This is a guest post re-posted with kind permission from John Birmingham. It was first published at his wonderful personal site, Alien Side Boob.*
A long time ago, in a magazine far far way—well, okay, the old Bulletin mag before it folded—I was asked to write an obituary for Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, premier of Queensland and the closest thing to an actual fascist dictator this country has ever known.
The obit pre-dated the internet and the magazine is long gone, but it was a piece of writing I always treasured.
I had reason to track it down this week because Sir Joh’s wife, Lady Flo, finally lost her grip on the mortal world.
It was not an unhappy moment for the nation.
To mark it, and my disgust at the deliberate hagiography surrounding that vile pair, I have dug it out of my paper archives and rewritten it to reflect Flo’s passing into the fires of Hell.
Not everyone’s a hypocrite. Some of us will pour one out for the late Flo Bjelke-Petersen, purely to send the old witch down to whatever level of hell currently plays host to the tormented shade of her unlamented husband, Sir Joh, the last of the hillbilly dictators.
If ever you needed another reason to stoke your contempt for the top hatted muppet currently impersonating a Prime Minister (spoiler, I know you don’t) Mycroft Trumble’s dewy eyed tweet in praise of Lady Flo this week was just the ticket.
In all of the maudlin, confected nostalgia generated by Flo’s long overdue demise, something precious has been forgotten.
Because there were thousands of us trapped north of the Tweed who hated that vicious, crackbrained yahoo she married with a visceral intensity. And we weren’t too fucking fond of her ceaseless attempts to humanise him either.
There were many of us who’ll look back on the Bjelke-Petersen era as a waking nightmare, when a gang of slack-jawed yokels, crooks, bandits, half-smart chancers and degenerate greedheads ensconced themselves in power by brutally crushing all opposition, debauching the public offices, and rewarding favoured cronies with the sort of naked contempt for propriety that would have impressed Ferdinand Marcos or Manuel Noriega.
As long as there is a spark of life in Australian democracy, the mid 1980s when Bjelke-Petersen ruled alone, at the very zenith of his powers, should be studied in civics courses as an object lesson in what happens when untrammelled power is gathered into the shaky, liver-spotted hands of a stuttering, proto-fascist brute with just enough rat-bastard cunning to mask his true nature behind a carefully constructed facade of endearing bumpkinry.
And what of his legacy? What was more lasting?
The corruption of the state police force, or the use of that force as a praetorian guard, a last guarantee against the depredations of civil libertarians and unwashed protesters who might disrupt the orderly flow of business in the Sunshine State? That business being the orderly flow of tribute into the pockets of the ruling junta.
Or should his legacy be the damaged lives of opponents who proved so troublesome that they had to be destroyed on general principles, broken on the wheel of the law, by defamation cases, by emergency legislation, by the punitive actions of a state with untold resources and unchecked power?
Should his legacy be the flight of hundreds of thousands of Queenslanders to safer, less contested lives in those states where politics did not threaten to become an intimately personal matter, something that could, in the worst case, reach out and touch you, shrivelling your options to fight or flight? And, really, only to the latter.
There’s a certain sort of smugly stupid conservative who can’t help but mount a reflexive defence of Bjelke-Petersen because they can’t abide the critics of his regime. But there was nothing conservative about him or
his government. They were radicals with no respect for the institutions of parliamentary democracy.
He gave his wife a fucking Senate seat in the national parliament for fucks sake. And the only surprising thing about it was that he didn’t get his complete Caligula on by sending a fucking horse down there in the number two spot.
All those ratfucks understood was strength and fear and the simple joy of driving their enemies before them. There was no schadenfreude in seeing Bjelke-Petersen humiliated before the Fitzgerald Inquiry when he was unable to explain what was meant by the doctrine of the separation of powers, because all it did was hammer home the truth that we’d been comprehensively arse-raped by a man with the ethics of a starving sewer rat, and the political instincts of a sabre-toothed baboon with a really scorching methamphetamine addiction.
We missed a great opportunity with Joh’s state funeral. It could have been an appropriate ceremony; a pack of dingoes starved for a week then sooled upon the corpse in the mudflats down by the Brisbane River. Or he could have been buried at sea with the worst of his cabinet ministers, all of them dipped in chum and fed to the hammerheads and reef sharks off the Great Barrier Reef which they were so keen to open up to mining.
For Flo I think the appropriate send off would involve tossing her down a disused shaft in the Ipswich coal mine where she once enticed a group of striking miners to the surface with the promise of pumpkin scones and a chat ‘to sort out their differences’.
And when they came up?
The cops beat the bleeding shit of them and the strike breakers charged in and her jabbering fascist husband proclaimed it a great day for all the people of the Sunshine Reich.
Stay dead, motherfuckers. You won’t be missed.
* For the absolutely bargain-basement and value-added price of $4 per month you can subscribe to Alien Side Boob (don’t ask, I didn’t dare) and get your own twice-weekly stream of the best of John Birmingham. Alien Side Boob is a private, subscription-only column doing the things he can’t do in the newspaper. Because lawyers … and good taste.
Some thoughts of my own (Bob Gosford). We each have our memories of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s for-far-too-long rule over Queensland. Born and raised in New South Wales, I was largely immune from any personal effect from the evil regime but looked on in vicarious horror at what was going on over the border.
Three—of many—experiences linger. The first as a sixteen-year old hitch-hiking into Queensland for a lark and a look around in the early seventies. Even at that age the barbarity and corruption was manifest—cops roughing me up as a “long-hair” and running me out of Maryborough late one evening. I survived and retreated back to the relative sanity south of the border but not without more than a hint of the sense of menace afoot.
The second came many years later while living in Maningrida on the Arnhem Land coast in 1989 when the late Wayne Goss led Labor to a very long-overdue victory. There were a number of Queenslanders living there at the time—now I realise they were economic and political refugees—and I had no idea of the hatred they had for Bjelke-Petersen and his rotten bunch until what for them was that happiest of days.
Then later still while practising law in Darwin. A colleague was before the court on a minor assault charge—or similar—and when asked if he had any priors he told the court that during the ‘illegal’ street marches towards the end of the Bjelke-Petersen era he’d been pinged for the trifecta of abusive language, resist arrest and assault police—again the details are hazy but you get the drift—and the response from the bench was along the lines of, “Well, you’d be regarding that as a badge of honour, wouldn’t you.”
Please feel free to send in your own thoughts & experiences of Queensland under Joh … and the long and still lingering after-effects.