For Queenslanders, Joh Bjelke-Petersen is about as polarising a political figure as you can get. Blogs have filled up with comment following his death (a long list of links to internet posts and discussions is at the end of this piece).
Joh Bjelke-Petersen was Premier of Queensland throughout my childhood and stayed Premier until he was finally forced out by his own party in late 1987, when I was 23 years old. For a while, he rather like the Queen or the Pope – it seemed like he’d always been there and always would be. Having lived my whole life in Brisbane, Bjelke-Petersen is linked to so many things from my younger days – personal, political, social and musical – that it is difficult to know which things to focus on. I am sure the pros and cons of his time in office will be hotly debated over the next few days and for many years to come.
It is appropriate to express commiserations to his wife Flo and her family. Every comment I ever heard from Democrat Senators who served with Lady Flo in the Senate was that she is a decent person, as well as diligent in her role. However, consideration for a widow’s grieving should not allow a whitewashing in assessing the legacy of a man who led Queensland for nearly 20 years and whose profound impact on our political culture, community and environment can still be felt today in many different ways. Ironically, even though he had an extraordinarily garbled speaking style, he was basically a straight-talker who said what he thought, so I think it is appropriate that I do the same.
I don’t believe there can be any doubt what his biggest legacy is – he was the long-term leader of a Government which engaged in rampant nepotism and used a corrupt and sometimes brutal police force for their own political ends.
The modern media mantra is that a government’s economic credentials is what matters first and foremost, but in the end, freedom and democracy are far more fundamental, and his crimes of omission and commission in that area will always be far more important to history than how many cranes there were on Brisbane’s skyline.
I’m sure many will portray him as a wily operator focused on economic development who none the less was so innocent that he was unaware of the corruption flourishing all around him. I simply do not believe this. He may not have directly enriched himself financially through corrupt behaviour. However, like many parties and people who are in power too long, power became an end in itself, and the dodgy donations, rampant abuse of police powers for political purposes and the improper behaviour of some of his Ministers and party officials were ignored, tolerated or sometimes encouraged – as both spoils of office and part of the way of maintaining it.
This piece by Quentin Dempster sets out some examples of a culture of major corruption which are too easily forgotten over time. I should also note, given the criticisms I make here of the police, that Dempster’s piece also tells of honest police at the time who suffered as a consequence.
Nor was this just an aberration towards the end of a long career. It was as early as 1976 that Terry Lewis (later to be sentenced to 14 years jail for corruption) was appointed as Commissioner of Police after the forced resignation of the previous Commissioner Ray Whitrod. Former Courier-Mail columnist Peter Charlton said “for this alone Bjelke-Petersen deserves to be condemned forever.” There is no way that any Premier could have been so blind as to honestly believe that this process was above board. Evidence in Lewis’s trial showed that he was corruptly receiving payments well before being appointed Commissioner. The willingness on the part of the Premier (and his cabinet) to turn a blind eye to a corrupt Police Commissioner was rewarded with a Police Commissioner who would let his Force be used for the political purposes of the Government.
The worst aspect of the police corruption was not the kickbacks for illegal brothels and casinos that eventually dominated the media coverage – it was the gross abuse of police powers to intimidate, harass and bash political opponents. The fierce suppression of political dissent generated a real and legitimate fear amongst a whole sub-section of the community, with the most powerless such as aboriginals bearing the biggest brunt. When police can get away with physically assaulting people at will with almost total immunity, you are literally in a police state – maybe not as serious in scale as the South African regime of the time, but a police state none the less.
The police brutality involved in breaking up demonstrations against the touring South African rugby team helped simultaneously create a perceived problem of ‘uncontrolled’ demonstrations and portray the ‘solution’ of the ‘tough on law and order’ image still beloved of many State Premiers today. The crackdown on street marches was also very controversial.
However, in my experience it was the intimidation and harassment in so many individual people’s daily lives that was the worst aspect of the police force of the time. Political activists were continually having their houses raided and searched (with the constant fear that drugs might be planted), cars were followed and often stopped and occupants questioned or searched for no particular reason. Racist behaviour by law enforcement agencies has a long history in Australia, but the mistreatment of aboriginal people in this era was extreme – all creating a suspicion and resentment which will burn deep amongst many aboriginal people for years to come, making it much harder for modern day police to do their job effectively.
