NSW Labor leader Luke Foley on how Orica's leak over Stockton had a hand in his career

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Originally published: Newcastle Herald online, 9 January 2015, 9.30pm

By Ian Kirkwood

It’s usually pretty easy to spot a politician at a beach.

They’ll be the ones – along with their entourages – in a suit and tie, although in Luke Foley’s case at Newcastle beach on Thursday afternoon, he had long before ditched the jacket and was quick to undoe the yellow tie and fold it into his pocket.

It was the end of a long day – his third as leader of the NSW opposition – and he’d been to Wyong, Hamilton, Maitland and Raymond Terrace in quick succession, meeting the media and supporters and spreading the message that Labor was determined to wrest back its heartland, and to give the Baird government a decent shake at the March election.

Luke Aquinas Foley is 44 years old and married to Edel McKenna, who he met as an Irish backpacker on holidays in Australia.

They have three children with very Irish names – Aoife, Niamh and Patrick – and live in the Concord area, just outside of the Auburn electorate Mr Foley must win at the March election to complete his transition from the Upper House, where he has been since June 2010.

Interestingly, Labor has a history of promoting leaders from the Legislative Council. In recent history, Neville Wran, Barry Unsworth and John Robertson all had to move from the upper house – the state version of the federal Senate – to take control of their parties.

Mr Foley’s ascension follows a well-worn Labor path. As he revealed in his first speech to Parliament, he joined the ALP at 18. Three years later he was state president of the National Union of Students and graduated from the University of NSW with an arts degree. 

Between 1992 and 1996 he worked for Senator Bruce Childs, a prominent left faction figure whose staff at the time included the now federal Deputy Opposition Leader,  Tanya Plibersek.

He was the ALP’s assistant state secretary – a top party machine job, traditionally held by the left faction – for seven years before the resignation of disgraced MLC Ian Macdonald in June 2010.

His rise through the ranks of the left have worried some who believe he will be too doctrinaire – former federal Labor leader turned columnist Mark Latham was urging him this week to switch factions – but Mr Foley says he understands the need for business to prosper.

In his first speech to Parliament he said:  ‘‘I do not want to do away with enterprise; far from it. I do not criticise those who generate wealth; we need these people.’’

But he does want ‘‘to see social justice for the marginalised’’ and he does want to ‘‘ eradicate the structural causes of poverty and inequality’’.

Recounting his parliamentary rise on Thursday, Mr Foley said it ‘‘all started with Stockton’’, a reference to the Orica leak of hexavalent chromium on Monday, August 8, 2011.

Then environment minister Robyn Parker made her first statement to Parliament on the unfolding controversy four days later, on the Thursday.

Mr Foley said he drove himself to Stockton the next day, the Friday, and saw the ‘‘guys in their chemical hazmat suits, cleaning the pre-school’’.

‘‘I went and called the TV crews ...  and said ‘come and get this’, and it was that footage that made it such a big story,’’ Mr Foley said.

 One thing led to another, and the story became ‘‘a full blown scandal, and people started to notice me’’.

With ICAC having ripped a hole in the Coalition’s representation and reputation in the Hunter, Labor is banking on winning back a number of seats lost in 2011.

Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp and Charlestown MP Jodie Harrison will recontest their seats along with Wallsend MP Sonia Hornery, and with Yasmin Catley, in Swansea, Melissa Cleary in Lake Macquarie, Jenny Aitchison in Maitland and Kate Washington in Port Stephens, the ALP’s Hunter roster is heavily weighted towards women.

On the mood of the voters, Mr Foley thinks  ‘‘both parties are tainted by corruption scandals’’.

‘‘The Labor Party has to learn from the Obeid/Macdonald chapter and I can say I was a resolute opponent of them inside the party and I never bent the knee to those characters.

‘‘The challenge is how to build a corruption-resistant political system.’’

His preference was for a system with ‘‘low caps on donations and expenditure’’ that would still ‘‘allow people in a democracy to give some money to the party or candidate of their choice’’.

On the Hunter Region, Mr Foley said its natural attractions meant it had the potential to be ‘‘the lifestle capital of NSW’’.

Like others before him, he observes the Hunter is ‘‘on a journey of renewing and diversifying itself’’ that began with the 1989 earthquake and the 1999 closure of the Newcastle steelworks.

‘‘My challenge to the Labor movement up here is that at the same time we are rightly proud of our history in the Hunter of struggle and union organisation, and lifting people from deprivation to comfort, we have to look to the future,’’ Mr Foley said. ‘‘And the future economic base of the region will increasingly be in the the services sector, in tourism and in the creative industries.’’

He recognises the ‘‘contribution that coal makes to our prosperity’’ but wants a stronger push on renewable energy, believing that battery technology being  pioneered in the region has the potential ‘‘to do to the power grid what emails have done to Australia Post’’.

As the Newcastle Herald reported on Friday, Labor under Mr Foley will go to the March election with the same ‘‘retain the rail line’’ policy it took to the Newcastle and Charlestown byelections.

‘‘I don’t think saying keep the rail line is enough ... there are legimitate questions about the connectivity across the corridor,’’ Mr Foley said.

Originally published as: NSW Labor leader Luke Foley on how Orica's leak over Stockton had a hand in his career