This is the season for personal nostalgia. In my case, personal perspectives inevitably shade into the political. On 1 January Queensland Cabinet papers from 1987 were released; and as a further reminder of that era, on 4 January a state funeral was held for Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen who had died shortly before Christmas.
At the start of 1987, profound but ultimately unfounded pessimism gripped many of us inhabiting the University of Queensland. Joh Bjelke-Petersen seemed to be riding a political juggernaut, having crushed the ‘liberal’ components within the Liberal Party which, in coalition with the National Party, had kept him in power for nearly two decades. In 1986 Joh’s uncompromising attitude on a range of civil liberties, educational and social issues had seen him forcibly dissolve this long-standing power-sharing arrangement. The 1986 election, which followed a redistribution that increased the number of seats from 82 to 89, was aimed at securing him a workable parliamentary majority in his own right (the luxury recently required by the current Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk).
In Joh’s case, as in Palaszczuk’s, it was a close-run thing of Napoleonic proportions to take on not just the reviled socialists but also the Brisbane bourgeois establishment. The Nationals secured a majority in their own right, with 49 seats – the only time that the Nationals have ever won enough seats to govern alone. His skills in offering blandishments and job security for two former Liberal Party ministers carried the day (one of whom, Don ‘Shady’ Lane ended up in prison, as did the Police Commissioner Terry Lewis).
There were ample grounds for our pessimism at the start of 1987 and numerous incidents which underlined the apparently ineradicable illiberalism which had infected the body politic and the voters who had shown their support for the established regime. (In RIP Flo Bjelke-Petersen – but let’s not forget Joh’s legacy, Amy Remeikis of The Guardian recently provided a long but incomplete list of the Bjelke-Petersen misdemeanours to demonstrate the vacuity of Malcolm Turnbull’s response to the death of Dame Florence.)
By 1987, the campus of the University of Queensland had become the focus for protests because all other venues were rendered inaccessible by ‘state of emergency’ declarations (dating back to the Springbok tour of 1971) and street march bans in 1978. One of the few ‘liberal’ Ministers left in the Cabinet, the Nationals’ Mike Ahern, had added to his credibility between 1978 and 1980 by chairing a remarkably independent parliamentary select committee on education. This had confronted, but not resolved, pressures from fundamentalist church organisations for a range of policy decisions which seemed to place Queensland firmly in the stone age – demanding the banning of school social science curriculum materials, sex education in schools, HIV information programs, the continued persecution and prosecution of the LGBTQI (then referred to as the gay and lesbian) community, police harassment of the media and raids on abortion clinics and hippie communes.
More insidious was the removal of any constraint on rampant capitalism, especially real estate development, destroying major landmarks associated with Queensland’s cultural heritage. This was epitomised by the demolition in the middle of the night of the much-loved Bellevue Hotel in 1979, and in 1982 the Cloudland Dance Hall (where countless Brisbane courtships took place), acts of perceived vandalism which outraged the apparently ineffectual middle classes of Brisbane. The hoped-for cultural renaissance to be stimulated by the impact of the 1988 World Expo seemed a chimera at the start of the year but at least from their time in coalition the Liberals had left a lasting contribution, both advocating proposals for Expo 1988 and the Queensland Cultural Centre in Cabinet (see Queensland Speaks interview with Sir Llew Edwards). The Cultural Centre opened at Southbank in 1985.
Journalists Phil Dickie and Chris Masters had exposed the dark underbelly of Queensland corruption in early 1987; Dickie in articles in the Courier-Mail and Masters in The Moonlight State aired on the ABC’s Four Corners in May 1987. They exposed corruption among the police in relation to gambling and prostitution, and in the government’s dealings with mining and property developers. Joh was out of Queensland when The Moonlight State was aired; acting Premier Bill Gunn established the Fitzgerald Inquiry the day after it was shown. The Inquiry reported in 1989.
By the end of 1987, there was a definite sense of rising optimism. This culminated in Joh’s resignation on 1 December and the accession to power of Michael Ahern. The ALP had acquired a credible leadership team after a few false starts and had shown its capacity for commanding electoral support in the election held the previous year. The Liberals had made their peace with Ahern and it seemed only a matter of time before the State would enjoy significant improvement. Later on, it appeared that this might have been a false dawn. Ahern’s efforts to impose order on Cabinet processes and his unequivocal acceptance of the recommendations of the Fitzgerald Inquiry proved too rich for the digestive system of a corrupt body politic. [In September 1989, when polls predicted a Labor landslide, Ahern was replaced as Premier by someone nearer the mainstream, Russell Cooper. Two months later Labor, led by Wayne Goss, won the election, gaining 24 seats and more than 50% of the primary vote.]
During 1987, Joh had become increasingly erratic. The Cabinet papers released on 1 January show his predilection for intervening at all levels and also his secretive style, giving no prior notice before members of Cabinet were invited to endorse material that they had not previously seen. He could still exercised magnetic charm (which my wife and I had seen first-hand as observers at a National Party conference), but his mind seemed to be on other things during 1987. He had probably been encouraged by colleagues to consider sharing the virtues of his charismatic leadership with the nation, even aspiring to be Prime Minister or, as reality dawned, becoming the major National Party shaker and mover in Canberra. Those of us close to the action felt a niggling doubt that conservatives in other states would welcome this.
The main question left unanswered after the Fitzgerald Inquiry was the personal accountability of Bjelke-Petersen for all of the characteristics of a regime which in retrospect only Prime Minister Turnbull seems to admire. Two decades later, in 2007, Professor Peter Spearritt secured State government as well as mainstream research funding for a project at the University of Queensland called Queensland Speaks, in which I assisted Peter as Research Director. The project undertook over 100 interviews with former cabinet ministers and senior public servants who served between 1968 and 2008. All the interviews remain publicly available. One of the most interesting insights came from David Russell, a major National Party figure and barrister who worked closely with Premier Bjelke-Petersen in all his diverse excursions into the area of civil liberties.
Russell recalled an anecdote involving National Party benefactor and insider, Sir Edward ‘Top Level Ted’ Lyons. Lyons had established the Bjelke-Petersen Foundation in 1979 to raise $2.5 million for the National Party, asking businessmen for donations that would be ‘in the protection of your commercial future as well as your basic democratic lifestyle’. Russell said that Lyons asked him to urgently warn Joh that his Cabinet colleague Russ Hinze was corrupt and that Joh would suffer if this came out.
Russell reports that Joh said he already knew but he could do nothing about it, presumably because Hinze had the numbers in Cabinet to claim the Premiership himself. Hinze died before corruption accusations could be tested by the courts after the Fitzgerald Inquiry but this exchange with David Russell suggests that by 1987 the regime had, indeed, become rotten to the core.
Roger Scott is an Emeritus Professor of Public Administration in the University of Queensland and former Director-General of Education in Queensland. He was the Foundation Director of the TJ Ryan Foundation in Brisbane.