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John McGrath

inducted 2021 Service

As a freckle-faced kid growing up on a dairy farm in Killarney, John McGrath had no idea that his life story would take him from selling tyres, to State politics, to transforming the national conversation around mental health.

Like many young boys of his generation, John, who is now in his 82nd year, left school at the end of Year 9 to help on the farm. His father, Jack, was unwell and John, as the only son, was a much-needed extra pair of hands. John remembers the Principal of CBC, Br Boylan, taking the time to personally visit his parents to try and find a way he could continue at school, but it was not possible. Jack McGrath later passed away while John was still in his teens.

Taking on responsibilities at an early age gave John a resilience to adapt to life and its many challenges – the greatest of which was yet to come. After leaving the family farm, John worked in a variety of jobs: first as a factory hand, then a truck driver, a station manager, a credit manager and a sales manager, before starting his own, very successful business in 1972 – a tyre business on Raglan Parade – which he sold in 1986 but which still operates today.

It was his experiences as a small business owner which prompted John to make a run at State politics to better represent “the little guy”. It was thought he had little hope in what was a solid Liberal seat. He ran in 1983 as a National Party candidate and lost on preferences. A second run in 1985 resulted in a shock victory for John. Such was his popularity, John was elected again in 1988, 1992 and again in 1996, before he retired unbeaten in 1999.

As an MP, John was the Nationals spokesman for Housing, then Transport and Labour, and was also the Party Whip. He was appointed Deputy Speaker in 1992 and was Chairman of Committees until his retirement from politics in 1999.

During this period, John also faced his greatest personal challenge. One of his five children, Shane, suffered from mental health issues at a time when mental illness was a source of shame and rarely talked about in the community.

Shane had battled depression and schizophrenia for 10 years, but despite the best efforts of his family and GP to find effective treatment, there was little ongoing support. Shane took his own life in 1993.

John remembers taking a phone call from then Victorian Premier Joan Kirner who said, “nothing prepares you for the loss of one of your children".

Those words stayed with him and John resolved to do whatever he could to advocate for people and families who were also battling mental health issues. Using his political contacts, he put together the first national advocacy group, Mental Health Australia, and was its first chairman.

In 2000, John was then recruited to be a founding director and deputy chair of Beyond Blue together with former Premier Jeff Kennett and former Labor MP Carolyn Hogg.

As John says, by removing the stigma of mental health, “Beyond Blue has changed the world”.

While John’s son Shane died never having received the services he should have, his eldest son Darren lives with a mental health condition but with the services that are now available he is, says John, a fully functioning, tax paying member of the community.

John went on to become a board member of Headspace, and the inaugural Chair of the Mental Health Professionals Network and remains an ambassador for Beyond Blue.

By 2008 John’s work in key roles with organisations such as beyondblue, Headspace, Crisis Support Services and The Mental Health Professionals Network – to name just a few – was recognised with a Member of the Order of Australia.

It’s an extraordinary legacy and one John accepts with humility, starting out as “a little skinny, freckle-nosed boy, running around the paddocks in Killarney”.

His message to students who are about to launch into the world is equally as grounded:

“Do your best, and just be kind to each other. If you do your best, then you’ll be at your best.”

An extraordinary legacy

John McGrath OAM

Inducted 2021