Sir Joh himself engaged in some rewriting of history, as early as months after his departure from parliament.
Sir Joh himself engaged in some rewriting of history, as early as months after his departure from parliament.

Joh Bjelke-Peterson: The fall of the ‘hillbilly dictator’

IN THE 30 years since the political removal of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen - Queensland's longest serving premier - the reasons behind that historic event shift and change with the vagaries of time.

While his contemporaries have pinned the rationale behind Joh being dumped from the National Party, and subsequently the premiership, on his quixotic attempts to push through the world's tallest building project, others blamed the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police and political corruption.

Sir Joh was repeatedly scathing of the “disloyal” men who had betrayed him.
Sir Joh was repeatedly scathing of the “disloyal” men who had betrayed him.

The inquiry was set up in May 1987 on the order of then deputy premier and Minister for Police, Bill Gunn, while Joh was out of the country and also deeply mired in his Joh for PM campaign.

And it was in full flight by the time Sir Joh was challenged by Ahern for the leadership in November of that year, with several senior police having rolled over and admitted corruption.

But there is no question the atmosphere of the inquiry, with its almost daily shocking revelations about police corruption, contributed to a public dissatisfaction with Bjelke-Petersen's government.

Bjelke-Petersen, even months after his removal, insisted that he had resigned, disenchanted with the National Party and its future direction.

Queensland’s longest-serving premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen announces his retirement. Picture: Ted Holliday
Queensland’s longest-serving premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen announces his retirement. Picture: Ted Holliday

In The Joh Tapes, he was repeatedly scathing of the "disloyal" men who had betrayed him, and there was no love lost between him and Mike Ahern, who succeeded him as premier.

Indeed, Bjelke-Petersen appeared to have found it difficult to even mention Ahern by name to interviewer Richard Lancaster.

Lancaster asked how he had been coping with being out of politics given Bjelke-Petersen had always stated he wanted to resign on August 8, 1988 - exactly 20 years since he became Premier of Queensland. He'd reached 19 years when his own party dumped him.

"Well, it didn't happen simply because I had some people that I couldn't trust," Joh replied. "I trusted them and I got caught out because they are people you can't trust ... I actually resigned ... and I've been doing other things in the meantime ... watching on the sidelines ... the people … who are trying to cope and they're not doing a very good job of it."

Mike Ahern and Bill Gunn at a press conference after Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen announces resignation on December 1, 1987.
Mike Ahern and Bill Gunn at a press conference after Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen announces resignation on December 1, 1987.

Lancaster further asked if Joh felt he had been "manipulated" by his own colleagues.

"Well, they didn't manipulate me, they manipulated themselves and the organisation and the party and they've made fools of themselves and they've destroyed themselves, and largely the party will see as time goes along you can't do those things and go down the road and expect them to support them," he said.

Sir Joh himself engaged in some rewriting of history, as early as months after his departure from parliament. He started building a narrative that he left a National Party that wanted to change direction in relation to its base conservative policies.

Lancaster asked why loyalty to him had dissipated.

Tony Fitzgerald QC, with then-premier Mike Ahern, handing down the report of the Commission of Inquiry.
Tony Fitzgerald QC, with then-premier Mike Ahern, handing down the report of the Commission of Inquiry.

"Well it's simply because people wanted to change the policy of the party, they wanted to go into a freer, easier lifestyle … prostitution, abortion, condoms, loose living and so on, that I didn't and wouldn't go into," he said.

"Therefore, they said all right, we'll have to get rid of you, and they did seek to do just that.

"They have caused the greatest disaster of the National Party anybody could ever cause because you cannot switch from a very conservative policy, which won the election … I should have been more alert to what was going on."

He said in the end he didn't trust many of his colleagues because they were "leaking everything to the media", and that his backbenchers had been convinced to oppose him, especially in relation to approving the fraught world's tallest building project in the Brisbane CBD.

"… you do get to a point in times where the solidarity I boasted of for donkey's years in the National Party vanished, it disappeared … there is no longer any solidarity in the National Party.

Sir Joh himself engaged in some rewriting of history, as early as months after his departure from parliament.
Sir Joh himself engaged in some rewriting of history, as early as months after his departure from parliament.

"That record that we had lasted for so many years where we were, as I said, rock solid, nothing could shift us, is gone. And it will never return. I'm sure that it can't."

When he was asked by the interviewer if a leader was born or made, he couldn't resist attacking Ahern.

"Well, I wouldn't say he's born necessarily," Sir Joh mused. "You take the man who took over from me … I mean his circumstances … developed in a way that he took over a position that he hadn't won … any … by any … what you call straight down the road in the sense that it was a coup that was … organised against me.

 

The ‘Joh for PM’ campaign was in full flight by the time he was challenged by Mike Ahern for the leadership in November 1987.
The ‘Joh for PM’ campaign was in full flight by the time he was challenged by Mike Ahern for the leadership in November 1987.

