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Australian History

On this day (Australia): In 1991, the perjury trial of former Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen ended in a hung jury


Joh Bjelke-Petersen

On 19 October 1991 , the perjury trial of former Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen ended in a hung jury. Prosecutors decided against a retrial on the basis of Joh’s advancing age & divided public opinion.

Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen KCMG was born on 13 January 1911. He was an Australian conservative politician.

He was the longest-serving and longest-lived Premier of Queensland, holding office from 1968 to 1987, during which time the state underwent considerable economic development. 

He has become one of the most well-known and controversial figures of 20th-century Australian politics because of his uncompromising conservatism (including his role in the downfall of the Whitlam federal government), political longevity, and the institutional corruption that became synonymous with his later leadership.

Bjelke-Petersen’s Country (later National) Party controlled Queensland despite frequently receiving a smaller number of votes than the state’s two other major parties, achieving the result through a notorious system of electoral malapportionment that resulted in rural votes having a greater value than those cast in city electorates. 

The effect earned Bjelke-Petersen the nickname of “the Hillbilly Dictator”. Yet he was a highly popular figure among conservative voters and over the course of his 19 years as premier he tripled the number of people who voted for the CP and doubled the party’s percentage vote.

After the Liberals pulled out of the coalition government in 1983, Bjelke-Petersen reduced his former partners to a mere eight seats in an election held later that year. In 1985 Bjelke-Petersen launched a campaign to move into federal politics to become prime minister, though the campaign was eventually aborted.

Bjelke-Petersen was a divisive premier and earned himself a reputation as a “law and order” politician with his repeated use of police force against street demonstrators and strongarm tactics with trade unions, leading to frequent descriptions of Queensland under his leadership as a police state.

From 1987 his administration came under the scrutiny of a royal commission into police corruption and its links with state government ministers. Bjelke-Petersen was unable to recover from the series of damaging findings and after initially resisting a party vote that replaced him as leader, resigned from politics on 1 December 1987.

Two of his state ministers, as well as the police commissioner Bjelke-Petersen had appointed and later knighted, were jailed for corruption offences and in 1991 Bjelke-Petersen, too, was tried for perjury over his evidence to the royal commission; the jury failed to reach a verdict as the jury foreman was a member of the Young Nationals, and Bjelke-Petersen was deemed too old to face a second trial.

Bjelke-Petersen faced criminal trial for perjury arising out of the evidence he had given to the Fitzgerald inquiry (an earlier proposed charge of corruption was incorporated into the perjury charge). Bjelke-Petersen’s former police Special Branch bodyguard Sergeant Bob Carter told the court that in 1986 he had twice been given packages of cash totalling $210,000 at the premier’s office.

He was told to take them to a Brisbane city law firm and then watch as the money was deposited in a company bank account. The money had been given over by developer Sng Swee Lee, and the bank account was in the name of Kaldeal, operated by Sir Edward Lyons, a trustee of the National Party. 

John Huey, a Fitzgerald Inquiry investigator, later told Four Corners: “I said to Robert Sng, ‘Well what did Sir Joh say to you when you gave him this large sum of money?’ And he said, “All he said was, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’.” 

The jury could not agree on a verdict. In 1992 it was revealed that the jury foreman, Luke Shaw, was a member of the Young Nationals and was identified with the “Friends of Joh” movement.

A special prosecutor announced in 1992 there would be no retrial because Bjelke-Petersen, then aged 81, was too old. Developer Sng Swee Lee refused to return from Singapore for a retrial. Bjelke-Petersen said his defence costs sent him broke.

Bjelke-Petersen’s memoirs, Don’t You Worry About That: The Joh Bjelke-Petersen Memoirs, were published the same year. He retired to Bethany where his son John and wife Karyn set up bed and breakfast cottages on the property. He developed progressive supranuclear palsy, a condition similar to Parkinson’s disease.

In 2003, he lodged a $338 million compensation claim with the Queensland Labor government for loss of business opportunities resulting from the Fitzgerald inquiry. The claim was based on the assertion that the inquiry had not been lawfully commissioned by state cabinet and that it had acted outside its powers.

The government rejected the claim; in his advice to the government, tabled in parliament, Crown Solicitor Conrad Lohe recommended dismissing the claim and said Bjelke-Petersen was “fortunate” not to have faced a second trial.

Bjelke-Petersen died in St Aubyn’s Hospital in Kingaroy in April 2005, aged 94, with his wife and family members by his side. He received a State Funeral, held in Kingaroy Town Hall, at which the then Prime Minister, John Howard, and Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie were speakers.

Source: Wikipedia

About Craig Hill

Teacher and Writer. Writing has been cited in New York Times, BBC, Fox News, Aljazeera, Philippines Star, South China Morning Post, National Interest, news.com.au, Wikipedia and others.

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