Australian Biography

Flo Bjelke - Petersen - full interview transcript

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Was there anything about the circumstances into which you were born, that would have led anybody to predict the extraordinary life you had later on as wife of Premier and as a Senator in your own right, for Queensland?

I doubt it very much indeed, because I grew up in a home in New Farm, with a loving mother and father and a sister and well, we probably weren't even involved in politics very much. Dad knew that he was Conservative and I suppose I knew eventually that I was a Conservative, but I never really had any active involvement in politics until I married Joh. And of course, I was over thirty when I married Joh, so I suppose for the first thirty years I didn't really get involved in the political scene, but certainly I knew about politics because I ended up by working for the Commissioner for Main Roads and he used to have visits to the Minister for Main Roads. He used to go once a week. I must say, he always seemed to me to be very glad when his interview with the Minister was over, but you know, that was just really the involvement that I had. And I used to read the papers fairly well so that was that. But, really from when I was a little girl I would have been absolutely amazed if you'd have told me that I would one day be married to the Premier of Queensland and become a Senator in my own right.

And in this suburb ... Brisbane suburb of New Farm, what did your Father do? Where did he work?

My Father was an accountant and he worked for a firm called William Collin and Son, that had their office down at the, suppose, Valley end of Adelaide Street, and he was a man who used to walk home at lunchtime, to New Farm. New Farm suburb is very close, of course, to the Valley and the city. He used to walk home at lunchtime and back again and walk home in the evening. I must say, good exercise. No wonder he lived until he was eighty five. And actually in the afternoon my sister and I would walk up to meet him as he was walking home and he loved to have us come and you know, meet him and then we would walk holding dad's hand. That's one of the memories I have of those very early days.

And what was your mother like?

Oh mum, she was a lovely mother and I guess I suppose, some of the way that I looked after my family I guess came from advise that mum gave me in those early days. But things weren't always very easy you know, during those early years, because in our growing up years we were in that first Depression that was there and my father's eyesight had failed and he left his work, and you just find it rather difficult to manage. He had shares and he had, you know, some private income. He never got the pension or anything like that. We just had to manage on what we had. These days, of course, I sometimes think that, you know, if you haven't got much income coming in you can always get a bit of Social Welfare help, but in those days, you had to manage yourself, and so of course, things perhaps, weren't very easy for us during some of those times.

So how old were you when he had to retire from work?

I would have been about fourteen, or thirteen I suppose - something like that. So you see, it wasn't just too easy.

It must have been a big blow to the family to have their bread winner lose his eyesight?

Well that's right. It certainly was. But I think he might have brought it on himself. He read the history of the French Revolution, and I think that that might have made his eyesight suffer. (laughs)

So he was a man who was interested in ideas?

Oh yes, yes. He was a very, very well educated man, and he had a good job and he met my mother actually. She was there as a secretary and she married him while she was working there, at William Collin and Son's office. So you might say that she met her husband in the office and I met my husband in the office of the Main Roads Commissioner, many years later.

Now in those days it was quite common to think that the education of girls wasn't that important. Was that the case in your house?

No it wasn't really because my mother and father made a very great sacrifice as far as I was concerned, to send me to the Girls' Grammar School, because they felt that that would help my education and, of course, things didn't improve financially and by the time I'd done two years at the Grammar School I could see it was quite a tight squeeze to keep paying the fees, not that they would be anything like they are these days of course, but nevertheless, relatively speaking it would have been difficult. And so, I said to mum, 'Oh look mum,' I said, 'I think I better get a job,' and she looked at me and said, 'Florence, where do you think you're going to get a job? You're not trained for anything'. 'Oh,' I said, 'I think I could be a clerk in an office, perhaps one of dad's friends might be able to get me work'. She said, 'No', she said, 'We'll just manage while you go to the Commercial High School,' and they had a special course at the Commercial High School. PSSC they called it: Public Service Special Course it was, and so I went to the State Commercial High School for twelve months and I really think that I struck me niche there, because I just love commercial work: shorthand, typing, bookkeeping ... And these days, of course, you don't find too many stenographers and I must say, that all these years later, I'm still using my shorthand, because Joh makes sure that I take shorthand from him. He has no secretary any more. He was deprived of his secretary, and, so he finds that it's very useful to have a wife who can take shorthand and who can type on the computer and bring out what he wants and so I was very grateful that I went there and of course, the training that I got there finally got me into the Public Service.

