Former cop haunted by the deaths of people on our roads
THE dead still visit him in his sleep. It's been years since he's worn the uniform but here they are again, dragging him back to the horror.
The howls of excruciating pain. Wailing sirens. Desperate screams for help. Blood paints the windscreen.
It is one thing for a police road crash investigator to be tortured by a catalogue of victims snuffed out by mangled steel, it is quite another to see the faces of his own kids on the lifeless bodies staring back at him.
Later, in the office, he would hide in an empty police interview room and just bawl, the depression and anxiety heavy in his body.
That was the beginning of the end for a country copper and the start of the making of a maverick MP, whose rookie rebellion forced the hand of a former merchant banker and then- prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to call a royal commission into the banks.
Llew O'Brien. Husband. Father. Grandfather. Former road accident investigation copper. Member for Wide Bay. Medicated. Living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Voluntarily admits himself to mental health hospitals.
The dead still interrupt his sleep.
O'Brien's long-time shrink tells him he was probably predisposed to mental illness, probably because of his childhood.
School dropout. Grieving the death of his mother. Homeless.
His violent father doesn't deserve mention. He's dead now. But when he was alive he was articulate and charming but also manipulative and treated his son like his dog.
His mother, Yvonne, was a gentle, wonderful woman who loved her youngest, and only boy.
At 15, O'Brien quit school to nurse his mother, whose body had been cruelled by motor neurone disease.
He would puree her food, feed her - sometimes taking hours - change her and bathe her. As her body fell into itself and she could no longer talk, mother and son would communicate with an old-fashioned machine that would print out sentences on long, skinny, pieces of paper.
O'Brien has kept some of them. But the ink has faded. Yvonne was just 53 when she died.
Llew Stephen O'Brien was born in Sydney on June 26, 1972.
One of three children, he was always the one in trouble at school.
By the time Year 9 came by, he had been enrolled at eight schools.
"I wasn't a great learner,'' he says.
In early 1988, when Yvonne was diagnosed with the disease that would kill her a year later, some of the family moved to Gympie, ostensibly so Yvonne could breathe some country air. The truth is more nefarious, but that involves talking about O'Brien's father.
"I would have been about 12 or 13 years old when it first appeared. '' O'Brien says.
"She was losing movement in some of her limbs and she was starting to slur her words.
"She could do a few things by herself but eventually (we had to do) everything for her. We (his dad and him) had to keep an eye on her to make sure she didn't choke.
"I loved my mum. I was her only boy. She was gentle. I was her last child so I spent more time with her. And she was really proud of me because I was her boy."
When Yvonne died in 1989, O'Brien's life was thrown more off-kilter. He was gutted. When his dad hit the bottle, O'Brien began couch surfing in Gympie before heading back Sydney to see his sister.
Soon he would wear out his welcome. For weeks he slept rough, in parks and abandoned factories.
"To be so cold and not have a warm place, I still remember. My brain, it grabs on to things."
In 1989 he moved back to Gympie and hit the gym, the routine of lifting and pushing weights tiring his body and mind, making it easier to sleep. Then a stroke of good luck: He was underage, 17 years old, throwing back some beers at the Freemasons Hotel in Gympie when a blonde with curly hair asked him to dance.
Her name was Sharon, and she was a couple of years older than the man she would marry in 1993, when O'Brien was 21.
He was working at a factory as a process heat plant operator when his first son, Reese, was born in 1996, followed by William in 1999 and Yve in 2001. He wanted to be a good role model for his son and decided being a policeman was a job that would do that. Plus he was fit and strong.
So he began studying a diploma of justice and in 1999 he was accepted to the Queensland Police Academy. In mid-2000 he began his beat in Noosa. A year later he did a traffic investigator course. Because he was the only qualified cop in his area near Gympie, he was called out to just about every traffic fatality, the Bruce Highway for him becoming a harbinger of death.
"A lot of fatalities were around Christmas time.
"When I'd go to a fatal, initially it would be like dipping your foot into a cold pool - I couldn't look straight at was going on, the injured party or the dead person. I'd look away, things like that, ease myself in.
"I'd have to come up from the periphery, unless if someone needed help I'd be straight in.
"Kids stuffed me up. One of the bad ones for me was a little boy. His mother murdered him by smothering him. He was about six years old. It wasn't a car accident (but whatever the call out) I was always so worried if it was a baby or a kid."
Over time, the workload infected every part of his life. He was unable to stop thinking about those marks on the road.
In the early 2000s, he was the first to arrive at fatality where a Nissan Pulsar had flipped and submerged in a creek.
"I felt (the 30-year-old driver) was dead in the car ... and I thought I felt a baby seat at the back of the car.
"(The investigation) was stretched out over hours and hours and it was very tiring emotionally and physically. He (the driver) was speaking to his friend on the phone and she turned up and just lost it.
"They pulled (the car) out backwards (from the creek) and it was fairly new, and those tail lights ... that was my first real PTSD trigger."
About six months later, O'Brien was sitting at the traffic lights and had a panic attack because the lights glaring at him were those of a Nissan Pulsar. It took him straight back to the death.
In 2004/2005 he was diagnosed with PTSD. The next few years would be a rollercoaster of emotions.
For 18 months, he was so sick that at times he could not get out of bed and was on WorkCover.
His head was "like being in a bucket of syrup". It was hard to breathe.
