Sunday, November 04, 2007

Not an average Joh: the story of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen

While the Australian southern states settle in for the long summer evenings of daylight savings, Queensland languishes an hour behind on Eastern Standard Time. Last month, new Premier Anna Bligh ruled out bringing the state in line despite opinion polls showing the majority of Queenslanders are in favour of winding the clocks forward. Her view represents a long standing political resistance to the introduction of daylight savings that goes back to long-term Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. 20 years ago, Bob Hawke explained why it would never happen under Joh. “That's because he reckons the sun shines out of his arse,” said Hawke. “And he's not getting out of bed an hour earlier for anyone."

Johannes Bjelke-Petersen (“Joh” to friends and foes alike) was Queensland’s longest serving Premier and one of the most famous and most controversial Australian politicians of the twentieth century. Woolly Days has just finished reading “Joh: The Life and Political Adventures of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen”, a 1978 biography by journalist Hugh Lunn which has the disadvantage of being written less than halfway during Joh’s tenure but offers useful insights into his early days and his rise to power.

Joh was born in the small New Zealand town of Dannevirke in 1911, the second son of Danish Lutheran pastor Carl George Bjelke-Petersen and his wife Maren. The Bjelke-Petersens moved to Queensland for health reasons and settled in the town of Kingaroy in the South Burnett region. They bought a scrub-filled property they named “Bethany” and began to clear the land. Aged nine, young Joh was struck down with polio which left one leg a centimetre shorter than the other.

Joh was a hard worker and did farm chores every day before and after school. He left school aged 13 to work full time on the farm and he was driven by the desire to pay off the bank debt on the family farm. His father put the family deeper into debt by buying a second farm to feed their herd of dairy cows. It was Joh’s job to drive the cows to and from the property. He also enjoyed reading the bible and struck up a friendship with a local Lutheran pastor who allowed Joh to take the Kingaroy service whenever he was away.

Joh heard that peanuts would grow well in the sandy soils of his farm. He overcame his father's scepticism and cleared the second property to plant peanuts. Without bulldozers, Joh used teams of horses to pull the timber down. He lived in a cow bail on the property where the only furniture was a bed, a meat safe and a box for bread. The frugal cow bail would be his home for the next 15 years. Joh worked from dawn to dusk every day except Sunday and spent his evenings reading books about self-made men like Henry Ford, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison.

In 1933, then 22 year old Joh talked his bank manager into lending him the money to buy a tractor. Soon he was well on top of his own work and hired his services out to his neighbour farmers. During the three to five month peanut harvesting season, Joh and his team would work all the local properties starting at dawn and finishing at 11pm working by floodlights. By the outbreak of World War II, Joh was harvesting peanuts in a big way. His record of polio meant he was unfit for service and he continued to work the land. He also moved into plant equipment business and bought bulldozers which he would clear the bush for local landholders. By 1949 he was rich enough to learn to fly. He bought his own plane which gave him great mobility for his business and eventually his political career.

After the war, the young entrepreneur was courted by the Country Party and was elected to the Kingaroy Shire Council in 1946. He was also the council’s representative on the Regional Electricity Board. The following year he stood for the vacant Country party state seat of Nanango. Joh was elected, aged 36, and he joined a parliament that had being dominated by Labor for a generation. Joh appeared in the House as a fundamentalist, and in Lunn’s word a “blinkered, Calvinistic and rural” politician. He was jeered by the Government but he handled himself well and promoted the ideas of hard work, anti-unionism and an opposition to state control socialism.

In 1952, the now 40 year old confirmed bachelor finally married. His bride was Florence Gilmour of Brisbane, the private secretary of the Main Roads Commissioner. Flo had a difficult job to “break in” the un-house trained Joh but the pair's talents were definitely in harmony. Her administrative skills balanced Joh’s political nous and they became a formidable team. Their business interests grew as they began to search for oil. But the non-drinking, non-smoking Joh remained a political outsider, even within his own party.

In the 1957 election Labor imploded due to the DLP split and the Country Party swept to power. In 1963 Premier Frank Nicklin surprisingly chose the outsider Joh to be his new minister for works and housing. Three years earlier Joh had heckled Nicklin for increasing road transport fees. Nicklin had forgiven him and noted Joh “possessed a wide knowledge of Queensland and its requirements”. In 1968 Nicklin retired and the popular Jack Pizzey was unanimously anointed his successor. New Police Minister Bjelke-Petersen surprisingly won the contest for deputy leader over more fancied opponents. But with Pizzey expected to lead for the next decade, no one made much of this victory.

Barely six months into his reign, Jack Pizzey died suddenly. Joh was elected unopposed as party leader and heir apparent to the premiership. Liberal coalition leader and caretaker Premier Gordon Chalk said he, not Joh, should have the top job. But the partners voted along party lines and Joh was elected 26 votes to 19. His first act as Premier was a reading from the Bible on George St during a Bible readathon.

