|Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen KCMG|
8 August 1968 – 1 December 1987
|Preceded by||Gordon Chalk|
|Succeeded by||Mike Ahern|
|Born||13 January 1911
Dannevirke, New Zealand
|Died||23 April 2005 (aged 94)
Kingaroy, Queensland, Australia
|Political party||Country/National Party of Australia|
|Spouse(s)||Florence Gilmour Bjelke-Petersen|
Sir Johannes "Joh" Bjelke-Petersen, KCMG (13 January 1911 – 23 April 2005), New Zealand-born Australian politician, was the longest-serving and longest-lived Premier of the state of Queensland. He held office from 1968 to 1987, a period that saw considerable economic development in the state. His uncompromising conservatism (including his role within the downfall of the Whitlam federal government), his political longevity, and his leadership of a government that, in its latter years, was revealed to be institutionally corrupt, made him one of the best-known political figures in twentieth-century Australia.
Bjelke-Petersen was born in Dannevirke in the Southern Hawke's Bay Region of New Zealand, and lived in Waipukurau, a small town in Hawke's Bay. Bjelke-Petersen's parents were both Danish immigrants, and his father, Carl, was a Lutheran pastor. In 1913 the family left for Australia, moving to Kingaroy in south-eastern Queensland and taking up dairy farming.
The young Johannes suffered from polio, leaving him with a life-long limp. The family was poor, and Carl Bjelke-Petersen was frequently in poor health. Johannes and his mother Maren worked on the farm. In 1933, Bjelke-Petersen began work on the family's newly-acquired second property at land-clearing and peanut farming. His efforts eventually allowed him to begin work as a contract land-clearer and to acquire further capital which he invested in farm equipment and natural resource exploration. He developed a technique for quickly clearing scrub by connecting a heavy anchor chain between two bulldozers. Obtaining a pilot's licence early in his adult life, Joh also started aerial spraying and grass seeding to further speed up pasture development in Queensland. By the time he entered Parliament, he had built a thriving business.
Under sponsorship from Sir Charles Adermann and Sir Frank Nicklin, he was elected as Country Party member for Nanango in the Queensland Legislative Assembly in 1946 (from 1950 to 1987 he was member for Barambah). The Australian Labor Party (ALP) had held power in Queensland since 1932 and Bjelke-Petersen spent eleven years as an Opposition member.
In 1957, following a split in the Labor Party, the Country Party under Nicklin came to power, with the Liberal Party as a junior coalition partner. In the same year, Bjelke-Petersen married Florence "Flo" Gilmour, who would later become a significant political figure in her own right.
Bjelke-Petersen became one of Nicklin's cabinet ministers in 1963 as minister for works and housing. When Nicklin retired in January 1968, Jack Pizzey became Nicklin's successor both as Premier and as Country Party leader. Pizzey died unexpectedly within seven months of assuming office. In the election for leadership of the Country Party, Bjelke-Petersen won. He became Premier on 8 August 1968. (During the interval between Pizzey's death and Bjelke-Petersen's accession, the premiership was held by the Liberals' leader, Sir Gordon Chalk.) At this stage Bjelke-Petersen was still not very well known even to most Queenslanders, let alone outside the State. Even after becoming Premier, Joh was still very active in his local community teaching Sunday School.
Bjelke-Petersen's administration was partly kept in power by an electoral malapportionment where rural electoral districts had significantly fewer enrolled voters than those in metropolitan areas. This system was originally introduced by the Labor Party in 1949 as an overt electoral fix. Under Nicklin the bias in favour of rural constituencies was maintained. In 1972 Sir Joh strengthened the system to favour his own party, which led to his opponents referring to it as the "Bjelke-mander", a play on the term "gerrymander". Although Bjelke-Petersen's 1972 redistributions occasionally had elements of "gerrymandering" in the strict sense, their perceived unfairness had more to do with malapportionment whereby certain areas (normally rural) are simply granted more representation than their population would dictate if electorates contained equal numbers of voters (or population). The lack of a state upper house (which Queensland had abolished in 1922) allowed legislation to be passed without the need to negotiate with other political parties.
