JOH BJELKE-PETERSEN 1911-2005
Last year, on the occasion of the death of Ronald Reagan, I wrote a few
Last year, on the occasion of the death of Ronald Reagan, I wrote a few
words for the list so I guess I'll try and write something on the occasion
of the passing of Joh Bjelke-Petersen as well.
There are of course many parallels between Reagan and Bjelke-Petersen.
Both were born only weeks apart in 1911 and both died in their nineties
within a year of each another. Their political careers on the national stage
also spanned the same period from 1968 to the end of the 1980s.
Bjelke-Petersen became premier in August 1968 while Reagan emerged as a
serious contender for the Republican nomination for President at the
Republican National Convention also held in August of that year.
There are parallels in Reagan's bid for the Presidency in 1976 and 1980
and the bizarre “Joh for PM” push in 1987. Both Reagan and Bjelke-Petersen
represented the extreme right wing of politics, or at least the extreme
right wing that was electable, and campaigned fervently on an anti-Communist
platform. Reagan and Bjelke-Petersen, despite their right wing extremism or maybe because of it enjoyed enormous electoral success.
Reagan won two of the greatest landslides in American political history in
1980 and 1984 while Bjelke-Petersen crushed the Labor Party in 1974, reducing
it to just 11 seats in a house of 82 and then crushing his coalition partner
the Liberals in 1983, enabling the National Party to govern in its own right. Despite his enormous popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, it is often forgotten now that Bjelke-Petersen was elected Premier in August 1968, following the sudden death of Jack Pizzey, as a compromise candidate. Bjelke-Petersen narrowly survived a challenge to his leadership in 1970. (Bjelke-Petersen survived the challenge by 10 votes to 9 on his own casting vote.) Bjelke-Petersen’s fortunes began to turn around when he declared a state of emergency during the South African Rugby Union tour of Australia in 1971. From this experience Joh learned that law and order was always a vote winner.
Both Reagan and Bjelke-Petersen were shaped by their experiences during
the depression but rather than pushing them to the left, as it did with so
many people, it led them to promote individualism and private enterprise as
the solutions to life's problems. 1932 saw the beginning of the New Deal in
the US with the election of Franklin Roosevelt. 1932 also saw the beginning
of Labor's long period of government in Queensland .
At its height, the National Party was able to garner some 39% of the vote
across Queensland and govern in its own right. It’s often forgotten now but
the National Party in Queensland was at the zenith of its influence in
Queensland at the time it began to collapse. The Nationals won their
greatest victory in 1986. Just as the previous Labor administration also won
its greatest victory in 1956 just prior to its collapse. The National Party
and Joh were not defeated by anything the opposition did or because they
were in office too long, but because of the revelations about wide ranging
and deep seated corruption contained in the Four Corners programme "The
Moonlight State" which aired in May 1987 less than six months after the
Nationals last election victory. Incidentally, the Four Corners Programme
"The Big League" was also instrumental in bringing down the Wran-Unsworth
Labor Government in NSW in 1988. Four Corners also destroyed Pauline Hanson
and One Nation after all else had failed.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen perhaps went the closest to establishing a one man
authoritarian government in Australia , all behind the facade of democratic
institutions. He was aided principally by two things: the malapportionment
in the Queensland voting system and the absence of an upper house from the
Queensland Parliament. That is, he was aided by two things which had been
established by the previous Labor administration. (The upper house had been
abolished by Labor in 1922, incidentally, the same year that capital
punishment was abolished in Queensland . Queensland being the first
Australian state to do so. The weighting of votes favouring rural districts
in Queensland had been established by Labor in 1949.)
Through his reign as premier, Bjelke-Petersen had effectively reduced the
Labor Party to an inconsequential rabble, nobbled the parliament (it hardly
ever sat), destroyed the Liberal Party, reducing it to 6 seats in 1983 and was
in the process of emasculating the cabinet when he fell. Had he succeeded
in doing this, Joh would have effectively established one man rule in
Queensland. In 1987 he attempted to sack five ministers with whom he
disagreed on matters ranging from the Fitzgerald enquiry, which Joh
attempted to shut down, over which he clashed with deputy premier Bill Gunn
to placing condom vending machines in high schools, over which he clashed
with health minister Michael Ahern who was eventually to replace him as
leader of the National Party.
