Former NSW Liberal leader John Brogden. Photo: Brendan Esposito Then NSW opposition leader John Brogden resigns from the leadership in August 2005. Photo: Steven Siewert
John Brogden resigned after a scandal over a racist joke about Helena Carr and inappropriate behaviour towards two female journalists. Photo: Steven Siewert
John Brogden at the National Reform Summit on August 26, 2015. Photo: Louie Douvis
Opinion: The national emergency we cannot ignoreNational campaign needed to raise awareness about suicide
One night in July 2005, then state Liberal leader John Brogden went for a drink at the Hilton Hotel. He was feeling good, “euphoric” in his words, and understandably so.
Plausible, articulate and popular in the polls, Brogden had reinvigorated his party after 10 years in opposition. Labor was on the wane; long time leader Bob Carr had resigned only days before. Now, at just 36, Brogden was widely regarded as the premier-in-waiting.
“I was on a high that night,” he says, “and very uninhibited.”
Arriving at the Hilton, Brogden went upstairs, where the Australian Hotels Association was holding its mid-year drinks, before moving down to the Marble Bar, where he stood holding court, surrounded by journalists and staffers. “I was dominating the group, very much the alpha male.”
But six Corona beers later, Brogden went from alpha male to rogue male. He pinched the bottom of a female journalist, Justine Ferrari, and propositioned another. He then called Helena Carr, Bob Carr’s Malaysian-born wife, “a mail-order bride”, yelling that she should get “back on the boat”.
Brogden was a married man, a young father, and a squeaky clean Catholic. His comments were potentially career ending, and yet, standing at the bar, riding on adrenalin and high-octane hubris, he was oblivious to the risk.
“Nothing struck me on the night,” he says, “which probably says a lot about where my head was at.”
Brogden had never thought of himself as mentally ill. His family had no history of depression, no genetic trapdoors waiting to swallow him up. What he did have, though, was a childhood of domestic violence.
“Mum and dad divorced when I was 13, and mum had a guy come into our house who was a violent alcoholic.”
His stepfather would drink, “glugging a bottle of Johnnie Walker like you’d drink a bottle of Coke”, and go on rampages. “He was so controlling that he bricked up the gate to our next door neighbours, to keep us locked in.”
Brogden became angry, but rather than talk about it, he channelled it into ambition. He became school vice-captain, then president of the Young Liberals. At just 21, he ran unsuccessfully for preselection. (“A 21-year-old running for parliament is a f—ing joke,” then premier Nick Greiner remarked.) He tried again at 24, and lost that, too.
He was elected, on his third attempt, to the seat of Pittwater on Sydney’s northern beaches, becoming at 27 the youngest member of the NSW Legislative Assembly.
He had it all: the safe seat, a beautiful wife, the beachside home in Bilgola. And yet he was deeply unhappy.
“I always saw myself as being on an escalator. I’d go up and get off at the next level, then go up again and get off at a higher level, and so on. But I was never satisfied. I always had to work harder, because that’s how I pushed the pain away.”
By the time he took the leadership, in 2002, he was working 16 hours a day, six days a week, “spinning like a record”, he says, “around and around, faster and faster”.
His energy was irrepressible, his temper incandescent. “There was a lot of screaming and swearing and kicking of things,” Lance Northey, his then media adviser, says. “John could be absolutely manic.”
Then came the Hilton Hotel. Rumours had surfaced about his behaviour that night, but Brogden always denied them. Then, three weeks later, while campaigning in Macquarie Fields, Brogden got a call from Glenn Milne, at The Sunday Telegraph.
“He told me he was reporting it all in the next day’s paper,” Brogden says. “I completely panicked.”
The next day was a disaster: Brogden was depicted as a sleaze and a racist. Bob Carr went to town, describing his former opponent as a “featherweight mediocrity” who had “insulted every woman of Asian background”.
Brogden apologised, profusely and unconditionally. He went on radio and was ripped to shreds.
“I felt a deep shame,” he says. “Shame for my wife, Lucy, shame for the party, and anger at myself. I had got us so close and had no one to blame but me.”
