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Sir Johannes (Joh) Bjelke-Petersen (1911–2005)

by Jack Waterford

The rightwing Australian politician Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who has died aged 94, won six elections as premier of Queensland, from 1968 to 1987. He also won the label from the Australian Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam of "Bible-bashing bastard".

Bjelke-Petersen was the antithesis of the Sydney University-educated Whitlam, who was federal prime minister from 1972 until he was toppled in 1975. The country boy Bjelke-Petersen became leader of his then politically and economically sleepy state after the death of his predecessor.

Once in power, through ruthlessness, luck and merchandising by adept minder and spin doctor Allen Callaghan — later jailed for fraud — he soon came under the national spotlight. Callaghan made a virtue of the premier's folksiness, malapropisms, unfinished sentences, forgetfulness and unassuming ways.

The premier had an instinct for attacking progressive ideas, human rights and centrist notions in government. In 1971, when anti-apartheid demonstrators challenged the South African rugby team tour, he declared a state of emergency to allow the team to play in Brisbane.

In 1972, through adept balancing of constituency boundaries, he won a second term on just 20% of the popular vote. He went on to become virtually unchallenged within the National party and, allied with mining companies and property developers, made Queensland an economic powerhouse. He saw his job primarily as facilitating business — he wanted to drill for oil on the Barrier reef — and was untroubled by concepts such as conflict of interest, the separation of powers, patronage or using state power to punish his enemies.

A key moment in his clashes with Whitlam came in 1975. Defying convention, Bjelke-Petersen rejected the Labor nominee to fill a Queensland federal senate vacancy, and installed a man hostile to Whitlam, thus depriving the federal government of its senate majority. This meant that, as political crisis engulfed Australia, Whitlam was ousted from power.

Bjelke-Petersen's downfall came in the late 1980s, after a television documentary exposed corruption in his government, and in the state police. The report of the ensuing Fitzgerald inquiry engulfed his administration — four ministers and the police commissioner were jailed. The Labor party defeated the Nationalists at the polls and Bjelke-Petersen was charged with perjury, though, after the jury split, the government decided against a retrial.

Bjelke-Petersen was born in Dannevirke, New Zealand, the son of a Danish Lutheran pastor. When he was two, the family emigrated to Kingaroy, 125 miles from Brisbane, where they endured a hard life building up a farm, and Bjelke-Petersen contracted polio.

At 13, he left the Taabinga Valley village school and, alone, went on to run a second family property, clearing land for peanut and maize cultivation. He educated himself via correspondence courses, taught at Sunday school — an early ambition was to be a lay preacher — and joined a debating society. The polio precluded him from doing war service.

In 1946, he was elected to the local council. Then came the Queensland legislative assembly. From 1947, he was a Country party, and then National party, member for Nanango, and, from 1950, for Barambah. In 1963, he became minister for works and housing; then came the premiership.

Bjelke-Petersen married his wife Flo (Florence) in 1952. Famous for her common sense and pumpkin scone recipes, she was, from 1981 to 1993, a federal senator for Queensland and continued some of his crusades. In 1982, he was knighted on the recommendation of the Queensland government — which is to say, himself.

He is survived by his wife, three daughters and a son.
Jack Waterford

Philip Jones writes: "Time to feed the chooks," (an Australian colloquialism for hens) Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen would say before his daily media conference. His platitudinous exhortation to reporters, "Don't you worry about that", became an Australian catchphrase.

Despite his devout Christianity, Bjelke-Petersen felt no compunction in adding to the biblical injunction, "Do unto others ... " the words, "as long as you get in first". In a state becoming super-rich on coal exports and tourism, a donation to the National party slush funds became mandatory for any business wishing to win a government contract.

Bjelke-Petersen's solipsisms found an echo in a hillbilly region which considered itself distinct from the world at large. But while his syntactically fractured speech and mixed metaphors amused the press and the country, his comments on minority groups appealed to underlying racism. He once referred to an Aborigine as "Mr Witchettygrub" and stated that indigenous Australians were "as rich as the sheikhs of the Middle East". His was a rustic eccentricity, charming a gerrymandered and naive electorate.

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Citation details

Jack Waterford, 'Bjelke-Petersen, Sir Johannes (Joh) (1911–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Joh Bjelke-Petersen, 1983

Joh Bjelke-Petersen, 1983

National Archives of Australia, K26/7/83/4

Life Summary [details]


13 January, 1911
Dannevirke, New Zealand


23 April, 2005 (aged 94)
Kingaroy, Queensland, Australia

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