On 26 November 1987, the National Party deposed Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen as party leader, but he refused to resign as Premier of Queensland. He was not present at the caucus meeting.
Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen KCMG 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 was born in Dannevirke in the southern Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand, on 13 January 1911, and lived in Waipukurau, a small town in Hawke’s Bay. The Australian Bjelke-Petersen family are of Danish descent.
Bjelke-Petersen’s parents were both Danish immigrants, and his father, Carl (known to the family as George), was a Lutheran pastor. In 1913 the family moved to Australia, establishing a farm, “Bethany”, near Kingaroy in south-eastern Queensland.
The young Bjelke-Petersen suffered from polio, leaving him with a lifelong limp. The family was poor, and Carl Bjelke-Petersen was frequently in poor health. Bjelke-Petersen left formal schooling at age 14 to work with his mother on the farm, though he later enrolled in correspondence school and undertook a University of Queensland extension course on the “Art of Writing”.
He taught Sunday school, delivered sermons regularly in nearby towns and joined the Kingaroy debating society.
In 1933, Bjelke-Petersen began work land-clearing and peanut farming on the family’s newly acquired second property. His efforts eventually allowed him to begin work as a contract land-clearer and to acquire further capital which he invested in farm equipment and natural resource exploration.
He developed a technique for quickly clearing scrub by connecting a heavy anchor chain between two bulldozers.
By the time he was 30, he was a prosperous farmer and businessman. Obtaining a pilot’s licence early in his adult life, Bjelke-Petersen also started aerial spraying and grass seeding to further speed up pasture development in Queensland.
After failing in a 1944 plebiscite against the sitting member to gain Country Party endorsement in the state seat of Nanango,[ based on Kingaroy, Bjelke-Petersen was elected in 1946 to the Kingaroy Shire Council, where he developed a profile in the Country Party.
With the support of local federal member and shire council chairman Sir Charles Adermann and Sir Frank Nicklin, he gained Country Party endorsement for Nanango and was elected a year later at age 36, going on to give regular radio talks and becoming secretary of the local Nationals branch.
He would hold this seat, renamed Barambah in 1950, for the next 40 years. The Labor Party had held power in Queensland since 1932 and Bjelke-Petersen spent eleven years as an opposition member.
On 31 May 1952, Bjelke-Petersen married typist Florence Gilmour, who would later become a significant political figure in her own right.
Rise to power, 1952–1970
In 1957, following a split in the Labor Party, the Country Party under Nicklin came to power, with the Liberal Party as a junior coalition partner. This was a reversal of the situation at the national level. Queensland is Australia’s least centralised mainland state; the provincial cities between them have more people than the Brisbane area.
In these areas, the Country Party was stronger than the Liberal Party. As a result, the Country Party had historically been the larger of the two non-Labor parties, and had been senior partner in the Coalition since 1925.
In 1963 Nicklin appointed Bjelke-Petersen as minister for works and housing, a portfolio that gave him the opportunity to bestow favours and earn the loyalty of backbenchers by approving construction of schools, police stations and public housing in their electorates.
At various times, he also served as acting minister for education, police, Aboriginal and Island Affairs, local government and conservation and labour and industry. He would serve in cabinet without interruption until his retirement in 1987. Only Thomas Playford IV, who served in the South Australian cabinet without interruption from 1938 to 1965, served longer as a federal or state cabinet minister.
Nicklin retired in January 1968 and was succeeded as Premier and Country Party leader by Jack Pizzey; Bjelke-Petersen was elected unopposed as deputy Country Party leader. On 31 July 1968, after just seven months in office, Pizzey suffered a heart attack and died.
Deputy Premier and Liberal leader Gordon Chalk was sworn in as caretaker premier. The Country Party had 27 seats in Parliament; the Liberals had 20. Nonetheless, there was some dispute over whether the Liberals should take senior status, which would have made Chalk premier in his own right.
Matters were brought to a head when Bjelke-Petersen—elected Country Party leader within days of Pizzey’s death—threatened to pull the Country Party out of the Coalition unless he became Premier. After seven days Chalk accepted the inevitable, and Bjelke-Petersen was sworn in as Premier on 8 August 1968. He remained Police Minister.
