In 1977 Joh Bjelke-Petersen resolved to ban street marches. Seven Liberals crossed the floor protesting right of association and assembly. On the morning of the debate, I addressed the students at St Lucia campus on the issue advising the bill was a tactic to incite their opposition and deliver the government a law and order issue for the ‘77 elections. I also warned of the 300 police armed with batons just out of sight of the campus. Wise heads prevailed and the students dispersed. Bjelke-Petersen was livid.
Two hours later, he 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”. I told him I was not a member of his Government but a member of the parliament charged with keeping his Government in check. The point was lost on him. He never understood finer philosophical points: the concept of the people electing a parliament to keep check on the government was simply not part of his awareness.
That night members of the press gallery spotted a photo of Rosemary Kyburz, member for Salisbury, in a file on Bjelke-Petersen’s lap. We learned, 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.
In 1980, police raided the bank account of Opposition Leader, Ed Casey, seized account statements and delivered them directly to the Premier who promptly made public, private details of Labor’s election donations. It is barely believable.
When ultra conservatives like David Flint, and others, praise Joh Bjelke-Petersen, they too easily gloss over the fascist style police “statism” that was a major characteristic of his politics, and point instead to Queensland’s dramatic growth during those years ignoring other realities. What they do not know, having viewed these years from a distance, was that they are giving Bjelke-Petersen credit for the work of two of the most talented public servants of the era, Sir Leo Heilscher, Treasury and Keith Spann, Premier’s Department. Acolytes also discount too easily the acumen of Liberal Treasurers, Hiley and Chalk. All of them made Queensland’s success in these years certain.
Those close to the action knew the secret to Bjelke-Petersen’s success was his ability to surround himself with those whose political and financial nose was far greater than he himself enjoyed. A triumvirate of powerbrokers directed him on the Queensland stage. Nationals President, Bob Sparkes, was the grey eminence. NP State Secretary, Mike Evans, was the urbane, cunning negotiator. Alan Callaghan, renowned as a master manipulator of the media was the third. Bereft of their support after the ill fated “Joh for PM” campaign, Joh lasted less than another year. Bjelke-Petersen benefited too from the results of more talented ministers than himself, Hinze, Camm, Ahern, and later, Don Lane who helped build the legend of far sighted government.
There were however many other milestones for which Johannes Bjelke-Petersen can claim most of the credit. Those who mourn his passing might do well to say a prayer for the innocent families of SEQEB workers whose lives and futures were ruined when Joh axed their superannuation for exercising their inalienable right to withhold their labour.
I lament the passing of one who remained a great friend until his death a year or two ago, Ray Whitrod, the honest cop who Bjelke-Petersen hounded from office to make way for his preferred Commissioner, Terry Lewis, thus ushering in a whole new era of corruption in Queensland.
Mourners might say a prayer for John Sinclair, an environmentalist, driven from Queensland and then, because this was not enough revenge, malevolently pursued in the courts at taxpayers’ expense until he was bankrupted and for what? An opinion different from that of the Premier.
Those who would praise him might spare a prayer too for the 81 per cent of Queenslanders deprived of democracy, who never voted National throughout the 70’s but ended up with Bjelke-Petersen as Premier. History should remember the Liberals who stood up to Bjelke-Petersen on corruption, civil liberties, financial accountability, right of association and senate vacancies, who were ruthlessly gerrymandered out of Parliament in a redistribution where boundaries followed the Premier’s vindictive lines precisely.
Too many, like Flint and even Mackerras pass the imbalanced vote to seat ration as a weightage system inherited not invented by the Nationals. But this glibly ignores boundaries that meandered around back streets in Brisbane to ensure a hill top of the wealthy fell into one seat rather than another, or the classic case of one Labor voting town out west, which the National MP representing the environs did not want, and so it was simply transposed hundreds of miles to a neighbouring electorate.
Keen students of the era should never forget the member for Toowong. Ian Prentice, barrister at law, who knowingly sacrificed both a parliamentary career and one at the bar when he made his courageous stand on financial accountability. Bjelke-Petersen demanded, and got, a ban on solicitors’ firms giving Prentice work as a barrister. The success of that “fatwa” is a cold reminder that evil triumphs when good men do nothing. One of the reasons Bjelke-Petersen survived was because business and the professions valued stability over integrity.
Colin Lamont is a former MLA for South Brisbane and an early campaigner for tighter powers for police in domestic situations. Having spent a lifetime active in diverse areas of agenda setting and public policy he is currently completing his Ph.D. in Politics and Public Policy.