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Joh Bjelke-Petersen's send-off should befit his legacy to Queensland

By Nigel Powell - posted Wednesday, 18 August 2004


Joh Bjelke-Petersen was a divisive Premier of Queensland. Regrettably this has  probably predetermined that any discussion of his proposed state funeral will follow much the same course. But his way then does not have to be ours now.

Most people would have a deal of sympathy for Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s family when they recently expressed their regret that the issue had been raised prior to his death. For to many people, Joh Bjelke-Petersen is like a lot of us – he is part of both a close and an extended family. Those people primarily see him as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend or a mate. And he is to be respected in those roles.

However, he chose a high-profile path in the public spotlight. And he strove hard to maintain his position of influence and power. But there are responsibilities that come with such offices and there are some inevitable downsides. In particular, it is hard to turn off the spotlight.

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Following his fall from grace within his own party, Joh Bjelke-Petersen has had no problem summoning the media spotlight when the occasion suited him. And now his family seek to turn it off. While there may be some sympathy for their wishes - he chose his own well-lit course. It will no doubt inevitably continue in that way.

This dilemma of confusion about public and private also faces the current Premier and his government.  For the matter of a State Funeral is not about the husband, the father etc. It is about the public man. It is an issue about a proposed show of public respect for a public legacy.

It is incontrovertible that many aspects of government during Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s time as Premier have since been shown to have been corrupt. Ministers and senior public servants, that he directly or indirectly appointed, have been shown to have been corrupt. Partisan political patronage was rampant. The traditional democratic rights of our society were frequently curtailed or denied. Criminal operations were franchised by a significant number of corrupt police officers. Any dissent or opposition was met with derision and/or defamation writs. And he effectively sought and achieved a polarised Queensland community whose education system became the laughing stock of Australia.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s response to not just the Royal Commission but to the judgements of fellow Queenslanders in the Criminal Courts has been typically dismissive. And, in his own patronising and simplistic way, it has been arrogant. His evidence to the Fitzgerald Inquiry maintained his unvaried lofty position with statements to the effect: How could I have known? I had nothing to do with it and I was too busy doing other more important things.

Even ten years after the Royal Commission, when asked about corruption and misconduct his response was: “We stopped it before it happened, and the police force in my day stopped it before it happened.”

Joh Bjelke-Petersen has never expressed any remorse, any sense of sorrow or sense of responsibility for the parlous condition of our State in 1987. A condition perpetrated under his watchful gaze. Why is it so hard for leaders of this type to say “Sorry”?

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We now  seem destined to simply forget this, to fall in line behind The Courier Mail’s editorial that “that such a funeral recognises the importance of the office he held” and worst of all that the “entitlement … should not be questioned”. That is such patent nonsense. It is a repetition of the very culture Joh Bjelke-Petersen sought to engender and maintain. Denigrate the person(s) who expresses disagreement; do not allow questions; shut down discussion.

It is most probable that had Luke Shaw taken the ethics of his jury duty seriously we would not even be considering the prospect of a state funeral. But we are. And as a consequence we are at risk of not learning from history and so repeating the same mistakes.

One of the hard lessons we needed to learn from those Inquiry years was that we should question without fear and that we ought not to blindly follow that which has become accepted practice. What line does a Premier of this state have to cross before he or she is not offered a state funeral?

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This article is based on a letter sent to Queensland Premier Peter Beattie.



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About the Author

Nigel Powell was a police officer in England and Queensland. In 1987 he was involved in the establishment of the Fitzgerald Royal Commission in Queensland, and before that worked closely with the investigations of The Courier-Mail and the ABCs Four Corners program. Subsequently, he spent two years as a senior education officer for the New South Wales Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC).

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