The hillbilly dictator


‘Joh madness’, indeed. Mike Steketee’s look at the demented Joh for PM campaign in the Week-end Australian (link here) appeared under that headline.

The phrase applies equally well as a description of Queensland media coverage of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s death, where the northern ‘chooks’ have again fallen under same thrall that allowed the ‘hillbilly dictator’ to flourish in the first place.

As so often happened during the Joh years, the most clear-eyed reflections on his time in office have come from the national media, notably the Australian on Monday which followed up Steketee’s column with fine contributions from Phil Dickie, Tony Koch and Ross Fitzgerald.

North of the Tweed, journalists appear to have forgotten everything and learned nothing from the media lapses that Commissioner Tony Fitzgerald identified in his report as having contributed to the culture that allowed corruption to flourish in the first place.

Reproduced courtesy of Sean Leahy

Reproduced courtesy of Sean Leahy

Strangely enough, the worst offenders have been the ABC and the Courier-Mail, the outlets that have long jostled for boasting rights to the claim of having ‘brought about the Fitzgerald Inquiry’.

There are numerous examples of where both have failed, but for the sake of brevity, let’s look at one issue, the question of whether or not Bjelke-Petersen should be given a state funeral.

Premier Peter Beattie decreed one was to be held early last year and in the 12 months since, the national broadcaster and Queensland’s daily broadsheet have denied free speech in a way Bjelke-Petersen never quite achieved by refusing to allow discussion on the subject.

ABC Local Radio made an editorial decision to that effect which was never made public, but became known to a number of local activists and commentators who tried to raise the issue.

The Courier-Mail can be credited at least for being open about its stance in an editorial (July 9, 2004) that castigated ‘the more vocal critics of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s political career’ for ‘mounting a campaign to try to prevent the Government proffering a state funeral when he dies’.

‘They do not appear to accept that such a funeral recognises the importance of the office he held,’ the paper thundered, before making a statement that ought to have embarrassed and offended every journalist on its staff: ‘Given what Mr Beattie said “ and the fact that he is still the Premier “ it is quite pointless for those who object to the proposal to be mounting a campaign against it.’

In a democracy, pointless for aggrieved citizens to object to a decision made by their elected representatives, and on that basis a newspaper shuts down public debate? To this day the Courier has not repudiated that appalling statement, which entitles readers to assume that it still applies to this and other issues.

The problem for the paper’s assertion that the funeral ‘recognizes the importance of the office’, is that this is the best argument for not granting the honour.

Lest we all forget, the facts of history are that but for one rogue juror, Bjelke-Petersen would have died a convicted felon.

Had Luke Shaw met his obligation as a prospective juror and declared his allegiance to the National Party before being sworn onto the jury hearing the perjury charge brought against the former premier, it is likely Bjelke-Petersen would been jailed as former ministers were, including Don Lane and Brian Austin.

While in the prison exercise yard, he might have passed some time with his hand picked and promoted choice for police commissioner Terry Lewis, with whom he could have lamented the loss of a long cherished knighthood.

If the other jurors on the Bjelke-Petersen trial for perjury had not been thwarted by Shaw’s partisan obstinacy, it is unlikely anyone would have seriously considered giving a state funeral.

And yet a conviction for lying to the Fitzgerald Inquiry over the receipt of an allegedly corrupt payment would have been the least compelling reason for refusing it.

The case against a state funeral can be put simply by asking: What self-respecting democratic state would so honour a man who dishonoured and corrupted not just the institutions fundamental to a democratic state, but the very culture on which it relies?

Bjelke-Petersen was not merely undemocratic; by nature he was unfailingly anti-democratic.

His governments won office at elections that were rigged courtesy of the notorious gerrymander which he consistently refused to remove, even under pressure from fellow conservatives in the Liberal Party.

He refused repeated calls to introduce any semblance of openness and accountability to the Parliament, and rejected numerous calls for even a rudimentary committee system.

Bjelke-Petersen did not just discourage the dissent so vital to a thriving democracy, he ruthlessly pursued opponents with the unconscionable treatment of Fraser Island advocate John Sinclair but one of the more vivid examples.

He meddled in the appointments of the supposedly independent judiciary, enacted laws to deny freedom of assembly and the right to public protest and used the courts to silence opponents with state-funded defamation actions.

He turned the police force into an instrument of the state and thereby created the climate where corrupt police felt themselves to be untouchable as they corrupted the administration of the law.

The ABC 4 Corners programme ‘The Moonlight State’ and Phil Dickie’s work for the Courier-Mail were not the first reports that might have prompted a diligent government to turn a bright spotlight onto the behaviour of its police force.

But in every such instance the Bjelke-Petersen Government ensured that ‘whistleblowers’ involved were discredited, the media messenger who carried the reports was castigated and the police given full political backing.

Anyone who thinks that the only outcome of this was a few brothels operating under a Queensland police franchise operation should read the final report of the Fitzgerald Inquiry. Queensland’s democratic system was corrupted, root and branch.

While they are about it, they might care to reflect on the careers, lives and marriages of honest police who were destroyed by that corruption; and on the fact that there is good reason to think that Queensland police played a role in the murders of Shirley Brifman and drug couriers Douglas and Isabel Wilson.

Then there were the admissions that police verballing was widespread at the time, with the probability that innocent people ended up in jail.

Throughout all of this, Bjelke-Petersen showed contempt for a free press and the public’s right to know, famously saying that he wished there was no media, arguing that the community would be better off for not knowing anything.

Democracy is not just about the elections, laws, independent judges and a free press “ before all of that it must be a shared social instinct, a set of basic beliefs that help inform the way citizens behave in the public domain.

On an almost daily basis Bjelke-Petersen undermined and corrupted that democratic instinct.

Equally damning was his attitude toward the inquiry from the time its findings were handed down in 1989. Not once did Bjelke-Petersen acknowledge responsibility for what he did, nor for what was done in his name, under his watch.

In fact, he sought to deny Fitzgerald’s legitimacy, disputed the inquiry’s findings, tried to rewrite history in his own favour and thereby refused to the end to be part of a healing and strengthening of the state’s democratic culture.

The symbolic message of refusing the honour of a state funeral would be that Queensland remembers the lessons of history, values democracy and honours the sacrifice (so close to Anzac Day) of those who built and defended it. It would say: ‘We hold this inheritance dear and believe that those who trash it are not worthy of our collective institutional respect’.

Bjelke-Petersen’s family are entitled to mourn and to remember him fondly. Queensland society can not afford to be so sentimental and self-indulgent.

The fact that the state’s media is doing just that is reason for concern, and in the case of the ABC, should be investigated as a breach of its charter and of the responsibility it has to the community it exists to serve.

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