Meet Luke Foley: Labor's reluctant leader

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Originally published: Sydney Morning Herald, 10 January 2015.

By Sean Nicholls

Early last Wednesday morning, Luke Foley hit the footpaths of suburban Auburn, meeting residents of one of Sydney's most culturally diverse communities in the rapidly rising western suburbs heat.

By day's end he was rubbing shoulders with the city's elite in the air-conditioned comfort of the members' enclosure at the Sydney Cricket Ground, nestled in the affluent eastern suburbs.

Among those keen to congratulate the newly appointed NSW Labor Party leader were his friends, former National Australia Bank chief executive Cameron Clyne and John McCarthy, Australia's Ambassador to the Holy See.

 

"He brings Pope Francis's best wishes to my leadership," Foley jokes of McCarthy as he strolls around the SCG in a vain attempt, given the number of people congratulating him, to snatch a few hours watching Australia put India to the sword on day two of the Sydney Test.

Such is the breadth of experience for NSW's new opposition leader, fewer than three days into the job.

In reality, Foley's appearance in the members' has little to do with his new status.

A cricket tragic, he has been an SCG member since 1991-92, after his mother, Helen, put his name on the waiting list when he was a child.

He has tried to attend all five days of the Sydney Test ever since that January in 1992, when he saw Shane Warne take his first Test wicket – that of current Indian team manager Ravi Shastri.

A day with the members is just part of who he has long been.

A day in suburban Auburn, it could be argued, is a comparatively new experience.

Foley, 44, his wife Edel and their children Aoife, 8, Niamh, 6, and Patrick, 5, live in Concord West, half a kilometre outside the boundary of the Auburn electorate.

Until now he has had little need to immerse himself in the neighbouring community, enjoying as he has a comfortable seat in the NSW Legislative Council, where members do not directly represent electorates.

That is about to change, after Foley  was preselected on Thursday as  Labor's candidate for Auburn at the March 28 election, so he can   move to the lower house.

From now until polling day, Foley will need to devote a large chunk of his time to getting to know the people he hopes will make it happen.

After effectively having the decks cleared for him by ALP head office, he also needs to counter the impression Auburn is nothing more than a port of convenience for the new party leader and the Labor machine.

Fortunately for Foley, Auburn is a relatively safe Labor seat, because doing so would otherwise be quite an ask, given the pressure already building on him less than three months from polling day.

It's all a far cry from how Foley envisaged his summer break only a couple of weeks ago.

"I was looking forward to a Christmas break and then John [Robertson] unexpectedly resigned two days prior to Christmas," Foley says.

"That threw everything into a state of flux."

Soon after Robertson quit as opposition leader – after it emerged he signed a letter of request for Lindt siege gunman Man Haron Monis as his local MP in 2011 – many eyes turned to Foley.

Would he finally succumb to two years of urging from his colleagues, who hoped he would take the leadership at some stage?

Foley says his immediate reaction was to feel "both sorry for John and immediately apprehensive that the party would turn to me".

"Before December 23 all of the approaches were in the realm of the hypothetical," he says.

"When John resigned suddenly it wasn't hypothetical any more. It was very real, it was immediately real. And I knew I had a decision to make."

Apprehensive. It's not a descriptor you would expect from a career politician effectively being handed the leadership of the NSW Labor Party on a plate, thanks to the strong support – many would say intervention – of ALP officials in Sussex Street.

But Foley insists he has never coveted the leadership. Yes, he has "given it some thought", but says he has long seen himself in something of a consigliore role, serving as an adviser at the right hand of the leader.

"I was happy to be an important figure but a step out of the limelight," he says, much in the style of the man to whom he is closest in politics, the respected retiring ALP Senator John Faulkner.

"I just never thought [leadership] was me".

This will come as an incongruous statement to anyone who has observed Foley at close quarters in his first few days as leader.

He exuded confidence at his inaugural news conference and ever since has carried a remarkable lightness of being.

"A wise man taught me the importance of flicking the switch to vaudeville when the time comes," Foley jokes.

"Now that I'm doing it, it's no holds barred. I'm out there. I know what it involves – living my life in the full public glare. And I will give it my all."

The line, "flick the switch to Vaudeville" was of course famously uttered by former prime minister Paul Keating, who said it was required from leaders "every now and then".

Keating, along with former prime minister Bob Hawke and the late former NSW premier Neville Wran, are three men Foley mentions as leadership role models.

This is because they "brought a breadth to Labor's agenda". Indeed, at that first news conference, Foley raised a few eyebrows when he announced he was "not an ideologue" when it came to privatisation of state assets.

He says it was a deliberate statement as part of an outline of his personal vision and values.

"I don't want to run simply a narrow industrial agenda," he says.

"I want to run a broad Labor agenda that talks about social policy, that talks about the environment, that talks about the arts and culture and that relates to business, supports private sector activity, with all of it underpinned by Labor values, in particular a compassionate heart."

The privatisation statement will also be read, at least in part, as an attempt to deflect a label the Coalition government is already applying to Foley: just another union hack.

Foley spent seven years as an organiser and then secretary of the Australian Services Union.

This, and his subsequent role as assistant secretary of the NSW Labor Party, have been used to frame him as a party drone bereft of life experience beyond politics.

In contrast, Premier Mike Baird spent many years in investment banking before entering Parliament.

Foley rejects this as "a tired old refrain from the Liberals".

"I'm very proud of the years I spent representing community workers," he says.

"This is a workforce that is the lowest paid in the country. An 80 per cent female workforce in disability services, refuges, drug and alcohol rehab. These people work with the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised.

"I think it's a strange old world when working with people in the welfare sector is marked down as not real-life experience but working for a merchant bank is."

This is about as close as Foley has come to a chip at his new opponent, Baird – for the time being, at least.

 "I respect him," Foley says. "I have no dislike for Mike whatsoever. We've never exchanged a cross word – that will change. I'm determined that this will be an election contest about ideas without ever being personal."

Foley is under no illusion about the scale of the job ahead, with fewer than 11 weeks before polling day and the task of convincing voters to dump a first-term government with a 68-seat majority in a 93-seat Parliament.

Like every leader before him he will not countenance defeat: "No team ever runs on to the sporting field aiming to lose. I have to aim to win."

But he acknowledges it's "a huge mountain to climb and I don't underestimate the scale of the task".

"But I enter the campaign with the good wishes of the entire Labor movement and I will proudly lead them into this contest."

Originally published as: Meet Luke Foley: Labor's reluctant leader