Geoffrey Barker recalls a short, eventful audience with the Queensland premier
JOH BJELKE-PETERSEN was sitting in his office chair flailing his arms around his head and twitching his legs in a sort of mad seated tap-dance. ‘I can fly a helicopter,’ he exulted. ‘This arm does this. This arm does this. This leg does this and this leg does this.’
The Queensland premier burst into his bizarre pantomime in the middle of an interview more than twenty years ago. The reason for his demonstration became clear with his next words.
‘I know you blokes from the south. You come up here trying to trap me. But mark my words, I'm not stupid. I can fly a helicopter. See? Now get out!’
I had not met Bjelke-Peterson previously, but the Age had sent me to Brisbane to write about some long-forgotten Queensland scam and the premier agreed to be interviewed. My mistake, apparently, was to ask about some heritage-listed Brisbane buildings that had been bulldozed at midnight, apparently on the premier’s orders. What had started as an amiable exchange became an increasingly hysterical monologue with the helicopter pantomime as its climax.
Then, for the first and only time, a politician threw me out of his office. There was no point in arguing, so I slunk away avoiding the narrowed eyes of a secretary in an ante-room.
What to say about Joh, who at 94 has finally succumbed to diseases of great old age that rendered him dumb, blind and immobile? John Donne counsels charity. The bell tolls for us all. But it is hard to be charitable towards Joh if you care about democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The man ran a government that was authoritarian, racist, corrupt and environmentally destructive. After the Fitzgerald corruption inquiry in the late 1980s four ministers were gaoled, and Joh’s police commissioner Terry Lewis was stripped of his knighthood and gaoled.
Certainly Queensland developed quickly during Joh’s ninteen years in power. But the state has hardly slowed down since his political demise in 1987, and there has not been another government as venal and as wacky as the Bjelke-Petersen government.
Although he was a shrewd and cunning politician who knew how to maintain an electoral gerrymander, Joh fell for every con-artist who could spin him a story. He flirted with a hydrogen car that vanished without trace, and with an offshore quack who claimed to cure cancer with orange pips or apricot kernels or something similar.
In 1987 his outrageous ‘Joh for Canberra’ push proved the kiss of political death for him, although it briefly struck terror into conservative political hearts. In 2001 Joh beat perjury charges due to a hung jury whose foreman was a National Party activist, but he was crippled financially. He and his wife Flo, a former senator, had to turn themselves into a tourist attraction and eke out a living selling pumpkin scones to passing coaches.
In the end Joh’s political and personal fate truely demonstrates that even the highest flying chopper pilot can come crashing to earth.
Geoffrey Barker is a senior writer with the Australian Financial Review.