His elevation to the top job meant he was now a figure of public interest. The newspapers scrutinised his share holdings in the oil industry and the mining company Comalco which suggested he had done well from government decisions. Joh held fast and refused to divest his shares. ABC reporter Allen Callaghan led the media pack against Joh and his party began to launch a challenge to his rule. In 1970 Joh stared down a party room revolt and needed his own casting vote to avoid the sack.

Things began to turn around in 1971 when Joh appointed the poacher to be his gamekeeper. Allen Callaghan became his new press secretary and his immediate task was to stop the media from seeing Joh as a loser and an inept country bumpkin. He seized the opportunity presented by the Springboks Tour. The Springboks arrived in the context of widespread condemnation of South Africa’s racial policies and their games caused riots in the southern cities.

Under advice from Callaghan, Joh declared a state of emergency which allowed them to commandeer the RNA venue (and outlaw labour strikes) and gave the police unlimited powers to arrest without warrant. The Trade Hall strikes against the Powers were condemned by the public for disruption of services and two thousand protesters were baton-charged by police on Wickham Terrace. Callaghan successfully framed the debate as a law and order issue and made Joh look a strong leader. Callaghan taught Joh the basics of television appearances. Sometimes he would stand behind Joh and give him signals when he was going off-beam.

Joh began to win the propaganda battle and he easily won the State election in 1972 with the help of the weighting of country votes in what became known as the “bjelkemander”. Despite that win, the Country Party knew they needed to make inroads in the metropolitan areas to guarantee continued success. In 1973 they merged with the Queensland DLP and one year later renamed the new entity the National Party (based on the successful NZ party of that name).

In 1972, Gough Whitlam won the Federal election and Labor was in power nationally for the first time since 1949. Joh was to become Whitlam’s most implacable opponent. At the first Canberra’s Premier conference in 1973, Callaghan turned a short sentence from Gough about petrol differentials into a price rise for Queenslanders and the Northern papers ran with this as their front page. Joh attacked the government on every conceivable issue and even the Queensland Liberal President thought he was unnecessarily provocative and antagonistic.

In 1974 the Whitlam government was one short of a senate majority and tried to alleviate this prior to the upcoming half-term election by removing one of their opponents. They made DLP senator (and the last Queensland Labor Premier) Vince Gair ambassador to Ireland so that one extra seat would be contested at the election that Labor was likely to win. But Joh got wind of his plan and put in place a ruse (known as the "night of the long prawns") to declare the election writs before Gair could formally resign. The result was that Gair’s seat was not contested and Labor would not gain the majority. The delighted opposition asked Whitlam in parliament whether he had ever “been taken for a ride” by the pilot Bjelke-Petersen. Whitlam responded by calling a double dissolution election of both houses.

That election did not resolve the impasse and Labor won only four of ten Queensland Senate seats. Joh then turned his attentins to the 1974 State election and he criss-crossed Queensland piloting his own state aircraft. Labor was virtually wiped out in this election and the Nationals vote jumped ten percent, winning some city seats. Joh was at the height of his powers. Now he could concentrate on delivering a knock-out blow to his Canberra nemesis Gough Whitlam.

The deadlocked Senate situation changed in 1975 when Labor senator Bertie Millner died at his desk in Brisbane. The political convention was that Millner’s Senate seat would go to the next man on the Labor ticket, Dr Mal Colston (a man who would later enter into Labor infamy as a ‘turncoat’). Bjelke-Petersen announced publicly he wanted Labor to put up three nominations and state parliament would choose the man it wanted. Labor refused. The Coalition began a smear campaign against Colston suggesting he was the prime candidate in a 1962 arson case.

Joh’s office then found an unlikely candidate. He was 64 year old Albert Field, ALP member and president of the Federated Furnishing Trade Union. Joh nominated Field as the Senate candidate despite the strenuous objections of Labor. Field was pilloried by the southern media and ostracised by Labor. Questioned about the Senate appointment, Whitlam described Joh as a “bible-bashing bastard”. Whitlam had gone too far. Insulting the church on TV was not a good look and there was an inevitable backlash against him. In November 1975, Governor-General John Kerr sacked Whitlam’s Government.

He and Field were defeated at the following election. Joh had seen off his nemesis Gough. Back in state politics, Joh had to ride out the storm caused by the police heavy-handed tactics in destroying a hippie commune at Cedar Bay north of Cairns. He was also troubled by the long-running inquiry that followed. Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod resigned in protest saying Queensland was becoming a police state.

Lunn’s book “Joh” was published in 1978 and misses out on the excesses of the 1980s era Joh administration. Joh trampled on civil liberties, encouraged police corruption and destroyed John Howard’s hopes of winning power in 1987 with his ill-judged ‘Joh for Canberra’ crusade. That same year, the ABC 4 Corners episode “The Moonlight State” began to bring the corruption into the public record. The Fitzgerald Inquiry released its findings in 1989 and implicated senior members of Joh’s government. Joh was eventually forced to resign. He avoided prison for perjury at the Inquiry due to a deadlocked jury whose foreman was a member of the National Party. He died in 2005 and was buried at the family property “Bethany” after a state funeral.

No comments: