News State Queensland Queensland government warned of climate change amid political turmoil, 1989 cabinet documents reveal
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Queensland government warned of climate change amid political turmoil, 1989 cabinet documents reveal

Over the course of 1989, three premiers took office in Brisbane. Photo: Queensland State Archives
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It is no exaggeration to call 1989 a tumultuous year for Queensland’s people and politics, although it was also a time of change across the globe.

It was the year the electoral fortunes of the long-reigning National Party collapsed, one of the worst pilot strikes in Australian history, a hotly contested daylight-saving debate and one of the first known official warnings about climate change.

Cabinet papers from that year — now public for the first time — reveal the full nature of climate warnings at the time, including cautions about “serious repercussions on the Queensland economy” if authorities failed to respond to changing sentiments in Europe and abroad.

In April, a committee commissioned by then-premier Mike Ahern warned his government to plan to reduce greenhouse emissions, prepare the economy for a significant shift in world markets and investigate how Queensland might respond to declining coal exports.

The committee’s report also said it was “probable that some climatic changes will occur”, based on a leading report by the World Meteorological Organisation.

Major coastal erosion in rough surf at Tugun on the Gold Coast in December 1989. Photo: Queensland State Archives

“Despite the lack of indisputable scientific evidence of the onset of greenhouse conditions, it appears inevitable that action will be taken both nationally and internationally to respond to this issue,” the submission concluded.

“Our export industries are too valuable to the state’s economy to risk their future by ignoring the clear signs that the international community is taking the greenhouse question seriously and moving towards conditions of energy conservation and gas emission limitation.

“To delay examination of strategies for Queensland under such conditions until the technical arguments are fully resolved, could unnecessarily increase the state’s economic vulnerability to decisions taken elsewhere.”

Mr Ahern and his cabinet agreed to spend $1.5 million over four years to develop a strategy to respond to international action, collect data on sea level rises and climate monitoring, and assist the CSIRO with further studies.

Queensland’s three premiers in 1989 (from left) Mike Ahern, Russell Cooper and Wayne Goss.
Photo: Supplied

Three premiers in four months

The biggest political news of the year came at the December election with the National Party swept from power, ending a conservative reign of more than 30 years — much of it with Joh Bjelke-Petersen as premier.

Prior to the election, Mr Ahern’s attempt to set about reform after the departure of his predecessor Sir Joh proved to be short-lived.

In September, Mr Ahern was rolled by Russell Cooper, not long after pledging to implement recommendations from the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption “lock, stock and barrel”.

Mike Ahern said implementing the Fitzgerald recommendations was what Queenslanders expected. Photo: Josh Bavas

Mr Ahern recently told the ABC it was a tough decision to announce changes, but it was what the public expected.

“Particularly at a time of tremendous change — we were recommending a totally different mosaic of mechanisms of government that were going to be implemented different to what had happened over the last 20 years and so that’s tough,” he said.

“For a whole lot of people, they had a whole lot of trouble grasping it.

“I just decided with my wife that we would go and do what was ours to do — and if there was a cost like that to pay, well then, we’d pay it and go and do something else if need be.”

Mr Cooper had been premier for less than three months when Wayne Goss emerged the victor from a landslide election result for Labor in December.

Dr Jonathan Richards from Queensland State Archives said Mr Goss immediately introduced a suite of reforms after his historic election win.

“It goes from chaos to complete order,” Dr Richards said.

Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York with Mike Ahern and wife Andrea in Brisbane.

“The first meeting [of the Goss Government] just talks about what does a cabinet do — one of the things they discuss is a cabinet handbook.

“The National Party had never even had that kind of conversation — not in all the years I’ve ever looked at — cabinet was just a free-for-all.

“Goss lays out half a dozen rules that are so clear and common sense, you think ‘why on Earth had nobody done this before?’,”

Daylight saving revolt

Before the National Party was swept from office, cabinet documents show it was divided on a proposal to introduce daylight saving in Queensland.

The first trial of daylight saving was launched in August 1989, with a special taskforce noting fierce opposition in western Queensland and concerns over changes to TV programming, increased skin cancer rates and fierce opposition from dairy farmers fearful about changes to milking times.

Dr Richards said it was never going to happen without a fight, but Premier Ahern had been willing to give it a go.

“Ministers were quite convinced. They said, ‘well, it might be popular in Brisbane but nobody out in the bush wants it so therefore we’ve got to get rid of it’, not stopping to think of the numbers of people hugely out of whack,” he said.

Pilot strike kept feet on ground

Cabinet papers from late that year also reveal how authorities grappled with one of the nation’s biggest pilot strikes, which began in August.

The Royal Australian Air Force was brought in to help ease the pressure when pilots from the two former major operators, Ansett and Australian Airlines walked off the job.

In Queensland, the strike had significant ramifications for the tourism industry, forcing the State Government to take drastic action.

The Berlin Wall came down late in 1989.

Cabinet even sent tourism minister Rob Borbidge to the United Kingdom to secure an aircraft to be used to service the routes between Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns.

By then, the strike was estimated to have cost the Queensland tourism industry about $160 million.

‘Status quo disrupted’

The current Minister for Digital Technology Mick de Brenni said 1989 was a transitional year.

“[It] was a historic year globally with the fall of the Berlin Wall and it was when the internet came to Australia,” he said.

“Politically for Queensland, there’s never been a year quite like 1989 before and there’s never been a year like 1989 since.

“In the end, I think the papers and history show us the nail in the coffin for the National Party government was the rolling of premier Mike Ahern for Russell Cooper.

“The cabinet papers show Ahern’s commitment to implementing the [Fitzgerald Inquiry] recommendations ‘lock, stock and barrel’, but that seriously disrupted the Nationals’ status quo and normal approach to the business of government.”

ABC