Australian Biography

Flo Bjelke - Petersen - full interview transcript

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You worked at the Main Roads Department from when you left your school until you got married, which was quite a long stretch of time. Did you ever think about going somewhere else for a change?

No I can't say that that thought ever did go through my mind because I really did enjoy my work. And I think in those years perhaps you didn't sort of think, well, if you don't like it that you go somewhere else. f you have a job you are very grateful that you got one, and I stayed there and I put my skills that I'd learnt at school into very good use. I could ... learnt to work a dictaphone and I did shorthand and the engineers must have liked me because at the ... when we had a change of Commissioner, then the edict went out from the Secretary of the department that the Commissioner should have a woman in his office. Now Mr. Crawford became Main Roads Commissioner. I had worked for him as Chief Engineer, when he was Chief Engineer, and he said, 'If I've got to have to have a girl I want Florence', and I thought, well, that was quite a compliment, but I don't think he really wanted a girl. I think he was happy with the man that he'd been having in his department, in his office, and the Secretary said, 'No you've got to have a girl in your office'. So he said ...

Why was that, why did they want to have a girl there? He had a male secretary before?

Yes, but I don't think he did shorthand, and things like that and you see the Commissioner had deputations and really when you deputations you have to be able to take shorthand. And so of course, I used to have all these deputations coming in from various local authorities to the Commissioner, and I must say that when they told me that I had to go and work for him, I wasn't very excited about the prospect. I was happy working in the typing pool, working for my engineers, and I had quite a lot of them and, of course, I always think that variety was the spice of life you see, and [it] was very pleasant and very nice, and I had very good friends who worked in the pool. But anyway, they said, 'No Florence you've been asked for and you go so ...' I remember I was very nervous about it. I really didn't know how we'd go and I think the Commissioner himself was very nervous, to be quite honest, because I will never forget the end of the first day. He came past me and he said, 'Well it wasn't so bad was it?' And I think he and I both felt the same way, but then of course, I gradually got into the swing of things and I certainly was kept very busy and that was how I met Joh. I was working in the Commissioners office. He bought delegations and deputations in from the local authorities in this area. One or two of them both claim responsibility for the fact that they brought Joh in and that he met me there, and of course, I got to know Joh. The first ... When he plucked up enough courage to talk to me ... You see, he'd been a bachelor for a long time. He was about forty when he got married, and he sort of, I think, had decided perhaps that he wouldn't ever find anybody to get married to. His father, in his growing up years, had said to him, 'You know Joh, you be very careful who you marry'. He said, 'You take your time. Don't rush into it', and then finally his father got to the stage where he said to Joh, 'Look Joh, you know, I really think it would be good if you did get married'. See, so I don't ... Joh was between, you know, the devil and the deep blue sea as they say. So he saw me and he must have thought, you know, I looked all right and he might have thought I was efficient. I often say, 'Well I hope he didn't marry me just because he thought he might get a good secretary'. I liked to think that he married me for me. But I do believe that we ... When we got to know one another, we ... our marriage was based on love and Christian faith and I think that that was something that was very important indeed, and he said that. Actually the engineers ... After he had spoken to me that day and asked me had I ever been to Parliament, and I said, 'No I hadn't,' and that's where we went on our first date I might say. The engineer said to me, 'Florence, if he asks you to go out you go, 'cause he's not married and he's got lots of money'. Well that sounded rather fun, but I always rushed to tell people that I didn't get rid of the money. They always say wives spend all their husband's money, but Joh went into aerial spraying planes. He'd made some money out of his bulldozers actually over the years. He's a very hard worker, but we went into aerial spraying planes and in the eleven years we had the planes we had sixteen crashes. So if you have any money, I assure you, that you don't go in for aerial spraying planes, especially if they crash the way they did and so I was never so grateful than when he finally decided that he would get out of it. His sister once said to him, 'Joh, for goodness sake, put your planes in the hanger and leave them there. We'll be better off if you do that', but it ... you know, that was just the way it worked out. Some people run aerial spraying businesses and do very well indeed, but you see the point is, a lot of people fly themselves in their business, whereas with Joh, he was Minister and Member of Parliament, and he had to employ people to do that work so that was just the difference.

Where any of the pilots hurt in these crashes?

Well actually one pilot had trouble with his eyes a little later on. Another one hurt his back but nobody was killed we're happy to say, so that was something for which we can be grateful.

Now going back to the Main Roads Department and this Representative of the Kingaroy district arriving in the office, do you actually remember that day? Do you actually remember the exact time, the first time you laid eyes on him?

Well I did actually, but I must say, for all my reading of the papers and my knowledge I really didn't know very much about him. But, of course, he came in then a few times with deputations and I got to gradually, you know, be interested, especially when these employers told me about him and I thought, oh well, you know ... looked him over and he seemed very nice and ...