With Labor weak and chronically divided in Queensland throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Bjelke-Petersen won a series of election victories, often at the expense of his Liberal coalition partners as much as Labor. Typically the Country Party would gain fewer votes than either Labor or Liberal, but those votes would be spread out across the many rural electorates, giving the Country Party more seats than the Liberals and thus making them the senior coalition partner. Together they had more seats in Parliament than Labor, allowing Bjelke-Petersen to govern as Premier of a State in which his party received, in one election (1972), only 20% of the votes. However at each election Bjelke-Petersen won, the combined Liberal and National two party preferred vote was higher than Labor's.
In 1984 Bjelke-Petersen was created a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (postnominal "KCMG") for "services to parliamentary democracy". He was then generally known as "Sir Joh" (rather than "Sir Johannes"), and his wife generally (if incorrectly) known as "Lady Flo."
Bjelke-Petersen evolved from a diffident beginner to an aging autocrat who faced no opposition of any consequence in Cabinet, according to University of Queensland political scientist, Dr Rae Wear. As a National Party Premier, he could choose and dismiss Ministers. There was no developed Cabinet office and because during his last years, submissions did not go to Department heads, power was further concentrated in the hands of the Premier and his advisors.
Bjelke-Petersen abolished state duties on deceased estates (inheritance taxes), leading to a steady flow of retired people moving from the southern states of Victoria and New South Wales to Queensland, particularly the Gold Coast. All other Australian states and territories had abolished this tax by 1981 in attempt to stem the flow of people to Queensland. The rapid rise in population in the Gold Coast, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast led to a building boom that lasted for three decades.
The development boom was particularly noticeable in the tourist area of the Gold Coast. The Bjelke-Petersen government worked closely with property developers, who constructed resorts, hotels, a casino and a system of residential developments. The Hinze Dam was also constructed on the Gold Coast.
In one controversial case, the Queensland government passed special legislation, the Sanctuary Cove Act, in 1985, to exempt a luxury development, Sanctuary Cove, from local government planning regulations. The developer, Mike Gore, was seen as a key member of the "white shoe brigade", a group of Gold Coast businessmen who became influential supporters of Bjelke-Petersen. Gore established Queensland's first gated community at Sanctuary Cove.  Gore was a vocal backer of the "Joh for PM" campaign. Bjelke-Petersen denied that had received any money from Gore. A similar piece of legislation was passed to allow the Japanese company, Iwasaki Sangyo, to develop a tourist resort near Yeppoon in Central Queensland. It was later revealed by the Morning Bulletin newspaper that Bjelke-Petersen's son-in-law, Lester Folker, had been appointed a director of the Australian-based arm of the development company. Bjelke-Petersen denied any conflict of interest, and was quoted by the newspaper as complaining that every time one of his children bought a Japanese car people decried it as a conflict of interest.
Considerable development of the state's infrastructure took place during the Bjelke-Petersen era. He was a leading proponent of Wivenhoe and Burdekin Dams, encouraging the modernising and electrifying of the Queensland railway system, and the construction of the Gateway Bridge. Airports, coal mines, power stations, and dams were built throughout the state. James Cook University was established. In Brisbane, the Queensland Cultural Centre, Griffith University, the South East Freeway, and the Captain Cook, Gateway and Merivale bridges were all constructed, as well as the Parliamentary Annexe that was attached to Queensland Parliament House. Bjelke-Petersen was one of the instigators of World Expo'88 (now South Bank Parlands) and the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games.
A Queensland defamation jury found in 1992 that industrialist Sir Leslie Thiess had, during 1981–1984, bribed Bjelke-Petersen generally 'on a large scale and on many occasions'; specifically, to procure Government contracts involving Winchester South, Expo '88, a Gold Coast cultural centre and three prisons.
Despite public protests, Brisbane heritage sites, such as the Bellevue Hotel were demolished. Thirteen Liberal backbenchers supported Labor in parliament, condemning the destruction of the state government owned Bellevue. Former Liberal Parliamentarian, Terry Gygar, described the early morning scene at the Bellevue demolition; "A large crowd had gathered around the building. There was a cordon of police. They had thrown up a barbed... a mesh wire fence around it. And then the Deen Bros arrived, rolling through like an armoured division, straight through the crowd. People were knocked sideways. Police were dragging people out of the way. Parking meters were knocked over. Traffic signs were bent and twisted on the road. It looked like Stalingrad." Bjelke-Petersen reportedly congratulated the contractors, the Deen Brothers, "on a job well done".
