Not an average Joh: the legacy of Joh-Bjelke Petersen

I haven’t yet read The Courier-Mail journalist and author Matthew Condon’s new book Three Crooked Kings about corrupt former Queensland Police boss Terry Lewis.

Joh by Peter Gillan (Creative Commons)
Joh by Peter Gillan (Creative Commons)

But given how Lewis was catapulted into power by Joh-Bjelke Petersen and what I’ve recently learned about the 1971 Springbok tour, it was no surprise to hear Condon reveal how politics and police were complicit in creating a ‘law and order’ model for Queensland.

Condon said Bjelke-Petersen secretly told Police Union president Ron Edington he would support their pay claim in the industrial court if they would back him up. Condon’s tale reminds me of a much earlier book about the early years of Bjelke-Peterson’s rule, “Joh” by Hugh Lunn.

Johannes Bjelke-Petersen (“Joh” to friends and foes alike) was Queensland’s longest serving Premier and one of the most controversial Australian politicians of the twentieth century. He was backward, uneducated, socially inept and often unintelligible but he crafted out a long-term premiership that promoted industry under the cloak of law and order.

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

Despite illness, Joh 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 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 second 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 peanuts grew well in sandy soils. 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 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, aged 22, Joh talked his bank manager into a loan for a tractor. Soon he was on top of his own work and hired his services out to farmers. During the four month peanut harvesting season, Joh’s team would work all the local properties starting at dawn and finishing at 11pm under floodlights. By 1939, Joh was harvesting peanuts in a big way and his polio made him unfit for war service. He moved into the plant equipment business and bought bulldozers to clear the bush. 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.

The young entrepreneur was courted by the Country Party and he was elected to Kingaroy Shire Council in 1946. The following year he stood for the vacant Country party state seat of Nanango. Joh won the seat aged 36, and he joined a parliament that had been 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. Government members jeered him but he handled himself well and promoted hard work, anti-unionism and an opposition to state controlled socialism.

In 1952, the 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 house train Joh but the pair had matching talents. Her administrative skills balanced Joh’s political nous and they became a formidable team.

The non-drinking, non-smoking Joh remained an outsider, even within his own party. In the 1957 state election Labor imploded due to the DLP split and the Country Party swept to power with Joh on the back bench. In 1963 Premier Frank Nicklin made him minister for works and housing. Joh once heckled Nicklin for increasing road transport fees but Nicklin noted Joh had 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. With Pizzey expected to lead for a decade, no one made much of this victory.

Barely six months into his reign, Jack Pizzey died suddenly. Joh was elected unopposed as Country 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 they voted along party lines and Joh was elected premier 26 votes to 19. His first act was a reading from Scriptures on George St during a Bible readathon.

His elevation to the top job made him a figure of public interest. Newspapers scrutinised share holdings in oil and mining company Comalco and suggested he had done well from government decisions. Joh refused to divest his shares. ABC reporter Allen Callaghan led the media pack against Joh and his party launched a challenge against him. In 1970 Joh stared down a party room revolt and used his own casting vote to avoid the sack.

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

Joh declared a state of emergency which allowed him to commandeer the RNA venue (and outlaw labour strikes) and he gave police unlimited powers to arrest without warrant. The Trade Hall strikes against the Powers were condemned by the public for disruption of services and hundreds of 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 also taught Joh the basics of television. Sometimes he would stand behind Joh and give signals when he was going off-beam.

Joh won the propaganda battle and easily retained power in the 1972 State election with the help of the weighting of country votes known as the “bjelkemander”. Yet the Country Party knew they needed to make inroads in metropolitan areas to guarantee continued success. In 1973 they merged with the Queensland DLP and 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, Labor’s first win since 1949. Joh became Whitlam’s most implacable opponent attacking the government on every issue. In 1974 the Whitlam government was one short of a senate majority and tried to remove an opponent. They made DLP senator (and former Queensland Labor Premier) Vince Gair ambassador to Ireland so an extra seat would be contested at the election that Labor was likely to win. Joh got wind of the plan and put in place a ruse (the “night of the long prawns“) to declare the election writs before Gair could formally resign. 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 turned his attention to the 1974 State election and he criss-crossed Queensland by plane. Labor was virtually wiped out and the Nationals vote jumped ten percent, winning city seats. Joh was at the height of his powers. Now he could concentrate on Whitlam.

The deadlocked Senate situation changed in 1975 when Labor senator Bertie Millner died at his desk in Brisbane. The political convention was Millner’s Senate seat would go to the next man on the Labor ticket, Mal Colston (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 suspect in a 1962 arson case.

Joh’s office then found an unlikely candidate. He was Albert Field, 64, a disaffected ALP member and president of the Federated Furnishing Trade Union. Joh nominated Field as the Senate candidate despite Labor’s objections. 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 a backlash. With the Senate refusing budget supply, Governor-General John Kerr sacked Whitlam’s Government in November 1975.

Joh had seen off his nemesis but he had to ride out the storm caused by 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. Commissioner Ray Whitrod resigned in protest saying Queensland was becoming a police state. Whitrod was also furious at the promotion of unknown Terry Lewis to deputy commissioner over more senior officers.

Lunn’s book “Joh” was published in 1978, the year Lewis replaced Whitrod. It misses out on the excesses of the 1980s era. Joh trampled on civil liberties and encouraged police corruption. As his hubris grew, he 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 had resigned by then. 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 organised by Labor Premier Peter Beattie who was arrested by Joh’s police in 1971. Joh remains a divisive figure in state politics and like his trial, the jury remains split on his legacy.

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