Praise for Neville Wran appears universal, from all factions and both sides of politics. The well-chronicled achievements were indeed immense. Mind you, so too were those of Sir Robert Askin when he died and was given a State funeral.
At a time when the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption is under attack, when what is acceptable behaviour in politics and business is evolving, it would be wrong amidst the praise of Wran to overlook what he did not do, a sin of omission that would no longer be acceptable: clean up a notoriously corrupt state.
At best, Wran was blind to the blatant organised crime and corruption that characterised Sydney during his time in politics. It is most unlikely anyone as intelligent as Wran could be that blind. Those close to him will swear that Wran was not himself corrupt and he was not found to be. So somewhere in between the possibilities of blindness and corruption there remains the suspicion that he was merely soft on corruption and organised crime, that permanently closing illegal casinos and cleaning up a rotten police force weren’t high on his list of priorities.
When the copious eulogies fade, Wran’s leadership may be seen as a step in the evolution of government - the middle path of a politician not prepared to make powerful and ruthless enemies by pushing too hard against them when the electorate itself didn’t seem to mind.
In Askin’s time it was apparently acceptable for the Premier to be corrupt – for the bags of money to be an open secret, for knighthoods to be sold, to become conspicuously wealthy in office.
Wran’s decade was an improvement in that the Premier was not himself corrupt, but was not held accountable for the corruption around him. Incredible as it might seem with the sensibilities of 2014, it wasn’t demanded of a Premier three and four decades ago that he cleanse a crooked system.
The clean-up started near the end of Wran’s term, partly thanks to some courageous investigative journalism by Fairfax Media in combination with a great deal of Federal impetus that included federal police phone taps, both authorised and not authorised. The taps came to be known as the Age Tapes. Despite all that made Sydney the nation’s Sin City, Wran made the telling statement: ''The biggest organised crime that has been committed in Australia this decade was wholesale, unlawful, illegal, criminal phone-tapping by police.''
The election of Nick Greiner marked another step forward: a Premier who was actively anti-corruption, who established the ICAC. The electorate no longer wanted a government that was soft on organised crime. Yet it still took an independent MP, John Hatton, to force the minority Fahey government in 1994 to set up the Wood Royal Commission into police corruption.
And now we’re moving on again, continuing to evolve in what we might regard as acceptable behaviour. The current and recent ICAC investigations have broken open the political process to the disinfecting power of sunlight, laying bare the jobs for mates, the mates for jobs, the influence peddlers and buyers, the grubby favours and deals. From the outright stench of the Obeid and MacDonald relationship to the lingering odour of the lobbying by and business plans of Sinodinos and Di Girolamo, the ICAC hearings should mean NSW politics will not be the same. Gift horses will indeed be looked in the mouth. The career paths of politicians, machine men and lobbyists should become delineated.
We’ve come a very long way from the time of Premiers Askin and Wran. Many citizens have forgotten or weren’t living here or were too young to appreciate just how crooked NSW was all those decades ago. The symptoms of corruption – most obviously, the numerous illegal casinos – were not even hidden. Thanks to legal federal police wiretapping, Wran’s Corrective Services Minister, problem gambler Rex Jackson, eventually was jailed for selling get-out-of-jail cards, but despite having the evidence, the government had to be pushed and prodded into action by Fairfax journalism.
Wran admirer and Labor historian, Rodney Cavalier, has seen Wran not deserting Jackson as positive example of his character: “On the presumption of innocence, for example, he (Wran) was fundamentalist. He stood by Lionel Murphy without flinching. He insisted on Rex Jackson's right to a trial; that meant Rex could and did win Labor preselection for his seat, then the following state election.”
Given what was known about Jackson, that now seems incredible. The gift of a $3,000 bottle of wine – if such a thing had existed back then – would not have broken the surface, let alone caused a ripple.
