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June 05th 2015 print

Malcolm Colless

A Fresh Look at Joh’s Mischief

Twenty-eight years after setting his ill-fated course for Canberra, memories of the damage Bjelke-Peterson inflicted on the conservative side of politics still infuriate John Howard. A new book chronicles the chaos and consequences of one man's unhinged ambitions

joh mugWhen former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard was finishing his autobiography Lazarus Rising in 2010 I asked him whether it would contain any political bile. “Yes, but just one chapter ,” he answered.

“On Costello?” I queried, presuming Howard would reserve a special serve for his deputy after those years of acrimony, which persisted up to the ill-fated 2007 federal election.

“Oh no,” he replied, “on Joh.”

It was clear from Howard’s demeanor that scars had still not healed from the Joh for PM campaign, mounted by erratic Queensland National Party Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, which skittled Howard’s ambition to win the 1987 election. It seemed that any fallout with Peter Costello over leadership of the Liberal Party was much lower on the scale of political pain than the chaos sown by Joh.

Joh for PM: The inside story of an extraordinary political drama
by Paul Davey
NewSouth 328pp  $29.99

If a week is a long time in politics, the 28 years since Joh went on the warpath is a lifetime. Many of today’s younger voters know little of the man and care less — hardly surprising, as many weren’t born when he made his push to conquer Canberra. But they do know of another eccentric Queenslander who followed Joh’s political path, albeit with a higher degree of success — Clive Palmer, once a member of the National Party in Queensland and strongly influenced by Bjelke-Peterson’s style. The closest Bjelke-Petersen got to Canberra was seeing his wife, Flo, seated in the Senate at the 1980 federal election by arranging for her to be placed at the top of the Queensland National Country Party ticket, despite opposition from his state party president, Sir Robert Sparkes.

Flo brought with her a warm, homespun style and willingness to share her personal recipe for pumpkin scones. She was well liked in Canberra, particularly by the media, yet it seems even she felt that Joh’s real strengths were in Queensland and that his march on the Molonglo was a mistake.

Like Palmer, Bjelke-Peterson was no shrinking violet when it came to the public spotlight, and the media found him strangely irresistible, even though he derided press conferences as “feeding the chooks”. Both Joh and Palmer believed that they were prime ministerial material, a view Palmer pithily expressed in the run-up to the 2013 election: “I am standing to be the next prime minister of Australia.”

Bjelke-Peterson’s decision to launch a political blitzkreig on Canberra was fuelled by a combination of hatred for Labor and despair at what he saw as the Coalition’s spinelessness, the post-dismissal Fraser government’s performance being a case in point. He had already played a prominent role in undermining the Whitlam government in the Senate and wanted more action on issues such as taxation and trade union reform.

What made Bjelke-Peterson’s campaign of self-promotion so remarkable was his clear and obvious indifference to the collateral damage he was inflicting on his own side of politics, the National Party in particular. In 1987, with 19 years as Premier behind him and Labor reigning in Canberra and every state parliament, his conceit was to regard himself  as more than qualified to rescue the nation from the clutches of socialism.

In his latest book, Joh for PM, National Party historian and journalist Paul Davey has chronicled the rise and fall  of the man who would be PM. And he has done so from a unique position as the then-federal director of the National Party. He was able to observe at first hand  a party  he describes in terms of a family tearing itself apart as a result of one man’s brinkmanship in his quest for power.

Bjelke-Peterson’s mission was to set up a new conservative party under his leadership, smashing the federal Coalition along the way along and, for good measure, then-leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister Ian  Sinclair, who he held in contempt as a closet Liberal.

While Bjelke-Peterson is the central character in Davey’s book, the author also devotes considerable attention to Sinclair’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to prevent a Coalition collapse. Sinclair’s concessions meant that Nationals and Liberals went into the 1987 election campaign with separate policies, a division seized on by Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who claimed that the electorate was confronted with a choice between stability and the “alternative of chaos”. Disunity within the Liberal Party, speculation about a leadership tilt against Howard by Andrew Peacock, and botched policy strategy during the election campaign did not help the conservative cause. As history recalls, Labor cantered home.

Beneath all the big talk and bravado, the Joh for Canberra campaign was a disaster, not least for its star, who saw the rapid disintegration of this movement mark the beginning of the end of Bjelke-Peterson’s political career. Sparkes, a co-driver of the Canberra push, toured Queensland in the wake of the election defeat to gauge local reaction. As Davey reports, he picked up “the strong feeling from all sections that Joh should gracefully retire as premier within a year.”

Bjelke-Peterson had indicated his wish to stay on in the job until after Queensland-hosted EXPO in 1988, but the momentum of recriminations within the state party was such that he stepped down in December, 1987, blasting Sparkes and former National colleagues on the way out.

Meanwhile, in August of 1987, the Coalition reunited on Howard’s terms exacty 100 days  after Joh’s campaign had blown it apart . It would be  another nine years of struggle and disappointment before his team would be back on the Treasury benches, but the first steps on that long road back had been taken.

Davey records Sinclair’s belief that the party was never the same after the Joh campaign. “The sad part to me,” he says, “was that it destroyed what I thought was the ethos of the party and the partnership and camaraderie and trust.”

Sinclair, who is now 86, will have the opportunity to publicly reflect on these turbulent times  when he launches the book in the National Party room in Parliament House in Canberra on June 24.

Veteran journalist Malcolm Colless is a frequent contributor to Quadrant Online