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Tales from under Joh’s bloody boot

9 November 2019 No Comment

Bjelke Blues: Stories of Repression and Resistance in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland

Edited by Edwina Shaw. AndAlso Books, 256pp, $30

review by ROSS FITZGERALD

   They say you should never forget where you came from. Maybe add this: never forget what happened there. Those of us who lived through the regime of a certain Queensland premier have those years indelibly printed not only on our memory but on our psyche.

It is important not to forget just how vicious and corrupt was the authoritarian regime of the “Hillbilly Dictator”, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen. From 1968 to 1987 he ruled Queensland with an iron fist and made the Sunshine State something of a pariah, politically speaking.

‘Bjelke Blues’, edited by Edwina Shaw, brings all those memories flooding back.

This fascinating collection consists of 45 stories, essays and memoirs of repression and resistance in Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland. These diverse contributions are adroitly weaved together to form a compelling whole, with photographs and illustrations to boot.

In particular, as Matthew Condon writes in the prologue, “’Bjelke Blues’ gives heart and soul to the remembrances of the men and women who were at the end of police batons … at the front line fighting for justice and decency”.

One of the most illuminating pieces is from the untiring political activist Dan O’Neill, who recalls riveting details of the pivotal anti-apartheid protests in Brisbane in 1971 against the tour of the South African Springboks.

Detail from the cover of Bjelke Blues, by Edwina Shaw.
Detail from the cover of Bjelke Blues, by Edwina Shaw.

Other fine contributions are those of talented and prolific writer Nick Earls, who canvasses his encounters with the notorious “Minister for Everything”, the gargantuan Russ Hinze; award-winning novelist Melissa Lucashenko’s piece on Brisbane’s then notorious Boggo Road Gaol, featuring the experiences of inmate Gary Gray; plus a powerful memoir from stand-up comic Mandy Nolan, who was born in Kingaroy, the heart of Joh country, in 1968, the year he ascended to power in Queensland.

Two key pieces are by leading Australian scholars Glenn Davies and Raymond Evans. On one hand Davies’s seminal chapter, Taking it to the Streets, usefully outlines Queensland’s long history of public protest, including demonstrations in the Joh era in support of the right to march. On the other, Evans’s passionate essay, Strangers in the Night, focuses on Bjelke-Petersen’s many supposed ‘‘states of emergency’’.

In a number of respects Evans speaks for many, if not most, contributors when he says: “I want to write this down to record my feelings, my sensations (about the awful past) – so that I won’t forget. And because someone else some day may read this and learn a bit more of what it was like.”

Editor Shaw contributes a marvellous piece of faction, Last Days on the Fifteenth Floor. As Condon explains, this is a compelling fictional recreation of Sir Joh’s “final moments of power, as observed by a cleaning lady in the old Executive Building in George Street (Brisbane)”.

‘Bjelke Blues’ is dedicated to the memory of the late John Sinclair, who devoted much of his life to the protection of K’gari (Fraser Island) from logging and sand mining. Appropriately it is the courageous environmentalist and ex-schoolteacher Sinclair, who died in February 2019, who contributes the uplifting final chapter. His piece is provocatively titled Joh’s Legal Legacy to Queensland, or Why I Didn’t Bother Going to Joh’s (state) Funeral.

Several contributors focus on the then largely supine Queensland media; the repression of indigenous peoples and trade unionists; the electoral malapportionment that for decades all but guaranteed Joh’s hold on power; the 1982 Commonwealth Games protests in favour of land rights; the abortive “Joh for Canberra” campaign; and the watershed inquiry into political and police corruption in Queensland conducted with such aplomb by Tony Fitzgerald QC from 1987-1989.

Some essays also expose Bjelke-Petersen’s savage, and at the time hugely successful, use of defamation writs to silence his critics. These included Sinclair, who was bankrupted and forced to leave Queensland.

Much of Shaw’s compelling collection resonates with my own experiences of life under Bjelke-Petersen and his motley crew. For example, in 1984 Joh’s attorney-general threatened me with criminal defamation if the first print run of volume two of my history of Queensland, published by University of Queensland Press, was not withdrawn from sale.

Under the terms and conditions of the legal settlement, to this day I am unable to detail who I was supposed to have libelled. Even though a rewritten version was eventually published, the first edition of my book was recalled and pulped.

Yet in some ways I was lucky. It is indeed fortunate that, during Bjelke-Petersen’s premiership, it was well known that I am a committed teetotaller who neither drinks alcohol nor uses any other mood-altering drugs. This meant that, unlike a number of fellow Queenslanders, including rank-and-file activists, committed civil libertarians, and even some Liberal Party supporters, I could not be set up on spurious drink-driving and drug charges.

The riveting material gathered in ‘Bjelke Blues’ underscores how utterly obscene it was for the University of Queensland in 1985 to award Bjelke-Petersen an honorary doctorate for his unique contributions to education and the law. And what is equally as obnoxious is the fact that UQ has never reversed this outrageous decision.

All in all, this book is a fitting tribute to those writers and activists, leaders and rank-and-file, who fought against the iniquity and oppression orchestrated by Bjelke-Petersen during his deeply authoritarian regime. The title sounds like a song and if it is it’s both a dirge and a lament. Cue the bagpipes.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, November 9-10, 2019, review, Books p 22.

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