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Mike Ahern – premier of Queensland but not a leader

By Scott Prasser - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2023

Mike Ahern, the former Queensland National Party premier (1987-89) sadly passed away last week. Sadness of his passing should not overlook critical assessment of his long time in state politics (1968-1990) and premiership.

Ahern, like Britain's Anthony Eden, had been heir apparent for years before finally gaining the top spot in 1987. And like Eden, in a little over 20 months it was all over, Ahern was replaced, though thankfully in somewhat different circumstances than Eden's.

Ahern was one of those politicians who "had potential" and was the "one to watch" but in the end when he finally got there, like Anthony Eden, the potential was never delivered and the performance was painful to watch.


Ahern won the safe Sunshine Coast regional seat of Landsborough formerly held by the Premier, Frank Nicklin, in a by-election in 1968.

Ahern's rise up the greasy National Party pole of power was slow. He did not fit the then Country Party character. He was not a farmer. His seat was regional and in south-east Queensland. He was one of the few National Party ministers to have a degree, its saving grace was that it was in agricultural science. He was a Catholic in a predominantly Protestant party when those things mattered. And Premier Bjelke-Petersen was not so keen on Ahern.

Nevertheless, Ahern became Deputy Whip in 1972, and supported a parliamentary committee system when Queensland's unicameral legislature had hardly any. He had some modest success in getting some new ones established.

In this advocacy he was not alone. Liberal backbenchers, known as the "Ginger Group" had been agitating for a better parliamentary committee system, before Ahern was on the scene.

Ahern finally gained a ministerial post in 1980 – 12 years after being elected, but it was an important one for any budding National Party politician being the Primary Industry portfolio.

Ahern enjoyed the success and the subsequent ministerial promotions, with the rise and rise of Bjelke-Petersen and the National Party as they slayed the Whitlam Government through questionable Senate appointments, maintained office through Queensland's electoral weightage electoral system, and skewered the Liberals over the Terry White affair in 1983.


Indeed, when fellow cabinet minister, Liberal Terry White, crossed the floor to vote with Liberal backbenchers for a public accounts committee, and was rejected by the Bjelke-Petersen as the new Liberal leader that ended the coalition, Ahern was silent. The Liberals were then decimated at the 1983 and 1986 elections and the Nationals now governed in their own right. Ahern was one of the beneficiaries gaining portfolios of industry, small business, health and environment, some of which would once had been Liberal.

When Ahern finally became premier in December 1987, he made no attempt of rapprochement with the Liberals. Getting the coalition back together might have restored some faith in non-Labor politics and would have possibly stemmed the fallout from forthcoming Fitzgerald Report into corruption.

Ahern had been silent when honest Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod was replaced, by Terry Lewis, later found to be corrupt by the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser has worked on senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent publications include:Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2021); The Whitlam Era with David Clune (2022) and the edited New directions in royal commission and public inquiries: Do we need them?. His forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition reviewing oppositions across Australia and internationally. .

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