Mail-order bride gibe ends career of rising political star

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At the same time it has starkly revealed just how much the abusive, hard-drinking and straight-talking culture of the New South Wales parliament, known as "the bear pit", has been tempered by more contemporary sensibilities.

In one of the worst gaffes of recent years John Brogden, the leader of the right-wing Liberal Party in New South Wales, claimed in front of journalists at a media " booze-up" that the former state premier's Malaysian-born partner was a "mail-order bride".

Mr Brogden, who is 36 years old and married with a child, then added insult to injury by pinching the bottom of a female reporter and propositioning another, at an Australian Hotels Association function held earlier this month, asking if she was "available".

It might have remained a snigger in bad taste but for factional enemies in Mr Brogden's own party who massaged the rumours into the public domain. After initially denying the story, which first appeared in Sunday newspapers, Mr Brogden came clean.

His political demise was ensured when headlines such as "My racist disgrace" and "My foolish, boozy night" appeared in the press. "I acted dishonourably and now is the time to act honourably," he said.

"I had a few drinks and let off some steam, and in doing so acted foolishly."

The incident was described by a senior Labor Party figure as "the worst-kept secret in town. Anyone in politics knows about it, on both sides."

Mr Brogden made an unreserved apology to the former Labor leader Bob Carr and his wife Helena, claiming his actions were in jest.

But a bitter Mr Carr, who had been Mr Brogden's nemesis for the past three years until his resignation, refused to accept it. "I think that his apology is entirely unacceptable to Helena and that is the greatest insult not only to her but of every woman of Asian background," he said.

The irony is that before the scandal Mr Brogden was likely to become the most populous state's next premier in the elections due in 2007. Labor has become unpopular with voters because of continuing problems with health and transport services.

Mr Brogden claimed that many of his colleagues had berated him for choosing to resign. "Most of them want me to stay," he said, adding: "The best thing for the Liberal Party is to end this and move on."

All the more reason why Labor, which had just lost the popular Mr Carr to a surprise retirement from politics, cannot believe its luck and has been fanning the flames of public outrage at the apparently racist and sexist sentiments.

The new Labor premier, Morris Iemma, said the Liberals could expect a a public backlash. "What's happened in the last 48 hours is probably a new low in New South Wales politics, or in politics in general," he said.

Even John Howard, the Liberal Prime Minister, who has kept the party in power federally while it has floundered in opposition to Labor in six states, said Mr Brogden was out of place. "I know Helena Carr and she's a very gracious person. That sort of comment should never have been made," he said.

The last political "joke" which backfired badly but not fatally was made in the 1990s by Alexander Downer, who is now Foreign Minister. He upset women's groups by characterising Labor's anti-domestic violence campaign called "The things that matter" as "The things that batter".