Was that what you had always wanted to do, or was it something that came up because it was practical for you to do? Had you had any other aspirations?

I often used to think that I'd liked to have been a school teacher. But that would have meant, you know, some years of further study and I think that you know, I felt that it was ... that I should get a job as soon as I could, so that we would help, you know, the financial situation. And I can still remember actually, that I got seventeen and six a week when I started work and out of that my mother expected me to pay her board. And I think that that is something that young people ought to always think about, that you try and help your family in return for what they've done for you, all those previous years. So I didn't have an awful lot but then of course it didn't cost much to go in a tram into town and [I] didn't have terribly many expenses so I suppose that was fair enough. And then of course, pay improved when I finally got into the Public Service and but even then, relatively speaking to today, of course I don't think the pay would have been very good really.

The expectation of what people would expect to own and have in those days was different too, wasn't it, against the background of the Depression?

Well it certainly was because I mean I can remember we had no refrigerator of course, you had an icebox and you had to wait for the ice man to come and deliver the ice. We only had a car just for a very limited time. You know, you used to use the tram. We had no other vehicle unless somebody came along, and, I can still remember in the early years when we wanted to go out to my mother's brother's farm out at The Gap, out at Ashgrove, we went out in a horse and sulky and of course, that was an exciting experience for young girls, who didn't really have much experience of farms or farm life and so we went out there, I suppose, perhaps once a year but it sticks in my mind that I can remember that very clearly. I can also remember actually going up while Uncle Rob was feeding the cattle and milking the cows because they had a milk supply for people in Ashgrove and we used to have to ... They said to us, 'Well look would you like to feed the cows?' and I must admit that even though I knew they couldn't attack me I was jolly scared of cows. And anyway, who would have thought eventually when I got married to Joh one of the first things he would say to me when I came up here was, 'Florence the first thing you have to do is learn to milk the house cow'. Oh my heart sank because I never did, you know, like cows from those early days, and I finally got used to it and I suppose my biggest disaster was the one occasion when I had the cow tied in and leg roped, and I undid the rope at the back and forgot I still had her leg roped. That was a nasty experience, but you get used to it and I learnt to milk the cow, although I must say, that in the years to come when I had a girl to help me and my children grew a bit older, I very lovingly gave them the opportunity of milking the house cow.

Did you do well at school, when you were at school?

Well I wouldn't have thought I did terribly well at the Grammar School. I had actually done very well at Primary School. I seemed to come near the top of the class all the time while I was at Primary School. But when I got to the Girls' Grammar I suppose you find that, you know, the top notch students go there and I always felt that some of the teachers I had ... I didn't seem to learn a terrible lot from them. I don't know whether it was me. It probably was. That's what the school would say anyhow, and I didn't feel that I did terribly well. I passed in every subject but they weren't terribly good passes. But when I went to the Commercial High, as I ... and I thought about it, I thought well, you know, that was a niche that I really enjoyed so I did very, very well when junior came and they used to rate you from one, you know, right through to a hundred or more. They would give you a list of how you came, and I managed to come twenty ninth out of Queensland, so I thought well that was a much better finish to my year down there, than perhaps my two years that I had at the Grammar School, and I was never a very sporty type, see and at the Grammar School they were very well into sport and, you know, you felt you're very much part of the school if you were able to do things, and I suppose I hadn't had that opportunity earlier on and so I was never very brilliant at anything like that. But I did know that when I got to the Commercial High that was the type of work I loved and of course, that was where I got my job and I did it for many years until I married Joh, and as I say, I am still doing part of it now.

What was wrong with your father's eyes?

He had what they called an opacity behind the eye. Now I just don't know what that is, but certainly it meant that his eyesight was very bad. And I can remember every morning having to go in and read the headlines of the paper to him. I used to think it was a bit of a burden actually, because I ... You know, it's easy enough to look at the paper headline and read it for yourself, but when you have got to read every little bit, perhaps it's not ... you don't feel quite so interested in it. But it was something that we did because we loved dad and we knew that he wanted to know what was going on. These days of course, you'd turn the television on, you'd turn the radio on. But, that wasn't perhaps in those days, quite so, affordable, shall we say. Well, certainly television wasn't there, even the radio of course wasn't quite so easy to come by and he used to like to know what was in the paper. And I suppose, maybe that's were I get my liking for reading the daily news in the paper every day these days. And, of course when you're a politician, people used to say to me, 'Why do you read the paper?' I said, 'Oh you have to read the papers to know what is going on in Australia, in particular, when you're in the Federal Parliament'.

