May 03, 2005 | Graham

We need Joh to have a state funeral

Joh Bjelke-Petersen will have a state funeral today. Many say he shouldn’t including Nigel Powell and Wayne Sanderson. They’re both wrong. We owe it to ourselves to give him one. Deny him a state funeral, and we are one with him. Give him one, and we assert and affirm the values of liberal democracy.
I have always strenuously opposed Bjelke-Petersen and most of what he stood for. If it wasn’t for Joh I may not have become involved in politics. His colossal mismanagement of the state and disregard for ethics, morality and integrity drove me to oppose him. So I joined a party that not only opposed him, but was in a position to do something about it, unlike the Labor Party, which was impotent and just as corrupt as Joh’s then Country Party.
It pains me, almost physically, to hear people from my side of politics laud Joh. The Liberal Party that I joined was better than that. Joh was corrupt. There was no excuse for what he did, and I will always remember the palpable anger on the streets of Brisbane in the 1989 election campaign from people who had once voted for him and now knew they had been betrayed.
And yet, his corruption has never been proved to the legal standard. There are reasons for that, but nevertheless, that standard has not been met. That means that the civil libertarians, if civil liberties are to mean anything, must defend Joh’s right to a state funeral, just as they would the rights of any other unconvicted criminal to their civic entitlements.
I use this term advisedly, but Joh was a fascist. His politics threatened the very existence of the society that sustained him. When the cartoonist Alan Moir portrayed him as Hitler, with crossed bananas rather than a swastika on his shoulders, it was an accurate portrayal, even though it was not helpful in the battle against Joh.
Joh used his political weight against his opponents to crush them, whatever the niceties of liberal or parliamentary democracy dictated. Many see Beattie as another Joh, but by insisting on Joh’s right to a state funeral Beattie is the antithesis – he is observing the customs and courtesies in a way that Joh never did. Many of those opposing the funeral are demonstrating what electors instinctively knew. Whatever their policies, there was actually a similarity of personality and approach between the populist and his opposing demagogues.
For those who can’t make the funeral, I have attached an order of service here. When I first read it the text made me choke. But then I realised that it is up to God, whatever he or she may be, to make the judgement as to what is appropriate. Ultimately we cannot know what leads people to do wrong things, and whether or not their good deeds, or their inability to understand moral and ethical concepts, might perhaps excuse them.
We should all mentally stand by Joh’s graveside. As a community we share in his failings. His success as a politician rested on our willingness to vote for him (and I will take on any who say it was purely due to a gerrymander because it wasn’t). It also rested on the way that some self-indulgently opposed him. The startling thing about evil is often its banality, and how domestic and unremarkable it can seem at the time.
Reading the order of service I thought it a pity that the choir from St Peter’s Lutheran School was part of the ceremony, having visions in my mind of young children with innocent trebles, but then I thought otherwise. What a wonderful opportunity to teach them about the fallibility of human judgement and the emptiness of social honours. Will anyone take that sermon up?

Posted by Graham at 10:53 am | Comments (8) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. Sorry, but I don’t believe in turning the other cheek! State funerals should be provided in memory of people who have worked for their community, not just for themselves. He treated our democracy with contempt and to provide a State funeral denegrates its value to the broader community. Not my taxes at work!

    Comment by Mary Walsh — May 3, 2005 @ 2:54 pm

  2. Graham, I’d have said that Joh was a proto-fascist, but for the moment, let’s accept your harsh assessment. Ours is a democratic society – why should it pay to honour a fascist? That demeans what we stand for. Should Germany have dug up Hitler’s charred remains and given him a state funeral because he’d been Chancellor for 12 years (legitimately appointed in the first instance)? Of course not.
    Symbolism is important, and the message those young choir members are likely to take away is that this man was a great and honoured person. You say it refelcts well on us that we did not “deny” him one. But what has occured here is a conscious decision to grant him one, a decision that need not have been made, which is not quite the same as taking something from him. It is not as if the honour comes automatically. As Peter Beattie has acknowledged – it was a decision he took.
    If we grant that honour to all comers, as if it is a reflex we have no control over, we devalue all state funerals, such as those for ANZAC veterans and the sailors killed in the recent helicopter crash.
    And, finally, surely you meant to say you disagree with Nigel Powell and myself? Just because we hold a different opinion to yours does that “we are wrong”.

    Comment by Wayne Sanderson — May 3, 2005 @ 4:34 pm

  3. Wayne, I’m no postmodernist, so I have to accept that if you and I disagree and I am right, then you are wrong. Of course it is always possible that I am not right, in which case I am wrong and you may be right. In either case the significant thing is not that we disagree but that someone is wrong!
    I also think that your comparison with Hitler is not a good one. Hitler was a war criminal of the worst sort, and if he had lived would have been convicted and probably executed.
    Joh was no Hitler, and he was never convicted of anything. Our society works because of the rule of law, which says that the law should apply impartially to all. If you are not convicted you are presumed innocent and you are entitled to the benefit of that presumption. Fascism is a belief system that sees some as being above the law, just as Joh appears to have seen himself above the law.
    If we operate in any other way and start choosing on the basis of political belief then power, not justice, becomes the guiding principle of society, and that is exactly what the rule of law is meant to counteract. The anti-dote to fascism is not fascism, but liberal democracy.
    Joh tampered with the law, abused and ignored it, and in the process damaged the fabric of society. That was wrong. To exercise political power when impartiality is called for would be to do the same thing.
    From a practical point of view, if Beattie had denied Joh a state funeral, the effect would have been to turn him into a martyr, similarly to how Pauline Hanson became a martyr. You say it is not manadatory to give him a state funeral. That’s right, because Joh changed the rules. It used to be the case that all former ministers of the crown who served one term received a state funeral. Apparently too many old Gair ministers were dying and Joh didn’t want to honour them.
    But since Joh it has been the practice that state funerals are offered, nevertheless. It remains mandatory in other states and federally.
    So, from an ethical and practical point of view it remains the right thing to give all former ministers a state funeral.