"Now I don't know whether you say he was born to be a leader … but his performance doesn't indicate that very well as far as I'm concerned."

When asked about his own lack of academic qualifications, he brought the answer back once again to Ahern.

"Now the person … the premier … he's got a degree in agriculture … I'll let you work it out for yourself," Sir Joh added. He said politicians should "keep your two feet on the ground, don't float in space, airy-fairy sort of stuff, be a realist".

Don't put your foot "on the sticky paper", he warned, as he said the new Premier had already done. Sir Joh did not specific what that "sticky paper" actually was.

 

Right to March protester arrested in Oct 1977, Brisbane.
Right to March protester arrested in Oct 1977, Brisbane.

 

JOH'S BAN ON STREET MARCHES

ONE of the most contentious decisions in Bjelke-Petersen's reign as Queensland premier was to ban political street marches and to use police to rigidly, and sometimes violently, enforce the law.

It broadcast to the rest of the nation that Queensland was edging towards being a "police state", and that Bjelke-Petersen was some sort of "hillbilly dictator".

Sir Joh learned early in his lengthy premiership that the use of large numbers of police to resolve protests or indeed workers' strikes, was a vote winner for the National Party.

Police arrest woman (in a marshall vest) in Adelaide Street during Brisbane ‘Right to March’ demonstration Oct 30, 1978.
Police arrest woman (in a marshall vest) in Adelaide Street during Brisbane ‘Right to March’ demonstration Oct 30, 1978.

Even after the end of his political career, he never wavered in his opposition to organised public dissent.

He said he ignored advice from his own party that if the government didn't allow street marches, particularly in the late 1970s, then it would lose elections.

"I said you can keep your jolly job as premier if that's what you want," he recalled to Lancaster.

"I'm not going to let people run around the streets, breaking all the laws and doing all sorts of things just because the whim strikes them, so I stuck to my guns.

Sir Joh (May 1987) in good spirits despite the regular protests against his rule. Note the nazi saluting protesters (bottom left) and the police Special Branch officer (half cropped from photo, bottom right). Members of Queensland’s ‘spy unit’ were a fixture at such protests ‘monitoring’ and photographing the state’s ‘political opponents’, including future Labor premier Peter Beattie.
Sir Joh (May 1987) in good spirits despite the regular protests against his rule. Note the nazi saluting protesters (bottom left) and the police Special Branch officer (half cropped from photo, bottom right). Members of Queensland’s ‘spy unit’ were a fixture at such protests ‘monitoring’ and photographing the state’s ‘political opponents’, including future Labor premier Peter Beattie.

"Do you know in two elections they did that the week of the elections, and the TV showed all the shoes and thongs and bags all over the street, and I got a bigger vote every time. Because I knew that the people as a whole did not want this lawlessness in their midst."

He was equally disdainful of the notion of Aboriginal land rights.

"…everybody abides by the same law," he said. "This should apply to the Aboriginal people section of the community today.

"All of this talk about two nations and having a treaty. The most dangerous and desperate things that you could ever think of.

"That will lead to bloodshed in this country without any doubt at all in my mind."

 

STATE OF PROTEST

A 1978 right to march protest at King George Square, Brisbane. These protesters had to wait another ten years for Joh to exit. Picture: Courtesy Fryer Library
A 1978 right to march protest at King George Square, Brisbane. These protesters had to wait another ten years for Joh to exit. Picture: Courtesy Fryer Library

 

Queensland police arrest a demonstrator on December 2, 1977.
Queensland police arrest a demonstrator on December 2, 1977.

 

 

 

 

Riots and demonstrations in Brisbane April 1979.
Riots and demonstrations in Brisbane April 1979.
Peaceful 1982 protest against Joh Bjelke-Petersen government in Brisbane. Picture: June Gemes
Peaceful 1982 protest against Joh Bjelke-Petersen government in Brisbane. Picture: June Gemes
Police arrest a Queen Street demonstrator May 12, 1972.
Police arrest a Queen Street demonstrator May 12, 1972.
A woman protester is taken away by police officers during a march against proposed state government legislation to ban street demonstrations, in Brisbane Sept 22, 1977.
A woman protester is taken away by police officers during a march against proposed state government legislation to ban street demonstrations, in Brisbane Sept 22, 1977.
An anti Joh Bjelke-Petersen street march through Brisbane city on his death in 2005. Picture: Darren England
An anti Joh Bjelke-Petersen street march through Brisbane city on his death in 2005. Picture: Darren England


$3m CBD project could get canned

premium_icon $3m CBD project could get canned

Councillor calls for other options to be put on table.

Watch out Gympie, venomous snakes are now on the move

premium_icon Watch out Gympie, venomous snakes are now on the move

An expert says she's seen more venomous snakes than ever this year.

5 things Gympie council will discuss today

premium_icon 5 things Gympie council will discuss today

Goomeri's facilities and council cash reserves also on the list.

Local Partners