Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in 1981
Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in 1981

Ten things we hate (and love) about Joh

QUEENSLAND was like a different planet 50 years ago when development and urbanisation were still changing the state only slowly.

There was an even greater proportion of the population outside Brisbane - then it was two to one - and primary production was far ahead of manufacturing and secondary industries.

The University of Queensland at St Lucia was the single university and there were 1667 schools across the state not far ahead of the 1381 licenced premises.

The streets of Brisbane were losing the last 237 of the capital's fleet of trams - all would be gone by the following March - quickly being replaced by buses and making way for Queenslanders' continuing love affair with the motor vehicle.

Queensland had the lowest personal income per head of population in any of the mainland states, and a wage disparity that saw men take home a basic wage of $35.55 a week while women made do with $27.25.

While change was coming to a state which was developing faster than it had been and a capital city that was shaking off its image as an overgrown country town, on August 8, 1968, a new constant would emerge and stay on the scene for more than 19 years.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen was sworn in as Queensland's 31st premier, and by the time he left in ignominy in December 1987 he had been the longest-serving and longest-lived leader of the state.

His time was one of great, and mostly unfettered, economic development, a staunchly conservative authoritarian way of running the state and the poisonous stranglehold of systemic corruption in the police service and politics.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen after surviving a no-confidence motion in November 1987
Joh Bjelke-Petersen after surviving a no-confidence motion in November 1987

Nicknamed the "Hillbilly Dictator", Bjelke-Petersen, who was knighted in 1984 as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George, apparently on his own nomination, quickly became a national political figure.

Controversy was the vehicle for this fame, first when Bjelke-Petersen stood firmly in favour of the South African Springboks' tour of 1971 - imposing a month long state of emergency to stop protests - and then when he led the conservative push back against the Whitlam Labor government.

The political genius of this approach was seen when he marshalled his conservative energies in 1974, calling a snap election for early December that year run against "the alien and stagnating, centralist, socialist, communist-inspired policies of the federal Labor government".

It worked a treat: the Coalition won a 16.5 per cent swing and Labor was reduced to a "cricket team" of 11 MPs.

Bjelke-Petersen was rewarded by the national mantle of Australian of the Year, given for "the singular impact he has exerted on national political life".

Those 19 years delivered a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Mascot Matilda at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane
Mascot Matilda at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane


Tarong power station was an infrastructure milestone
Tarong power station was an infrastructure milestone

5 big achievements


Abolishing death duties in 1977: This was a singular economic move that had the rest of the country looking north. It was the basis of Queensland as the low-tax state and saw a flood of money rush from southern states and families relocate north of the Tweed, particularly to the fast growing Gold Coast region.

Tarong and Callide power stations: Two workhorses commissioned and soon operating which have been providing cheap power to industry and reliable supply to communities ever since.

Electrifying the railways: In the late 1970s and early 1980s over 2000km of railways were electrified, starting with the metropolitan system and later expanding to northern lines. Of particular economic importance was the electrification of a four stage coal system scheme which opened up transport to ports from Gladstone to Abbot Point.

James Cook and Griffith universities: The Townsville-based James Cook was proclaimed as a university in 1970 after a decade as a technical college, while Griffith was founded in 1971 and opened for business four years later. James Cook is a world leader in marine science and Griffith opened Australia to Asian studies.

Commonwealth Games and World Expo: Regarded as the event that saw Brisbane come of age, the 1982 Commonwealth Games was remembered for Matilda the winking kangaroo. The World Expo six years later had 15.7 million visitors paying $175 million for tickets. In terms of economic targets and tourism promotion, Expo was one of Australia's most successful events.

The demolition of Brisbane's Bellevue Hotel was a night of infamy.
The demolition of Brisbane's Bellevue Hotel was a night of infamy.


5 lesser lights


Gerrymandered electorates: The Country Party used carefully drawn boundaries and malapportionment of enrolment to win with few votes. In 1969 the Country Party took 26 seats - a third of those in Parliament - with just over a fifth of the vote (Coalition partners the Liberals had 19 seats from a 24 per cent vote share) and Labor was in Opposition with 31 seats from 45 per cent of the vote.

A blind eye to police corruption: The systemic corruption of the Queensland police was in place when Bjelke-Petersen became Premier but his authoritarian tendency and intolerance of dissent saw it flourish. A renowned decent Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod was replaced by Terry Lewis, knighted by Bjelke-Petersen, and the "joke", a system of corrupt behaviour and payments by senior police, was entrenched. Lewis was charged and jailed for corruption.

War against the media: Bjelke-Petersen used his power and office to target and punish those in the media he didn't like and who dared to criticise him. When The Courier-Mail attacked his government in the 1980s he withdrew all official advertising from this newspaper. He encouraged the police to deny certain journalists media passes to do their work. He said the greatest thing that could happen in Queensland would be to "get rid of the media".

Demolition of the Bellevue Hotel: Emblematic of Bjelke-Petersen's opposition to the natural and built environment, the stately hotel on the corner of George and Alice streets disappeared under the wrecking ball at 20 minutes past midnight despite widespread public opposition. Whether it was Brisbane's architecture, the sands of Moreton Island, the pristine nature of the Great Barrier Reef or the natural timbers of Fraser Island, little was safe.

Aboriginal land grants: The deeds of title in trust allowed under the 1982 law denied Aboriginal people access to native title of their land, and a group of Murray Islanders from the Torres Strait took Bjelke-Petersen to the High Court, led by Eddie Mabo. Despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the case, the Queensland government lost and in 1991 native title was granted and the myth of terra nullius was extinguished by the High Court.

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