instant approval.” The Packer was Frank Packer, now a solicitor in Five Dock and no relation to the family of media and cricket fame. He recalls his role in the play as including sitting on Wran’s chest, holding his hair and making it seem as though he was knocking his head hard against the floor. “He didn’t feel a thing,” he said. The following year, Wran had a part in The Recoil, of which Fortian said: “Quite a triumph of atmosphere. The tragedy was handled very ably. Wran as the emotional character did an excellent job. The rest were also very good and the play was a real success.”

Wran also excelled in debating. In 1942, he was the whip in the final of the Hurne–Barbour debating competition against Sydney High. As the last speaker for his side, the whip’s role is to attack the opposition. The subject was that “in the best interests of humanity, socialism must be used in the postwar reconstruction.” Fort Street, arguing the affirmative, lost. But as a result of his performance, Wran was chosen for the 2GB radio program Youth Speaks, hosted by John Dease.

It was one of the most popular programs on radio at the time. The best high school debaters were chosen each week to speak live on a topic announced to them an hour before the beginning of the program. Wran’s contemporaries on the program included Eugene Kamenka, later professor of the history of ideas at the Australian National University, David and Phillip Wolfers, Adrian Roden, later a Supreme Court judge, Jill Crichton, diplomat, and Murray Sayle and George Munster, who would become noted journalists.

Sayle recalled that the representation of Jewish refugee families on the program was strong. “They were pretty dazzling figures to us because their uncles were famous people and they actually spoke a language other than English. The arrival of these people in the Australian education system in the 1930s instantly upgraded the whole intellectual tone of the country.” Wran and Sayle managed to keep their ends up, though.

The audience would decide by applause who had won. Sayle said Wran was a frequent winner. “Although he was not what you would call a very funny speaker, nor as formidable intellectually as Kamenka or the Wolfers brothers, nevertheless he always did a good job. His gift of the gab was already well-established.”

Sayle doesn’t remember politics playing a large part in their discussions.

I would have thought his opinions were those of that kind of liberalism that the Labor Party used to represent – being on the side of the underdog. He was not deeply interested in issues so much as the stylish and orderly presentation of whatever side he happened to be on. He was a technician. At organising his ideas and expressing himself, I have never met anyone who could match him. I would not have expected him then, nor expect him now, to make new departures as a political theorist.

Wran was sixteen when he matriculated and, too young to start a law degree, he enrolled in arts at Sydney University with a Commonwealth scholarship to help support him. He was uncertain about his future. The war had been under way for three years and there were three more before it ended, by which time he was approaching nineteen. Wran did claim on one occasion that he wanted to join the air force “but the old man found out in the nick of time and stopped me.” The military age was eighteen, which Wran reached in October 1944. University students could apply for exemptions but they were easier to obtain in faculties such as medicine, engineering and science than in arts or law, where only the best students avoided service. Some of Wran’s contemporaries enlisted. Bill Fisher, a fellow-debater who was to work with Wran as a barrister and became president of the NSW Industrial Commission, joined the navy at seventeen and did not start law at Sydney University until the year Wran left in 1948.

Acting was Wran’s first love and he considered it as a career. He did a season of Shakespeare at the Theatre Royal, losing the lead in The Tempest because the director did not think he was good enough. “The leading lady thought I was fine in the part but unfortunately hers wasn’t the final say,” Wran said. He played in radio soap operas, including The Croftons Are Coming, a family drama in which he took the part of the son. As a lawyer and a politician, Wran realised this frustrated ambition: one of his strengths as a barrister was jury cases and, as a parliamentary performer, he was without peer in Australia and turned Macquarie Street into some of the best theatre in Sydney.

