Farewell Sir Joh


The one certain way of stirring up a Labor Party branch meeting in days of yore was to say the magic word, ‘Joh’. In Queensland it would have them frothing at the mouth. I did it just to see their fangs.

Unfortunately, as Federal Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Environment I had to deal with the lovely and talented Sir Joh at very close range. We sat together on a number of occasions at ministerial council meetings, foremost among them being the one that dealt with the creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park the largest and greatest marine park in the world.

Kicked off by Gough and continued with vigour by Malcolm it had, due to the fear and loathing by Queenslanders for all things Canberran, made little progress after eight years.

Reproduced courtesy of Sean Leahy

Reproduced courtesy of Sean Leahy

By the time I took over the environment portfolio in 1983 only 14 ½ per cent of the Reef Region had been incorporated in the Marine Park. Snarly as the Queenslanders were to Coalition ministers for trying to tell them what they could do with ‘their’ Great Barrier Reef, you can imagine the reaction when the dreaded socialists arrived back in town.

Believing that the main objective was to save the Reef rather than my ego, I decided that a different approach to Joh was called for. Instead of the pugnacity shown by my Coalition predecessors I tried flattery and bucketloads of schmalz.

At our first ministerial meeting I opened by telling him what an honour it was to work with the longest serving Premier in the history of the English speaking world, or some other such nonsense. He got all giggly. Fortunately, those present were under threat of violence if any of my vomitous remarks were ever leaked. My new approach worked. When I departed the portfolio 98 ½ per cent of the Great Barrier Reef Region was in the Marine Park. The tiny strip not incorporated was to ensure minor local matters were dealt with by local government.

These bi-annual ministerial council meetings did not go entirely as planned, as regular attendees will attest. The first at Townsville was particularly memorable.

Within days of becoming minister I had been greeted by the daunting news that an infestation of Crown of Thorns starfish (acanthaster planci for the purist) had exploded on the Great Barrier Reef and, according to the media, unless I did something about it immediately there would be nothing left of the Reef by week’s end. I asked them if they thought I should head north with my spear gun.

My fears were not assuaged when, upon asking the reason for this latest outbreak, my scientific advisers informed me that they ‘didn’t have a clue’. Their answer, not surprisingly, was ‘more research’. As knowledge of the Great Barrier Reef was extremely limited, they were probably right. Desperate to appear to be on top of the subject and doing something about it, I went to Cabinet seeking $4 million for research for the next four years. Cabinet instructed me to approach Sir Joh and ask his government to pick up a quarter of the cost. I loved the way my ministerial colleagues always suggested I ‘approach’ the Premier.

Then came the Townsville meeting. A long table with numerous senior federal and state bureaucrats sat there solemnly while John Brown (Federal Minister for Tourism) and yours truly faced Sir Joh and Peter McKechnie (Queensland Environment Minister). The first item on the agenda was the Crown of Thorns issue and the request for the Queenslanders to kick in a million dollars. Graeme Kelleher, the talented and mild-mannered Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, rose and explained the enormous problem we faced and the need for research to find out the cause of the problem and what we could do to stop it.

Sir Joh would have none of that.
Now Graeme, you’ve only been on the Reef, what … eight … five … nine years. You don’t know the Reef like I do. I’ve been here what … fifteen … twenty … ten years … or more … or so? My goodness me, yes. And that fellow Endean … Russell … Professor fellow he took me down on the Reef when those Thorn of Crown things were eating everything. He showed me what they had done in … three … two … four weeks or so. And there was nothing wrong. Nothing at all. No … my goodness me … no … All those Thorn of Crowns were very healthy. So you don’t have to tell me about the Crown of Starfish … Thorns. Don’t you worry about …They were all lovely and gleaming white.

The silence that descended on the meeting was eerie. Senior Queensland bureaucrats suddenly found a reason to search under the table for their briefcases. Papers were shuffled, throats cleared.

Eventually Graeme Kelleher spoke. ‘Mr Premier, the reason they were all lovely and gleaming white was because they were dead!’

R.I.P. Joh. We shall not see your like again.

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