John Fahey: A born leader bows out
On September 12, ACU’s Chancellor John Fahey took his final breath after a life spanning 75 years. Some months before his death, we spent a few hours with him in his home, where he spoke of reaching the highs of professional success, and plunging to the lows of personal tragedy.
As Fahey led the way into his living room, his wife Colleen could be heard pottering elsewhere in the house. In the hallway was a framed certificate from the Olympics in 2000, a subtle memento of his leading role in Sydney’s winning bid to host the event. Further along, a signed bat from Australian cricket legend Adam Gilchrist, a reminder of Fahey’s fondness for sport, and, of one other thing: that firm handshake came from the arm of an ex-politician, but also, an ex-sportsman.
In the 1960s, long before Fahey donned a tailored suit in NSW parliament as the state’s 38th premier, he took the field in the blue-and-white of the Canterbury Bulldogs. He was a long-time patron of the club and a one-eyed fan, and on September 12, when Fahey hung up his boots after a long battle with cancer, the Bulldogs were among the first to pay tribute.
“He was a man of honour and a great friend of not only the Bulldogs, but Australian sport in general,” said club chair Lynne Anderson. “He will be sadly missed, but forever a part of the Bulldogs family.”
There was a hint of romance in Fahey’s words when he recalled kicking the footy with his brothers on a sloping paddock near the family farmhouse. He could remember smelling the pork fat his mum would bring home from the butcher to condition the leather on his football. And he winced at the memory of being tackled on the rock-hard pitches of outer western Sydney.
“To keep the skin on our knees we coated them with petroleum jelly,” Fahey wrote in his 2010 Tom Brock Lecture, a 6000-word speech he penned in a London hotel room. “We would slip foam pads into the sides of our shorts to protect our hips. Is it any wonder my generation turned orthopaedic surgeons into wealthy men?”
But rugby league was not to blame for the worst of his physical ailments.
For the last two decades of his life, Fahey only had one working lung. He lost the other in 2001 after a cancer diagnosis that swiftly ended his 17-year political career and had doctors doubting he’d see out the year.
The chances of surviving metastatic lung cancer are slim-to-none. But Fahey successfully fended off the disease, like a front-rower evading a would-be tackler.
“I used to go to radiotherapy and it was like going into God’s little waiting room, with all the people in there waiting to die,” he said, fingers tapping on the dark wood dining table. “And I thought, ‘Why would you think that way? I don’t. I’m not ready to die. I’ve got things to do.’”
The surgery did take its toll on Fahey’s health, severely reducing his lung capacity. He lamented that his sporting days were long gone. And he found it hard to maintain the acre of land surrounding his home.
“I’m incapable of walking uphill without puffing, blowing and catching my breath,” he said. “But in the big scheme of things, I was given little or no chance of getting through to Christmas. And yet, 18 years on, here I am.”
Indeed, sidestepping lung cancer was no mean feat. But it wasn’t the toughest challenge he had to face. For Fahey, there was one scar that always ran deeper than any other.
A downward spiral
Boxing Day, 2006. The lives of John and Colleen Fahey were about to be plunged into a free-fall of misfortune.
Police arrived on their doorstep to deliver the news that Tiffany, the youngest of their three children, had been in an accident. She was discovered on the M5 motorway around 3am after her blue Ford Laser swerved and rolled, flinging her onto the roadside. The mother-of-two, aged 27, died on the scene.
Shell-shocked and numb, the Faheys were driven to the morgue to identify her. At Tiffany’s funeral in Camden later that week, Fahey choked back tears as he described his daughter as “a beautiful child with endless energy and enormous warmth”.
Tiffany’s life had spiralled out of control after starting boarding school at Kincoppal Rose Bay in 1992, when Fahey became premier. She turned to drugs and ultimately dropped out of school.
As a single mother in her early-20s, Tiffany struggled to cope and handed custody of Amber and Campbell to her parents in 2002, not long after Campbell was born.
“Insidious illegal substances clouded her judgement of the values she had,” Fahey said in the heartfelt eulogy, adding that his daughter “worshipped her children” and, perhaps most tragically, was on the way to rebuilding her life.
At the time of Tiffany’s death, the Fahey family was still coming to terms with the passing of John’s mother earlier that year. Their grief was compounded once more on New Year’s Day when Colleen’s mother died in hospital. As if to add insult to injury, the family dog passed away a week later.
“Looking back on the sadness that period cast on us all, we just had a miserable, miserable time,” Fahey said, recalling how the anguish of losing Tiffany ate away at him.
“I blamed myself for not being around more when she was younger. Does that mean I wasn’t a good father? No. I think I was. We were very close and I loved her dearly, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. But I dwell a lot on my failures and I guess I always will. Maybe that's just the dreadful Irish-Catholic guilt I have.”
Luck of the Irish
For the 52 years that John Fahey was married to Colleen, and right up until his death, he wore a Claddagh ring — a tribute to both their bond and his Irish heritage.
In the 1930s, Fahey’s mother and father were among those who fled Ireland for greener pastures. He was born in New Zealand and spent his first 10 years in Wellington worshipping the All-Blacks, as Kiwi boys tend to do. But his allegiances quickly shifted when the family crossed the ditch in 1955.
“I was lucky,” Fahey said. “Great place, New Zealand, but when Dad moved us to Australia, I got the best.”
For that he could thank his “Uncle Willie”, Monsignor William Fahey, the parish priest in Camden who convinced Fahey’s father to move the family to Sydney.