The next morning he resigned from the leadership. “After the press conference I walked into the lift to go up to my office, but the doors took forever to close, and there were all these cameras staring at me, and I waved at them like an idiot, with this stupid grin on my face.”
When he got up to his office, he burst into tears.
The next day, Brogden woke to find the media camped outside his home. “Cameras, reporters, the whole scene.”
He had resigned the leadership but was still the member for Pittwater, and so he resolved to go back to work. “I remember [attorney-general] Philip Ruddock called me in my office, and Alexander Downer.” When he got home that night, his mother was there to lend support.
At 6.15pm, however, Northey called him. “Lance said he had got a call from The Daily Telegraph saying they were going to run all this stuff the next day, a whole series of other stories, most of which were untrue or completely twisted.”
It was the end. “The minute I took that call, I knew I had to kill myself.”
A strange calm overtook him. “I now had an answer. I knew how I could fix it all.”
He grabbed a carving knife and a bottle of gin and put them in a bag. He said goodbye to his wife and mother, telling them he had “some work to take care of”. He drove to Woolworths at Mona Vale and bought a garden hose, clippers and face masks.
On the way he rang a friend, who was a priest. “I wanted to give him my confession, but he said he couldn’t take it over the phone, that the Vatican hadn’t caught up with the 21st century.” Instead he gave it to the priest at the Sacred Heart Church across the road from Woolies.
“My plan was to go into the bush and gas myself,” he says. “But the media were following me, so I went to my office, locked the door, went upstairs and got into the shower. I drank the gin and started cutting my wrists.”
As he cut himself with the blunt knife he could hear the media, banging on the door downstairs.
As it happened, one of Brogden’s staffers was in a restaurant nearby, saw the commotion and called the police. “I remember the policeman coming in and grabbing the knife,” Brogden says. “I knew him – he was the local inspector.”
He was rushed to Royal North Shore Hospital and was promptly scheduled. (“They asked if I still wanted to harm myself, and I said ‘yes’.”)
Such was his shame that he couldn’t bring himself to look at Lucy. “I had wanted to kill myself, I hadn’t killed myself, and it hadn’t gone away.”
The next day he was transferred to Northside Clinic in Greenwich, where he was put on suicide watch.
The media were relentless. They staked out his home and the hospital; a journalist even tried to impersonate a family member in order to see him. Told to go away by the hospital staff, one of the reporters yelled, “Hey John, better luck next time.” He left a week later, smuggled out in the back of a friend’s station wagon with a blanket thrown over him.
There was no silver bullet, no magic cure. Brogden’s “re-entry”, as he calls it, was slow and painful, “one step forward, two steps back.” There was paranoia, agoraphobia.
“I just sat at home, too scared to leave the house.” But there were also moments of beauty. “One day, about three months after my suicide attempt, I was in Newport, buying a loaf of bread, when this guy stopped me. He physically grabbed me, because I still couldn’t look people in the eye. And he said, ‘John, it’s wonderful to see you!’ That was so important to me.”
Brogden was diagnosed with depression in early 2006 and has been on medication ever since.
“I still have my moments,” he says. “I hate going to Parliament House – that’s the dark side for me. I have to from time to time, for work, but I get in and out as quickly as possible.” And while his depression is still there, “it’s well managed. It’s like surviving cancer. It doesn’t dominate, and I don’t dwell, but it’s always there.”
Thanks to his profile, Brogden’s breakdown marked a turning point in the understanding of mental illness and reframed the discussion around depression.
“Experiences like mine show there is a way back,” he says. And yet suicide, he points out, still remains off-limits. “About 25,000 people have killed themselves since I tried. If 25,000 people had been killed in domestic violence or on the roads, we’d be doing something about it, and we’re not.”
The way we talk about suicide – the hushed tones, the oblique asides, the euphemisms – isn’t helping anyone, he says.
“One of my great revelations in the past 10 years is that most people think if you have a friend who is suicidal, you shouldn’t talk about it. But the reality is, you should. All the evidence is that you should bring it out, and ask that incredibly direct question, are you suicidal? We should never glorify suicide, but we have to bring it out.”
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