'I HAD TO GET OUT'
O’BRIEN SPILLS ON NATS EXIT
COAST MP Llew O’Brien says his stance against milking the public purse led to him being ostracised by his party.
STRADDLING his motorbike, riding north to a mate’s place at the base of Cape York Peninsula to muster cattle, Wide Bay MP Llew O’Brien was happy to be a nobody.
Days earlier he’d been desperately urging some of his Nationals colleagues not to milk the public purse for travel to a well-publicised love-in at Nagambie, Victoria, which coincided with the start of the Spring Racing Carnival.
“I have a strong sense of right and wrong,” the former forensic crash unit cop said.
“I know where my limits are psychologically.
“It made me feel good to pay for myself and ride in the opposite direction to where they were going.”
He had some wins in the Nagambie battle last November, but returning from his head-clearing trip north, he was left dismayed again.
Ostracised for his stance against the Nagambie trip, he learnt the plan was on to once again lean on the taxpayer for a trip to Melbourne, for a party-room meeting deliberately scheduled to coincide with the Nationals’ 100th anniversary dinner at a five-star Melbourne hotel in March.
“I spoke to people who should’ve been able to control these things, and they didn’t,” Mr O’Brien told the Daily.
That, coupled with other policy issues and the realisation his most significant acts in parliament had been atodds with the party’s position, crystallised in his mind the path forward.
Mr O’Brien said he realised he could no longer be in the room, that the people of Wide Bay hadn’t sent him to Canberra to wage internal battles.
“It’s (calling leadership spill) something that I took very, very seriously,” Mr O’Brien said.
The spill failed, and it became obvious to Mr O’Brien he had a fight on his hands to stop a rort of taxpayer dollars to fund the Centenary Event/ party-room meeting travel expenses.
He told Prime Minister Scott Morrison of his intention to leave the party but remain in the government.
“When I spoke to Scott (Morrison) … for the first time in quite some time it felt like I was talking to a leader who understood the gravity of what I was saying,” Mr O’Brien said.
An agreement was struck, Mr O’Brien could remain in the joint party room, but would no longer be a Nationals member. He was still Llew O’Brien, LNP.
Mr O’Brien said he walked into the now famous Question Time on Tuesday with no expectation of being in a vote for the position of Deputy Speaker.
He was told Victorian MP Damien Drum, Nationals Party whip, the man responsible for organising partyroom meetings, was going for the role of Deputy Speaker.
When he learnt Flynn MP Ken O’Dowd wouldn’t challenge Mr Drum, Mr O’Brien said he sounded out the crossbench, who he said were “enthusiastic” about him going for the position.
He advised colleagues in his party and expected a nomination from the LNP to follow.
“I had no dealings with the Labor Party,” Mr O’Brien said.
Sitting outside the chamber, awaiting his nomination,
Mr O’Brien said he was stunned when Labor MP Tony Burke put Mr O’Brien’s name forward.
“My mind did a very quick calculation,” he said.
“It wasn’t something I’d anticipated, but it didn’t change the intent, or whether it was right or wrong.
“In doing so (accepting the nomination) I know I made some of my colleagues unhappy,” he said, a challenge for the understatement of the decade.
“I felt it was the right thing to do, taking everything into account.”
After giving 15 years of his life to conservative politics, Mr O’Brien said he took no joy out of what he did, but it was something he felt he truly had to do.
“I’ve taken the path less travelled, and the path comes at a personal cost,” he said.
The cost wasn’t just personal.
Mr O’Brien gave up the added salary of chairing two committees and said he took about a 2 per cent pay cut to take on the Deputy Speaker role.
“There was no pay rise,” he said.
He said he was focused on his dual roles now, and the challenge to establish a Federal anti-corruption body.
But the man who left high school in Grade 9 to nurse his motor neurone disease-suffering mother until her death, who worked on farms and in factories, doing whatever he could to survive, isn’t one to shy away from challenges.
“I know what it’s like to work hard, earn a very modest income and have to pay tax, all while supporting a little family,” he said.
“They’re the experiences that drive my conscience.”
AWKWARD: Wide Bay MP Llew O'Brien (left) and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack at Sunshine Beach.