Role in the Whitlam dismissal
In 1975, Bjelke-Petersen played what turned out to be a key role in the political crisis that brought down the Whitlam government. When Queensland Labor Senator Bertie Milliner died suddenly in June 1975, Bjelke-Petersen requested from the Labor Party a short list of three nominees, from which he would pick one to replace Milliner.
The ALP refused to supply such a list, instead nominating Mal Colston, an unsuccessful Labor candidate in the 1970 election, whom Bjelke-Petersen duly rejected. On 3 September Bjelke-Petersen announced that he had selected political novice Albert Field, a long-time ALP member who was critical of the Whitlam government.
Field’s appointment was the subject of a High Court challenge and he was on leave from October 1975. During this period, the Coalition led by Malcolm Fraser declined to allot a pair to balance Field’s absence. This gave the Coalition control over the Senate.
Fraser used that control to obstruct passage of the Supply Bills through Parliament, denying Whitlam’s by now unpopular government the legal capacity to appropriate funds for government business and leading to his dismissal as Prime Minister.
During the tumultuous election campaign precipitated by Whitlam’s dismissal by Sir John Kerr, Bjelke-Petersen alleged that Queensland police investigations had uncovered damaging documentation in relation to the Loans Affair. This documentation was never made public and these allegations remained unsubstantiated.
Downfall and resignation: 1987
In late 1986, two journalists, the ABC’s Chris Masters and The Courier-Mail‘s Phil Dickie, independently began investigating the extent of police and political corruption in Queensland and its links to the National Party state government.
Dickie’s reports, alleging the apparent immunity from prosecution enjoyed by a group of illegal brothel operators, began appearing in early 1987; Masters’ explosive Four Corners investigative report on police corruption entitled The Moonlight State aired on 11 May 1987.
Within a week, Acting Premier Gunn decided to initiate a wide-ranging Commission of Inquiry into police corruption, despite opposition from Bjelke-Petersen. Gunn selected former Federal Court judge Tony Fitzgerald as its head.
By late June, the terms of inquiry of what became known as the Fitzgerald Inquiry had been widened from members of the force to include “any other persons” with whom police might have been engaged in misconduct since 1977.
On 27 May 1987, Prime Minister Hawke called a federal election for 11 July, catching Bjelke-Petersen unprepared. The premier had flown to the United States two days earlier and had not yet nominated for a federal seat; on 3 June he abandoned his ambitions to become prime minister and resumed his position in the Queensland government.
The announcement came too late for the non-Labor forces, as Bjelke-Petersen had pressured the federal Nationals to pull out of the Coalition. Due to a number of three-cornered contests, Labor won a sweeping victory.
Fitzgerald began his formal hearings on 27 July 1987, and a month later the first bombshells were dropped as Sgt Harry Burgess—accused of accepting $221,000 in bribes since 1981—implicated senior officers Jack Herbert, Noel Dwyer, Graeme Parker and Commissioner Terry Lewis in complex graft schemes.
Other allegations quickly followed, and on 21 September Police Minister Gunn ordered Lewis—knighted in 1986 at Bjelke-Petersen’s behest and now accused of having taken $663,000 in bribes—to stand down.
The ground had begun to shift out from under Bjelke-Petersen’s feet even before the hearings began. The first allegations of corruption prompted the Labor opposition to ask the Governor, Sir Walter Campbell, to use his reserve power to sack Bjelke-Petersen.
His position deteriorated rapidly; ministers were openly opposing him in Cabinet meetings, which had been almost unthinkable for most of his tenure.
Throughout 1986, Bjelke-Petersen had pushed for approval of construction of the world’s tallest skyscraper in the Brisbane CBD, which had been announced in May. The project, which had not been approved by the Brisbane City Council, enraged his backbenchers.
During a party meeting, MP Huan Fraser confronted Bjelke-Petersen, saying “I know there is a bloody big payoff to you coming as a result of this. You’re a corrupt old bastard, and I’m not going to cop it.”
