ONE morning last October Australian Labor Party supporters - and not a few members of the Liberal Party - woke and looked with some alarm at the results of the Queensland state elections in what is known as the ‘Deep North’.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen, self-proclaimed hammer of socialists, leader of the National Party and Premier of Queensland, had confounded his critics. Riding a massive swing to the right, he brushed aside the challenge of the Labor Party and helped reduce the Liberals, the former junior partner in Queensland states’ coalition government, from 20 parliamentary seats to eight. Later the humiliation of the Liberals would be complete when two of the survivors defected to give Mr Bjelke-Petersen what he had long and openly craved: government of the state for his own National Party in its own right.
Bjelke-Petersen fought his usual two-pronged campaign: for a continuation of strong, stable government and against those enemies of freedom and private enterprise, the Labor socialists. Listen to one of his speeches, made against the backdrop of a map of Australia with Queensland green and the rest
of the mainland revolutionary red to denote the State and Federal Labor governments: ‘The socialists - and it doesn’t matter if they’re in East Germany, Poland or other countries in the centre of Europe - they believe they can spend money much better than people can. They believe people have got to be kept down, regulated first of all by high taxation and the government restrictions that go with it.’ Then he promises: ‘No new taxes, none at all look at your own skyline along the (Gold) coast. It’s absolutely fabulous and unbelievable what has happened in a few short years. And there’s much, much more to follow.’
Specific pledges included the abolition of conveyance duty on transfer of mortgages of real estate and reduction in the number of businesses obliged to pay payroll tax.
And accompanying all this was the constant boast that 2,400 southern Australians, a good proportion of them elderly, are now migrating to Queensland each month. That is one damn statistic. Another thing Bjelke-Petersen did not mention was that, while in the past five years 124,000 people left Victoria and New South Wales for Queensland and only 65,000 Queenslanders went South, those swimming against the tide were mostly in professional managerial and technical occupations.
Still, the fact remains that Bjelke-Petersen is the most successful contemporary politician in Australia, a symbol to many people of all that a leader should be; to others, a warning. He is a near-perfect example of a populist authoritarian: a proponent of minimal economic intervention, but a rigorous imposer of moral and social verities. He is, for instance, a champion of law and order. Draconian legislation was introduced to counter pro-Aborigine land-rights demonstrations during the Commonwealth Games and measures against public dissent are strict. (A handful of hymn-singing clergymen demonstrating in favour of civil liberties were judged a crowd and arrested.) He is a hero of the police force. Police Commissioner Terry Lewis was reported telling 56 new constables that the free enterprise policies of the Bjelke-Petersen Government had been responsible for Queenslands’ growth. They all owed Joh ‘a very deep gratitude’ he said. Queensland operates its own censorship system and the police raid video shops for movies already passed by the censors.
Unlike typical conservatives, Joh is scornful of parliamentary conventions. An opportunist and pragmatist, he regularly runs fear campaigns against national health scheme proposals, claiming they threaten Queensland’s Labor-founded free hospital service. He is an electoral bully. I once heard him warn a rural audience that if they voted in a Labor candidate they could forget the government-funded dam they wanted in the district.
Despite having long been scorned by the left and those small ‘1’ members of the big ‘L’ Liberal Party, Mr Bjelke-Petersen now has a broad band of the political spectrum worried whether Queensland today might be Australia tomorrow. After all, he has successfully stormed the State Liberal Party’s urban citadels. He sees Queensland as the springboard for a Federal National Party victory and has urged his Federal colleagues to dump their Liberal partners and follow him and work for government in their own right. Party strategists suspect that Bjelke-Petersen’s brand of authoritarianism might be electorally attractive in times of economic and social uncertainty. They wonder, for instance, if the 2,400 elderly who migrate to Queensland each month and who flock to the polls to swell the BjelkePetersen vote, are harbingers of a growing conservatism in Australia’s ageing society.
A survey of voting intentions in 1980 certainly showed older age groups to be more conservative:
The Labor Party secretariat admits some concern and underlines it by refusing to give details of its own surveys. But generalisations about a shift towards conservatism in Queensland and among the aged must be tempered by reference to Australian political history and to Queensland singularities.
Post-war politics in Australia has been dominated by the right-wing coalition of the Liberals and their rural-based partner. For 23 years, the coalition governed and for 15 of those years Robert Gordon Menzies, anglophile, paternalistic and unquestioning proponent of the American alliance, was Prime Minister. The twin evils of rising unemployment and inflation lay in the future, the Labor party was trying to put itself together after a disastrous split and Menzies’ Australia was basically a comfortably white and British-bred bastion protected militarily by America and economically by great natural resources and high tariff barriers. The unequal voting pattern through the age groups may in part simply reflect the continuance of allegiances formed during the conservative decades.
Or it may be because Queensland is Queensland. Observers of the Bjelke-Petersen phenomenon often reach the desperate conclusion that Queenslanders are different. Writing as someone who lived 27 years in a cattle town just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, I feel they have a point. Queensland was perhaps the most paranoid of the Australian colonies. It was the last to come to the conference table to discuss federation, and did so grudgingly. The suspicion of the south - where Federal political power is located - lingers on. And that same suspicion colours Queensland’s internal politics. Queensland is the most decentralised of the Australian states, with about half its population living in small cities scattered over a great distance along the coast north of Brisbane. For these people even Brisbane has been seen as the south and the enemy.
Bjelke-Petersen has taken control of a State with an inferiority complex. He is a rabid Queenslander. When Malcolm Fraser was in power he fought the ‘Canberra Centralists’. With Bob Hawke in power, he fights the ‘Canberra socialists’. And, when Joh BjelkePetersen takes on the smart southern politicians, he invariably wins.
A good proportion of native-born Queens-landers certainly see him as their champion in troubled times. Those who migrate there do so for a cluster of reasons: his rhetoric sounds sweetly in their ears; his abolition of probate duty and his policy of low State taxation has a pleasing effect on their financial nerves. His call is not to the poor, huddled masses, but to the affluent, the middle-class and the tax-minimisers.
Cameron Forbes is Foreign Editor of Melbourne's The Age, and a regular contributor to the New Internationalist.
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