Bjelke-Petersen's Government dominated Parliament, not allowing committees or impartial speech, and ran a very sophisticated media operation, sending press releases out right on deadline so journalists had very little chance to research news items. Journalists covering industrial disputes and picketing, were afraid of arrest. In 1985, the Australian Journalists Association withdrew from the system of police passes because of police refusal to accredit certain journalists. Some journalists experienced police harassment.
Bjelke-Petersen's authoritarian and manipulative approach to media, at times became visible behind his tangled syntax, which frequently bemused interviewers. It was unknown whether he was joking, confused or saying what he really thought when he said: "The greatest thing that could happen to the state and nation is when we get rid of all the media... then we could live in peace and tranquility and no one would know anything." Joh's catchphrase answer to unwelcome queries, "Don't you worry about that," was widely parodied.
Bjelke-Petersen responded to unfavourable media coverage by using government resources to sue for defamation on numerous occasions. Queensland historian, Ross Fitzgerald was threatened with criminal libel when he sought to publish a critical history.
In 1989, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, found that in 1986 Bjelke-Petersen had placed then Channel 9 owner Alan Bond in a position of 'commercial blackmail' when Bond improperly agreed to pay $400,000 as an out-of-court defamation settlement.
In 1975, a letter-bomb addressed to Bjelke-Petersen was sent to his office. The bomb exploded, injuring two of his staff.
Police violence was witnessed against demonstrators at the University of Queensland, which was a haven for anti-Bjelke-Petersen sentiment. A decision by this University's Senate to award him an honorary LL.D brought about criticisms from both students and staff. Leading Queensland poet, Judith Wright, returned her own honorary Doctorate, in a personal protest.
The 1971 Springbok tour by the South Africa national rugby union team sparked nation-wide demonstrations against apartheid. The Springboks Brisbane match was moved from the Rugby Union headquarters at Ballymore because it was easier to erect barricades at the Exhibition Ground. The RNA, which administered the ground refused to co-operate. Bjelke-Petersen "grabbed the political initiative", by declaring a state of emergency, thus compelling the RNA to co-operate. The declaration covered the whole of Queensland and operated for a period from ten days before the first game to fourteen days after the last, "in case the police had any unfinished business". Doug Anthony, a former National Party Deputy Prime Minister, said Bjelke-Petersen's support for South Africa's apartheid regime, in direct defiance of the Fraser Government's stance, showed him as "unreasonable, selfish and un-Christian". The Bjelke-Petersen government subsequently campaigned on "Law and Order", winning two by-elections, including the seat of Merthyr, won by Don Lane, a former Special Branch policeman.
According to Lane, one of Bjelke-Petersen's closest ministerial allies, Joh saw street marchers as a menace who clogged up traffic, caused distress to pedestrians, motorists and shop keepers and were mainly made up of grubby left wing students, Anarchists, professional agitators and trade union activists. The government transferred 450 police from country areas to suppress anti-apartheid demonstrations. Future Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, then a student protestor, witnessed police violently attacking peaceful demonstrators, including women. Brisbane aboriginal activist, Sam Watson claimed the police wanted to "smash and cripple and destroy". Bjelke-Petersen praised police conduct during the demonstrations and awarded them an extra day's leave.  Peter Beattie said that, "...if you went to a protest there was always photos being taken". "You know, you'd always pose to get your best side. (Laughs) And they had a dossier on everybody", Beattie said.
Bjelke-Petersen rejected recommendations by the Police Minister, Max Hodges, and the Police Commissioner, Ray Whitrod, who sought an inquiry into an incident in 1976, where a police officer struck a student with a baton during a demonstration. Bjelke-Petersen told Whitrod that the cabinet, not the Commissioner would decide if an investigation was warranted. The Police Union sent a letter of thanks to the Premier and offered support. Hodges was replaced as Police Minister soon after. The Police, secure in the knowledge that they had the Premier's backing, continued to act provocatively, most notably in a raid on a commune at Cedar Bay later that year. The Police who had been looking for marijuana, torched the residents' houses and destroyed their property. Whitrod sought an inquiry but the results were never revealed.
