‘Spreading bread’ kept Neville Wran on top

Two premiers in conversation ... Neville Wran and Bob Carr reminisce in state Parliament in 2005.
Two premiers in conversation ... Neville Wran and Bob Carr reminisce in state Parliament in 2005.

NEVILLE Wran gave a lot away in a talk when I was stumbling in my first years as premier.

We stood in the sun to witness harbourside land being handed over for a public park, one of his pet enthusiasms.

He looked at the crowd and gave me advice: “They’re all happy ... that’s the secret. Just give them what they want — it’s easy”.

Later, he said: “Think about that day. Sure, they’re never satisfied, but who cares? Forget the budget, just spread bread on the waters”.

“Spread bread” was pure Neville Wran, the former NSW premier who died at the weekend.

I admired him most in the toughest phase of his dazzling career, after his 1984 re-election.

It was his fourth and what he called “the sweetest ever” — when the climate soured and mere pub gossip got aired as allegation.

I loved his striding performances in the Legislative Assembly when he forensically shredded the mad notion that something called The Age Tapes hovered above him.

As he fought back, I thought of Billy Joel’s 1985 song You’re Only Human.

To us, he was the figure in the song, “the boxer in a title fight” who had to walk into the ring all alone.

We knew he had made mistakes, but who else could pull a primary vote of 57 per cent?

One approach to Labor’s challenges is to tinker with structure — a bit more for the branches here, a bit less for the unions there.

There is a different approach — to focus not on structure but ethos and leadership.

The ALP is improvised and cobbled together.

What animates and unites any ramshackle old party is clever, crafty leadership, winning speeches and punchy one-liners to lift its spirits and direct scorn at its opponents.

Wran, of course, exemplifies the leadership principle: making it up as you go along if it’s done with flair and intelligence.

His distinctiveness owed a lot to the working-class, 1940s, inner-city world.

I once heard him refer to old-fashioned opponents in the Cabinet as the “plug uglies”.

When I told him that he’d need his hiking shoes for an inspection we were making of Kosciuszko, he said: “Well, what did you expect me to take? My dancing pumps?”

When he stepped down in 1986, he said his proudest achievement was beating the Liberals.

This was perverse modesty.

Later, he volunteered his greatest achievement was saving the rainforests of northern NSW, which married Labor politics to nature conservation and produced a rich inheritance for future generations.

If he put votes before economics — “just give them what they want” — there were no financial catastrophes and his spending was the most cautious of any state.

Return always to the basics.

Once he told me: “You’ve got to think of the bloke who makes $400 a week. His wife’s got a lump on her breast.

“His fibro house at Liverpool is missing a panel. He has a drink going home, she’s locked his dinner back in the oven.

“He doesn’t care what’s happening in the Upper House, what scandal’s happening... he’s concerned about his job, her health.”

Bob Carr is a former NSW premier