It was probably a useful way for a young girl to be forced to become a little bit aware of current affairs.

It certainly was, there is no two doubts about that, and I believe that was very useful in the years to come.

And, in the household, what were the main values that you were taught? What were the things that you feel that your parents really wanted to get across to you about how to get along in life?

Well, I would say, one of the values that we were taught, of course, was obedience. And I think of course, no family is strong unless they have got love within the home and that was very evident in our home. I often think back to how my father so lovingly tucked me up in bed at night time. Now you know, that's ... until I was over twenty-one if you please. He'd come along, pull the net down, because we had mosquito's in Brisbane in those days and put the light out for me, and when I look back I think what a loving thing that was to do all those years, and his love was there and of course, Mum showed her love in a practical way. When you came home from school in the afternoon, there she was with nice fresh bread. We had a baker that came and called, you know, brought the bread down. You can't do that these days. And so she had fresh bread and honey and a nice drink of milk. These are some of the memories that you think about: the love that was there in the home and I think ... But it was never love without obedience and I think that they expected you do what you were told, and she wasn't short on a smack or two. And I was just watching on TV the other night, and they were just saying that there was nothing wrong with a smack and then some gentleman came along and said, 'No child should ever be chastised in any way'. Well I'm afraid I don't agree with that gentleman that I saw on TV. I certainly agree with the mother, because I think very often if children don't do what they are told first and second time, you have to make them see that you have to have obedience, because if you don't obey your parents when you're young, how are you going to obey the laws of the land, shall we say, as you get older. And I sometimes wonder whether that's what's gone wrong with society these days. If you not allowed to discipline in the home, certainly there is no discipline in the schools because otherwise the teachers get into trouble, so where does that leave young people growing up? That's my worry.

When you were not obedient, what happened to you?

Well, you got a smack on your posterior but I never bothered about that. And I can even remember at the Primary State School, we had a teacher who used to say - if you haven't done your homework, you didn't know your spelling, you didn't know your mental - he would sort of say, after it was finished, 'What do you want? Do you want to be kept in or do you want the cane?' And there was half a dozen of us who would say we would have the cane and we would put out our hand. He'd give us a clout on the ... you know, with the cane on your hand and it was over. But, oh dear, did I get cross when at the end of the day he'd forgot to keep the rest of the class in. I felt I'd ... you know, I'd had punishment and they hadn't had it at all. But nevertheless, I mean, I didn't think there was anything wrong with that, and I never have thought there was anything wrong with it. I think that perhaps some teachers in the very early days could go overboard. Joh could tell you a story or two about some of his early teachers and what happened, you know, at his early school down at Tobing Village, but we never had anything like that. [INTERRUPTION]

How did you get on with your sister? Most little girls fight with each other. Did you?

Well I suppose we had spats from time to time. I think that's something that, you know, that you sort of learn to grow up with. I can remember when Margaret first came to school, at New Farm. I am about three and a half years older than she is you see, and I was sort of up the school a little bit, and for some reason or other, she used to cry when she came to school. I don't know why, she was in a class of over seventy children and at the end of the year she came top of the class, so she didn't have any problems really. But for some reason or another, I suppose whether she'd been, you know, mummy's little girl at home, and she used to cry and they used to send these messages over to me: Florence, your sister's crying over there, would you please go over and look after her. She would be under the school and I'd have to go over and I must admit, I probably wasn't a very nice sister, because I used to think it was a nuisance. And I don't know that I was terribly kind to her, whether I roused on her and told her she had to stop crying or not, I don't know. But, certainly, you know, I don't think perhaps I was the kindest of sisters in that regard. But, oh, as when you grow up you have differences of opinion and I used to think that she was a bit spoilt here and there, that you know I ... And I think that that often happens with older children. I think that if you asked some of my girls about my youngest daughter, Ruth, I think that they might say, 'Oh Ruth was spoilt when she was young. You know, we had to sort of do the work and she didn't have to do so much'. And of course I suppose, too, I had a girl helping me in the home from the time, well ... from the time Helen was little. But, permanent help in the home from the time that Joh became a Minister and then of course I guess, when you've got somebody else in the home, well perhaps not quite so much is required of you. But I must say that Elizabeth was very sensible and made sure that if she washed the dishes they had to come and wipe them, and I think that is something that you have to be careful about, that if you have help in the home that you don't spoil your children completely and make ... and they don't learn to do anything. Because I do believe that there is a certain things that you want to teach your children and that is that you have to take your share of work in the home. You don't want to let them grow up just sitting doing nothing.

