Curtain closes on Joh era

28 Apr, 2005 09:00 PM

BORN in Dannevirke, New Zealand, in 1911, Joh was the son of Danish-born Lutheran pastor George Bjelke-Petersen and his wife Maren, who instilled in his son the lifelong credo of hard work, Christian faith and uncompromising pursuit of new technology and efficiency.

Because of George's failing health, the family moved to the Kingaroy area in 1913 and established the family property Bethany.

At nine years of age, Joh was afflicted by a type of polio that left him with a limp for the rest of his life, an affliction which he cleverly disguised with a characteristic rolling walk and an effusive wave of his hand to supporters.

It was this brush with disability that encouraged Joh to support some unorthodox medical projects, which further added to the controversy surrounding him.

Like most people on the land at that time, the Bjelke-Petersens struggled through the Depression. But things were to improve when Joh designed and constructed a peanut thresher that proved very successful and speeded the processing of this noted Kingaroy crop.

Joh was also a land development visionary, pioneering the use of crawler tractors linked with chains to clear large areas of scrub that would have taken many years by laborious axe and fire methods.

Obtaining a pilot's licence early in his adult life, Joh also started aerial spraying and grass seeding to further speed up pasture development in Queensland.

A smouldering spark of political ambition encouraged Joh to become a Country Party member in 1947 for the electorate of Nanango, now Barambah.

This author remembers John as a slender young bloke in a new suit inspecting fat cattle at Goomeri Show in the early 1960s. When a bullock charged the fence and splattered the young politician with mud and dung, Joh shrugged off the incident in the same way that he ignored mud slinging for the rest of his political life.

In 1952, he married Florence Gilmore (later Senator Flo Bjelke-Petersen) and they had four children.

Following the 1968 death of former Country Party (now Nationals) premier Jack Pizzey, to whom Joh was party deputy, Liberal parliamentary leader Gordon Chalk served as caretaker Premier for about a week before the Country Party selected a relatively unknown Joh Bjelke-Petersen as its choice.

A few jaded media hacks at the time were quick to deride the Queensland newcomer at premiers' conferences in Canberra, making fun of his halting speech and characteristic mixed metaphors.

But within a very short time his steel will, clad in a grey suit, became apparent. Joh's vision of a greater Queensland started to translate into great projects like an upgrade of the Townsville to Mt Isa railway line to better access the north-west's vast mineral and cattle wealth.

New schools, hospitals, airports, dams, roads and power stations opened up the bush. He pushed ahead with the building of Wivenhoe Dam to help prevent another disaster like the 1974 Brisbane flood.

His support for a Tarong power station near Nanango over a rival proposal from Millmerran again enmeshed Joh in claims of pork-barrelling for his home electorate.

Accolades for Joh's contribution to the bush are easy to find among country people.

One of the most telling comes from James McDonald, patriarch of the McDonald pastoral family based at Brightlands, Cloncurry. A sprightly 97 years old - three years older than Joh - James McDonald says: "Joh was a great man for this country - he gave us facilities and infrastructure for real growth and prosperity. His contribution to these rural and remote areas will never be forgotten."

Joh's close knowledge of the heartbreak inflicted by death duties on many rural families inspired him to abolish death duties in Queensland. The economists said it couldn't be done, but Joh never quite accepted the word 'couldn't'.

In the turbulent times of protests again Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war and against a South African Springbok football tour of Queensland - the latter fuelled by anti-apartheid sentiments - Joh's government was lashed by the media for alleged heavy-handed use of the police force, including the controversial Special Branch which had a charter to collect data on people regarded as troublemakers at the time.

Further controversy came when Joh bought a fast, long-range, pure jet British Aerospace aircraft for the Government Air Wing, most of the time piloted by noted female aviator Beryl Young.

This was quickly dubbed the 'Joh jet' and grubby gutter journalism at the time tried to suggest political influence by his female pilot in affairs of the State.

Now living in retirement in Brisbane's western suburbs, Beryl recalls the hurts, and gives a timely reminder that the 'Joh jet' was the only government aircraft of that era with the speed and range to fly south to pick up donor organs and return to Brisbane hospitals to enable successful transplants.

Joh was knighted in the early 1980s, but by late 1987 his leadership of the Nationals was starting to unravel under the impact of media allegations about corruption in the police and politics.

This prompted the Fitzgerald Inquiry and Joh's resignation as Premier on August 8, 1988, just short of the accolades he would have received as host Premier of the 1988 World Expo in Brisbane.

With Joh's departure, one of his former Ministers, Mike Ahern, became Premier, but was soon undermined by the media and forces within the party which, in the dying days of National/Coalition Government, elected Roma grazier Russell Cooper as Premier.

All that ended in December, 1989, when Wayne Goss lead the Labor Party to a resounding victory in the State election.

One irony of that victory was that although Joh had long been accused of holding government with a gerrymander (unfair population weightings in country electorates), Wayne Goss swept into power with the same electoral boundaries. Clearly the will of the voters was the decider, not boundaries.

And although the 'Goss gloss' made the new Labor Premier a darling of the media, the inescapable fact is that Mr Goss took over a State of enormous prosperity and growth that had been forged by the hand of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Powerful tributes have poured in from many prominent former friends and colleagues, one of the most moving from Sir Joh's lifelong friend and supporter, long-serving Nationals Senator Ron Boswell.

"Queensland has lost a champion; a humble man who started work living in a cowshed and finished in the highest office in Queensland. I have lost a mentor and friend," Senator Boswell said.

"As a nation farewells one of the greatest Premiers of our time, the people of Queensland farewell a man who knew right from wrong and who based all his decisions on the best interests of the people of Queensland.

"Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen will be remembered by colleagues and constituents alike as a Premier who made major decisions by answering two questions: Is it right or wrong? Is it good for Queensland? Another creed of his was: "Say nothing; do nothing, be nothing."

"As Premier, Sir Joh opened up Queensland coal reserves for mining, and the ships lining up outside Mackay taking our coal out are a result of his vision for Queensland and Australia. All Australians have benefited from the great wealth generated by the Queensland mining industry.

"Sir Joh was one of the first to realise the potential of tourism in Queensland, one of the largest job creators in our State. It was his encouragement of tourism and foreign investment that had a huge impact on the Gold Coast.

"He provided the environment for the development of the Queensland film industry, and he was one of the instigators of World Expo'88 and the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games.

"He was a leading proponent of Wivenhoe and Burdekin Dams, encouraging the modernising and electrifying of the Queensland railway system, and the construction of the Gateway Bridge."


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Pleased that common sense has prevailed. Being close to the policy makers cannot be underestimated
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JohnCarpenter, The lamb and mutton job is going okay- we must be doing some things right.
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Spot on X. Let the Chinese buy as long as we can buy freely in China