OBITUARY: by Victor SirlNews Weekly
Tribute to Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen
, May 21, 2005
pays a personal tribute to former Queensland premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.Joh wasn't born in Kingaroy, but he was its favourite son. No-one cares if he was born in New Zealand. Kingaroy was his home of over 90 years and that is why he was buried at sunset in a grave amongst the pine trees on the family property, Bethany, as he had requested.
For people from Kingaroy, Joh was not just a local hero but a friend. We lived in Kingaroy for only a few years and my father first met Joh in the 1960s at a Taabinga School picnic.
Joh had two young boys working on his property and brought them along as a bit of a treat. He worked very hard and he expected hard work from his employees, but he paid them well and treated them with respect.Challenge
There was one occasion when a worker had refused to eat at the same table as aboriginal workers. Joh told his sister to get the man a tray and then told him to eat outside! And, much to Joh's sister Neta's amusement, the man did.
Word of this - in an era when normally a white man would be inside and aborigines outside - spread through the district like a bushfire. But that was Joh. He did what he knew to be right.
Joh's favourite singer, Kamahl, sang the Lord's Prayer at his funeral and still wears a set of cuff links his old friend once gave him.
Of course, Joh met many famous people when he became Queensland premier; but before all that he was a local identity and parliamentarian from a poor background who pioneered the peanut industry.
He had lived in a cow bail for many years, invented a peanut-thresher, built a business land-clearing and peanut-harvesting, and pioneered crop-dusting. Joh attended the Lutheran Church and, at 42, began a great married partnership with Flo.
Although Joh made quite an impact on Kingaroy, no-one guessed that the qualities he demonstrated would one day enable him to transform Queensland.
As premier, he was instrumental in building the coal industry, making the Gold Coast into a tourist playground and convincing the Japanese to pour millions into the economy.
He left Queensland's booming economy with a triple-A credit rating.
An ingredient of this success was one of Joh's most controversial acts as premier - abolishing death duties. The Liberals were against it and the move was even criticised by the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser.
But, as a result, people flocked to Queensland, including the wealthy so-called "white-shoe brigade", retiring to the Gold Coast.
Soon death duties, which compounded family grief, disappeared from Australia altogether because every state had to follow Joh's lead.World Expo
Joh signed Queensland up for World Expo '88 when other states turned it down. As a result of Expo '88, the city of Brisbane was transformed forever. The South Bank complex, with its restaurants, hotels, gardens, board-walk and artificial beach, replaced derelict and unnattractive buildings.
As a politician, Joh won some incredible election victories. When he announced the 1974 election, the then ALP leader Percy Tucker yelled out the ALP campaign slogan, "Let's go", to which Joh retorted, "You'll go, all right!" In the subsequent election, Tucker lost his seat and his party representation in parliament was reduced to 11 members.
At no time while Joh was premier did the ALP ever gain over 50 per cent of the vote on a two-party preferred basis.
The Nationals, at their zenith of power, held many of the most populated seats, not just the small rural ones - a fact not widely acknowledged. This was true even before Joh's Nationals amazingly won seats in Brisbane.
But Joh's legacy to Queensland was more than just a political or economic one; it was psychological.
His former press secretary Allan Callaghan said the biggest thing Joh did for Queensland was to get Queenslanders to believe in themselves.
He told them they were living in Australia's best state - something which, today, even Labor admits. Before Joh's era, Queensland carried the tag of the "Cinderella State".
That's why, in the Sunshine State, the sun can never set on the legacy of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. He has left a permanent imprint upon it, as characteristic as the Great Barrier Reef or his beloved Bunya Mountains. So many people are better off because of him.
For my family, the debt is very personal. An assistance package he once gave to dairy farmers leaving the land "kept a roof over our heads", as my mother puts it.
Sir Joh will not be forgotten - "Don't you worry about that".
- Victor Sirl is not a member of any political party.