Former Fairfax investigative journalist Evan Whitton has recorded much of the corruption of those years, how it was only after being Premier for 19 months that Wran moved to shut down the thriving illegal casino industry. It proved a sporadic and short-lived effort with reportedly more casinos operating in 1985 than there were in Askin’s day.
Whitton has written that 1985 was something of a turning point for the hitherto unequal contest between crime and justice in NSW:
That somewhat devalued statesman, J. Malcolm Fraser, is entitled to a share of the credit: he improved the Federal Police, and initiated the Costigan Commission, the National Crime Authority and the system of Special Prosecutors that led, in the Hawke period, to the Office of Director of Public Prosecutions.
Federal authorities thus supplied much of the initial impact in New South Wales in 1985:
- Vast quantities of Federal phone taps, obtained in the pursuit of drug-traffickers and handed over to local police, precipitated the biggest clean-up of corrupt police in NSW history.
- The National Crime Authority (NCA), a joint Federal-State exercise, recorded a number of significant arrests, and made a continuing impression on organised crime in New South Wales in 1986.
- The establishment of the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) by the Hawke Government was seen as the greatest advance in administration of criminal justice since 1901: it removed from Federal politicians the power not to prosecute.
- The fact that the DPP was prepared to prosecute a judge, and the federal tap that resulted in the prosecution of a former NSW Cabinet Minister, should have salutary effects on the judiciary and politicians.
- Federal authorities recovered some hundreds of millions of dollars from bottom-of-the-harbour and other tax frauds.
There were also encouraging NSW local initiatives:
- The Police Department's Internal Security Unit (ISU) was targeting up to 100 corrupt police, according to one officer.
- The Police Board is reported to have plans to break the power of a traditionally corrupt enclave within the Criminal Investigation Branch.
- The Government has set up a Drug Law Enforcement Bureau, a Drug Crime Commission, and has brought down legislation to close supposed loopholes that allowed 187 illegal casinos to operate in Sydney.
- A former chief stipendiary magistrate was imprisoned after having been found guilty of attempting to pervert the course of justice.
There were earlier inquiries and commissions. (Notably the Lusher Royal Commission into police administration was not charged with pursuing police corruption, but managed to land a few blows anyway.) But the attitude of the Wran government tended to be that reports of corruption were a political embarrassment, rather than signs of an urgent and serious problem that demanded immediate and genuine action.
That it could be so, that Neville Wran could be such a successful and popular politician in such a climate, now seems a mystery.
The evolution has been far from easy. The birth of a decently empowered ICAC was itself a close run thing, according to Bruce Hawker who was chief of staff for the then-opposition leader, Bob Carr, in 1989 when Attorney-General John Dowd and Greiner’s corruption chaser, Gary Sturgess, were proposing its creation. Writes Hawker:
“With Labor now in opposition and on the back foot over some of the things that had happened in its 13 years in office, ICAC was seen by many in the party as a vehicle for the Greiner government to mount an ongoing attack on Labor identities. It would, they said, be a standing royal commission into Labor..
“I can still recall the delegations of MPs and former ministers coming into the Opposition offices in Parliament House to pressure Carr into pulling ICAC's fangs. It came to a head at the National ALP Conference in Hobart when senior figures, mainly from the right, told him what he must do. To his eternal credit, Carr stood up to them all and said he would not block a piece of legislation for which Greiner had a clear mandate – the Liberals had campaigned strongly on it in the 1988 NSW state election.”
It’s still hard, with the ICAC under attack, as Queensland renames and “refocuses” (alias curtails) its Crime and Misconduct Commission, as Victoria’s quaintly-named Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission itself admits it’s toothless and the Federal Government of either colour refuses to even consider allowing such a body.
We have come a long way. The conservatives hacks who would like to end the evolution, to reverse it by limiting the sunlight being shone on politics, threaten to do the state a great disservice. Before taking a backward step, remember what the place was like and wonder how it was tolerated by the man being held up as a political hero of so many.
Michael Pascoe is a BusinessDay contributing editor