Judging by the reviews in the student newspaper Honi Soit and the official journal the Union Recorder, he tended towards over-enthusiasm as a member of the Sydney University Dramatic Society, known by its acronym SUDS. Of the presentation of Oedipus by W.B. Yeats (an adaptation of the classic drama), for example, J.S. Morrisby complained about the actors’ “overwhelming fear of the audience and artificial dramatics, particularly on the parts of Messrs Wran and Pollard.” In 1945, Wran appeared in the play No More Peace, by Ernst Toller. It was a satire about abolishing war, directed at the Nazis. Of his part as Cain, the review in the Union Recorder said Wran was more in character than some of the other actors but, “perhaps under the influence of his Hitlerian make-up, he flung himself into his part with rather too much intensity. He needs to learn the value of economy, even in a ranting role.”

But it was the law to which Wran turned, enrolling at Sydney University in 1944. It was a more stable, prestigious and lucrative profession than acting. The course was part-time, for five years, with the custom being for the student to join a law firm and do his articles at the same time. Apart from the help he received from his family, Wran supported himself by selling insurance and working as a bookmaker’s runner for the Waterhouse family. He was friends with Bill Waterhouse, with whom he went through law school. Waterhouse, like Wran, had style and an attractive personality. He also had plenty of money, certainly by the standards of most university students, including Wran.

It was at university that Wran also met the person who became his closest and oldest friend, Lionel Murphy. Murphy stood apart from his fellow law students: he had completed a science degree, which put him in a reserved occupation during the war. He worked in a chemical factory before starting a law degree, making him considerably older than most undergraduates – he is four years Wran’s senior. He was not handsome like Wran, nor an orator. But fellow-students admired him for his high intelligence and maturity.

His contemporaries at university differ in their memories of Wran but they all agree that he was one of the sharpest dressers on the campus. According to Sayle, “he was by far the best looking of our group, by far the best dressed and, in worldly terms, I always thought by far the most ambitious. He was going to make his mark somewhere – that was the feeling you got.” Another fellow-student, Bruce Yuill, said Wran was “always fairly presentable. We never knew that he came from Balmain, put it that way.” Wran has always paid a great deal of attention to his appearance: he has had his teeth capped, for example, and is secretive about his age. He admitted in one interview: “I am tender about age. I regard age as a personal business. Next question.”

He also was a diligent student: fellow-students often would find him bent over his law books at the Mitchell Library, not far from the university law school in Phillip Street. Eugene Kamenka, who with Sayle went on to university with Wran, remembers him as earnest:

He was a fairly conventional person compared with most of the more radical students, who might be socially, culturally or sexually radical. He was not one of the undergraduates that I found very exciting. He wasn’t toying with ideas. He was serious about life. But then I was an Andersonian [disciple of Professor John Anderson, whose free thought, libertarian philosophy had a large student following] and we were very much an “in group.” Neville was what we thought of as a square, conventional student.

WRAN came to university with little political background other than his working-class origins. His father was, in the words of brother Joe, “Labor-minded,” but he was not a member of the Labor Party; nor was he active in union affairs. His mother showed no particular interest in politics. At university, Wran had the choice of the Labour Club, which included communists, the ALP Club, which excluded them, the Free Thought Society, which was the Andersonian group, and the Liberal Club. He joined none of them in his first two years. But by 1945, the political elements were starting to stir in him.

In May 1945, R.G. Menzies, then out of office and in the process of establishing the Liberal Party, addressed the inaugural meeting of the university’s Liberal Club. The political climate was one of change. The impending defeat of fascism triggered a spirited debate about the new world order. With the Soviet Union playing such a vital part in the Allied war effort and the experience of communism still fresh, socialism and communism had a strong appeal, particularly at the universities. There are numerous cases of politicians, barristers and judges who were communists in their youth in the 1940s. Menzies reflected the climate of the times when, in response to baiting from students about his alleged fascist sympathies, he said, “If ever I have to make the unfortunate choice between fascism and communism, I would choose communism.”