By this time, Sparkes had also turned against Bjelke-Petersen, and was pressuring him to retire. On 7 October, Bjelke-Petersen announced he would retire from politics on 8 August 1988, the 20th anniversary of his swearing-in.
Six weeks later, on 23 November 1987, Bjelke-Petersen visited Campbell and advised him to sack the entire Cabinet and appoint a new one with redistributed portfolios. Under normal circumstances, Campbell would have been bound by convention to act on Bjelke-Petersen’s advice.
However, Campbell persuaded Bjelke-Petersen to limit his demand to ask for the resignations of those ministers he wanted removed. Bjelke-Petersen then demanded the resignation of five of his ministers, including Gunn and Health Minister Mike Ahern.
All refused. Gunn, believing Bjelke-Petersen intended to take over the police portfolio and terminate the Fitzgerald Inquiry, announced he would challenge for the leadership. Bjelke-Petersen persisted regardless and decided to sack three ministers—Ahern, Austin and Peter McKechnie—on the grounds of displaying insufficient loyalty.
The next day, Bjelke-Petersen formally advised Campbell to sack Ahern, Austin and McKechnie and call an early election. However, Ahern, Gunn and Austin told Campbell that Bjelke-Petersen no longer had enough parliamentary support to govern.
While Campbell agreed to the ouster of Ahern, Gunn and Austin, he was reluctant to call fresh elections for a legislature that was only a year old. He thus concluded that the crisis was a political one in which he should not be involved. He also believed that Bjelke-Petersen was no longer acting rationally.
After Bjelke-Petersen refused numerous requests for a party meeting, the party’s management committee called one for 26 November. At this meeting, a spill motion was carried by a margin of 38–9. Bjelke-Petersen boycotted the meeting, and thus did not nominate for the ensuing leadership vote, which saw Ahern elected as the new leader and Gunn elected as deputy.
Ahern promptly wrote to Campbell seeking to be commissioned as premier. This normally should have been a pro forma request, given the Nationals’ outright majority. However, Bjelke-Petersen insisted he was still premier, and even sought the support of his old Liberal and Labor foes in order to stay in office.
However, even with the combined support of the Liberals and Labor plus Bjelke-Petersen’s own vote, Bjelke-Petersen would have needed at least four Nationals floor-crossings to keep his post. Despite Bjelke-Petersen’s seemingly tenuous position, Campbell had received legal advice that he could sack Bjelke-Petersen only if he tried to stay in office after being defeated in the legislature.
This was per longstanding constitutional practice in Australia, which calls for a first minister (Prime Minister at the federal level, premier at the state level, chief minister at the territorial level) to stay in office unless he resigns or is defeated in the House.
The result was a situation in which, as the Sydney Morning Herald put it, Queensland had a “Premier who is not leader” and the National Party a “Leader who is not Premier”. The crisis continued till 1 December, when Bjelke-Petersen announced his retirement from politics. He declared:
The policies of the National Party are no longer those on which I went to the people. Therefore I have no wish to lead the Government any longer. It was my intention to take this matter to the floor of State Parliament. However, I now have no further interest in leading the National Party any further.
Three months later, Bjelke-Petersen called on voters at the federal by-election in Groom to support the Liberal candidate instead of the National contestant. Bjelke-Petersen said the Nationals had lost their way and turned their backs on traditional conservative policies.
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.
Beattie, who had been sued by Bjelke-Petersen for defamation and was arrested during the 1971 Springbok tour protests, said: “I think too often in the adversarial nature of politics we forget that behind every leader, behind every politician, is indeed a family and we shouldn’t forget that.”
As the funeral was taking place in Kingaroy, about 200 protesters gathered in Brisbane to “ensure that those who suffered under successive Bjelke-Petersen governments were not forgotten”. Protest organiser Drew Hutton said “Queenslanders should remember what is described as a dark passage in the state’s history.”
Bjelke-Petersen was buried “beside his trees that he planted and he nurtured and they grew” at the family property “Bethany” at Kingaroy.
The Bjelke-Petersen Dam in Moffatdale in the South Burnett Region is named after him.
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