The sycophantic coverage of the death of Joh Bjelke-Petersen over the weekend, particularly on television, was a timely reminder that the lessons of history can be quickly forgotten. It showed not only how badly served we are by commercial television, but how even sections of the ABC have been cowed.
Barrie Cassidy should hang his head in shame for the shallow and non-probing interview with Senator Ron Boswell on Insiders, whilst Sky News revealed itself to be captive of the cloying celebrity political death approach. At least the likes of Terry Lane (In The National Interest) and ABC News Online offered some contrary views more soundly rooted in facts.
But it is today’s edition of The Australian that is quite remarkable. It goes some way to providing balance to the weekend’s simplistic and sympathetic coverage. The news of Bjelke-Petersen’s death is reported below the fold on page one, highlighting Premier Peter Beattie’s consent to a State funeral. The incumbent premier’s attitude to his predecessor will one day be worth historical investigation in its own right.
On page 2 there are 3 articles dealing with Bjelke-Petersen, all of which highlight criticisms. The former Premier’s vindictive attitude to artists such as Judith Wright and his fraudulent use of proxy votes to survive a leadership challenge in 1970 are recounted. Amidst the tributes, the former Labor Premier, Wayne Goss, is quoted as saying, “No, I don’t have a grudging respect for Sir Joh.”
“Thankfully we will not see your like on the political stage again,” begins the editorial on page 8. The paper’s scathing assessment of Bjelke-Petersen rightly accuses him of trampling on democracy, civil liberties and the fundamental elements of representative democracy. “His dominance of public life in Queensland for close to two decades demonstrates how quickly democracy can be perverted by a cunning politician with a will to power and an eye for the main chance.”
The editorial outlines the various ways in which Bjelke-Petersen enriched himself by abusing his public office. It recounts the demand for $1 million from Alan Bond in settlement of a defamation action, corrupt gains from oil exploration permits, and stories of bags of cash arriving at the Premier’s office. Moreover, the paper rightly attributes Bjelke-Petersen’s “snake-oil economics and populist patriotism” as paving the way for Pauline Hanson.
The Australian then devotes 4 full pages to commentary on Bjelke-Petersen. It amounts to the most comprehensive demolition of a political figure since the National Times exposed the corruption of former NSW Premier Bob Askin on the weekend after his death.
Adrian McGregor and Evan Whitton trace Bjelke-Petersen’s career but conclude with the damning assessment that he left politics a bitter man and left his National Party discredited, a position it remains in today.
Phil Dickie writes that Bjelke-Petersen “trampled on civil liberties” but resorted to the defamation laws with a “rare vindictiveness” and Tony Koch writes of the “selfish and short-sighted premier who ran Queensland with a tyrannical zeal.” Most appalling is the story of how Bjelke-Petersen stopped state funding of trachoma treatment for Aboriginal people in retaliation against their electoral enrolment.
Mike Steketee argues that Bjelke-Petersen had “a big influence on federal politics, all of it destructive.” He reminds us of the breach of convention which saw Albert Patrick Field appointed to the Senate in 1975, setting in train the dismissal of the Whitlam government. According to Steketee, Bjelke-Petersen “managed to wreck or derail the careers of no fewer than three federal leaders, all from different parties.” He refers to Whitlam (Labor), Howard (Liberal) and Sinclair (National).
Another article outlines the repressive social atmosphere that prevailed under Bjelke-Petersen, from laws restricting rock ‘n’ roll bands, censorship and bans on protest marches. Ross Fitzgerald explains how politicisation of the police force was an integral part of Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland, how the Special Branch was deployed to monitor critics and ruin careers.
An article by Dani Cooper explains the outrageous malapportionment (frequently and incorrectly referred to as a gerrymander) kept the National Party in power, even though it rarely polled above 40% of the vote. At one point it was the majority party in the coalition with just 27% of the statewide primary vote.
John Stone, the former head of Treasury and National Party senator, writes of his time on the Bjelke-Petersen bandwagon with some bemusement. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” he says somewhat unconvincingly. The Australian’s editorial acknowledges that Stone wasn’t the only one to climb aboard the “jimcrack bandwagon”. Sir Joh “conned all sorts of Australians – including, it must be said, this newspaper.” That’s the closest you’re likely to get to a mea culpa from a Murdoch editorialist!
Read The Australian today. It’s worth it.