Joh Bjelke Petersen – A Fair Assessment
Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Don’t you worry about that! North Ryde, 1990, Angus and Robertson
Joh Bjelke-Petersen served as Premier of Queensland, Australia, from 1968 to 1987, making him one of the most successful politicians in Australian history.
Having gone to university and high school in South East Queensland (well after his 19 year reign as Premier), I recall the mere mention of his name would still draw howls of disapproval and laughter from lecturers, teachers and students. Criticisms of his deep religious faith would often soufflé alongside charges that he was intensely corrupt and a mostly wicked man.
Over the years, however, I’ve learned to grow suspicious of such knee-jerk assessments of democratically elected leaders. ‘Take the risk of thinking for yourself,’ said the late Christopher Hitchens, ‘much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.’
My 2013-2014 summer reading list was then, most likely, the only one on the planet to feature Joh’s oddly titled memoir Don’t You Worry About That!
The pages are, as expected, hammered together with an ‘old school’ frankness rare in today’s political biographies. The first thing one notices is how little religion played in his decisions. Faith was important in the home, it seems, but hardly the ongoing source of his drive and motivation. If anything, hard work and a desire to do well drove his dual careers in politics and business, which were always charging ahead at the same time.
After a difficult start on the family farm, he became hugely successful running his own bulldozing business (and even producing a patent for a peanut sowing device), which prospered after so many people said he would fail.
Despite his commercial success, I admit I read his political advice more closely. After three decades in the cut and thrust of adversarial state and national politics, Bjelke-Petersen doesn’t shy away from the tactics he deployed during his 19 years as Premier. One of his key principles, he reveals, was: ‘You give me a problem and I’ll give you a bigger one.’ He describes that ‘if the unions or anyone or anyone else gave me a problem, they knew before they did it that I would give them a bigger problem in return. Within my own party, too, it became known that if anyone took on Joh Bjelke-Petersen they would have a fight on their hands and that nine times out of then they would come off worse.’
This caused obvious friction, and earned him an army of enemies, but he applied similar vigour to genuine reform and getting things done in his home state. ‘I came to realise that you never overcame a problem by standing back from it and contemplating it,’ he reflects. ‘The trouble with most politicians in this country, in my experience, is that they don’t get started. They stand back from a problem, fearing the problem might bite them, while they try to make up their minds.’
And making up his mind is what he did, particularly around issues of commerce. One of his most intriguing economic reforms, at least to me, was introducing an open roads policy, giving people unlimited freedom to transport goods by road. The need for such a reform seems silly now but, back then, protectionism and vested interests were to blame (as many say would even be the case now). As he explains of the absurdity; ‘The Queensland government had tried to protect its railways by severely limiting road transport… We had a ridiculous situation in which Queenslanders were liable to be pulled up on the road and have their vehicles searched, in case they were carrying something in the boot of their cars which ought to have been by train.’ If there was ever a chief example of a strangling regulation being blasted out of the water this would be it. The Queensland economy, without the labour regulation and taxes of other states, pushed ahead during his tenure.
As one reads on more practical political advice is forthcoming:
Look after yourself: I learnt one thing very early in my political life: if you can’t look after yourself, nobody else will look after you. If you take the soft approach, you simply invite your opponents to walk all over you, which they will not hesitate to do.
Know what you’re in for: Politics is a pretty rough game, and if you choose to get into politics you have to be prepared to wear a lot of abuse and ridicule.
Learn to get over it: In politics you cannot afford to allow yourself to brood over things said about you or done to you; you would burn yourself up in no time if you did. You just have to let it all go over your shoulder… I think all the Labor leaders who opposed me tended to have trouble coping with the pressure.
Toward the end of his reflections, however, he distils two lessons that perfectly join together his political success and his deep respect for business and enterprise.
First, you must provide strong, positive leadership, and by that I mean you must not deviate from what you set out to do, you must not be deterred from doing what you believe is right, no matter what obstacles are put in your way. Secondly, you must have good, sound politics, and the policy I would place at the top of my own list is simply this: tax people as little as possible. People spend their money much effectively and more wisely than governments do.
But is the political life, after so many years at the centre of politics, worth it? Not so, it seems. ‘I have no doubt that big business is an area where far more can be accomplished in life; compared with it, politics is as small-time as a game of marbles in the corner of the schoolyard.’