How my ministerial career was destroyed
IF NSW Labor MP Matt Brown keeps a perverse Mr Hyde buried deep in his psyche, then his borderline-nerd Dr Jekyll has kept the monster tightly wrapped for the past year.
It seems incongruous such an earnestly decent bloke achieved notoriety for the grossly bizarre accusation of stripping to his underpants to ``titty-f..k’’ an older female colleague, calling on the woman’s adult daughter to watch during a drunken party in his parliamentary office.
In the aftermath, Brown stepped down as Police Minister after a record-setting three days. In the year he’s had to reflect on perhaps the biggest party he ever hosted, Brown has only one regret: that he ever invited colleagues back to his office for a drink.
The member for Kiama, south of Wollongong, says it is also the only act he apologised for and his only admission of bad judgment.
``How did it happen?’’ Brown pondered this week in his first interview to discuss the consequences of his post-Budget office party in June last year.
``Well, it was obviously politically motivated. I have not admitted to any allegations, other than having a gathering in my room,’’ he says, agreeing his drink of choice on the night was probably red wine from his electorate, which he likes to promote.
``That (what I was drinking) was the least of my worries,’’ he mused.
Brown refuses to speculate on the source of the allegations, aside from recognising similarities to the political destruction of former Liberal leader John Brogden, suggesting the ``allegations came from the same people’‘.
``But why did it take three-and-a-half months for them to surface?’’ he asks. ``I had heard some of these allegations around the traps. Rumours have a way of gathering momentum as bits are added on.’‘
Now he prefers to focus on why he remained in Parliament, overcoming an initial desire to walk away from politics to return to law or business.
``I resigned as a minister to minimise negative impact on the new government and the new premier. Whether right or wrong is irrelevant. If I had my time again I probably would handle the situation differently. I was emotionally exhausted we had changed the premier, changed the government, I had a new portfolio which I was working very hard to get my head around, my chief-of-staff was fighting breast cancer.’‘
For a week he hunkered down, watching movies with his son Isaac, then 11, easing up on homework enforcement, and indulging in more red wine.
``I’m a social drinker, but I drank a bit more after the events of September than I did before,’’ Brown admits. ``Then I sought counselling and weaned myself off it. I got through with the love and support of family and friends, firstly, then the love and support of my constituency.’‘
He keeps evidence of that support in a folder of hundreds of emails, letters and written records of phone calls from political supporters, acquaintances and strangers.
``It was overwhelming,’’ he says. ``Most were supportive, saying don’t let the bastards win, stay in there.’’ Some suggested a Rudd effect, after the New York strip club revelations, where being seen to let his hair down could enhance his image by ``adding a human element’‘, while emails from local ALP branches promised support.
``I was elected to do a job,’’ says Brown, who was 27 when he entered Parliament in 1999. ``I gave them, my constituents, my undertaking. I wasn’t about to spit the dummy something bad has happened, I’m not getting my own way so I’m going to pick up my bat and go home.’‘
Brown’s mother, a geriatric nurse, his sister, son Isaac and his sister’s daughter, Ruby, 3, form Brown’s core support base. Brown’s father, a science teacher, moved to a macadamia farm on the mid-north coast while Brown was a child. Isaac’s mother still runs a Mexican restaurant she and Brown once owned together.
Much of Brown’s seventh year was spent in Prince Henry Hospital, undergoing open-heart surgery to correct a congenital defect.
``I was always very sick,’’ he says. ``My mother and grandmother knew something was wrong, I couldn’t run, I didn’t want to eat.’’ A visiting mobile school doctor detected his heart problem.
Brown credits treatment at Prince Henry and the support of teachers at Kiama Public School for his commitment to public health and education, although his appreciation of business means colleagues place him on the ALP right, a label Brown considers artificial.
A former Kiama High School captain, active surf life-saver, Lions Club member and an ALP member since his undergraduate days studying law and mathematics at the University of Wollongong, Brown blames last year’s attack on jealousy.
``Jealousy is an emotion I have had to deal with a lot in my life. People are jealous of me,’’ he says, people ``who want to spend their lives being destructive rather than constructive. It is an ugly side of society and politics attracts those sorts of people. I had never felt the force of it until that time.’‘
Depression was another after-effect of September 2008.
``It took a long time to get over it, I used nearly every ounce of my personal resolve,’’ he says. ``I’m normally quite manic and enthusiastic, not usually depressive.’‘
Once he ventured out again, Brown was pleased people didn’t raise the issue.
``People didn’t bring it up, only Sydney journalists,’’ he says. ``And a couple of local journalists. It hasn’t resurfaced, luckily.’‘
Brown also admires his fellow Illawarra politician Noreen Hay, the woman at the centre of the rumours.
``Noreen and I were not close until this,’’ he says. ``I had worked with her professionally. But she saw the injustice and was tough enough to speak out against it. It shows the mettle of the lady. It was pretty ugly and became more absurd as the story kept going. It does scare you. Someone has backgrounded a journalist with an absurd story to damage me and the government. It was very scary, very prolonged. You don’t know where it’s coming from.’‘
Confident of local ALP support, Brown will contest the next election but is not yet pushing for a ministry.
``I’m not one to rule anything out,’’ he says, adding that he feels he still has plenty to contribute to public life.
``I also loved being in business and being in law, I love the challenges of life. Sometimes I get rewards from those risks,’’ he says, ``and sometimes I get a slap in the face.’’
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