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Obituary: Old Corruption: Joh Bjelke-Petersen (1911-2005)

Sat 23 Apr 2005 In: Features

Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen Sir Johannes (Joh) Bjelke-Petersen was a controversial, corrupt fundamentalist right-wing Queensland state politician who died from Parkinsons complications. What effect did his life and lengthy tenure as Queensland Premier have on that state's LGBT population? Bjelke-Petersen was a New Zealander, son of a Danish immigrant minister, and was originally from Dannevirke and Waipukurau. When Joh was two, his family moved to Queensland, where he became a peanut farmer in Kingaroy, before he was elected to the Queensland State Parliament as a Country Party member in 1946. It may seem a distant unpleasant memory now, but Catholic denominational ructions and political polarisation led to a Country Party electoral victory. In 1968, he was elected Premier. Queensland was an abnormal state during his tenure of office. Unlike most other Australian states, most of the population resided outside Brisbane and other major metropolitan areas. Thus, whereas in other states the Liberal Party was the dominant face of Australian centre-right politics, in Queensland it was the Country/National Party that dominated state politics for over twenty years. Under Joh, Queensland was a state of repression, where public demonstrations were banned, left-wing dissidents were kept under police surveillance, and homosexuality was illegal. Like New Zealand, Queensland has no upper parliamentary house, and a rural gerrymander meant that Bjelke-Petersen and his incompetent cronies held power throughout the seventies and eighties. As is often the case, the Queensland ALP was factionalised, and the Queensland Nationals were even able to govern without the aid of their erstwhile Liberal coalition partners when they turned against them (1983). As well as the grotesque gerrymander, which enabled Joh to retain power with only twenty percent of the total votes, Queensland conservatism was reinforced by a northerly flow of inheritance taxes. Joh shamelessly manipulated the Queensland commercial television networks, and cultivated close relationships with the Queensland State Police. In 1974, there were warning signs when Joh interfered with an inquiry into police corruption within the state, leading to retirement of the former commissioner. It would be fair to say that the Christian Right and far right went beserk. In Queensland's backwards rural hinterland, the League of Rights flourished, and infiltrated fundamentalist pressure groups like Howard Carter's Logos Foundation, which unsuccessfully tried to infiltrate New Zealand politics in the late eighties. Like Joh, Howard Carter fell from grace. In his case, it was after revelations related to an affair with a parishioner at his church. Like Auckland, Queensland had its own conspiracy theory crank, Mrs Rhona Joyner. Her pressure group was forced to disband after the usual scare tactics against sex education. The abortion debate surged briefly, then subsided after an abortive police raid on a Brisbane clinic led to a trial which resulted in de facto decriminalisation of abortion access within the state. In 1988, the end came at last. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Four Corners current affairs programme exposed the existence of widespread corruption within the Queensland Nationals and Queensland State Police. The resultant Fitzgerald Inquiry (into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct) led to multiple convictions for police and government corruption, and Joh launched a Prime Ministerial campaign that perversely benefited the then-ALP federal government. Finally, cumulative corruption led to the downfall of Joh as Queensland Premier in 1987. In 1989, Mike Ahern's Queensland Nationals lost power. As for the ex-Premier's Christian Right allies, they ignored the revelations of widespread, endemic state government and police corruption and defended Bjelke-Petersen and the Queensland Nationals on the basis that they were 'good, conservative' Christians! Bjelke-Petersen was let off due to his advanced age and previous tied jury trials. Afterward, he and his wife, Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen, retired to their Kingaroy property. As time went on, Queensland society changed. Unfortunately, Queensland ALP Premier Wayne Goss made some wretchedly stupid decisions about decriminalisation of sex work, and imposed draconian penalties against it, which didn't work. His tenure saw decriminalisation of gay sex and passage of inclusive anti-discrimination laws. He proved to be as much of an authoritarian populist himself, and turned the Queensland State Election of 1996 into a personality debate. Tactical voting led to the rise of a divided Liberal-National coalition state government, whereupon corruption resurfaced, and attempts were made once more to subvert state government accountability. This state government lasted only a term, and dissident Queensland ALP Premier Peter Beattie took power in 1998, with the assistance of Queensland One Nation, who divided the centre-right vote. Like our own New Zealand First during the same period, Queensland One Nation disintegrated, and Beattie thrashed the centre-right at the next two state elections, as Queensland forged ahead in terms of lesbian/gay rights, decriminalised brothels, and became a more mainstream Australian state. In some ways, it has become more civilised than us - its anti-discrimination legislation was amended to include state transgender communities in 2002. In some ways, Queensland resembled a distorted alternate-universe New Zealand during this period. Although Rob Muldoon could never be accused of political corruption, he was also a populist, authoritarian and social conservative despot who attacked civil liberties and human rights. Imagine New Zealand of the seventies with a grossly gerrymandered maldistribution of rural seats, and one can imagine Queensland during the seventies and eighties. Wayne Goss' tenure was what ex-Labour leader Mike Moore might have been like had Helen Clark's coup failed after Labour's narrow election loss in 1993. As for the corrupt conservative Christian ex-ruler, Bjelke-Petersen became increasingly enfeebled by Parkinson's Disease, which led to wheelchair difficulties and eventual respiratory complications, which ended his life. Recommended Reading: Clive Moore: Sunshine and Rainbows: The Development of A Gay and Lesbian Subculture in Queensland: Saint Lucia: University of Queensland Press: 2001. Craig Young - 23rd April 2005    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Saturday, 23rd April 2005 - 12:00pm

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