Joh for PM
Queensland has proved unusually fertile ground for a particular breed of politician: maverick (unhinged?), populist (deluded?), conservative (authoritarian?) individuals much possessed of “self-belief” and, apparently, a unique insight into the “mind of the Australian people”. Deeply suspicious of artists, intellectuals, “greenies”, urban sophisticates, traditional political parties and all things that emanate from the capital of darkness down south, they have been at the forefront of seismic shifts in Australian politics during the past few decades. Think Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer and the godfather of them all: Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the son of a poor Danish Lutheran pastor, a former peanut farmer and premier of Queensland from 1968-’87.
Paul Davey’s Joh for PM tells the story of the disastrous 1987 campaign to install Sir Joh (knighted in 1984) as Australia’s prime minister, which split the federal Coalition and left a trail of political wreckage and mistrust from which the Nationals would take more than two decades to recover. From 1983 to 1992, Davey was the party’s federal director and it’s this insider status that sees his work transcend mere reportage.
His account is built on party archives: policy documents, press releases, minutes of executive meetings, media transcripts, Hansard and interviews with the key participants. The book is exhaustive, searching and honest, such as his comment on Joh to a colleague during the Canberra tilt: “He should be strung up.” His analysis of the Nationals’ desperate attempts to grapple with Bjelke-Petersen’s incorrigible antics and unfathomable hubris inadvertently exposes the deep vein of parochialism and insularity that has long existed in the Australian electorate. We are always one step away from retreating into the self-satisfied comfort of our own backyards. (Nope! Nope! Nope!)
After the dismal collapse of Joh’s Canberra dream in ’87 he was finally forced to resign, his legacy as overseer of Queensland’s development mired in years of gerrymandering and corruption that led to the imprisonment of three former ministers. Palmer, who in 2012 proposed erecting a statue of Sir Joh in Brisbane, would do well to read Joh for PM. As for Joh’s fantasy of becoming PM, the last word should be left to the man himself, master of the chookyard homily: “If you keep your head in the sand, you’re likely to get some of the feathers in your tail pulled out.” WW
NewSouth, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2015 as "Paul Davey, Joh for PM ". Subscribe here.