I recall the massive police presence that congregated outside the Dead Kennedys concert I went to at the now-demolished Festival Hall in 1983. The crowd of a few thousand came out of the Hall into what appeared to be just as many police, who seemed to just immediately set upon people. Amazingly, even the band’s drummer, DH Peligro, was arrested – no surprises that he was a black person. The same happened when The Clash played at the now-demolished Cloudland, where the police presence at the end of the show was in the hundreds. The police violence to fans and the band at The Stranglers show at the now-demolished Queens Hotel was so striking, even to a British punk band, that they penned a song about it.
The midnight demolition of the Cloudland ballroom is another potent symbol of Bjelke-Petersen’s legacy – history, heritage and memories crushed overnight for a dodgy development that did not even have approval (and never got it). Just think what an icon Cloudland would be today if it had managed to survive! Every night that I look out from the back of my house, I can see the blue cross atop the Catholic church of Brisbane’s Polish community on Bowen Hills and without fail I will think of Cloudland, which used to sit just near that church. In the day time I can see the townhouse development that was eventually built on the hilltop site where Cloudland was. Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s support for rampant “development” led to the destruction of an enormous amount of Brisbane’s built heritage, but the loss of Cloudland is the one that cut deepest into many hearts.
The other form of corruption that was far more insidious than the brothels and casinos was the culture of ‘brown paper bag’ donations from developers. The white shoe brigade may not have personally enriched Joh, but they undoubtedly corruptly enriched some of his colleagues and his political party. It also fostered an uncritical pro-development attitude which still exists amongst many local Councils and many parts of the State Government apparatus, which continues to wreak havoc on parts of Queensland’s environment – particularly our coastal areas. See my recent post on Mission Beach for just one example. Rezoning decisions from the Bjelke-Petersen era for the benefit of developers still continue to wreak damage. The situation in the Daintree provides a good example. Blocks in the middle of rainforest were rezoned residential in the 1980s and sold off by a developer. Ever since, this forest has been at risk of being cleared.
The insistence on bulldozing a road through the Daintree rainforest was another example of total disregard for environmental damage – although in a good example of a big negative creating an even bigger positive, the controversy was instrumental in the establishment of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, and also played a part in one of the main local protesters, Mike Berwick, becoming Mayor of the local Douglas Shire (and one of the best local government Councillors I’ve ever met too).
Apart from the corruption, nepotism, police brutality and environmental destruction, Queensland also suffered from decades of under funding in child protection, welfare and education; something that the state has still not fully recovered from. The Bjelke-Petersen governments proved that the political boast of being a ‘low tax state’ can have a big down side which the community has to pay in under funded social services.
One of the assumptions many people have of his long time in power was that it was only able to occur because the gerrymander kept Labor out of office. However, over all that time Labor never got 50 per cent of the two party preferred vote and never really came close after 1972 – something that this table of election results verifies. The big losers from the gerrymander (more accurately called a malapportionment) were the Liberals, which in conjunction with the absence of three cornered contests inherent in Coalition agreements, kept them as the junior Coalition partner until in the end Joh over-ran them in popular support too and governed in his own right (initially with help of a couple of Liberal defectors – both of whom later ended up being jailed). It is incredible to think of it now, but at the absolute height of his success the ‘country-based’ National Party was able to govern Queensland in its own right, and held seats throughout suburban Brisbane such as Merthyr (based around New Farm and Hamilton), Mansfield and Aspley.
Even more extraordinary is the “Joh for PM” campaign that was seriously pursued by so many people in 1987. Mike Steketee has written a good, hyperbole-free account of this bizarre episode. I can recall the green sticker which came in the newspaper which had Joh for PM on it in white writing – in fact it’s a fair bet that it’s still stuck on the old fridge under my parent’s old house.
However, when his end as Premier came, it came fairly rapidly. It is one more example of how quickly politics can turn, even for the most successful veteran. He started the year reigning supreme in Queensland and seriously pursuing an audacious tilt at the Prime Ministership, yet finished the year forced out of office by his own party.
