Joh Bjelke-Petersen supporters back his bid for Canberra. Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen approached the prime ministership like a steamroller. Photo: Fairfax Media
“That the National Party of Australia, (Qld) fully supports the move by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen to attain the Prime Ministership … Accordingly, all members of the National Party, in this state, both Parliamentary and Organisational, are fully committed to this cause which can be appropriately styled Joh for PM for Australia’s sake.”
So declared the Queensland National Party, led by president Robert Sparkes, in the early hours of February 28, 1987, in the sleepy coastal inlet town of Hervey Bay.
As volleys go the words, carefully chosen, were a shot across the bow of supporters of federal National parliamentary leader Ian Sinclair and put Joh and the Queensland branch of the party on a collision course with New South Wales that is still spoken about to this day.
By the end of it Bob Hawke would still be prime minister, the Liberal-National Party coalition was left fractured and Joh’s political career was over.
But it remains among the most fascinating times in Australian political history.
The most famous of Queensland’s maverick politicians, Joh, never Johannes, or Mr Bjelke-Petersen, was unapologetic in his “with us or against us” mentality.
He applied it to everything he did, ruling the sunshine state from 1968 with an iron fist, stomping on dissent while overseeing an institutionally corrupt government, the memory of which still lurks in George Street’s shadows.
But in February 1987, having won government for the National Party in Queensland in its own right without the help of defectors who got his 1983 government across the line, Joh could do no wrong.
He set his sights on Canberra, approaching the prime ministership as he did everything else. Like a steamroller.
For those around him it was either get on board or be crushed. After all, the boy from Kingaroy’s word was law in the northern parts.
Why shouldn’t he leap from premier to prime minister, if that’s what he wanted?
Paul Davey, then federal director of the National Party, was there. He watched as the Queensland National Party, as stable as the land its farming supporter base worked, descended into civil war.
The “Hervey Bay resolutions” were the start. By March, Joh for PM had become Joh for Canberra.
By April, the national coalition between the Liberals, led by John Howard, and the Nationals, led by Ian Sinclair was split.
Cyclone Joh was bearing down.
“If you think back to the political atmosphere of the country at the time, Joh won that election in Queensland against all the odds, all the political polling, all the predictions and in Canberra the Hawke government was becoming increasingly unpopular particularly in regional areas,” Mr Davey said.
“There was a view among a growing number of conservative-minded people around Australia that the Coalition position of John Howard and Ian Sinclair was not good enough.
“Joh certainly believed that being led by Howard and Sinclair, that the Coalition was a hangover from the Fraser-Anthony time and he made little secret of his view that the Fraser-Anthony government was a failure.
“So against that background there was a number of people, some of them quite influential, in Queensland and beyond that were basically saying, ‘you should be running the country’.
“And I think that is where the seeds were sown.”
He’s written a book about that time, 28 years ago, which remains as relevant now as it did when Walk Like An Egyptian and Locomotion topped the charts.
Until 1987 Joh had not met a political opponent he could not best.
But as Mr Davey maps out in Joh for PM, for perhaps the first time he was up against forces he could not control.
“Reported pledges of money were not forthcoming,” Mr Davey said of when the wheels began to not only wobble, but steer the campaign off the rails.
“There were reports early in 1987 of pledges of up to $25 million for the Joh campaign – it didn’t materialise.
“And the other reason was he was unable to attract to the campaign some high-profile people. There were quite a number of high-profile Australians at the time who would commit to the Joh campaign and run on his ticket (such as Ian McLachlan, the president of the National Farmer’s Federation).
“None of them ultimately came on board and that killed the impetus.”
Killed the impetus, killed off the conservative’s chance to take government from an ailing and fractured Labor Party, wounded several political careers that took years to recover and ultimately loosened Joh’s hold on the Queensland Government – leading to his own political demise – but not the party.
“The most amazing thing for me during the election campaign was you have seen members of the political party of your own side of politics openly and publicly coming out and criticising the federal leader,” Mr Davey said.
“I don’t know if that’s been too common, if at all, and that was quite amazing.
“But the other amazing thing was, given the division that had happened within the National Party across Australia, it was amazing to me that the party came out of the ’87 election with only the loss of two seats, both which happened to be in Queensland.
“They were both marginal seats, but they were in Queensland. When you look at what happened with what had been going on in the party and the media coverage that that had had in the period since February going through to the election in July, to me it is quite amazing that the party didn’t suffer more heavily.”
And Joh, both the man and the legend, remains one of the most divisive figures the nation has ever birthed.
“There was no grey in people’s views,” Mr Davey said.
“People either thought that Joh was mad and the campaign was mad or they thought that Joh was right and that Sinclair should have got behind him. And it caused huge friction.
“Even today you can still have a lively discussion about the Joh for Canberra campaign, the Joh for PM campaign.
“Every time the subject comes up, people still have intense views about it.”
And the subject still comes up. The previous Queensland government, led by the LNP’s Campbell Newman, struggled under the weight of comparisons to Joh.
“Here we Joh again,” became the protesters’ catchphrase and ultimately it, too, fell after just one term.
But perhaps no modern politician embodies the attitude and the blustery bravado as Joh protege Clive Palmer.
Splitting from the Coalition after he had been named a life member, Mr Palmer vowed revenge against those who had wronged him, setting up a political party in his aim to become prime minister and wreak his vengeance.
But times have changed. And even Joh would have struggled under the weight of “feeding the chooks” across 24 hours a day.
Mr Palmer remains a daily reminder of the man who helped form his political beliefs.
As for how it will all end, or when Queensland and the Coalition will be able to close the door firmly on Joh, well, don’t you worry about that.
Joh for PM, published by NewSouth with the support of The Page Research Centre, will be launched this week.
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