From John Ray's shorter notes

30 March, 2019

Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen (1911 - 2005)

By John Ray Ph.D.

The Honourable Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, KCMG

If you google the name "Bjelke-Petersen" you will find many articles, all of which are critical of "Sir Joh". So I thought I might put together a few notes of a more sympathetic kind. I am after all a former member of his political party.

The basic background

The son of a Lutheran pastor, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen was born to Danish parents at Dannevirke, New Zealand, on January 13 1911. The family settled at Kingaroy, 125 miles north-west of Brisbane, to clear land for a farm. It was a harsh existence. The boy left school at 13, and when the family took over a second property he moved there alone, living in the cowshed and clearing 25 acres a year to plant peanuts. He worked his horses until they wore out, then he shot them - the hardest thing he ever did, he would recall. Young Joh took correspondence courses, taught Sunday School and joined a debating club.

A policy outline

He backed economic development at any price, censored sexy books, plays and films, opposed unions, superannuation schemes, the 40-hour week and Aboriginal land claims.

He supported Rhodesia and South Africa when they were an issue. When the Springboks (football team) visited Brisbane, Bjelke-Petersen got public support by declaring a state of emergency and erecting barbed wire at the Oval, thus keeping anti-apartheid demonstrators out. Most Queenslanders wanted politics kept out of sport

Above all, he loathed Socialism, devoting himself, whenever possible, to frustrating the Leftist Federal government of Edward Gough Whitlam. In 1974, Whitlam had a burst of cleverness in which he persuaded an Opposition senator (Vince Gair) from Queensland to resign to become ambassador to Ireland, in hopes of securing an extra Labour Senator at the upcoming Federal election.

But Bjelke-Petersen got wind of this and had his Country Party allies in Canberra entertain the outgoing senator at a beer-and-prawns party just long enough to delay the crucial resignation by a day. From 700 miles away in Brisbane, Bjelke-Petersen then found just enough time to issue writs which ensured that there would be no extra Labor senator. The Canberra party became known as the "Night of the Long Prawns". So a bit of Leftist cleverness was circumvented.

Bjelke-Petersen thwarted Whitlam a second time over a Senate appointment. After a Labor senator died, Joh refused to accept the Labor party nomination as a sucessor and appointed his own man, Albert Field, as a replacement. That resulted in the Labor party losing control of the Senate and led to an early election which Whitlam lost. So, rather amazingly, a Federal Prime Minister was turfed out by a State Premier!

Bjelke-Petersen largely built his success on a rural electorate that he understood perfectly. "The choice is," he would preach, "it's between our system, everything that's made Queensland what we are, and them, the others, the downhill road to Socialism and Communism, make no mistake about it and we don't want that, do we?"

My comments

Joh was for nearly 20 years Premier of my home State of Queensland. An Australian Premier is much more powerful than an American State Governor because he controls both the legislature and the administration. Australia seems to get on perfectly well without the American docrine of the separation of powers and, in a famous remark, Joh once revealed that he did not even know what the separation of powers referred to.

Joh led the National Party -- of which I was a member -- and was pro-business to a fault. As a result, Queensland saw an unprecedented rise in prosperity under his rule. During his time in office, Brisbane (the Queensland State capital) seemed to make the national news as often as Canberra (the national capital) because of Joh's total disregard for all Leftist pieties. In 1974, the government he led gained a remarkable 59% of the popular vote. He was a great Queenslander and I miss him.

He was universally condemned by the intelligentsia for his inarticulateness. He spoke like the ill-educated farmer he was. His speech was quite reminiscent of Trump's speech: Short words and strange syntax. His speech delivery was so messy that the elite all dismissed as being beyond comprehension. Journalists and others claimed it was just impossible to understand what he was saying. But Joh was a farmer and he spoke like a farmer, not like an educated man. And ordinary farmers and working people generally understood him just fine. He kept getting their vote and ended up running Queensland for nearly 20 years -- from 1968 to 1987. So who was the fool?

The big political battle in Australia in the mid-70s was in fact between the immensely erudite and silver-tongued Leftist Prime Minister, Edward Gough Whitlam, and the stumble-tongued but very canny Queensland Premier. And when the 1975 Federal election came around Sir Joh did Whitlam like a dinner. The Leftists won only one out of 18 Queensland seats -- which lost them power in Australia as a whole.

Immigration was not an issue in Joh's day. There was a high level of immigration but it was almost exclusively from the British Isles and Europe -- places where values were like Australia's. So the general Australian view of immigration was more positive than not. Where ethnic issues could have arisen was with reference to Australia's Aborigines, but Joh was notably tolerant of Aborigines and got on well with them. He even visited them! He seems to have got most of their votes in at least some elections.

So Joh was no "white nationalist" or the like. He was however a fervent booster of Queensland. It could therefore be said that he was not a nationalist but a "Statist", where state loyalties are energized in a similar way to national loyalties elsewhere. In Queensland they did not need much energizing. Queenslanders sometimes half-seriously refer to Australians from other states as "cockroaches". I don't think even the Lone Star State goes that far.

So a constant theme from Joh was how badly Queensland was served by "Canberra" (the Federal government) He pointed out various ways in which Federal policies were bad for Queensland and presented himelf as the champion of Queensland against the Federal government. There had always been among Queenslanders some feeling of being different from "Southerners" so that went down well. His slogan could well have been (but wasn't quite) "Make Queensland Great Again"

Before his Country (later National) party gained control of Queensland, the state had undergone a very long period of Labor Party control -- with very socialist policies, including State-owned businesses and many restrictions on marketing. That had the predictable effect of impoverishing Queensland and Queensland was visibly behind the other states in many ways.

Speaking of marketing, who can forget the C.O.D. -- the Committee of Direction of Fruit Marketing? Hilarious now but a great enemy of fresh fruit in its day. If you grew fruit, a State government agency had to sell it for you!

And there was also a Fish Board. Where I was born in Innisfail there were jetties on the Johnstone river at which fishing boats used to pull up. And just a short walk away was a hotel where you could always get a reasonably priced but first class fish dinner. You could even get a real Barramundi dinner there. It's certainly the best Barramundi I have ever tasted. As anybody who knows anything about fish will tell you, fresh is best. Needless to say, the short walk from the boat to the hotel somehow managed to bypass the Fish Board, probably early in the morning.

So Joh pointed at great length at Queensland's policies under "socialism" and succeeded in blaming socialists for Queensland's economic backwardness. Queenslanders strongly resented Queensland being backward so that gave Joh a pretty free rein for his more market oriented and pro-business policies. And the fruit of those policies soon appeared in the form of more jobs and growing prosperity -- so that clearly validated his policies and kept him in office for an unusually long period.

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