But Wran, the “square, conventional” student, was not attracted to communism. It was another strand in Menzies’s arguments which appealed to him. Menzies spoke to the Liberal Club of “the dignified freedom of the individual citizen” and added: “All policies should be judged in the light of the progress of the individual.” The Union Recorder added the comments: “He was sure that they would easily detect the spurious and bombastic propaganda of the Communists, the intimidation implicit in their methods and would reject as ineffectual the dogmatism of the Labor Party, who, Mr Menzies maintained, upheld the capitalistic structure while hoping to exact their plunder from it.”

While it is not known if Wran attended this meeting, he was sufficiently interested in the Liberal Club to be elected a member of its committee on 11 April the following year. It was the first time he was chosen for political office. Among those who joined him was Adrian Roden, a fellow-debater, who was to become a judge of the NSW Supreme Court. The president of the Club, Ted McWhinney, now a law professor in Canada, recalled that he had persuaded both Wran and Roden to join. McWhinney had replaced the founder of the Liberal Club, John Appleby, who had been a Liberal candidate for a state seat and died of cancer at a young age. John Butters, who became a general manager of the Australian Gas Light Company and was involved with the Liberal Club during the same period, described the Club as “a bit of a mixed bag.” He and others who came from faculties such as engineering saw the encouragement of individual initiative and free enterprise as the key issues. This group was generally in favour of affiliation with the Liberal Party. Wran’s interests were more those of the small “l” liberal and civil libertarian. “The Liberal Club covered the spectrum from social democracy to laissez-faire liberalism,” McWhinney said. “It was, in effect, a liberal philosophical club, without party affiliation. It was a way of opening the membership up more widely.”

But if Wran had Labor sympathies, there were no signs of them. A week after his election to the committee of the Liberal Club, he participated in a Union Night debate on the proposal “that the return of the Labor Government is in the best interest of Australia.” Wran supported the case led by Ray Watson, the endorsed Liberal candidate for the federal seat of Werriwa, who subsequently became a Family Court judge. The Union Recorder reported:

Mr Wran (No) stated the difficulty of determining “what is Right and what is Left.” “Most reasonable people,” he said, “are in complete accord as far as social benefits, and so on, are concerned.” The main objection to the Labor government was that it was “imbued with the spirit of bureaucracy.” Power bred corruption and absolute power bred absolute corruption. “The present government is approaching this latter ‘stage.’” Finally, the Labor Party had outlived its usefulness as far as the working classes were concerned, while the employee was using the strike, not for his real benefit but to undermine lawful government.

Union Night debates came in two forms: those meant to entertain, in which speakers paraded their semantic skills, often by joking their way through topics; and serious debates on major issues, often with an outside speaker invited and participants generally expressing their own views. Wran’s comments were a striking, if partly coincidental, signpost to the future. This is not only for their irony, considering Wran forty years later was leading a government beset with allegations of corruption.

As a Labor leader, Wran would later stand out, particularly in the early years of government, for his attitude towards the bureaucracy. His administration saw only a minimal increase in the size of the NSW Public Service and several years where the numbers actually fell. While this had a good deal to do with the financial strictures imposed on the states by the Fraser Coalition government in Canberra, even when times improved in the latter years Wran was much less ready to expand his bureaucracy than, say, was John Cain, his counterpart in Victoria. He did match Cain in a large expansion of the government’s capital works program but it was private industry, through the increase in government contracts, which benefited directly from this initiative. Wran as premier also pioneered a tougher stand against trade union industrial action than most Labor leaders before him.