Ironically, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, like Gough Whitlam before him, came to grief at the hands of the vice-regal prerogative powers. It is a convention of the Westminster System that the governor does not have to accept the advice of a minister if he has good reason to believe this advice doesn’t have the support of cabinet. This principle was first established by precedent in South Africa in 1938.
Joh and the Nationals fell from power for the same reasons that Labor fell
from power in Queensland a generation earlier; they began to fight amongst
Paul Reynolds, a noted Queensland academic commented this week that the thing which ultimately brought
Joh and the Nationals down was the decision to eliminate death duties in
1977. A decision taken without the approval of cabinet. Reynolds argues that
this decision, over the course of time, irrevocably altered Queenland's
character bringing an influx of people from NSW and VIC who settled
overwhelmingly in Queenland’s South East Corner. The old provincial
Queensland gradually became a thing of the past.
There are also strong parallels between the rise of the Nationals in
Queensland and the Nationalist Party in South Africa . For many years both
organisations were the bridesmaids with no real prospects of obtaining power. Up until 1948, South African politics was dominated by the Unionist Party, the party which represented the English whites in South Africa . The Afrikaaners had up until this time considered themselves to be outsiders. The Country Party in Queensland had been in a similar position between the years 1915 and 1957. Upon obtaining office in 1948 the Afrikaaner-dominated Nationalist Party governed with the same ruthlessness with which they had been previously excluded. Although winning office narrowly in 1948, the Nationalist Party in South Africa came to dominate the parliament with the previously powerful Unionist Party being reduced to an ineffectual rump.
The Nationalist Party in South Africa was heavily influenced by the Dutch Reform Church . Similarly, the Country/National Party in Queensland was heavily influenced by Lutheranism. This explains some of the tension between Bjelke-Petersen and Mike Ahern who is a Catholic.
The dominance of the Nationalist Party in South Africa and the National Party in Queensland began to unravel at the same time, in the late 1980s. Both Bjelke-Petersen and P.W. Botha left office at this time. Bjelke-Petersen resigned as leader of the National Party and Premier of Queensland in December 1987 while Botha resigned as leader of the Nationalist Party and President of South Africa in early 1989. Having left office, their successors attempted to reform the systems that had been bequeathed to them. These attempts were ultimately futile and both apartheid and a generation of conservative rule in Queensland were swept into the dustbin of history. In the last years of its rule, the Nationalist Party in South Africa came to be challenged by political forces even further to the right; such as the Conservative Party. There were shades of this in Queensland as well. Bjelke-Petersen’s seat of Baramba was won by a candidate representing Citizens initiated referenda. Later the National Party would be challenged in its heartland by One Nation.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen presided over the most corrupt and authoritarian government in Australia . In turn he attacked the official opposition, the institution of parliament, the judiciary, his own coalition partner and was in the process of attacking his own party when he fell. The seeds of his downfall were apparent long before his eventual downfall in 1987, he made an art for of governing unilaterally, ignoring his cabinet. Joh Bjelke-Petersen came within an ace of establishing effective one man rule in Queensland . He ran roughshod over the institutions of the Westminster System but ultimately this cavalier approach was to prove to be his undoing. In an ironic turn of history Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s eventual downfall in November/December 1987 was eerily reminiscent of the downfall of the preceding Labor administration in June 1957. Joh Bjelke-Petersen was left as Premier without a majority in Parliament and lacking the confidence of his own party.
It is likely that Queensland ’s history will continue to follow a similar pattern. The Beattie Labor Government is now well entrenched in Queensland , as well entrenched as Joh and the Nationals were at the height of their power in the 1980s or as entrenched as the Labor governments of Hanlon and Gair in the 1950s. The institutional weakness of the Liberals in Queensland means that it is very unlikely that a coalition government will return to power in the foreseeable future. The only way that Labor will fall from office will be in the manner of its predecessors, the government will have to self-destruct.