Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen with Lady Flo on their wedding day in 1952.
Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen with Lady Flo on their wedding day in 1952.

Pearson respect: 'Joh and Flo returned our promised land'

QUEENSLAND'S best known Aboriginal activist has revealed his people's surprising debt to Sir Joh and Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen.

Cape York based Noel Pearson explained his unexpected attendance at the funeral for Lady Flo, held in the in the electorate of her Nanango MP Deb Frecklington, whose area also includes Gympie region's western districts..

Despite major political differences in more recent years, Mr Pearson said he also remembered earlier times when Sir Joh in particular had saved his people from extinction and given them back their land.

Writing in The Weekend Australian, Mr Pearson said the politically controversial Bjelke-Petersen couple were once "kind to indigenous citizens” and helped his people retrieve their "promised land.”

NOEL PEARSON: The Cape York community leader speaks at Woodford Folk Festival. Photo Kyle Zenchyson / Caboolture News
NOEL PEARSON: The Cape York community leader speaks at Woodford Folk Festival. Photo Kyle Zenchyson / Caboolture News Kyle Zenchyson

In the article, Mr Pearson said a shared Christian faith was crucial to the support his people received.

"We are Lutherans and we share a long history,” he wrote.

He said that without the Lutheran church and its missionary work for the Aboriginal residents of the Hope Vale area "my people would have been done for.”

But later, it was Sir Joh's influence and personal contribution that saved what had become the lost tribe of Hope Vale, near Cooktown.

Because of the Lutheran church's German connection, it seems the Hope Vale Aboriginal people were not considered Australian enough during World War II and were interned, then resettled at Woorabinda, inland from Rockhampton.

Mr Pearson said his historical research indicated Australian military intelligence services believed the Aborigines would side with the enemy in the event of an invasion.

The displaced and culturally devastated population was further crushed by disease at Woorabinda, especially influenza, but still managed to work on projects supporting the war effort.

After the war, the government of the day appeared uninterested in the wish of the people to return home.

"Our elders started campaigning, appealing to Lutheran congregations throughout southern Queensland,” he said.

For years, Mr Pearson said, his people lived in effective exile, "akin to that of the Children of Israel.

"In the minds of our people, we wanted to return to our promised land.”

The problem was there was not much land left after white settlement.

"The mission needed new land,” Mr Pearson wrote. "This is where Joh came into our history.

"He joined the campaign for the Guugu Yimidhurr people to return to Cape York.

"He flew reconnaissance flights to identify land that could be purchased for the new mission and drove the bush tracks to inspect the land.

"He found land with deep red soil not unlike that of his Kingaroy home.

"He became a member of parliament and took the case to the government.”

But Cabinet rejected the idea of financing the project.

Sir Joh took the idea to the Premier personally and a later Cabinet meeting reversed its earlier position.

"For 10 years Sir Joh chaired the Hope Vale Mission Board on behalf of the Lutheran church.

"He made plans for the new village, blazing roads and clearing the land, and supporting agricultural endeavours to produce food and income for the mission.”

Mr Pearson said Sir Joh's position on Aboriginal issues shifted later and "turned into hurt and injustice towards Queensland's Aboriginal people, including its Lutherans.

"History often rolls in the breast and is hard to reconcile,” he wrote.

"I pay respect now to the couple who came to know our people after the war, who helped break our exile and returned us to our promised land, on the basis of shared religion rather than politics,” Mr Pearson wrote.

Gympie Times


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