After seven years as Police Commissioner, Whitrod resigned saying he could no longer tolerate political interference and the Police Commissioner had become a political puppet. He was replaced by Terry Lewis who had been previously promoted to Assistant Commissioner, against Whitrod's recommendation, over the heads of 122 officers of higher or equal rank. Whitrod had already told the new Police Minister, "everybody in the police force knows that Lewis is corrupt. Now if he's appointed assistant commissioner, it will nullify all my efforts', and the new Minister said, 'I will talk to the Premier'. And about an hour or so later the Minister rung me up and said, 'The Premier does not want to see you, nor will he allow you to address cabinet'." Whitrod said that he hoped his resignation would send a message to the people of Queensland; "that something very seriously was going wrong with the Queensland police force and with their Premier".
In 1977, Bjelke-Petersen announced that "the day of street marches is over... Don't bother applying for a march permit. You won't get one. That's government policy now!" Bjelke-Petersen said. Liberal parliamentarians crossed the floor defending the right of association and assembly. Colin Lamont, one of the Liberals, told a meeting at the University of Queensland that the Premier was engineering confrontation for electoral purposes. "Two hours later, he (Bjelke-Petersen) lunged at me across the floor of Parliament, waving a tape recorder and spluttered, 'I've heard every word. You are a traitor to this Government'", Lamont wrote later. Lamont said he learned the Special Branch had been keeping files on Liberal rebels and reporting, not to their Commissioner, but directly to the Premier. "The police state had arrived", Lamont added.
The Uniting Church synod passed a resolution that "Queensland heads of churches to mediate between the State government and student and civil liberties groups to achieve better ways of expressing their differences." Bjelke-Petersen replied "If churches want to consort with atheists and communists dedicated to the elimination of religion, that is their problem."
Bjelke-Petersen often accused political opponents of being covert communists bent on anarchy. "I have always found ... you can campaign on anything you like but nothing is more effective than communism... If he's a Labor man, he's a socialist and a very dangerous man."
In June 1976, Bjelke-Petersen blocked the proposed sale of a pastoral property on the Cape York Peninsula to a group of Aboriginal people, because according to cabinet policy, "The Queensland Government does not view favourably proposals to acquire large areas of additional freehold or leasehold land for development by Aborigines or Aboriginal groups in isolation."  This dispute resulted in the case of Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen, which was decided partly in the High Court in 1982, and partly in the Supreme Court of Queensland in 1988. The courts found that Bjelke-Petersen's policy had discriminated against Aboriginal people.
Also in 1976, Bjelke-Petersen evicted a team treating trachoma, led by Fred Hollows from state-controlled Aboriginal land. Bjelke-Petersen claimed that Hollows' team had been encouraging Aborigines to enrol to vote. In his visits to northern communities, Fred Hollows was accompanied by two respected Aboriginal spokesmen and civil rights activists, Mick Miller and Clarrie Grogan. With an election looming, and keen to shut down this source of independent information, the Premier simply ejected Hollows' team. Electoral office data refuting his claims that there had been a rush of voter enrolments in the wake of the trachoma team, was not released for public consumption.
In 1978, the newly-formed |Uniting Church became involved in a struggle between the rights of Aborigines at Aurukun and Mornington Island (former Presbyterian missions) and the Queensland Government, which was anxious to allow mining to proceed. Bjelke-Petersen granted a 1,900 square kilometre mining lease to a mining consortium under extremely favourable conditions. With support from the church, the Aurukun people challenged the legislation, eventually winning their case in the Supreme Court of Queensland. But they ultimately lost when the Queensland Government appealed to the Privy council in the UK.
