April 26, 2005 | Jeff Wall

Johannes Bjelke-Petersen…an unhealthy contempt for the role of the opposition in a democracy

I worked for a senior Liberal Minister in the early years of the Bjelke-Petersen Government so I knew him relatively well. He was ever courteous to me – but that was before the Liberals became as much as the enemy as Labor always was.
The current debate about his record and legacy is interesting. But it reminds me of the words of the Sydney crime figure, Frederick Charles “Paddles” Anderson, who once said “there is a bit of bad in the best of us, and a bit of good in the worst of us”.
But even when I worked for the Bjelke-Petersen Government, there was one aspect of his approach to government, and democracy, that troubled me greatly.
He had a total contempt for the role of the Parliamentary Opposition in the workings of our democracy. It was a contempt founded, I believe, on the equally contemptuous approach the Gair Government, and its predecessors, had for the Opposition Bjelke-Petersen belonged to between 1947 and 1957.
But that cannot excuse it. It may explain it, but not excuse it.
In 1957, the Opposition had three staff -a private secretary, a secretary/typist and a chauffeur.
When I joined Attorney-General Bill Knox as his first Press Secretary in 1972, the Opposition still had three staff FIFTEEN years later!
In 1973, while the Premier was overseas, the Deputy Premier and Treasurer, Gordon Chalk, began the process of granting the Opposition a Press Secretary -hardly a momentous change given that, by then, all 18 Ministers had Press Secretaries!
The first occupant of the position was Greg Chamberlain, who worked for both Jack Houston and Percy Tucker.
But, after the 1974 elections, which reduced the Labor Opposition from 33 to 11 MP’s, Knox and Chalk intervened to block any suggestion the Opposition would have its staff entitlement “reduced” as well by taking away the Press Secretary! A t the time, Bill Knox told me the suggestion had been floated by the Premier in Cabinet.
But the Premier got his revenge (again) on Labor when the construction of the Parliamentary Annexe meant the Opposition had to vacate its two Parliamentary Offices -one for the Leader, the second small office shared by the three staff.
The Premier allocated the Opposition very large, and well furbished, offices in a CBD office block.………………………………the only problem was the Office was in Watkins Place in the upper end of Edward Street -about as far away from Parliament House as it was possible to get while still being in the CBD!
Until commonsense prevailed, the plan was to deny the Opposition Leader any office accommodation in Parliament House at all!
But the vindictiveness was not confined to Labor, as the Liberals were to find when they left the Coalition in 1983.
Even though the post-election Liberal Leader, Sir William Knox, had been a Coalition Minister for 18 years -15 of them under Bjelke-Petersen – the Liberals were treated as meanly as Labor had been.
It was not until the election of Mike Ahern as Premier in 1987 that the appalling treatment of the official Opposition and minority parties, began to end.
And it was not until the election of Rob Borbidge in 1996 that the Opposition (then led by Peter Beattie) was given resources that equated to what was provided in every other State.
And today, the Opposition in Queensland is easily the best resourced in Australia. How times change?
Others can judge the Bjelke-Petersen legislative and policy records.
But I will forever hold the view that the appalling treatment of the official Opposition, and then the minority party, was a blight on our democracy. Some will argue it is a minor matter, but I contend that it epitomised an approach to Parliament, and to democracy, that served this State very poorly indeed.
The debate about the Bjelke-Petersen legacy and record is a debate we had to have.
But there can be no question or debate that his approach to the role of the Parliament in our democracy -and that of the Opposition in particular -was, and remains, utterly indefensible.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 9:03 am | Comments (2) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Many of the comments on Bjelke Peterson seem to focus on the negative, and some of it borders on the trivial and/or emotional.
    Barely a word seems to have been offered on the contribution of the Government of the time to the development of Queensland, and of the calibre of the Public Officials charged with implementing political/public policy. Officials such as Barton, Schubert, Helscher were the envy of other States and provided much of the basis for infrastructure which serves this State well.
    Hopefully someone will eventually document this side of the Bjelke Petersen era if only to provide a more balanced history for the record.

    Comment by Kevin Davies — May 2, 2005 @ 11:05 pm

  2. .

    Comment by JackUQ — June 6, 2013 @ 10:09 am

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