JOHN FAHEY: 1945 - 2020
Former NSW premier John Fahey's role in winning the Olympics for Sydney will remain his greatest legacy but in almost three years in the job, he also delivered significant reforms and new infrastructure that still serves the state today.
John Joseph Fahey was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1945 to Stephen and Annie, Irish immigrants who left their native Galway in search of a better life. They were devout Catholics. John would later credit them for instilling in him the virtues of compassion and respect for others that he displayed throughout his life.
The Fahey family migrated to NSW in 1956, settling in Picton. John was educated at Chevalier College in Bowral and later studied law through the Solicitors Admission Board.
In Colleen he found his partner in love and life and they married in 1968.
Central to John’s life were family, faith and football. He was a Canterbury-Bankstown man through and through: he played reserve grade for the club and had a few first-grade run-ons. He later served as club patron. Colleen always said he had a magnificent sidestep, prompting a famous cartoon of him palming off an opponent on the field with his rosary beads laced through his fingers.
He was born, lived and died with a strong and unshakable faith. He carried his rosary beads with him at all times. His uncle was his parish priest. He served a year in the seminary studying for the priesthood in 1963. He later told the story that he knew he wasn’t destined for such a vocation when, during a week of solitude (and against the rules), he was listening to his transistor, he heard the news that JFK had been assassinated but couldn’t break his vow of silence to tell anyone.
He was articled to a small suburban law firm before moving to Marsdens to open the Camden office. He later went out on his own as John Fahey Searle and Co, which flourished in the growing Macarthur region. The firm folded into Marsdens when he was elected to Parliament. Jim Marsden remained a friend for life.
He was immensely proud of being a solicitor and maintained practising as NSW premier. It taught him an attention for detail that later was the dread of public servants who were not over their brief. He initialled every page he read. But he saw the human side of the law and how it helped and hurt people – an experience that followed him into politics.
His achievements were born of hard work and merit, and his practice as a country solicitor lent him a deep commitment to fairness and justice, which he brought into the NSW Parliament as the member for Camden in 1984. He subsequently contested and won the seat of Southern Highlands in 1988, and he entered the ministry with the election of the Greiner government.
As the Irish Catholic working-class son of a coal miner, he wasn’t the typical Liberal Party member. He was one of tens of thousands of people who joined the party in protest against Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam’s economic policies.
As industrial relations and employment minister, Fahey steered through vital workplace reforms which reshaped the state economy and helped small business to grow and flourish.
His work ethic was legendary. The lights burned in his office until the early hours of the morning as he worked through his briefs with a cigarette and a cup of black coffee ever present.
For many, it is his role in winning the Olympics for Sydney which remains his greatest legacy. The image of Fahey, jumping with joy as the announcement was made of Sydney’s winning bid is now part of the pantheon of images that tell the story of the best ever Olympics.
Fahey was a man of courage. He won the admiration of the public for his bravery when he leapt to disarm a protester who threatened Prince Charles with a gun on Australia Day in Sydney in 1994.
Genuine and loyal, John was deeply saddened by the resignation of Nick Greiner, but prevailed over a crowded field to become NSW premier. In his almost three years in the job, he delivered significant reforms and new infrastructure that still serves the state today.
Part of his success was surely due to his open-hearted and generous nature. He was quick to have a yarn over a drink and a smoke, often late into the night. He was always up for a chat, was genuinely interested in the lives of others and was willing to work through the differences of opinion with honesty and respect.
He wanted to be a premier for everyone. A moderate in many of his views, within Liberal circles he remains admired for his ability to unite the party and to reach out to those outside.
He was a reforming premier, introducing the Disability Services Act, privatising the State Bank of NSW, introducing the NSW Seniors Card and appointing the first NSW minister for the status of women, Kerry Chikarovski.
He took the loss of the 1995 election hard and felt he’d let the team down.
He was encouraged to enter federal Parliament by his colleagues, state and federal, and with Colleen’s backing, he won the electorate of Macarthur at the 1996 election. He was immediately elevated into cabinet, serving as finance minister. As former prime minister John Howard has acknowledged, Fahey brought immense experience from his time in state politics and worked tirelessly with treasurer Peter Costello to bring the federal budget back into balance.
He had a photographic memory, startling more than one public servant by asking about a point on page 152 of a particular brief, and then reciting it in detail, from memory.
His liberalism embraced the big ideas together with an eye for detail and an unswerving commitment to good faith, calm and respectful consultations with all sides.
John described his liberalism as “hard head, soft heart”.
It was the kind that combined reward for effort with compassion for those who fell through the cracks.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian spoke for many when she paid tribute to John Fahey as a wonderful role model to generations of Liberals.
Those who benefited from John’s friendship and guidance include Liberals such as Joe Hockey, Marise Payne, John Brogden and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. He inspired loyalty and his patience, kindness and above all, his willingness to chat with everyone created an army of people willing to go the extra mile. More than one staff member despaired of his schedule as he genially derailed meetings with questions about rugby, family and life in general. It was a mark of the man that his interest was as deep and genuine in the humblest worker as the most senior person in the room.
His fear of flying was legendary, and many former staff and colleagues have anecdotes about John breaking into cold sweats within five kilometres of any airport and of rosary beads and short acts of contrition mid-flight.
In his valedictory from the federal Parliament, he said wanted to continue to give back to the community.
His contribution was immense.
John served as a director of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, chairman of the Rugby League Development Board and as chairman of the Sydney Olympic Park Authority. In the spirit of helping those fallen into hard times, he helped run Men of League, a charity that looks after ex-league players and their families who found themselves in need of care and assistance. In 2007, John became chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, where he focused on increasing and enhancing drug testing in sport around the world.
His life was touched by tragedy and illness. Twenty years ago he lost a lung to cancer, but overcame the disease to live with one lung, short of breath but long on determination to use his remaining time to serve the community. He and Colleen were devastated by the tragic death of their daughter Tiffany in 2006, and together they raised Tiffany’s two children.
He is survived by Colleen, children Matthew and Melanie, and grandchildren Amber and Campbell.
Article was written by NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean, former NSW Liberals' leader John Brogden and former Fahey adviser Matthew Hingerty for the Sydney Morning Herald.