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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Michael John (Mike) Ahern (1942–2023)

by Matthew Condon

Mike Ahern, Australian Overseas Information Service, 1988

Mike Ahern, Australian Overseas Information Service, 1988

National Library of Australia, 22670641

Five years ago, in a function room at the Queensland State ­Archives complex, Michael John Ahern mingled with a small crowd of guests and journalists, occasionally leaning on his leather-wrapped walking cane.

The ever-affable Ahern, dressed in a neatly ironed short-sleeved white shirt and tie, was there to commemorate the annual lifting of the 30-year embargo on cabinet minutes.

The year in question on this day was 1988 – when Ahern was Queensland premier, having ­deposed Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen amid the furnace that was the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police and political corruption (1987-1989).

It was the year that Ahern, without a thought for his political longevity, committed Queensland to a fresh start, to an honest reboot. The decision that was perhaps his greatest legacy was pushing through cabinet minute #54969 in August 1988, which ­effectively expanded the Fitzgerald Inquiry’s terms of reference.

That decision changed Queensland history.

At the archives function, Ahern, then 76, dominated the room. He was tall, magnetic, and carried an almost ethereal sense of decency, nurtured perhaps years prior on the land up near the Sunshine Coast where he was raised. He was just 25 when he was elected to parliament as the Country Party member for Landsborough. That day at the archives he gave a short speech.

He said of that famous cabinet minute: “This started out as a police inquiry. But we found a number of key players saying the inquiry had nothing to do with them, because they weren’t police officers.

“There was no written submission. I took it to cabinet and said we could either do it and get it done or wait for a few months and be scrutinised by the media and have to do it anyway. We got it done and moved forward. It was probably the most important decision I put to cabinet.”

Later, almost as an aside, he said of his time as premier (December 1987 to September 1989): “In life you get given things to do, and you go out and do it. It was something that was mine to do.”

As premier, in the wake of ­almost 20 years of Bjelke-Petersen, and against enormous odds, he demonstrated a compassionate and common touch, and was a person who deeply cared for other people and just happened to be wrapped in the skin of a politician. He was a one-off.

The passing of Ahern sees the passing of a man of unimpeachable integrity. Indeed, his name would become a by-word for dignity and respectability in public life. He embodied the definition of public servant.

As premier, he famously vowed to implement Tony Fitzgerald’s recommendations “lock, stock and barrel”, and he stayed true to his word.

Years later, he told me: “There was an overwhelming conviction which I had talked with my wife (Andrea) about at the time – I said to her I think if I get thrust into this I’ve just got to see it through. And I think we should (allow) the commission … to do what (it) feels it should do and live with the consequences.”

In his final report, Fitzgerald wrote: “The present premier, the Honourable Michael John Ahern MLA., came to office during the course of the inquiry and gave personal commitments to the chairman which were fully honoured.”

Fitzgerald wrote that Ahern could not have provided greater co-operation or done more “to ­enable the inquiry to search for the truth”. Fitzgerald told The Australian on Friday that Ahern was “a great Queenslander”.

“During the inquiry on a number of occasions, not too many, three or four I suppose, I met with Mike, Angus Innes who was the Liberal leader at the time, and (then ALP opposition leader and future premier) Wayne Goss,” he said. “We’d have joint meetings in which I’d encouraged them to focus on the inquiry, not worry too much about their respective political positions. They were very good at doing that. They saw the need to work together.

“I was very grateful for that. I mean, for obvious reasons, there was a lot of political controversy around the inquiry. And if they had used it as a political football, my task would’ve been that much harder.”

Ahern and one of his great friends, Malcolm McMillan, who was chief of staff to four Queensland ALP opposition leaders, spoke on the phone just a few weeks ago. They didn’t discuss politics. Just life, and all its ups and down. He said Ahern was in good spirits.

“He achieved what he ­achieved, in politics and after politics, but was never one to shout it from the rooftops,” McMillan said. “He was a quiet, private person. He was natural.”

To the end, though, politics was never far away.

He enjoyed discussing the ­issues of the day with friends. And often hilarious nuggets of history from his own long and distinguished career.

Ahern underwent surgery for bladder cancer a few months ago and was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Last week he was admitted into palliative care. He died at 5am on Friday. He was 81. He was surrounded by his wife Andrea and his children, Louise, Claire, John, Christine and ­Sharon.

Queenslanders may not have appreciated it at the time, but with Ahern fate had put the right man in the right place at exactly the right time when he took the top ­office during the state’s most dire hour. It was perhaps why he was ­fascinated by history itself, and the consequences of human ­decisions.

How appropriate that one of his favourite quotes was from the 17th-century priest and poet Robert Herrick: “Thus times do shift, each thing his turn does hold; New things succeed, as former things grow old.”

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Matthew Condon, 'Ahern, Michael John (Mike) (1942–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/ahern-michael-john-mike-33684/text42158, accessed 28 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Mike Ahern, Australian Overseas Information Service, 1988

Mike Ahern, Australian Overseas Information Service, 1988

National Library of Australia, 22670641

Life Summary [details]

Birth

2 June, 1942
Maleny, Queensland, Australia

Death

11 August, 2023 (aged 81)
Caloundra, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (bladder)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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