Queensland's authoritarian populist

26 Apr 2005

In the end, Joh was the agent of his own political destruction, writes Brian Costar

IT IS LIKELY that history will pass harsh judgement on the recently departed Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen (1911-2005), but it is certain that he won’t be ignored. In life he attracted more attention than all his contemporary premiers and more than a few prime ministers.

His political career was the subject of two book-length biographies, one hagiography, numerous journal articles and book chapters as well as a mountain of media reportage. Given that he was Queensland’s longest serving premier (1968-87) and its most controversial, this is not surprising.

Even so soon after his death, it is worth attempting an assessment of his legacy.

First, the positives: to hold the premiership of his State for nearly twenty years was no mean feat - particularly given his inauspicious early years. Like Henry Bolte in Victoria, Joh was an ‘accidental’ premier. He got his chance because the successor to the long-serving Frank Nicklin (1957-68), Jack Pizzey, died suddenly of a heart attack after only six months in the top job.

Joh’s first two years as premier belied his later dominance. While the party maintained its vote at the 1969 election, scandal over Bjelke-Petersen’s share dealings and the loss of two by-elections led to a vote of no confidence at a party meeting in October 1970, which nearly deposed him. It was an epiphanous moment in his career: the newly elected state president of the Country Party, Robert Sparkes, intervened and threatened retribution if the parliamentarians did not show loyalty to the leader.

The Coalition almost lost the 1972 election to a temporarily rejuvenated Labor Party. Ironically, it was to be the 2 December election of the Whitlam Labor government that was to be the making of Joh. Brushing aside the anxieties of his Liberal partners, he immediately went on the offensive and, in classic Queensland style, denounced the ‘socialist centralism’ of the federal government continuously until Whitlam’s government fell in 1975. He barely relaxed during the Fraser years and renewed his anti-Canberra crusade when Bob Hawke became PM in 1983.

While Whitlam’s wickedly alliterative description of him as ‘a bible-bashing bastard’ may have amused some secularists, the fact is that Joh politically bested the PM over the 1974 Gair Affair and the 1975 appointment of Pat Field to the Senate. Electorally, his campaigning was crucial in denying Labor control of the Senate in May 1974, and later that year he inflicted the worst defeat on the state ALP in its history.

Bjelke-Petersen’s political longevity inevitably brings to mind the allegation that it was a gerrymander favouring rural areas that kept him in power. The facts are otherwise: while it is true that the Queensland electoral boundaries were malapportioned between 1949 and 1992, it was the second preferences first of the Democratic Labor Party and then of the Liberal Party that sustained colaitions betwen the Country (later, National) party and the Liberals from 1957-1983 and then National Party governments from 1983-89. When, for the first time since 1956, the Labor Party achieved a majority of the two-party preferred vote in 1989, it won government in a landslide - despite the existence of the so-called ‘Bjelkemander’.

Joh’s admirers point to the economic revival of Queensland as one of his major achievements. While it is true that the state went from near mendicant status in the mid-1960s to a position of hitherto unequalled economic strength by the 1990s, how much of this was due to the premier’s own policies will remain debatable. But by transforming himself from ‘agrarian socialist’ to the champion of free enterprise, he stole the policy clothes of the Liberal Party and contributed to its permanent minor party status in the state parliament.

Regrettably, there was a ‘crony capitalist’ element to Queensland’s economic development under Bjelke-Petersen. His own notorious inability to distinquish between private interest and public duty was contagious. Shady business dealings in the Sunshine State were accompanied by the systemic police corruption revealed during the Fitzgerald Inquiry of the late 1980s. While Joh was controversially found not guilty of having perjured himself before the inquiry, a 1991 jury convicted a prominent businessman of bribing him to the tune of $1 million.

Under Bjelke-Petersen Queensland seemed like a separate nation, a different ‘state of mind’ from the rest of Australia.The ‘Queensland is different’ mantra became the accepted explanation for the Joh phenomenon; no other state, it was asserted, could have produced such a premier. Yet Bjelke-Petersen was more than just the product of Queensland’s particularism. By exploiting and exaggerating traditional Queensland separatism he crafted a political environment which sustained him.

Ironically, the economic and social bases which underpinned ‘Queenslandism’ underwent significant change during the Bjelke-Petersen era. The state became wealthier, better educated, less rural and decentralised and its population grew rapidly as a result of interstate migration. Most importantly, its economy diversified from the previous dominance of primary and extractive industries to include a vibrant tertiary sector of which tourism is only one example. All of this occurred on the watch of a Country Party premier.

The political effect of these changes did not become fully apparent until after Joh had been removed from power. In fact, right up to his demise Queensland exhibited some features of ‘banana republicanism’. Bjelke-Petersen’s contempt for parliament and the conventional constraints on executive power was notorious and, when he effectively awarded himself an imperial knighthood in 1984, the official citation’s reference to his belief in parliamentary democracy was risible.

In fact, under his near two-decade rule Queensland came as close to an authoritarian state as could be imagined within the democratic Australian federation. The police force and the upper ranks of the public service were politicised for party advantage; public dissent was crushed; trade unions were demonised; the media were cowed by constant threats of libel writs - almost all underwritten by the taxpayer - and the interests of the National Party became indistinguishable from either the government or parliament.

In the end, Joh was the agent of his own political destruction. Emboldened by his surprise victory at the 1986 state election he embarked on a bizarre campaign to become prime minister of Australia. He was to fail spectacularly, but not before splitting the federal coalition and denying John Howard an early victory at the 1987 election. This debacle, and his ham-fisted attempt to close the Fitzgerald Inquiry by sacking cabinet ministers, led to his replacement as National Party leader on 26 November 1987. He initially refused to relinquish his commission as premier and only did so under pressure from the state governor on 1 December. It was a humiliating departure.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen was a complex political animal: possessed of a volcanic temper, he could be personally charming; he had no difficulty reconciling his Lutheran, Christian piety with rough-house political tactics and questionable business ethics; above all, he was an authoritarian populist. The democratic system survived him.

Professor Brian Costar is with the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University. He taught history and politics at the University of Queensland, 1971-77.

Publication Details
Published year only: 
Geographic Coverage