Johannes Bjelke-Petersen

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Johannes Bjelke-Petersen

The Australian politician Johannes (Joh) Bjelke-Petersen (born 1911) was an extreme reactionary who dominated Queensland politics for years, serving as premier of Queensland from 1968 to 1988.

Johannes Bjelke-Petersen was born in Dannevirke, New Zealand, on January 13, 1911. His father, who was Danish, immigrated to Queensland, Australia, with his family in 1913. Johannes (or Joh, as he was widely known) left school at the age of 13. He remained a major peanut farmer at his home in Kingaroy and a leading businessman in the region throughout his political career. As a farmer he pioneered aerial spraying and seeding.

Bjelke-Petersen entered Parliament in 1947 as a Country Party (later renamed the National Party) member for the constituency of Nanango. He first entered the cabinet as minister for works and housing in 1963 and became premier in 1968.

A controversial figure, Bjelke-Petersen dominated Queensland politics for 20 years. In general, his hostility to civil rights, the environment, and issues of social welfare and his favoritism towards big business earned Queensland the sobriquet of Australia's "Deep North." Very much in the tradition of agrarian populist politicians, he was a colorful figure, of whom it was said that "were he able to finish a sentence he could become dictator of Australia." His inability to articulate took on legendary proportions. His favorite sentence was, with a slight stutter, "Now, just you don't worry about that."

Bjelke-Petersen was an outspoken reactionary in his politics. He strongly opposed union demands, land rights for Aborigines, and legislation that favored conservation over business. Like many populists before him, he was impatient with parliamentary procedures: he abused parliamentary arrangements, denied the Opposition its legitimate access to facilities, suppressed debate, denied information to the Opposition as well as to the media, and frequently forced through Parliament ill-conceived, hastily drafted legislation that reflected both a lack of consultation and Bjelke-Petersen's confrontational style. Queensland's lack of an upper house; the weakness of the Labor Party Opposition; Bjelke-Petersen's total domination of his coalition partner, the Liberal Party; and his domination of the cabinet room exacerbated his authoritarian tendencies.

Among many incidents that brought him to attention at a national level, in 1971 he declared a state of emergency in Queensland as a reaction to demonstrations against the touring South African Springboks (Rugby Union team).

Between 1972 and 1975 Bjelke-Petersen clashed with the federal Labor government under Gough Whitlam. Bjelke-Petersen established himself as a major political figure and a strong voice for states' rights, dedicating himself to a single cause: the obstruction and destruction of the first federal Labor government since 1949. In 1975 he played a key part in undermining that Labor government. In defiance of established tradition, Bjelke-Petersen selected his own candidate to fill a casual Senate vacancy in the federal parliament, so thwarting Labor's attempt to gain a majority in that House. That maneuver was critical to the events leading to the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as prime minister in November 1975.

Bjelke-Petersen continued his tough right-wing policies. For example, in September 1977 he banned political demonstrations—a ban which led to clashes with uranium protesters, unionists, students, liberals, communists, and well-known parliamentarians.

In 1952 he had married Florence (Flo) Gilmour, who was seen as an integral part of Joh's political as well as private life. As an extension of his political performance, Flo was unwavering in her partisanship and loyalty. She was elected to the federal Senate in 1980 as a National Party member for Queensland. There she commanded respect in her own right while simultaneously being seen as Joh's federal representative. Her homely appeal complemented her husband's hard dealing and lifted the fortunes of the National Party in Queensland between 1981 and 1986. The Bjelke-Petersens' combined success proved potent and was dubbed the "Joh and Flo Show."

In 1980, despite criticism by lawyers, civil liberties groups, and backbench members of Parliament, amendments were passed to the Police Act empowering the police to open their files to state and federal departments, government agencies, and certain private concerns. In 1982 Bjelke-Petersen passed the Commonwealth Games Act, which ensured that no protesters could come near the area in which the games were being played or approach any official or dignitary. The central concern of the legislation was to prevent disruption by Aboriginal groups or their white supporters who might wish to draw international attention to the plight of Queensland Aborigines.

In 1983 Bjelke-Petersen led his National Party to an electoral victory that enabled him to form a one-party state government, rather than governing in coalition with the Liberal Party. Owing to heavily malapportioned electoral districts which permitted county areas with one-quarter of the population of city constituencies, this National Party victory was gained on less than 40 percent of the vote, while Labor gained 44 percent. This biased system operated in total defiance of the principle of one person one vote, and was called the "Bjelke-mander."

On his own recommendation, Bjelke-Petersen was knighted by the Queen in 1984.

In 1986 he was returned to office, again demonstrating his remarkable personal popularity against which the Labor Party was powerless. In late 1986 Bjelke-Petersen sensed a loss of direction at the federal level among conservative forces and led a campaign, "Joh for PM," to have himself elected to the federal Parliament. Public speculation about the source of his funding caused Bjelke-Petersen's campaign to falter and die. However, his campaign undermined the already squabbling conservative parties, ensuring their failure at the following federal election.

His interest in federal politics and scandals attached to campaign funding and to his administration of Queensland led to crisis within the Queensland National Party. Direct confrontation with his own leadership, both within and outside Parliament, led to his resignation under a cloud of suspicion on December 1, 1988. In the following local election in Queensland the Labor Party won, ending an extraordinary period in Australian politics.

The story had not ended for Bjelke-Petersen. On September 23, 1991, he went on trial for corruption and perjury. However, a hung jury ended the trial, and Bjelke-Petersen went free. It was later discovered that the jury foreman was a member of Bjelke-Petersen's National Party and had assisted in raising funds for his legal expenses. Following this incident, the Queensland government resolved to amend the Jury Act and set up a permanent criminal justice commission in order to prevent this kind of occurrence in the future.

Bjelke-Petersen's memoirs, Don't You Worry About That: The Joh Bjelke-Petersen Memoirs, were published in 1991.

Further Reading

Most of the following references are fairly critical of Bjelke-Petersen. Hugh Lunn, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen 2nd edition (1984); Alan Metcalfe, In Their Own Right: The Rise to Power of Joh's Nationals (1984); Evan Whitton, The Hillbilly Dictator, Australia's Police State (1989); Ross Fitzgerald and Harold Thorton, Labor in Queensland from the 1880s to 1988 (1989); and Ross Fitzgerald, A History of Queensland, From 1915 to the 1980s (1984). See also Contemporary Review (July 1991); Guardian (August 29, 1989; September 23, 1991; October 27, 1991); and Anarchist Age Weekly Review (November 4, 1996). □

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Johannes Bjelke-Petersen

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