Richard Lancaster interviews Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen in 1988.
Richard Lancaster interviews Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen in 1988.

The story behind the lost Joh Tapes

IN the mid-1980s in Brisbane celebrity agent and promoter Richard Lancaster had dozens of local identities on his books and more than enough work.

Richard Lancaster said at the time that he preferred to be known as Sir Joh’s “business advisor or management consultant”, rather than his promoter or agent.
Richard Lancaster said at the time that he preferred to be known as Sir Joh’s “business advisor or management consultant”, rather than his promoter or agent.

Lancaster, then in his late 40s, was born in the UK and had been a tea plantation manager in both Sri Lanka and India.

It was a good life, but he had to make a decision about his children's senior schooling, and decided to uproot his family and try his luck in Australia.

The minute he hit Brisbane, he loved it, and tried his hand at sports management before putting out a shingle for his promotional agency - Frontline Celebrities.

Then in October 1987, he got a call in his West End office from the Premier's Department. A staffer said Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen would like to talk to him about a personal matter.

Lancaster, now 80, went to the Executive Building in George Street, as requested, and met the Premier and his minders in Sir Joh's office.

"I clearly remember the Premier said to me, 'Richard, the reason why we wanted you to come up so urgently - and you can't mention this to anybody - is that I'm going to retire from politics'. They wanted me to manage the transition of Sir Joh, from politics to private life.

"The other person at the meeting was his pilot, Beryl Young. She witnessed it. There was no time frame mentioned for his departure. I don't know. It was all a bit weird."

Richard Lancaster interviews Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen in 1988.
Richard Lancaster interviews Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen in 1988.

If Lancaster's recollection was correct, the timing of the meeting puts an interesting new light on the weeks leading up to the Premier being dumped by his own party, the Nationals, in November 1987.

That month, Sir Joh hit troubled waters both in parliament and in Cabinet meetings with his almost fanatical support for the world's tallest building project, headed up by businessman and developer John Minuzzo.

The Premier had been talking up the project for more than a year, but in late 1987 his interest in the skyscraper - at 443 metres and 110-storeys, it would rival the Sears Tower in Chicago - hit fever pitch, and he was adamant that he would get the multi-million dollar Central Place project through Cabinet.

After being quizzed on the issue in parliament by the Labor Party on November 13, Sir Joh made the unprecedented announcement that he suddenly wanted to sack five "disloyal" ministers. Did it have anything to do with the Central Place fiasco and Sir Joh's ability to get it passed by Cabinet?

The Premier met with Governor Walter 'Wally' Campbell on Monday, November 23, expressing his desire to remove the ministers, but met some constitutional hurdles.

The once-unassailable Sir Joh hit troubled waters in parliament and Cabinet meetings.
The once-unassailable Sir Joh hit troubled waters in parliament and Cabinet meetings.

Mike Ahern announced he wanted to contest the leadership of the party, and on Thursday, November 26, at a parliamentary party meeting, Sir Joh was dispatched as leader.

It took until Tuesday, December 1, for Bjelke-Petersen to return to Government House in Fernberg Road, Paddington to submit his resignation.

He said "goodbye and God bless" to the people of Queensland in a televised farewell speech that afternoon.

"The next I saw Joh he was pulling the pin on TV," Lancaster said. "Not long after that I rang him at Bethany (Joh's property outside Kingaroy) to talk about the future. He came down to Brisbane to see me the following week.

"We met in my offices in Donkin Street, West End."

Lancaster reportedly said at the time that he preferred to be known as Sir Joh's "business advisor or management consultant", rather than his promoter or agent.

Lancaster flagged a number of potential money-spinners for Queensland's longest premier, including after-dinner speaking engagements, as a consultant to private enterprise and as a TV political commentator.

Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen returns to the Parliamentary Annexe after a no confidence motion against him was defeated, 11 November, 1987. Picture: Craig Shaw
Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen returns to the Parliamentary Annexe after a no confidence motion against him was defeated, 11 November, 1987. Picture: Craig Shaw

Lancaster told the now-defunct Times on Sunday he hoped a television documentary on Bjelke-Petersen would start shooting in February 1988.

