Neville Wran gave his public service chief Gerry Gleeson one clear order - don’t repeat the mistakes of the Whitlam government.
‘‘That was my mission statement,’’ says Gleeson, who headed the Department of Premier and Cabinet for ten years under the Wran government.
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Politicians from both sides offer their praise and share their experiences of working with former NSW premier Neville Wran.
‘‘We had to be a disciplined and well-managed government ... where leaks were not to be the order of the day. We expected ministers to conform and in the main they did.’’
Those who didn’t included the Minister for Corrective Services, Rex Jackson, who was forced to resign from Cabinet and sentenced to jail in 1987 for accepting a bribe to facilitate the early release of three prisoners from Broken Hill jail.
Apart from keeping Wran’s ministers and senior bureaucrats disciplined, Gleeson told Fairfax Media on Monday that he saw it as his job to keep Wran on a centre-right path in politics. As a barrister who had specialised in industrial law, Gleeson, says Wran, who rose from a working-class background to enjoy the trappings of success, remained committed to the interests of workers.
‘‘Neville’s heart was with the left and liberal ideas,’’ says Gleeson. ‘‘My job was that we kept him on a moderate centre-right path.’’
Dissatisfied with the Department of Premier and Cabinet that he inherited when he came to office in 1976, Wran was always sceptical of the public service.
‘‘He came to office believing that all of us were dyed in the wool supporters of the previous Liberal government,’’ Mr Gleeson said.
As a labour lawyer, Wran had appeared on behalf of the teacher union and butted heads with Gleeson when he was setting teacher salaries for a Liberal government.
‘‘He was sceptical of the public service until the day he left,’’ Gleeson said.
Gleeson, whose office adjoined that of Wran’s, said he saw more of the Premier than he did of his own family. Gleeson, who was nicknamed The Cardinal, as Wran’s omnipotent department head, became one of the most powerful public servants in NSW.
‘‘I had ten years with my room abutting his room, so we virtually lived together for quite a period,’’ he said.
But Wran’s most trusted asset in parliament was his deputy leader Jack Ferguson. Ferguson never coveted leadership and ‘‘Neville relied on him a lot,’’ says Gleeson.
‘‘Neville was a great leader and dominated the cabinet. He dominated that because, being a barrister, he always wanted the facts.
‘‘He was terribly demanding. He wanted to be the best.’’
And he recognised when the tide started turning. Gleeson remembers a Monday morning in 1984 when Wran told him it would be ‘‘bloody hard’’ to win government again in 1988.
‘‘That was the morning we decided to go ahead with the Darling Harbour redevelopment and the idea that NSW would lead Australia in the Bicentenary celebrations of 1988,’’ Mr Gleeson said.
But Nick Greiner won government for the Liberal Party in 1988 and a year later created the Independent Commission of Corruption, which led to his own resignation after it made a finding against him (later overturned in court).
Gleeson says he is ‘‘one of the few’’ who believe Greiner’s appointment of his former minister Terry Metherell to a statutory authority was improper, despite the Court of Appeal clearing him of corrupt conduct.
‘‘Neville Wran never once asked me to appoint someone to a position,’’ Gleeson says.
But Wran faced the Street Royal Commission in 1983 following claims, aired on the ABC’s Four Corners program, that he had tried to influence a magistrate, Murray Farquhar, over embezzlement charges against the rugby league boss Kevin Humphreys. The claims were not proven.
During the 1988 election campaign, Gleeson remembers Greiner carrying a sheet of paper listing what he claimed were the Wran government’s misdemeanours. One of Wran’s ministers, Laurie Brereton, had been accused of attempting to influence ALP aldermen on Botany Council in relation to the rezoning of land.
‘‘ICAC looked at that and gave a complete clearance to any allegation which Greiner had listed,’’ Mr Gleeson said.
‘‘That’s not to say we didn’t have problems.
‘‘We had a police commissioner Merv Wood who was dishonest. We demanded his resignation and we got it.
‘‘That is why we established a police board because we thought if we could at least ensure that the top brass in the police were honest, that would have its impact right down through the force.’’
Gleeson said he had a difficult time with Rex Jackson.
‘‘He repeatedly told us everything he did was lawful,’’ he said. ‘‘He eventually made a statement in the house which was untrue about the release of prisoners in Broken Hill.
‘‘Having read all files I was pretty certain this was untrue. We got the new police commissioner in and Neville demanded his resignation the next day.’’