January is the silly season, that time of the year when news organisations give undue prominence to follies and the fanciful. In 1987, as temperatures soared, Joh Bjelke-Petersen launched his bid to conquer Canberra and silliness strode the country on stilts
Joh for PM
by Paul Davey
NewSouth Publishing, 2015, 306 pages, $29.99
The second half of the 1980s was a bad time for Australia’s conservatives. Leadership of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party was becoming a two-player game of musical chairs, its political discourse a mechanical decrying of “the Hawke socialist government”—a government doing more to reform Australia’s economy in liberal directions than the conservatives had done for years. A New Right in the shape of the H.R. Nicholls Society (formed in 1986 by former Secretary of the Treasury John Stone, Peter Costello, Barrie Purvis and Ray Evans) and similarly-minded organisations and individuals in business, agriculture and mining were pressuring the federal Opposition to adopt more radical positions on industrial relations and tax: deregulation of the labour market, individual employment contracts, abolition of the arbitration system, a flat tax.
Then in early 1987, on cue, a catalyst for radical change emerged in the form of Queensland National Party Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, bent on intervening in federal politics under the ambitious slogan, “Joh for PM”. Like a snatch of music with a dying fall, this was quickly down-keyed to “Joh for Canberra” and even that faded away. By the end of the year all was silence.
Aside from temporarily fracturing the Opposition coalition of Liberal and National Parties, the Joh campaign achieved less than nothing, since it not only consolidated the Hawke Labor government but grew it. Paul Davey, federal director of the National Party at the time, has now published his insider’s account of Joh’s push on Canberra. Reading it is like hearing again a comic song whose implausible lines you hoped you’d forgotten.
Until 1987 Joh Bjelke-Petersen had it all his own way in Queensland: a one-house parliament with no checks and balances, a well-oiled political machine, a generous way with money in paper bags delivered on demand to friendly facilitators. Queensland was booming under one of Australia’s outstanding regional populists. This man, however, was not made for greater things, not some Huey Long or Donald Trump requiring to be traduced or assassinated. Unfortunately perhaps, there was really nothing for the establishment to be afraid of. When it came to federal politics Joh was all bluff and bluster, and few were bluffed. Speaking of the Coalition leaders Howard and Sinclair, he said in November 1986, after winning big in the Queensland elections, “They’ll work with the policies I set or I will work against them, and I’ve told them that.” He’d told them that.
He was being encouraged by elements in the New Right to go into federal politics and become prime minister, but how that was to be accomplished was never spelled out. A lot of money was being dangled as bait. Bill Hayden heard about it: “A secret club of land developers and their mates have put up $20 million so that he can run around Australia peddling snake oil.” To become prime minister, however, Joh needed majority support in state and federal National Party organisations, not to mention majority support in Liberal Party organisations, an impossible dream. The first step in this hopeless quest would be bumping Ian Sinclair off as federal National Party leader and extricating the Party from the Coalition. Never mind that outside of Queensland the Party was never going to be a majority vote-getter. Never mind that history had shown a conservative could only become prime minister as a Liberal leader backed up by a coalition arrangement.
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Joh first had to secure control, if he could, of the federal council of the National Party with a view to changing the rules and making its decisions binding on the federal parliamentary party, and at the same time force an end to the Coalition. Needing a policy that would divide the Nationals from the Liberals, he chose tax, launching his policy at Wagga Wagga on January 31, 1987: a twenty-five-cents-in-the-dollar flat tax, unsupported by any goods-and-services or value-added tax (an anathema). The Nationals had been attracted to this idea for some time, so it seemed it would be well received by the Party. If the federal Coalition members would not support the policy, he would field his own “Joh candidates” against them at the next federal elections. But as Paul Davey asks, “How could a state premier endorse candidates for a federal election, especially beyond his own state? Who and where were these candidates? It made no sense.”
Howard and Sinclair were warning Joh to keep out of the federal scene if he could not support them, and the New South Wales National Party was telling him they and not he would be selecting their candidates. No matter, Joh told the press on February 3, “It’s like the old bumble bee—he’s not supposed to fly, but he still flies. I’ve done it, it’s launched, it’s on the way.” Two days later he was being interviewed by an ABC reporter, who asked, “If the National Party in Canberra won’t do what you want will you leave it?” “Lead it, I will lead it.” “I said leave it.” “Don’t be stupid. Don’t be stupid otherwise I will not talk to you. You know I’m not one of those that run away. I am Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a National Party Member of Parliament for forty years and Premier. What I am doing in Queensland I am now going to do for Australia.” If Howard and Sinclair would not do his bidding he would by-pass them. Anyway, he added, “Nobody supports Sinclair.”
On February 28, 1987, the Queensland National Party passed a resolution at its central council meeting at Hervey Bay, backed by its state president Sir Robert Sparkes:
That the National Party of Australia (Qld) fully supports the move by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen to attain the Prime Ministership so that he can put in place an anti-socialist Federal Government equipped with appropriate policies, and the will to implement those policies, which are so patently necessary to save this Nation from the economic and political ruin into which the Hawke Socialist Government is plunging us.
Joh-for-PM sub-committees would be set up across the nation—in effect a new national political movement in embryo.
Howard described Joh as “a wrecker”, Doug Anthony called the idea “absurd”. As Davey writes:
Any attempt by Queensland to endorse candidates in states where an affiliated National Party organisation existed would be unconstitutional and such candidates would not be able to run as candidates of the National Party of Australia, or National Party, which were the party names registered under the Commonwealth Electoral Act.