Part of the reason why this has always been important for girls too, especially in your day, was the expectation was that girls main destiny in life was to get married and raise children. Did your mother make sure you knew how to cook and sew and clean for that reason?

Well I wouldn't say that she actually made sure that we knew how to cook. She did the cooking herself. As a matter of fact, when I got married, I had to say to mum, 'Well for goodness sake, now please mum, tell me all your helpful hints, because if you don't I'll be stranded'. See here was Joh living along side his mother and I thought to myself, if I didn't know how to cook him a decent meal, he'd toddle off to his mother and I'd be left stranded. I thought that wasn't any good. So I had to get advise from her, and she gave me all her helpful hints and so many of her helpful hints are included in my first cookery book, to be quite honest. Even how to make junket and things like that, that perhaps young people don't worry about even these days. And then it comes to sewing: well, she kept on saying to me, 'Florence, if you would spend less time doing church work and go to some courses about learning how to sew, that would be much better for you later on in life', thinking if I got married. But probably by the time I got to about, you know, in my late twenties, and there was no sign that I was going to get married, she probably didn't think that it was very necessary for me then. But I often did wish that I had spent a little bit more time learning to do all the domestic things. I finally ... after I got married, I did do a little bit of a course at the local high school, but then I became a Member of Parliament's wife and it was always jobs to do in relation to his work and his correspondence. I always have opened the mail, I have always done the accounts for the farm, and things like that, and there didn't seem to be very much time for - after you look after your children - for sewing and doing things like that. And, I had a mother who used to do my mending for me and I guess, I was a bit spoilt too really if you think about it, and I certainly missed mum when she died in 1971.

You also had a very, very close relationship with your father. You really loved your Father a lot. Do you think that that older man in your life meant that you were a bit slower to find a husband?

Well I think probably that you do think of your father and what he stood for, what he represents and you think that perhaps well, those are the sort of values that I would like to have in a husband. But, I think above all, I looked for somebody who had Christian faith like I have. I ... My sister and I we used to go off to Sunday School every Sunday, and even when mum and dad used to go out to see mum's mother out in Ashgrove, Margaret and I would still go to Sunday School and then we'd get on a tram, on our own, and go off out to Ashgrove and have Sunday dinner out there with mum's mother, Granny. And I suppose that put the idea into my head. I can always remember Granny Low's lovely Sunday baked dinners. So now, I like to think that my grandchildren will remember their granny's dinners that we have fairly regularly here, on a Sunday, after I go to early church I can come home and I can get dinner ready for them. And, I know that some of the children tell their mothers', 'When are we going to Granny's again?' So I think that that's really nice. Roast lamb and mint sauce and all the vegies and all the trimmings and a bit of sweets of some sort to follow, that's how we do it.

Did your mother and father place church-going as a very important part of life?

They certainly wanted us to do that, yes. They went, you know ... They came with us quite often and we ...

But it wasn't as important to them as it was to you?

No, well I grew up you know. Mum actually came quite often. She sang in the church choir and dad came too with us from time to time, as well. He had grown up in a family over in Scotland of course, that believed that you went to church twice on Sunday and then you went to Sunday School as well, so he'd had quite a lot of experience of going to church in his early days.

But there was something about church life and about religion that draw you particularly, was there?

Yes, I believe that it's something that's very, very important to my life and I believe that anybody who has no religion in their life has nothing to help them through in the future, and I have always believed that without God you've got no hope for a life that's to come at the end of this life, and that's been something that I've been very grateful that I have come to know Jesus as my saviour and that I like to speak about it whenever I get a chance, because I think that something that's very important. When I was in Parliament, I belonged to the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, and I believed that that was very important too and of course I have been involved ... I was a Presbyterian before I got married, and I did a lot of work with the young peoples' organisation there. But it doesn't matter how much work you do for the church, unless you have a real, personal realisation, of faith in your saviour. I believe that it ... It's not by works that you get to heaven it's by grace that you're saved, that's how I believe, and I have always believed that that's a good bulwark to my life here on this Earth and same with Joh as well.

