New Labor Party leader Luke Foley: How my single mum taught me ‘Labor values’

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Originally published: The Sunday Telegraph, 4 January 2015.

By Alicia Wood

Luke Foley — a devoted Catholic who quotes papal encyclicals in Parliament, a cricket tragic and a bullish Upper House questioner — might seem an unlikely candidate for the Labor leadership.

But as Mr Foley, 44, prepares to be elected unopposed as NSW Opposition leader tomorrow, those who know him best say he has been a natural leader his whole life.

A determined child with a photographic memory and obsessed with sport, he grew to be a high-achieving student who even in his first year of university “had a reputation” for being able to persuade people to his point of view.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Foley has detailed for the first time how his father left the family home in Sydney’s St Ives when he and his twin sister Bridget were just seven years old.

New NSW Labor Opposition Leader-elect Luke Foley (front right) finishing the 1980 City to Surf fun run at Bondi Beach as a youngster. Source: News Corp Australia

Their mother, Helen Foley, raised them by herself, and as Mr Foley is fond of saying, she instilled in him a triple faith in “the Labor Party, the Catholic Church and the Eastern Suburbs Rugby League Football Club”.

Helen Foley is suffering breast cancer, and will be at the forefront of her son’s mind when he heads to the SCG for the McGrath Foundation’s Pink Test next week.

His upbringing illuminates his genuine wrestling with the decision to run for the leadership, and why he has made a point of aligning himself with Labor’s “traditional values” and its “social conscience”.

It also goes some way to explain why he famously opposed gay marriage in the NSW parliament.

“I lacked a male role model for many years when I was young. I think it’s important kids grow up with a male role model,” Mr Foley told The Sunday Telegraph.

Between Mr Robertson’s resignation on December 23 and Mr Foley’s announcement of his candidacy last Sunday, he consulted Bridget, his mother Helen, and his Irish-born wife Edel McKenna about the impact it would have on his family, especially children Aoife, 8, Niamh, 6 and Patrick, 5.

“I’m not just a politician, I am a father and a husband,” he said.

McKenna and Foley met when she was backpacking in Australia, and married in Ireland in 2005.

His friend, Labor’s left assistant general secretary John Graham said that while many politicians use the line “consulting with family” before making a career decision, in Foley’s case it is actually true.

“Family is incredibly important to him. I think the impact on the family has weighed very heavily on him,” Graham said.

His best friend, Slater and Gordon Australia CEO Ken Fowlie, who first met him on the UNSW library lawn 25 years ago and still counts him as “one of the smartest blokes I know”, said he was worried that Foley would not run for leader.

“I think he wrestled with doing the right thing for the party, to which he has dedicated his life, and realising it would be an enormous potential burden on his family,” Fowlie said.

“Ultimately family is the most important institution to which he has committed his life. He spent a long time getting in place Edel becoming his wife. They had their fair share of challenges — the tyranny of distance, but also our immigration system.”

By the time he was in high school, Foley had already decided he wanted to join the Labor Party. His mother told him she preferred he would wait until he finished school — so at 17, fresh out of the classroom, he signed up.

“Mum taught me my Labor values. When you grow up you absorb the values of those who raise you, in my case, that was my mum,” Foley said.

He and his sister, who is now a Professor of Media at Macquarie University, were the first to go to university in their family.

“The only leg up I got in life was the chance to go to University, because the Whitlam government abolished fees,” Foley said.

“That was a great boost, but apart from that I think I’ve got to where I am purely through hard work.”

He worked as a telemarketer for Guide Dogs Australia while studying a Bachelor of Arts at UNSW, worked for the Australian Services Union, and as the Assistant General Secretary of the party.

Former deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who once shared a Marrickville share-house with Foley for four months, has spent a lot time convincing him to have a crack.

“Luke didn’t go into Parliament to be leader. He doesn’t have that predetermined sense of destiny, and that is because he doesn’t come from a privileged background himself. He has got where he is on his own merit — including this,” Albanese said.

“His only failing, his major failing, it that he is an Easts supporter. It is quite sad.”

Originally published as: New Labor Party leader Luke Foley: How my single mum taught me ‘Labor values’