I remember the day he resigned as Premier. I was visiting Sydney, and had gone to see a band playing in Kings Cross when I bumped into someone I knew through Radio 4ZZZ in Brisbane. We marvelled at the fact that the end had finally come. I didn’t drink in those days, or I would have definitely had a champagne to celebrate, but I also had a feeling that day that it was the end of an era and the passing of a clearly definable period in my life.
There are so many memories that had lain dormant in my head which started to bubble forth as soon as I heard the news tonight, and reading a few other blogs is starting to trigger more. I’m sure that for many Queenslanders, love him or hate him (there don’t seem to be many in between), that feeling of the passing of an era is there once again.
OTHER BLOGS ON THIS TOPIC (warning – if you felt my comments were too blunt, some of the following contain views which are more than callous):
– This short post from Brett Debritz seems to have been among the first to note his passing (and also that of the former Whitlam Government Immigration Minister Al Grassby);
– A Scratch Area is a fan,
– The Wampy Portal also acknowledges the passing of both Al and Joe (sic) and that they both made a big impact;
– Buggery.org is not a fan;
– Soul Sphincter mentions the Stranglers ‘tribute’ and also the treatment a Greenpeace boat got when it came to Brisbane in 1987 – an incident I had forgotten about;
– Aussie News & Views is a big fan;
– Bitchin’ Monaro is scathing;
– Drjon had a short post a few days ago in anticipation, but the discussion that follows is quite interesting;
– Wilson’s blogmanac has a less than positive opinion;
– A 36 year old Queenslander who also grew up knowing only Joh as Premier tells what they learned.
– Rodney Croome, the effective and intelligent gay rights activist, links the deaths of Bjelke-Petersen and Al Grassby and recalls the times. He also had a post earlier this week which tells the story of Joh’s favourite aunt, Marie, a lesbian and conservationist from Tasmania – an aspect of his life I had been unaware of
– A blogger from New Zealand, the land of Joh’s birth, tells of their time living in Queensland.
– Beyond the angloshpere says Al Grassby was more important than Joh, but lists three other “possibly more important” people from that era;
– Funhouse recalls the attempts to stop condom vending machines going up at the University of Queensland (how could I have forgotten that one), attacks on sex education in schools and assorted other events;
– Virulent Memes also makes some Grassby comparisons;
– Tim Blair sought memories of this “wonderful old fellow” from his readers a few days ago and draws out more comments in noting his death;
– The Currency Lad does a post which, while being unashamedly infused with his ideological perspective, is still reasonably thoughtful. He manages not to mention the ‘c’ word though (corruption).
– The View from Benambra (which is in East Gippsland in Victoria incidentally) says that Joh’s biggest legacy is that you can get away with almost anything as long as you can portray the economy as going OK. (This is the exact opposite of what I said his biggest legacy is, but some of the electronic media coverage in Brisbane at the moment suggests this blog is right and I am very wrong)- Shelley Horton shares a childhood memory from Kingaroy;
– The Road to Surfdom just puts up a poll on whether Joh deserves a state funeral. (I voted yes –a decision to have a state funeral is a silly thing to focus your criticisms around);
– Andrew Buckwell is another Brisbane-based blogger who is less than enamoured;
– some brief Views from Towradgi (which is a beachside locale in northern Wollongong, by the way);
– Anne from Katoomba indicates you probably had to live through it to really understand why people get so worked up about Joh;
– The Pigs Are Flying provides some detailed memories;
– The Age of Unreason has a brief post which basically says ‘love him or loathe him, he was great’;
– and finally, mc gregg writes an insightful piece which identifies the ‘Pre- or Post- Joh’ difference amongst those who experienced living in Brisbane
There’s a few more which are too offensive to link to – you can find them for yourself if you’re that keen. I’ve got other things I best got on with.
In addition to all the blog posts listed above, there is great article by Liz Willis in today’s Sydney Morning Herald which details “a magnificent byproduct” of the Bjelke-Petersen reign: “a remarkable oppositional culture manifested in music, theatre and art; media, comedy and satire.”