At the meeting in Donkin Street, Lancaster quizzed Joh on a number of matters, including his financial status. Given that Joh had famously never taken up his parliamentary superannuation, Lancaster concluded he was "property rich, but cash poor".

"I approached a number of contacts I had in the marketplace and the offers came in," he said. "A major pharmaceutical company came on board for two thirty-second commercials for aspirin. It was along the lines of Joh saying, 'If you think you've got a headache, just think about what I've got - I've got the solution'.

"They were prepared to offer $300,000. Joh could have made several million dollars in that first year. I faxed these proposals to him in Kingaroy, and I didn't hear from him.

"I phoned and asked what was going on and he said he had been discussing the offers with his family and they concluded they weren't appropriate for him as the ex-Premier. That it was not good for his image.

"He turned down every offer."

As the Fitzgerald Inquiry gathered pace, Lancaster realised that Joh was “a hot potato that was almost too hot to handle”.
As the Fitzgerald Inquiry gathered pace, Lancaster realised that Joh was “a hot potato that was almost too hot to handle”.

As the Fitzgerald Inquiry gathered pace, Lancaster realised that Joh was "a hot potato that was almost too hot to handle". With the inquiry came damaging blows to Bjelke-Petersen's record as premier and his style of government.

"I decided we had to get a message out there to highlight some of the attributes this guy had," said Lancaster. "He was a very good leader. I thought it would be a good idea to film six 30-minute interviews with Joh, focusing on the leadership style of the man.

"Joh thought it was a great idea."

So it transpired that on a single day in October 1988, Joh sat down with Lancaster at an audio-visual production office in Albion in Brisbane's inner-north and recorded the interviews.

Less than two months later Sir Joh was called as a witness at the Fitzgerald Inquiry where he was quizzed about cash turning up in brown paper bags in his office, and famously and comically, about what he knew about separation of powers, which was little. A seventh interview with Lancaster was done after Sir Joh's turn at the inquiry.

Richard Lancaster, who is retired and lives in Redcliffe, remains hugely active in the local arts scene. Picture: Chris Higgins
Richard Lancaster, who is retired and lives in Redcliffe, remains hugely active in the local arts scene. Picture: Chris Higgins

The tapes never made it onto television, and were packaged up on seven VHS cassettes.

"We distributed them to people who we knew were Joh supporters," Lancaster recalled. "We had guys who travelled all around southwest and central Queensland selling the tapes that were sold as a set of seven.

"We sold several hundred copies at about $140 a set, and the bulk of that money went to Sir Joh, to help keep the wolves from the door."

Lancaster dropped off a set, also, to the State Library of Queensland. And that was the end of the Joh tapes.

Lancaster, who is retired and lives in Redcliffe, remains hugely active in the local arts scene and is putting the final touches to a film - his third - about the notorious colonial Brisbane commandant, Captain Patrick Logan, who presided over the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement from 1826 until his murder in 1830.

“He was like a wounded lion, crying out.”
“He was like a wounded lion, crying out.”

Lancaster said he never viewed the Joh tapes as an exercise of historic value.

"I watched the lost Joh tapes just the other day, and it was like Joh had come back from the grave," Lancaster reflected. "He was a dynamic presence. He was an innovator.

"He was self-confident. He was often blatantly one-eyed. He was at times dictatorial and autocratic, and sometimes exhibited poor judgment as well.

Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, former premier of Queensland, pictured with the recently departed Lady Flo post-politics.
Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, former premier of Queensland, pictured with the recently departed Lady Flo post-politics.

"But he was a very clever bugger. He was not a hick, he was a smart operator."

Lancaster said that sometime after the Fitzgerald Inquiry concluded in mid-1989, Sir Joh contacted him and asked him if any of those previous "celebrity" offers were still on the table, including the aspirin commercial.

"I told him, no, and he was surprised," Lancaster recalled. "How naive can you be?

"It was very sad. I felt sorry for the old fellow. He was like a wounded lion, crying out."



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