When learning of Eddie Mabo's emerging legal claim of native title over islands in the Torres Strait, Bjelke-Petersen and his government pushed through the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Act 1985 which declared that all native title (even though it had not yet been proved to a court) was extinguished. This law sidelined Mabo's claim, and required him and his legal counsel to get a declaration from the High Court that this law was invalid under the Commonwealth's Racial Discrimination Act 1975 as it clearly discriminated against Indigenous Queenslanders and did not affect any other group's proprietary interests. The High Court declared Bjelke-Petersen's law inoperative which laid the ground for Mabo's historic return to the High Court several years later in Mabo (No 2).
In 1975 Bjelke-Petersen played what later turned out to be a key role in the political crisis which brought down the federal Labor government of Gough Whitlam, who referred to Bjelke-Petersen as "that Bible-bashing bastard, Bjelke". Whitlam's government did not have control of the Senate, whose members are elected as representatives of the individual states. Senators are normally elected directly, but if a Senate position becomes vacant, a replacement is appointed by the relevant State Governor. State Governors are also responsible for the issue of writs for elections to the Senate. Bjelke-Petersen twice used these practices to thwart Whitlam's attempts to gain control of the Senate.
In 1974, Whitlam approached former Queensland Premier and then Senator for the Democratic Labor Party, Vince Gair, with the offer as a job as ambassador to Ireland as a way of creating an extra vacant Senate position in Queensland that Whitlam hoped would be won by his Labor Party. Before this arrangement became public, Bjelke-Petersen advised the Governor Sir Colin Hannah, to issue writs for five, rather than six, vacancies, denying Labor the chance of gaining Gair's Senate spot. The convention in filling Senate vacancies since 1949 had been that the State Parliament would appoint the nominee of the former Senator's political party. When Labor Senator Bertie Milliner died, Bjelke-Petersen rejected Labor's nominee to fill the vacancy, Mal Colston, and instead asked for a short list of three nominees, from which he would pick one. When the ALP refused to supply such a list, Bjelke-Petersen appointed Albert Field, an ALP member who was critical of the Whitlam government. The ALP tried to block the appointment by expelling Field, and announcing that it would expel anyone else who would accept the appointment in Colston's place, but Bjelke-Petersen went ahead with the appointment anyway.
Field's appointment was the subject of a High Court challenge and he took leave in late 1975. During this period, the Coalition led by Malcolm Fraser declined to allot a pair to balance Field's absence. This gave the Coalition control over the Senate. Fraser used this control to obstruct passage of the Supply Bills through Parliament, denying Whitlam's then-unpopular government the legal capacity to appropriate funds for government business and leading to his dismissal as Prime Minister. During the tumultuous election campaign precipitated by Whitlam's dismissal by Sir John Kerr, Bjelke-Petersen alleged that Queensland police investigations had uncovered damaging documentation in relation to the Loans Affair. This documentation was never made public and these allegations remained unsubstantiated.
In August 1983 Terry White, a Liberal minister, joined backbench colleagues crossing the floor to vote against the government in Parliament. The Liberal leader, Dr Llewellyn Edwards, asked White to resign as a Minister but instead White successfully challenged him for leadership of the Liberal Party. The Coalition agreement was eventually torn up by the Liberals. At the 1983 state election, the intensely divided Liberals suffered a heavy loss of seats losing 14 seats. The National Party were one seat short of a majority. On 25 October, following the election, two Liberal MLAs, Brian Austin (Wavell) and Don Lane (Merthyr) defected to the National Party. The National Party had formed a majority government for the first time in Australian history.
In 1987 Bjelke-Petersen launched a campaign for the Prime Ministership. The move attracted intense media attention across Australia. By early 1987 the Joh-for-Canberra push was attracting 20 per cent in opinion polls. The "Joh for Canberra" campaign was abandoned after a snap election was called by Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke.
Also in 1987, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation investigative journalism program Four Corners aired an episode entitled "The Moonlight State" alleging high-level corruption in the Queensland Police, including the receipt of bribes from owners of illegal brothels. At the time the program aired, Bjelke-Petersen was outside Queensland. In response to these allegations, Deputy Premier and Minister of Police Bill Gunn, who was serving as acting premier in Bjelke-Petersen's absence, announced an inquiry.