During 1946 and the first two terms of 1947, Wran had a weekly column in Honi Soit. Then, as now, Honi Soit on occasions stretched the limits of good taste and radical thought. Wran’s contribution was a gossip column – a collection of items, often trivial, sometimes witty, occasionally serious and regularly provocative. The Honi Soit column provided an insight into Wran’s interests, as well as those of the university as a whole. It usually was lively and fulfilled at least one of the requirements of a successful column – it provoked reactions. Until it settled down in its last year under the title of “Speak Easy,” with the drawing of a whisky bottle and a spilt glass or, alternatively, a well-soaked drinker, it had a different heading each week, sometimes adopting the undergraduate pretence of French or Latin, such as “De profundis ad te.” The first column, on 21 March 1946, headed “J’Accuse,” took to task fellow law students for “attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of a very wide awake Law School meeting last Monday.” Wran claimed their opposition to the appointment of a part-time dean of the faculty was the beginning of another campaign to make Julius Stone the dean. He received a sharp response from Hal Wootten (later a barrister and judge), one of those accused, for attempting to pull the wool over readers’ eyes: “it is a pity to see a person of Mr Wran’s qualities thinking he can refute, or even explain, anything by calling it a name. We will soon be able to write him off as the liberal who became a Liberal.” This was a week before Wran went on to the committee of the Liberal Club. His political predilections were becoming well known.

The column produced the first signs of the stands on principle which Wran would take as a lawyer and politician. In April 1946 he wrote, “Our local politicians have gone pure again, this time by tightening up on ‘obscene’ literature. Originating as a move to suppress divorce details, it has degenerated into an attempt to prohibit the ‘wicked spread of contraceptive information.’”

There were other matters of state on which he ventured forthright opinions. Of the McKell Labor government’s efforts to reform the liquor law, he wrote:

A word on Melba McKell’s Liquor (Amendment) Act. Now it took the Squire a trip abroad and many thousands of the Consolidated Revenue to get the ideas for this masterpiece. His “earnest” desire to raise us from the swill tub has netted this result. Not ONE restaurant has applied for a licence under the Act, which permits the sale of light wines and malted beverages, i.e. brewery beer, ’twixt 6 and 8.30 p.m! This provision imposes more severe restrictions than we’ve battled on with before. As for the other main provision of the Act, dealing with the transfer of pub licences, it’s just a joke for the benefit of the breweries. Indeed, the whole Act is a sorry reflection on the way in which McKell’s brewery interests have influenced his steps towards the emancipation of the grog-slogging masses.

Time changed Wran’s opinion of McKell. As premier, he delivered the inaugural William McKell Lecture in 1982 and described him as “one of the very greatest figures in the history of New South Wales, the history of the Australian Labor Party and the history of Australia.” Wran held McKell up as a political model, particularly because of his work in widening Labor’s electoral base to country areas.

His contemporaries recall he was never short of female company. His girlfriends included Ann Pitsch, a member of SUDS who came from a European migrant family, and Patricia McQueen, who later married Sir Anthony Mason of the High Court. Wran went to plays, films and art shows as well as lighter entertainment. Waterhouse, who described himself as being “the closest of buddies” with Wran at university, said the nickname of “playboy” he bestowed on Wran in his letter to Honi Soit was facetious. “We all thought we were. We used to go out and play the field. We both liked night clubs.” The places to go in Sydney in those days were Princes, Romanos, the Roosevelt, Sammy Lee’s, Christies and the Celebrity Club. There was usually a cabaret and Waterhouse recalled being able to get a meal for 12/6d [$1.25]. During and after the war, there were tight restrictions on liquor sales but also ready availability of black-market alcohol. The clubs were raided regularly by the police.

When Wran was twenty and still at university, he married Marcia Oliver, who came from a Bathurst family. She was strikingly good-looking and had worked briefly as a Tivoli showgirl in Sydney. She had obtained a divorce from her previous husband from the law firm at which Wran worked as an articled clerk. A few years older than Neville, she had a young son Glenn, whom Wran adopted.

Wran was a serious student and, like most of those who went through the law school during this period, including Lionel Murphy and Gough Whitlam, was influenced by Professor Julius Stone. McWhinney said of Stone:

He taught people to think about law and gave it a sense of social purpose. He introduced the idea of problem solving and social engineering. The law in those days was the worship of old precedents and the pursuit of the historical. Stone taught that law is a dynamic process, not a bed of dead ideas.

Wran graduated from Sydney University in June 1948 with an LLB and second class honours. He turned the degree into a passport for a secure future and a stepping stone to politics. •