The trouble with Joh
Review of ‘Joh for PM’
By Paul Davey
Newsouth Books, $29.99
As well as being a former journalist, for many years Paul Davey was a senior staffer for the National Party of Australia at state and federal levels. In particular, he was the National Party’s federal director during the tumultuous time of controversial Queensland premier Johannes “Joh” Bjelke-Petersen’s brief and spectacularly unsuccessful tilt at the highest office in the land.
Hence ‘Joh for PM’ is marketed as an insider’s story , of what is indisputably an extraordinary Australian political and parliamentary melodrama. Whether this uneven book is insightful, illuminating and politically relevant is another matter altogether.
It does seem apposite that Joh’s abortive attempt, in 1987, to be leader of the nation, was mirrored by another maverick Queenslander , the multi-multimillionaire businessman Clive Palmer, who had been a strong supporter of premier Bjelke-Petersen. In April 2013, on ABC-TV’s ‘Lateline’, Palmer announced he was forming a new political party in order to become the next prime minister of Australia.
Twenty-six years earlier, it was the wily president of the Queensland National Party, Robert Sparkes, who helped orchestrate the “Joh for PM” campaign. Launched by a resolution of the Queensland National Party central council in the early hours of February 28, 1987, in less than a month , on March 16 , it was watered down to the “Joh for Canberra” campaign.
Although it succeeded in causing a temporary split in the conservative federal coalition, throughout the nation the “Joh for Canberra” campaign did not attract large-scale or widespread support. Indeed, in June 1987 it collapsed entirely.
One explanation is that Joh’s push for prime ministerial power was an example of political and personal hubris gone wild. Moreover he was almost totally unchecked in his home state of Queensland.
From time to time Davey is critical of Bjelke-Petersen’s 1987 federal leadership campaign, which at one stage he describes as “utterly unsupportable”, but he is generally supportive of Sir Joh, who was knighted in 1984. Hence it is unsurprising that this well-produced book does not dwell on the enormous damage caused by Bjelke-Petersen’s authoritarian and corrupt regime as premier of Queensland from 1968 until he was forced to resign on December 1, 1987.
The dreadful damage Joh inflicted was not just on the citizenry of the state , especially Indigenous peoples, members of the trades union movement, and supporters of human rights and civil liberties , but also on the built and natural environment of Queensland.
‘Joh for PM’ boasts some fine black-and-white photographs, especially of Bjelke-Petersen and of other National and Liberal Party luminaries of the time. These include a portrait of the temporarily beleaguered coalition partners Ian Sinclair , who Joh audaciously aimed to replace as head of federal parliamentary National Party , and Liberal Party leader John Howard. This photo of the two leading conservative federal politicians under siege, yet both turning on a smile, is aptly captioned “Keeping up appearances”.
Davey’s book, which unfortunately reveals few juicy details of what actually happened during the campaign, also features a tender photo of Sir Joh and his wife Florence Bjelke-Petersen. Taken far away from the political hurly-burly of Canberra, on the family property Bethany near Kingaroy, this full-page portrait captures the obviously reciprocated affection between Joh and his life’s partner, who was widely known as “Flo”. In fact, from 1981 to 1993 she was an effective Senator for Queensland.
It strikes me as puzzling that the seven cartoons illustrating the book are all the work of Geoff Pryor for ‘The Canberra Times’. For some reason, no other Australian cartoonists, including those from Queensland, get a look-in.
But perhaps this is emblematic of Davey’s lopsidedly sympathetic portrait of Sir Joh himself, if not the autocratic Queensland premier’s doomed attempt to be prime minister.
As Davey concludes, the “reverberations of the Joh campaign continued, directly and indirectly, for a long time”. After they were thrashed in the federal election of July 11, 1987, the conservatives emerged disoriented and disunited. Indeed it seems undeniable that there remained, as Davey usefully puts it, “considerable apprehension among Liberals about the reliability of the Nationals, particularly from Queensland”.
But this concern also applied to key members of the federal National Party. As recently as December 2014, on ‘A Country Road’, an ABC-TV program about the Nationals, Ian Sinclair questioned whether the party was ever the same after the Joh campaign.
The former long-term federal parliamentary leader of the Nationals put it thus: “The sad part to me of the Joh-for-Canberra push was that it destroyed what I thought was the ethos of the party and the partnership and the camaraderie and trust that was in the party.”
Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author 36 books.
The Sydney Morning Herald, June 13-14, 2015, Spectrum, Books, p 37.