The two-year-long Commission of Inquiry into "Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct" was chaired by barrister Tony Fitzgerald and known as the Fitzgerald Inquiry. As it began, evidence of corruption was unearthed implicating not only Police Commissioner Terry Lewis, but also senior members and associates of the Bjelke-Petersen government. As a result of the inquiry, Lewis was tried, convicted, and jailed on corruption charges. He was later stripped of his knighthood and other honours. A number of other officials, including ministers Don Lane and Austin were also jailed. Another former minister, Russ Hinze, died while awaiting trial.
The Bjelke-Petersen government's decline in political standing prompted fierce conflict between his supporters and his detractors within the Nationals' partyroom. Sir Robert Sparkes, the State Secretary of the party, who for decades had been Bjelke-Petersen's influential sponsor, withdrew his support and the two became enemies. Bjelke-Petersen then met with State Governor Sir Walter Campbell in an effort to restructure his Cabinet and purge dissenters from the ministry. After negotiations, Campbell agreed to sack three ministers.
Bjelke-Petersen denied his National Party opponents the opportunity to confront him by refusing to call a meeting of the party's parliamentarians. Eventually, the organisational wing of the party intervened and called one. Bjelke-Petersen's request that Nationals MPs join him in a boycott went unheeded, and the meeting deposed him as National Party leader and elected in his place Mike Ahern, one of the ministers he had sacked. After a lengthy standoff, Bjelke-Petersen resigned on 1 December 1987. Announcing his resignation as premier and parliamentarian, he said
"The policies of the National Party are no longer those on which I went to the people. Therefore I have no wish to lead the Government any longer. It was my intention to take this matter to the floor of State Parliament. However, I now have no further interest in leading the National Party any further."
In the subsequent by-election in April 1988, the seat was won by Trevor Perrett representing the Citizens Electoral Council against the endorsed National candidate, Warren Truss. Perrett ultimately joined the National Party in December 1988 and later became a minister in the Borbidge Ministry.
In 1991 Bjelke-Petersen faced criminal trial for perjury arising out of the evidence he had given to the Fitzgerald Inquiry (an earlier proposed charge of corruption was incorporated into the perjury charge). Evidence was given to the perjury trial by Sir Joh's former police Special Branch bodyguard Sergeant Bob Carter that in 1986 he had twice been given packages of cash totalling $210,000 at Sir Joh's office. He was told to take them to a Brisbane city law firm and then watch as the money was deposited in a company bank account.
The money had been given over by developer Sng Swee Lee, and the bank account was in the name of Kaldeal, operated by a trustee of the National Party, Edward Lyons. John Huey, a Fitzgerald Inquiry Investigator later told Four Corners: "I said to Robert Sng, "Well what did Sir Joh say to you when you gave him this large sum of money?" And he said, "All he said was, 'thank you, thank you, thank you'." The jury in the case remained deadlocked. In 1992 it was revealed that the jury foreman, Luke Shaw, was a member of the Young Nationals and was identified with the "Friends of Joh" movement. A special prosecutor announced in 1992 there would be no retrial because Sir Joh, then aged 81, was too old. Developer Sng Swee Lee refused to return from Singapore for a retrial. One unproved estimate of Bjelke-Petersen's extortions was at least AU$6 million.
In 2003, the Queensland Labor government rejected a $353 million damages claim by Bjelke-Petersen seeking compensation for loss of business opportunities resulting from the Fitzgerald inquiry. In his advice to the government, tabled in parliament, Crown Solicitor Conrad Lohe not only recommended dismissing the claim, but said Sir Joh was "fortunate" not to have faced a second trial..
Bjelke-Petersen remained a popular figure with rural conservatives in Queensland. For a while he pursued business interests in Tasmania while trying to pay off debts said to have been incurred during his perjury trial. In fact, Bjelke Petersen had previously incurred serious losses from monies borrowed in Swiss currency.  Bjelke-Petersen's memoirs, Don't You Worry About That: The Joh Bjelke-Petersen Memoirs, were published in 1991.
Bjelke-Petersen died in April 2005, aged 94, with his wife and family members by his side. He received a state funeral at which the then prime minister, John Howard, was a speaker. Bjelke-Petersen is buried at his property "Bethany" at Kingaroy.
|Premier of Queensland
|Treasurer of Queensland
|Minister for Works