Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen

Despotic premier of Queensland

Joh Bjelke-Petersen was a conservative maverick who ruled the Australian state of Queensland with an iron fist for 19 years. He left a legacy of bitterness and division, reflected in the mixed tributes that greeted his death. He had a profound influence on national politics, as well as dominating the stage in his home state for two decades.

Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, politician: born Dannevirke, New Zealand 13 January 1911; Member of the Legislative Assembly (National Party) for Nanango 1947-50, for Barambah 1950-87; Minister for Works and Housing, Queensland 1963-68, Premier 1968-87; KCMG 1984; married 1952 Florence Gilmour (one son, three daughters); died Kingaroy, Queensland 23 April 2005.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen was a conservative maverick who ruled the Australian state of Queensland with an iron fist for 19 years. He left a legacy of bitterness and division, reflected in the mixed tributes that greeted his death. He had a profound influence on national politics, as well as dominating the stage in his home state for two decades.

He helped topple the reformist Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975 and made an abortive run for high office in 1987, splitting the conservative vote and depriving the current Prime Minister, John Howard, of power. But it was on Queensland that the former peanut farmer stamped an indelible mark, transforming it from a tropical backwater into an economic powerhouse. He also enforced a law-and-order regime so rigid that the state became known as Australia's Deep North.

His reign - the longest of any Australian state premier - ended in ignominy in 1987, when he was forced to resign after an inquiry exposed rampant corruption among his ministers and in the police force. Four years later, he was tried for perjury as a result of evidence he gave to the inquiry, but the jury was hung and he escaped a retrial because of his age and declining health. For Bjelke- Petersen, there was no middle way. "If you're not with me, you're agin' me," he once said. Howard memorably said of him: "He doesn't have a vision for Australia; he has a power lust."

The son of two Danes who emigrated to the southern hemisphere, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen was born in New Zealand in 1911. His father was a teacher and Lutheran pastor. The family moved to Queensland when he was two, settling in Kingaroy, about 150 miles north-west of Brisbane, and establishing a farm on a property they called Bethany. It was a hard life; as a seven-year-old, Joh rose before dawn to help milk his parents' dairy herd, then walked four miles to school. He left school at 13, living a modest existence on the farm for the next 15 years.

The farm boy from an impoverished background became a pilot and earned a good income by seeding, spraying and land-clearing. He entered state parliament in 1947 and five years later married Florence Gilmour, the woman with whom - at the age of nearly 40 - he had his first date. "Lady Flo" - as she would be called after he was knighted in 1984 - was also absorbed by politics, and was in the Queensland senate for 12 years.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen became premier in 1968, beginning a reign that was as colourful as it was controversial. Idiosyncratic and despotic, Bjelke-Petersen was determined to turn Brisbane from a country town into a modern metropolis that would attract investment and tourists. He brought the Commonwealth Games to the state capital in 1982, followed by Expo '88. Waves of migrants from elsewhere in Australia settled in the state's rapidly developing beachside communities.

But the government spent little on social policies, and Bjelke-Petersen sparked outrage among progressive Australians by handing repressive powers to the police. He also cared little for the state's natural assets, pushing a highway through rainforest and bulldozing historic buildings. He proposed drilling for oil in the Great Barrier Reef.

A teetotaller, non-smoker and devout Lutheran who hated gambling, Bjelke-Petersen ran for national parliament in 1987 but gained little support outside Queensland. Later that year, the Fitzgerald Inquiry began hearing evidence of political and police corruption in the state. Forced to step down, Bjelke-Petersen withdrew to the family farm. Despite his spectacular fall from grace, he remained a well-loved figure in some quarters. As recently as 2001, he was voted the most popular Queenslander of all time.

Kathy Marks



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