Before, while he was still at work, he would work himself into the ground, but he could never escape his emotions.
"I was crying a lot. It was all bubbling out. I didn't want to go down particular roads (because there had been fatalities there). I started to have dreams about my family getting killed. I had dreams about my kids getting killed and my kids started to be in those situations where they were in a car torn to pieces. That's when they were really bad.
"And that was happening a lot. Seeing my kids dead."
At one point, when driven to see his psychologist, he would have to be medicated because some roads would trigger horrible memories.
By 2006 he became exceptionally healthy physically to make it easier to help manage his PTSD.
He would pump up the volume up on some doof-doof music on his Walkman and ride his pushbike out on his highway of hell.
"When I felt like I could, I stopped ... and put the bike down and looked at all the gouges in the road still."
Part of his recovery was also wanting to do more. Road safety became a driving force and in 2006 he joined the then National Party and by 2010 he was on the state executive.
His good mate Warren Truss, Australia's former deputy prime minister, told him he was planning to retire and O'Brien should run for pre-selection in his seat of Wide Bay.
It seemed fanciful.
But O'Brien won the seat in 2016. Turnbull and the Nationals did not know what would hit them.
O'Brien has agreed to share this deeply, personal story because he says not enough is being done to make our roads safer. He says his story is not uncommon among emergency services workers and wants to tear down the stigma of mental illness - which he believes will be needed after COVID-19.
He has had a gutful of high-profile people getting into trouble and then blaming it on poor mental health. Those with profiles managing their mental health issues should speak out about their journey, and raise awareness when the going is good, O'Brien says. He says that all too often people "pull the mental health card when they stuff up and it does nothing but set the cause back".
Before he entered Parliament, O'Brien became a speaker for mental health support group Beyond Blue, a role he cherishes and continues today.
Now, O'Brien's mental health is at a good place. But he is still haunted and he still gets "triggered". He's at ease with taking medication but one day he plans to be able to go off his medication completely but in the meantime he focuses on what he describes as "maintenance".
He checks himself in to mental health clinics at the Sunshine Coast to trial changes in treatment, to get away from the Bruce Highway - his home is near the road - and to take some burden off family.
He has done it twice since he has been in Parliament, staying for about a week. But it has not coincided with any major blow-up or event in Canberra. And there have been many.
The biggest was when he told Turnbull in 2017 that he would vote with Labor and the crossbench for a royal commission into the banking and financial sector.
Too often O'Brien had heard stories about people with post-natal, or one-off events, unable to get insurance products, or get them paid out, because the financial sector was being discriminatory.
Turnbull and then-treasurer Scott Morrison did not want an inquiry but they knew in a tight parliament, that they would lose if O'Brien and Dawson MP George Christensen crossed the floor. It would be an embarrassing outcome on such a potent probe.
"It is not hard to tell a PM, 'Hey guess what? I'm going to vote for a royal commission into the banks'.
"That is not hard. You want to try to tell a prime minister that his daughter, who he loves, is in the morgue ... and watch them go through that. That's hard."
O'Brien says some ministers warned him not to vote for a royal commission because it could harm his chances of getting promoted, but "it was the right thing to do", he maintains.
Turnbull relented and the royal commission laid bare the greed and callousness of an industry that had boosted profits through misery.
Almost every Australian has O'Brien to thank today for having the guts to go against the wishes of the prime minister.
In just two terms, O'Brien also forced the Turnbull government to cough up money for Section D of the Gympie Bypass (he went on radio to declare the government would have blood on its hands if it didn't), has demanded a federal corruption commission into politicians and public servants and threatened that he may not vote for the Bill to be put forward because it is "too weak". He shocked his own side by accepting the Deputy Speaker role after being nominated by Labor when he believed Nationals MP Damian Drum was not worthy of the job. But it was his intervention in the Nationals party room that has caused a long-lasting rift.
O'Brien was ropeable when he found out some colleagues were using travel entitlements to coincide with party meetings that happened to coincide with the Melbourne Cup Carnival and 100 year Nationals' celebrations.
In his mind it was stealing from the taxpayers. He refused to attend the events at all, and when he was supposed to be in Melbourne to drink champagne with colleagues, he got on his motorbike and rode to north Queensland - he wanted nothing to do with what he believed was a rort.
It is one of the reasons why he lost faith in Nationals Leader Michael McCormack. When O'Brien spilled the leadership earlier this year, it was to draw a line under the constant pushing from his colleagues, who wanted McCormack gone but didn't want to wear the consequences.
After Barnaby Joyce challenged and lost, O'Brien had had enough. He quit the Nationals but remains a member of the LNP. In Canberra, he is his own party but still a member of the Morrison Government.
"I don't think (the Nationals) want me back. I think I'm too vocal. They don't want people like me. They don't want people who are just as likely to tell the prime minister to f--k off."
At times, he misses being a copper. The camaraderie, the gratification of "locking up a bloke bashing his missus". In politics, the gratification is often harder-won and what seems obvious as the right thing to do is the wrong measure politically.
What is he scared of? Himself, he answers. He never wants to be drawn back to the depth of despair that left him a shell of a human being. And with those uninvited ghosts visiting less often, his goal of being off medication to treat his PTSD is in reach.
If you, or someone you know, needs help contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
Originally published as Qld MP: 'I see dead people'