Msgr William was to have a great influence on the young Fahey, sizing him up for the priesthood. After graduating from boarding school at Bowral’s Chevalier College, Fahey spent a year in the seminary at Springwood.
“I was a reasonably pious sort of person and I always believed that if that seed was there, I had to nurture it and give it a chance to grow,” Fahey recalled.
“But towards the end of that year, I went to the rector and said: ‘I’ve sought some guidance, said my prayers and thought about it very seriously, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the priesthood’s not for me’. And the rector said: ‘Funny that, John. We’d come to the same conclusion.’ So I got out before I was sacked!”
He went on to study law and open a legal practice, but not before doing the hard yards as a law clerk on the measly sum of £6 a week.
“The pay was appalling,” said Fahey, so he continued playing rugby league, “one, because I liked it, and two, because I earned more playing football than for 40 hours in a legal office, and we needed the money.”
As both a Bulldog and a long-time Liberal, you could be forgiven for thinking that Fahey bled blue. But it wasn’t always so. His father, a labourer and farmer, was more inclined to vote Labor.
It was Fahey’s disenchantment with the Whitlam government that led him to join “the other mob” – the NSW Liberals – in the 1970s.
He was elected to parliament in 1984 and became premier in 1992. His challenger at the time, NSW Labor leader Bob Carr, noted in his diary that Fahey was seen as affable and down-to-earth: “… a beer-drinking, rugby-loving premier with a working class background”.
Fahey’s popular appeal was helped along by his iconic leap for joy in 1993 when Sydney was named as host of the 2000 Olympics, and for bravely foiling a potential attack on Prince Charles in 1994, when he crash-tackled a gun-wielding man who ran towards the visiting royal.
Fahey was widely tipped to defeat Carr and resume his role as premier, but alas, his time at the helm ended prematurely with the narrowest of losses at the 1995 election.
The following year, he made the switch to federal parliament, serving as finance minister in the Howard government. But that run was also cut short by his cancer diagnosis in 2001, much to the disappointment of his cabinet colleagues, including the then treasurer Peter Costello, who paid tribute to Fahey’s “sheer enthusiasm”.
“He’s been one of my best friends, a real cobber,” Costello said at the time. “He’ll be regarded as Australia’s best finance minister.”
‘A natural leader’
Cancer may have forced Fahey to exit the rough-and-tumble of federal politics, but it did nothing to curb his energy and enthusiasm for work.
He went on to serve in a string of high-profile leadership positions, including a six-year stint as president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, and his role as ACU’s Chancellor.
It’s a fair bet that Irish luck played no role in any of his leadership appointments.
It was no fluke, for example, that Fahey captained the First XI cricket team at Chevalier College, where he also served as prefect. It wasn’t luck that made him captain-coach of the Camden Rams at the ripe old age of 22. Nor was it an accident that he became premier.
This was a man who had what it takes to lead others.
“A natural leader,” said Australian Catholic University’s (ACU’s) Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Greg Craven in 2019. “Mr Fahey has given ACU the same dedication he has committed to public life … He has been instrumental in our success.”
Born to lead? Perhaps. But Fahey reckoned there was more to it than that.
“Some people will say leaders are born, but I’m not so sure that’s true,” he said. “I’ve been given opportunities to lead from an early age and I’ve always been willing to accept the challenge of leadership. I believe those given an opportunity to lead can grow into the job.”
He was grateful for those opportunities, and always found strength in his enduring Catholic faith — through both the highs and the lows.
“When you’re in the depths of despair to the extent that you’ve just lost your youngest daughter in a car accident, where you ask, ‘How am I ever going to move on from here?’ you do question your faith,” he said. “But I’m fortunate that I’ve never lost sight of it, and throughout life, whenever I’ve had challenges, I’ve always asked God to give me guidance and wisdom.”
A second chance
Tiffany’s heartbreaking Boxing Day accident robbed Amber and Campbell of their mother, but it also ensured that Fahey and his wife would be the ones to raise their grandchildren.
It was challenging at times. Parenthood always is. But he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“These kids have been a true joy. We love them and we’ve been very lucky to have them,” Fahey said.
And perhaps keeping busy made dealing with Tiffany’s absence a little easier.
“We’ll never get over it, but when you’re constantly thinking about the challenges of the moment, raising two children and working in demanding jobs, you have less time to dwell.”
Both Amber, 21, and Campbell, 19, moved away from Bowral to pursue tertiary study, and both appear to have their grandfather’s work ethic.
Meanwhile, Granddad continued to seek out professional challenges. In mid-2019, he took on a second term at ACU, a commitment to remain as Chancellor until at least 2024, during a period of great expansion for the university.
“I get a big kick out of it because we’re doing great things,” Fahey said. “The most exciting thing is going out into what I would describe otherwise as a tertiary wilderness, with the campus in Blacktown. If you look at our mission and values, western Sydney is where we should be, and I’ve got to make that one work. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll get there.”
For a man with only one lung, Fahey seemed to have plenty of breath left in him. He even held open the possibility of seeking out yet another professional challenge, beyond 2024.
“Never say no,” he said at the time. “If God’s willing to give me the intellectual capacity and sufficient energy and I believe I can make a difference, I’ll never rule out anything.”
Little did we know that this year would sadly be his last.
Fahey’s death prompted widespread mourning, as tributes flowed from friends and colleagues.
“John Fahey was our Chancellor, but also an Australian hero,” said Professor Craven. “He was greatly loved as Chancellor, and brought to office courage, wisdom and dignity. May he rest in peace.”