My new book Bjelke Blues – Stories of Repression and Resistance in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s QLD 1968 – 1987 (ANDALSO BOOKS 2019) is about to be released. 45 stories essays and memoirs collected and edited by – guess who? Wonderful stories by wonderful writers including a foreword by Matt Condon, stories by Nick Earls and Miles Franklin winner Melissa Lucashenko, historian Raymond Evans, comedian Mandy Nolan, Indigenous activists Sam Watson and Bob Weatherall, UQ agitator Dan O’Neill, musician John Willsteed and many, many more.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen – a hill-billy peanut farmer whose formal education finished when he was 12 – ruled my home state of Queensland from 1968 to 1987. For me and for all of my generation that meant that for us growing up he was some sort of weird king – the ruler of the ‘country’ of Queensland he called his own. Several times he tried to secede Queensland from Australia to make it his own kingdom. He would have loved that.
For almost 20 years he stayed in power, despite receiving only 20% or so of the vote through a notorious gerrymander. He drew electoral boundaries around left-leaning areas in wiggly jigsaw-patterns around the state. Funding went first to areas that voted for his party, then to the other members of his right-wing coalition, leaving next to nothing for Left wing Labor electorates. He used the police force as his own personal army giving them unprecedented powers to enter properties under the infamous Health Act. Bjelke used taxpayers’ money to fund his personal vendettas through the law courts. He once sued every member of the opposition party for defamation. Heard enough yet?
And through all of this obvious corruption – I won’t go into the rape of the environment, jobs for mates, and the police and government corruption that eventually brought about his downfall – through all of this, he appeared on television every night with his peanut-shaped head and blotchy skin, smiling crookedly, bewildering and amusing journalists with his own special brand of obfuscating banter. Remind you of anyone in power now? ‘Don’t you worry about that!’
Every night, just like Trump, Joh provided sound grabs that the media loved, and infuriated others. Still today though, many older people maintain a fondness for Joh, and believe he knew nothing about all the corruption and wrongdoing, the bribes. This is despite Joh narrowly escaping jail time on a technicality for his part in the corrupt activities of his government. Well-meaning people like my mother, who say, ‘Oh but darling he did a lot of good things too.’
I first started to doubt the God King of Queensland in my early teens when he referred to a female journalist as “girly”. How I hated that word! Then he told her not “to worry her pretty little head about that.” My blood boiled. In Australia’s other states and in other countries too, Joh was seen as a laughable buffoon, a joke. But life under Joh was no laughing matter.
In my mid-teens as a baby punk, life under Joh was downright dangerous. In the early 80s, Brisbane city streets were completely empty after six at night – eerily empty. A ghost town. The only cars were police wagons that cruised the city blocks slowly like fat lazy sharks waiting to be fed. Waiting for someone who didn’t fit their idea of normal to step out of a bus – blacks, punks, hippies, greenies, queers, women. We all copped it. It was part of an average night out to be pulled over and interrogated just for looking different. You didn’t have to do anything wrong. They didn’t need an excuse. They were Joh’s personal army and their power was never questioned.
We learnt to never carry ID, to give false names and most of all not to be cheeky. It was hard though – Joh’s police were mostly so very stupid that most of the time they didn’t realise you were taunting them. But if they twigged – watch out! Queensland police were famous for late night bashings, especially of black people and gays. They’d take gay men up to Mt Coo-tha, bash them senseless then leave them for dead. They took young black people on long drives out to the edge of the city and left them there to find their own way home. They raided punk venues and gay clubs; batons raised. Hated hippies with a passion. Police bashings were so common they went unreported most of the time. Besides, who were we going to report them to – the police?
Drug busts became a weapon in Joh’s hands – a way of terrifying and controlling young people and the ‘intellectual Nancies’ he hated. The workers, the strikers, the students. Whoever he didn’t like. Under the Health Act your house could be raided at any time, turned upside down (read my story about getting busted here) and drugs planted. Drug offences carried heavy penalties for miniscule amounts, including jail – in Boggo Rd one of Australia’s most notorious prisons at the time.
Joh’s violent tactics against outsiders created a mass exodus to the south with some of our best and brightest intellects and creators leaving, never to return. Escaping Joh and his police thugs.
It was a dangerous time to be young and different, but a whole lot of good came out of those years too. Our fight against a common enemy united many disparate groups that aren’t so united now and weren’t then elsewhere either. ‘Women, Workers, Blacks Unite!’ was one of the old street march chants. Queers and punks and artists and hippies and students too. Anyone who didn’t fit Joh’s fascist ideal of Christian youth was a target. Just being a university student was enough to brand you a troublemaker and a deserved victim of police raids. We all had files with our names on them. We were watched. Notes were taken. They knew where we lived. But still, even when it became illegal to gather in groups larger than three, we gathered to protest.
The University of Queensland was a centre for opposition to Joh’s repressive policies and through the leadership of people like Dan O Neill and Sam Watson (both contributors to Bjelke Blues) generations of young Queenslanders were politicised and radicalised. We all learnt what it was like to be branded “other” and joined forces with our “other” brothers and sisters. As Sam Watson says in his essay ‘An Equal and Opposite Force’ in Bjelke Blues:
Joh was a tyrant, and he was a criminal. He personified all that we were fighting against. But I’ll at least acknowledge, in that old basic physics formulae about every force being balanced by an equal or countering force, that perhaps if we had have come up against a lighter, less extreme political opponent, we may not have developed into the sort of freedom fighters we have become.
Through his oppression, Joh created formidable opponents.
Forced underground, our art, theatre and music became radical, unique, and ended up influencing the world. We marched together side by side, punks and hippies, black and white, women and men, straight and gay, unionists, labourers and students, ladies in hats and gloves, priests and university lecturers. We marched side by side even after Joh banned marches and arrested protestors in their hundreds. We stuck together. “The people united will never be defeated!”
Joh gave us a common enemy that bonded us more than any benevolent supporter could have done. He created a close-knit family of outsiders and politicised us all. We certainly knew we were alive as we linked arms and faced off against the sea of blue shirts coming at us in waves, batons raised.
And today as Trump echoes and amplifies many of Joh’s worst traits there are lessons to be learnt here.
The people united will never be defeated!
For more information of what it was like living in Queensland during the Bjelke-Petersen regime read the book!
Available in all good independent bookstores after August 23. Request it from your local store if they don’t have it. Available for pre-order here
Join us at our special panel event at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Sunday September 8, 2 pm
If you can’t make those, don’t worry we have another night full of speakers and fun at the wonderful Avid Reader Bookstore in West End on September 24, 6pm start.
If you’d like to learn more about the downfall of Joh’s government and the police and government corruption that was finally exposed, I highly recommend Matt Condon’s marvellous trilogy Three Crooked Kings, 2013, Jacks and Jokers, 2014,All Fall Down, 2015 and his latest about the criminal underbelly that thrived under Joh The Night Dragon, 2019
Matt wrote the foreword for Bjelke Blues and knows more about the dark hidden history of the Joh era than anyone.
Hope to see you at one of our events. A launch in Sydney is also on the cards.
Do come and say hello!