News State QLD News Queensland cabinet papers shine light on Sir Joh’s demise

Queensland cabinet papers shine light on Sir Joh’s demise

Tony Fitzgerald handed over his report on corruption to then-Queensland premier Mike Ahern in 1989. Photo: State Library of Queensland
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“There’ll be no challenge to Joh Bjelke-Petersen, as long as Joh Bjelke-Petersen wants to stay,” Queensland’s former premier told the media in 1987.

Within weeks of making those remarks to the press, Sir Joh’s political career was over.

Monday’s release of the 1987 cabinet minutes from the Queensland State Archives sheds light on the political demise of Sir Joh, whose 19-year reign as state premier came to an abrupt end on December 1 that year.

The documents show the Queensland premier’s desire to have control over minor decisions, like hiring mid-level department staff and buying individual police vehicles.

A signed poster of Sir Joh in 1987. Photo, supplied: State Library of Queensland

He would also blindside fellow ministers by making oral submissions on cabinet items, giving them next to no time to research or consider their position.

Historian Jennifer Menzies said what the documents do not show also tells much of the story, with no mention of the infighting dogging the Nationals and “absolutely dire” state of the Queensland economy.

“There was an unemployment level of 11 per cent and 9 per cent inflation, but the cabinet had no capacity to actually do anything to respond to that,” Ms Menzies said.

They didn’t have the kind of strategic capacity to the way they managed the cabinet processes, so I think it shows it was a government that was coming to the end of the way it operated.

“They’d had – for a long time – an incredible focus on agriculture and in 1987 mining, for the first time, became the largest export industry.”

Distractions may have cost Sir Joh

Buoyed by a 1986 state election victory, Sir Joh staged a failed bid to run for prime minister interstate and international travel meant he missed crucial cabinet meetings, leaving others in charge.

Sir Joh announced he would take on the Labor socialists in Canberra and destroy them.

Cabinet minutes showed he was absent during a meeting chaired by acting premier Bill Gunn, who made a secret recommendation for an investigation to probe allegations of police corruption.

That inquiry was chaired by Tony Fitzgerald QC.

His inquiry would lead to Sir Joh being charged with perjury, the jailing of police commissioner Terry Lewis, and the end of several other political careers.

Bids to silence the media

The cabinet documents revealed the lengths the Queensland government went to pressure media outlets who aired claims of corruption against it.

It agreed to pay thousands in legal fees to fund defamation action on behalf of Sir Joh and other ministers against outlets like the ABC, The Courier-Mail, Cairns Post, The Age, Daily Sun and 4BC.

The Courier-Mail’s Phil Dickie set off the chain of events by exposing an illegal prostitution racket.

Months later ABC TV’s Moonlight State, aired on Four Corners, linked the illegal sex trade and government staffers.

Deal sought with communist Romanian dictator

The papers give a surprising insight into a commercial deal almost struck between Queensland and a communist Romanian dictator.

As Queensland sought its place on the world stage, Sir Joh was seeking trade deals with a controversial leader – Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

Sir Joh had proposed to swap Queensland coal in exchange for Romanian-built trains and oil.

The deal never got off the ground but Ceausescu did accept an invitation from Sir Joh for him and his wife Elena to come to Expo 88, but by then the premier had been ousted.

In December 1989, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed by firing squad at a military base in Romania after a short trial held by an Exceptional Military Tribunal.

Development applications

Controversial development applications went ahead under the recommendation of so-called ‘minister for everything’ Russ Hinze, with the Queensland government over-ruling local councils to the benefit of developers.

Sir Joh with his ‘Minister for Everything’ Russ Hinze. Supplied: State Library of Queensland

Mr Hinze used his power to rezone the Queen Street Mall in Brisbane’s CBD without following due process, because the developer feared regular town planning rules would attract objections and delay the project.

Plans to build the world’s tallest building in the Brisbane CBD continued.

While it was never written in the cabinet documents, some in the ministry opposed the project and accusations of corruption were levelled against Sir Joh.

It would be alleged that he resigned because MPs were set to tell the media that Sir Joh was to receive a bribe if the tower went ahead.

Sir Joh’s departure

Sir Joh announced a retirement date of August 8, 1988 in a bid to prolong his ousting.

Sensing disquiet in the cabinet, the premier tried to persuade the state’s governor to sack his cabinet and agree to a new election, even though the previous one was only a year earlier.

His requests were refused, and Sir Joh eventually fell on his own sword on December 1, 1987 after being defeated in a leadership spill.

“I wish you well, thank you all – goodbye and God bless,” Sir Joh said at his press conference.

Mike Ahern was appointed premier, leading the Nationals the following day in parliament.

“Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen was a leader who wrecked, without sympathy, the lives of too many decent Queenslanders for short-term political ends,” then-Opposition leader Nev Warburton told Queensland parliament.

“He relied for this power on a rigged electoral system that is grossly offensive to fundamental democratic rights.”

Social policy and Indigenous rights

The cabinet documents showed the Queensland government approved health warnings on cigarette packages, with slogans including: “smoking causes heart disease”.

But there was tension with the then-Bob Hawke-led federal government on dealing with HIV/AIDS, with the Queensland government refusing to chip in for a national trial of the treatment drug AZT.

It also refused to allow condoms to be available in prisons and cracked down on universities selling condoms in vending machines.

The government agreed to equal pay for Indigenous workers, but documents showed they also spent hundreds of thousands in legal costs opposing Eddie Mabo’s land claims.

Brisbane’s Executive Building – where it all unfolded – has since been demolished, but the mighty plans once debated in its rooms will continue to be unveiled for years to come.