Even the Queensland Nationals in Canberra were soon reported to be wavering in their support of the Hervey Bay resolution, with only one of them clearly dissociating himself from the Coalition. It was a poor start.
Accordingly, with the push just a couple of weeks old, Sparkes started to float the more moderate goal of “Joh for Canberra”, while Joh himself continued to tout the idea of “Joh candidates” running against establishment Nationals at the next federal election. However, as the Nationals’ federal conference loomed his rhetoric was sounding increasingly hollow. The federal body was so unsupportive that Sparkes told its management committee on March 27, 1987, “There is no intention on our part to run candidates against sitting National Party Members anywhere—it’s unfortunate Joh’s been saying otherwise.” It was a major back-down. The weekend conference was in most respects a triumph for Sinclair, though Sparkes remained adamant that the Coalition must break. Federal Council did back Joh in any bid he might make for a seat in federal parliament, but spelled out that he would have to toe the party line. Peter Nixon, the Nationals’ former federal leader, met with him on the sidelines:
I was the only one Joh would talk to. I tried to reason with him, explain to him that he could never become prime minister unless he was a Liberal, and that there was no guarantee that he would even become leader of the National Party.
A new Coalition agreement was stitched up between Howard and Sinclair in an attempt to take some of Queensland’s objections into account, but failed to win National party-room support. Accordingly the Coalition broke on April 28, 1987.
Civil war among the Nationals was destined to continue for a while yet, but Joh’s side was looking weaker by the day. His statements seemed ever more disconnected from reality. As prospects for an early federal election increased (for why would Hawke not take advantage of civil war among his opponents?), Joh declared, absurdly, that it was he alone who would be delivering the Nationals’ policy speech: “That’s the only one that’s going to win the election for us.” On May 27 Hawke predictably called the early election, for July 11.
With most of Queensland’s Nationals still behind him, Joh announced that his “Joh candidates” would be standing in Victoria and South Australia, and of course Queensland, for the Senate and the House of Representatives. He engaged John Stone to develop a credible flat-tax policy, but who, aside from Stone, would be the big-name backers of the Joh campaign? Various prominent names from sport, showbiz and commerce were mooted: Ben Lexcen, Bob Ansett, Dick Smith, Greg Chappell, Ray Martin, Charles Copeman. None of them came across. A meeting was held at Melbourne’s Windsor Hotel at the beginning of June with Ian McLachlan, the popular and widely respected head of the National Farmers Federation, to bring him in as a major name, but he declined the invitation. Within days of this rebuff Joh was announcing that he himself would not be seeking a seat in federal Parliament.
Sparkes did his level best to put a good face on things:
I am pleased to be able to report that a meeting took place between the Premier and John Howard today and that the whole philosophical orientation of the Liberal Party had moved to the right (largely you would agree due to the pressure from Sir Joh) and that the Liberal policies, especially in relation to tax and industrial relations, were fairly similar to those of the Premier … In all these circumstances we can justifiably say the Joh for Canberra move has been an extremely well worthwhile political exercise that has made a major contribution towards advancing the cause of conservative politics in Australia.
On June 13 John Stone’s flat-tax policy was released. But the political circumstances were now unfavourable to anything radical. Davey points out:
Because of the differences between the Stone policy and that of the federal party, Sinclair was in no mood to give it carte blanche support: “It has no status within the federal parliamentary National Party except that it is a series of recommendations that a number of members from Queensland presumably would support and will be advocating. It is not the policy of the federal parliamentary National Party.”
If his policy had been sidelined, however, Stone himself was almost alone in gaining from the Joh caper. He ran successfully in the election as a Queensland candidate for the Senate and later became the party’s Senate leader.
Meanwhile, Joh’s own contributions made the election campaign ever more anarchic. One instance was his broadcast criticism of Labor’s slogan, “Let’s stick together”:
Who wants to stick together with them and get your stick feet, you know, if you get, stick foot on sticky paper, you get both of them on, you fall over and Mr Hawke asks us to stick with him. You put your foot on sticky paper with him, he’s, and Keating, his government’s got their feet on sticky paper, my word they have.
Someone once observed for a general truth that “The style is the man himself.”
There was precious little momentum left. Joh independents stood for a number of seats in several states but did poorly. The elections were a stunning triumph for the government, a record eighty-six seats and a third term—a first for a Labor prime minister. Sinclair made the obvious point: “It is because of Joh this election was called and he and nobody else has to accept responsibility for that defeat.”
Meanwhile Joh’s demise as Queensland Premier was fast approaching—his party room was deserting him, he’d fallen out with Sparkes, and the Fitzgerald inquiry was turning up all sorts of dirt on his administration. In any case he’d lost his political touch some time back. On December 1, 1987, having lost control of his government, he announced he was resigning as Premier and member of parliament, effective immediately.
Paul Davey has put together a readable first-hand account of this farcical campaign. Apart from strengthening the government and further demoralising the opposition, which quickly re-established itself as a coalition, Joh’s federal ambitions had few significant consequences. His campaign stands as a detached, dramatic but parenthetic slice of National Party history, worth recording if only for its unspoken moral: over-reachers suffer the fate their lack of judgment and self-knowledge merits.
Philip Ayres is the biographer of Malcolm Fraser, Owen Dixon, Douglas Mawson and Sir Ninian Stephen.