So did that start for you in the Presbyterian church at New Farm?

Yes, in The Valley. It was the little church in The Valley behind McQuirter's there, where we went regularly. But of course, mind you in those days, you were able to walk around without any fear of being accosted. We used to go to meetings at night time, down behind McQuirter's there and you'd walk up and catch the tram home and you would never have to worry. I would never like any child of mine to have to do that these days when you read about what happens in The Valley part of Brisbane. There is just so many problems that I thank God that I was able to grow up in a relatively stable atmosphere. Even during war years, you know, you didn't really have to worry. You could walk around and you could go up and you could catch the tram and get home without any trouble, but these days I would not recommend it to anybody.

What do you think has changed? What the most important thing that's made that difference for young women?

Well, I just really wonder whether moral and spiritual values have become, you know, sort of lost somewhere along the line. I wonder whether that's had anything to do with it, and I sometimes wonder too whether all the Social Welfare that young people are able to claim. One thing that worries me of course, is that fact that young people leave home and they want, you know ... they want to get away from home and they find that they've ... They have people from Social Welfare Department will protect the children rather than let the parents have the children back. Loving parents want their children returned and it's a big worry as far as I can see, so I don't know whether that's a lot of cause of the problem too.

But the violence on the streets.

Well, that's something that seems to have grown and developed. I'll tell you what I do think adds to that and I hate to say it when I am doing an interview, but television has a lot, I think, to answer for in that regard. I sometimes wonder whether young people watching so much of violence on television - murder, rape - don't gradually by looking at television so much come to think that that is the norm, and they think that they can do the same thing that they see on television. It's a very sad state of affairs and it worries me, and I'm quite sure that it worries very many people. In the Year of The Family as this is, the International Year of The Family, I've been doing quite a bit of talking about that, and many's the time in Parliament I spoke about it, and I spoke about pornography on television, and I do really wonder whether those aren't some of the things that put ideas into young people's heads and certainly they must get the idea from somewhere that ... If the parents speak unkindly to them they up and can leave them and then social workers will give them financial assistance to sort of look after themselves and the parents go out looking for them and can't ... and often can't, you know, get them back home again, and it's a sad, I think it's very sad. And, I think to myself well, life in our young days was pretty good by comparison.

And now, when you started at the Main Roads Department and you were earning seventeen and six a week and paying board, what did you have to do to earn that money? What was your job?

Well, when I first started in the Main Roads, I worked in [the] Registration Branch. Actually, you know, they weren't really part of the Public Service in those days, and I said to mum ... well they're not really ... They were sort of a subsidiary of the Public Service you might say. And I said to mum, 'Well perhaps I better wait for a job in the real Public Service', and her catch phrase was, 'Florence, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and you take that job'. So we ... I took the job and I ended up in [the] Registration Branch hauling files around: pulling out files and pushing in files, and people would come to the counter and they'd want the file for the registration of their car and you'd have to find the file and pull it out and bring it down, and I didn't think it was a very nice job for girls to be quite honest. I thought it was a job boys' ought to be doing. But, I found out about a different side of life when I was in the Registration Branch actually. Found out that my Father didn't drink and he didn't swear, but I'm afraid in [the] Registration Branch in those days and probably there today too, we had very good swearers. They swore about all sorts of things, and now and again they'd come in and, you know, [they'd] had too much to drink the night before and they'd be sleeping it off in the strong room, and you'd have to go into the strong room to get files down and oh dear, I must admit, that, you know, if you haven't seen anything of the seamy side of life before when you're young, you know, it's a little bit worrying, but anyway I got used to it, put it like that after a while. And after six months they must have decided that I was worthy of promotion because then they sent me upstairs to the Engineering Branch where I got onto doing shorthand and typing and I ... The engineers were really nice fellows and I loved my work for them and I worked with the engineers, I suppose, for the rest of my working days in the Main Roads. Although during the war years we did quite a bit of work for the Allied Works Council. The Allied Works Council did work for the Americans and the Australian Armed Forces and we had to do the estimates and an awful lot of work for them because our draftsmen were engaged in doing that work and I had been transferred to the Drafting Room and I did a lot of estimates and they weren't very exciting sort of work, but I liked it. I was there for a number of years and then I went back to working for the engineers and I used my skills in that regard.

[end of tape]

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