    Comment by Graham Young — May 3, 2005 @ 5:19 pm

  4. Graham, I’m no post-modernist either. To the contrary, I though we might observe old fashioned courtesies and allow those following our discussion to make up their minds about who they think is right and wrong, rather than presume to make self-serving pronouncements on our own behalf.
    With regard to my Hitler reference, that was made quite deliberately following your lead on two counts. One, you described Joh as a fascist. Well, thats our Adolf. And you said Joh had not been convicted of anything – the same applies to Hitler of course.
    You seem to have settled on a court room conviction as your line in the sand so to speak, with those on the right side of it getting a decision in their favour for a state funeral. I don’t accept that arbitrary line myself and see no good reason why I should. To take another example from the world stage, it would mean no state funeral for Nelson Mandela and yet on that basis, Adolf still has not been excluded from getting one. So, I don’t think it is a good criteria.
    Mandela’s conviction only underlines the point that court room decisions are not infallible – they can be swayed by many factors, one of which is a corrupt juror, as Luke Shaw was for Joh hung jury decision.
    On every other single count though, Joh was “convicted” – by the Fitzgerald Inquiry which found all the vital institutions of the state corrupted under his watch and by his approach to state craft; by the Broadcasting Authority for his corrupt $400,000 payment to Alan Bond; and by a Supreme Court civil trial jury in relation to corrupt paymnets from Sir Leslie Theiss. (Or are you now going to say we are only talking about criminal court decisions?)
    Joh was a crook, corrupt, a proto-fascist, an authoritarian and snake-oil merchant who ruined lives, undermined institutions and our democratic instincts. To honour him sends the wrong message to this generation about how we as a society view such people. To give him a state funeral demeans and devalues the meaning of that ceremony as one reserved for our societies “heroes”.
    As for making him a martyr, to whom? To the National Party stalwarts who have never accepted the verdict of the Fitzgerald Inquiry – a view he encouraged. He already is a martyr in their eyes because of the inquiry and the subsequent trial. Who knows, perhaps denying him the honour might have given a few of them (or their children)cause to stop and go back and read Fitzgerald’s report and reconsider. As it is, niether they nor anyone else has any cause to.
    The symbolism and message of today’s charade was a poor one in terms of building and strengthening Queensland democratic society. Joh ought not have been granted a state funeral.
    So, since I’m in Rome, let me (just this once) do as the Romans do in this parts. Graham, you are wrong. Emphatically.

    Comment by Wayne Sanderson — May 3, 2005 @ 8:02 pm

  5. Ooops, they should have read the $400,000 Alan Bond paid to Joh.

    Comment by Wayne Sanderson — May 3, 2005 @ 8:47 pm

  6. Wayne, you’re letting your bitterness get the better of your decency. What you are saying is that because you disagree with what he did he should be denied what every other premier has had. You couldn’t touch him while he was alive, but you’ll try once he is dead.
    So, if Gough Whitlam dies while John Howard is in power, then Howard could justify denying him a state funeral because Whitlam broke the law, and because of his incompetence he caused misery to millions of Australians. It is not a logic that I want to follow.
    In my view, a conviction for criminality is the only reason a former cabinet minister should not receive a state funeral. Don Lane was rightly denied one for that reason. But to deny for any other reason is to be just as divisive as Joh ever was and to in effect be carrying on a political fight at the very time when political fights ought to be laid to rest.

    Comment by Graham Young — May 4, 2005 @ 12:27 am

  7. Graham, I am forced to say again – you are wrong. I bear Joh no bitterness. As a political journalist at the time, I dealt with Joh directly every working day (the last phone call I made before knocking off) – personally, I liked him. Let him be buried by his family and friends and rest in peace in that sense.
    It is Joh’s public behaviour that I refer to. In your words he was a fascist. He was also proved corrupt by courts, tribunals and a royal commission.
    Your Whitlam example pales by comparison and I would like to hear more about him personally “breaking the law” before I gave it more than a moments thought.
    My argument has nothing to do with partisan politics (nor with mere political or economic incompetence), but everything to with the symbolism of a collective institutional respect paid for out of the public purse for a man who (as official findings show) dispised, ignored, traduced, and corrupted every democractic institution and practice our state is based on. That is self-defeating hypocrisy.
    Your “criminal conviction” line in the sand throws up all sorts of anomalies (Mandela/Hitler) which you have not, (and I’d have thought) can not address.

    Comment by Wayne Sanderson — May 4, 2005 @ 4:21 am

  8. It is undeniable that a significant part of the Qld community still has affection for Joh and what he did as Premier – I strongly disagree with them, but denying a State Funeral would have been a needlessly divisive and antagnostic act towards those people – as Graham suggested, just the sort of mean-spirited divisive bastardry that Joh specialised in.
    It’s not as if a State Funeral is the line in the sand that determines whether or not someone was a good person or not – it’s as much value in assessing someone’s true worth to the community as a knighthood or a whole bunch of other similar honours.
    Targetting the granting of a State Funeral seems to me to be targetting the symbols ahead of the substance.
    His funeral would have been a Big Deal anyway and refusing a State funeral would have just been unnecessarily divisive with a net result of increasing public sympathy for Joh at a time when it is important for the long-term future of the State that the real damage he caused be recognised.
    Plain speaking with the full facts on what he did and the real damage that caused (and is still causing) will have far more positive impact on the wider community’s understanding of the issues than the self-satisfaction of easy headlines.

    Comment by Andrew Bartlett — May 5, 2005 @ 1:10 am

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