Former premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen remains a divisive figure.
Former premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen remains a divisive figure.

Why Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen wanted deal with communist tyrant

NEW details of a proposed partnership between Queensland and one of the Eastern Bloc's most notorious Communist tyrants, Nicolae Ceausescu, have emerged with the release of 1987 State Cabinet documents.

For the first time, former Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen's own account of the bizarre 1987 trip to Romania to team up with the paranoid despot in an ambitious "Coal for the Communists'' venture has been released for public viewing.

On Christmas Day two years later, the Romanian dictator who ran one of the globe's most oppressive, secretive and violent regimes was executed by a firing squad staffed by his own people.

The proposed Romanian partnership is just one of a series of revelations contained in Cabinet documents which become public today, giving detailed, behind-the-scenes insights into the dying days of the Bjelke-Petersen Government.

In a state crippled by 11 per cent unemployment, increasingly outlandish schemes are mooted including "the world's tallest building'' to be built in downtown Brisbane.

Sir Joh‘s victory salute was a little premature.
Sir Joh‘s victory salute was a little premature.

The infamous redevelopment of the Port Office site was discussed by Cabinet ministers who seemed to be wondering where all the "brown paper bag'' money was coming from, while up north a space port to rival Cape Kennedy in the US was proposed for our own Cape York.

All the while, an increasingly absent Sir Joh, who devoted the first part of the year to the doomed "Joh for Canberra'' push, was seen to be losing control of a Government increasingly dominated by deputy Premier Bill Gunn as the spectre of the Fitzgerald Inquiry loomed over Cabinet.

Current Minister for Digital Technology Mick de Brenni, who officially released the documents on December 20 on an embargoed basis, said 1987 was unquestionably an historical year for this state.

"A new age of sunlight was dawning in Queensland as the curtains were closing on one of Australia's most notorious political careers,'' he said.

Sir Joh's flights of fancy included hydrogen-powered cars and cancer-curing quacks like Milan Brych.

But his willingness to deal with Ceausescu was one of his more outlandish, if awe-inspiring, attempts to make a buck for Queensland.

Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu with his wife Elena, on a visit to Queensland.
Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu with his wife Elena, on a visit to Queensland.

On August 24, 1987, Sir Joh reported to Cabinet that he had visited Romania, London and Geneva.

His official report showed departmental heads Sir Sydney Schubert and Sir Leo Hielscher were with him, but it is also known the then Premier's old friend Lang Hancock, the WA mining magnate, also joined the team in Romania.

The disgraced WA Premier, Brian Burke, who did seven months in prison in 1994 on false pretences convictions, had been in Romania's capital Bucharest earlier in the year trying to sell iron ore.

Ceausescu was ready to pay for Queensland coal, but not with money.

The dictator had proposed a bartering deal which included Romania giving Queensland oil, fertiliser and some Romanian-built locomotives.

"Preliminary arrangements have been made for an initial 2 million tonnes of coking coal to be supplied through the Romanian port of Constanta,'' Sir Joh told Cabinet in a report in August of 1987. "It is hoped that these arrangements will lead very quickly to a long-term contract of up to 3 million tonnes per annum, mainly for the Romanian steel works.''

Sir Joh said he would "talk immediately with Queensland coal producers to see who was interested in the deal".

"The arrangement will be a barter one with Romania paying for the coal with oil, fertiliser, steel, machines, locomotives etc. Their Romanian products can be sold anywhere and need not be exported into Queensland.

"Coal exporters will need to set up trading arrangements, probably with a third party trading company.''

The collapse of the deal didn't prevent the grotesque public appearance of Ceausescu and wife Elena at World Expo 88.

Doug Hall, director of the Queensland Art Gallery between 1987 and 2007, recorded his memories of that visit in an article in The Courier-Mail in 2011.

Sir Joh had been ejected from the Premier's office and Premier Mike Ahern was given the job of hosting a dinner for the couple who, according to Mr Hall, quickly became an "unavoidable joke.''

Paranoid, demanding food tasters at an official dinner, the couple's security team even pulled guns on Mick Veivers, the Member for Southport.

Veivers, a former tough rugby league international forward, had arrived at their official dinner after a few drinks in an excessively genial mood.

"Romanian security wasn't familiar with voluble, backslapping types and they went for their guns,'' Mr Hall recalls.

The Ceausescus were shot by a firing squad on December 25,1989 the following year with Nicolae reportedly singing the communist anthem The Internationale before he and his wife were hit with a hail of bullets.



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