Why do you think they told you that? Did they notice him looking at you or ...

Well, they might have done that but then I think probably they thought to themselves that I was on the shelf and they probably thought that if there was a bachelor within my sight maybe it might be somebody that I might be interested in. And of course, I must say, that I had always been interested in politics, you know, although I hadn't taken an active interest in it. But I guess, over the years since I've been a politician I realise that politics plays a very important part in our live and I believe that everybody really ought to take an interest in the way the government is, you know, running the country.

How old were you when you met Joh?

Oh, close on thirty.

And had you had many boyfriends?

Oh no, I couldn't say I had. I had one, one or two, but not a lot. No.

Why do you think that was, because you were a pretty girl and you were going to a church group where you would met a lot of young people who were, you know, fairly suitable. Why do you think you didn't have many boyfriends?

Well, I don't know. Probably I was brought up in a fairly, you know, strict home, but then again I mean, there was a lot of other girls who were there too and maybe I just didn't take the fellows eyes. That might have been what was wrong. They might have had somebody else beforehand. But I never let it worry me. I just sort of ... I must admit that I thought, oh well, if I didn't get married soon I probably wouldn't get married at all. But I think it is better to wait rather than to just take the first person that might come along and who might sort of, you know ... you might end up not having a very happy marriage at all. Now I think that this is something that is very important. Although I really can't say that about my own daughters. They were all married before they were twenty-one so, you know, that's just the difference, isn't it - whether Mister Right comes along at that particular time.

Why do you think Joh had waited so long? He was being obedient to his Father?

It looked as though he might have been. But then again, of course, he was fairly busy too and I think perhaps his father's admonition may of, sort of, had something to do with it. I don't know, but certainly he was a man who believed in doing things, you see. He'd grown up in a very difficult time. He was a young man, who had to ... before he went to school everyday ... had to go off in the morning, find the cows, bring them home to be milked, then take them away again, then walk a couple of miles down the road to school, and things like that. Life hadn't been very easy, and then as he grew up his father wasn't well, and he had to help his mother to do the ploughing on the farm, and it was really something that was ... Life was pretty hard. There's no two doubts about that. And then when he became a young man he went out to the other property that they had out at Inverlaw, about eight miles away from home, and he lived and camped out there and cleared this land: he and some other men who were there helping him. And eventually he came to growing peanuts. Of course he always said that in those early days when they grew corn, if they had a lot of corn then they couldn't sell it because there was an abundance of corn anyway, and otherwise there was a drought and you didn't have any corn, and it was a very, very difficult time. Life wasn't easy, you know, on the land and I suppose the same applies to people on the land these days. I mean, either you've got too much rain or you haven't got enough and things aren't very easy at all. But he did that work out there at Inverlaw and then he decided that ... he started to grow peanuts and he could see there was a future for harvesting peanuts. So this is how he got going. A friend of his offered him a peanut thrasher to go out and do contract harvesting for the neighbours. And so he went out and he did that, and then he could see that he could improve the peanut thrasher. I think his friend wanted his own peanut thrasher back after twelve months, and so Joh turned round and with Harry Stolzenberg, one of the engineers in town, he built his own peanut thrasher. So of course, he was busy going all round the countryside thrashing people's peanuts and getting organised like that. And then as the years past, at the end of the war, then he had initiative and go again. This is before he got into Parliament. He thought that he could perhaps get some war ... you know, they had machinery that was available for sale. They had these sales of machinery and they were wanting to sell what had been used, that they had available, and Joh went off down to Brisbane looking for where he could find a bulldozer, so that he could go out and gradually learn how to get, you know, [clear] some land with ... with bulldozers. He thought there was a future for that and sure enough of course, there was. Not only did he ... Well he had a lot of trouble when he first bought the first bulldozer up, getting it over the dirt roads and things like that, but he gradually got to the stage where they were able to get enough money from the first bulldozer. He said his neighbours worried him stiff too. When he first got a machine to use - how they told him he would never be able to make it pay. But he did and it was wonderful the way he was able to, well shall we say, enlarge his horizons and do a lot of bulldozing. He went out west and finally he did quite well. He had quite a lot of bulldozers and a lot of men working for him. But as he became Premier ... or Minister and Premier, he found that you had to rely on the men. He didn't have enough time to look after them himself, so ... and then he got this brain wave about aerial spraying. Between it all it was quite a busy life that he led, and when I came onto the scene ... I came onto the scene before he got his aerial spraying planes so I must say he had bulldozers at that time, and he got me, of course, when he had the plane and he couldn't send parts out by train. He used to take me up in his aeroplane and I'd have to open the door and push on the door and send out the parts down for the men down below, out of the aeroplane. That was how he used to send the parts out to the men with ... you know, with his planes.

So this was a little, little plane?

Yes, a little, small plane: an Austin.

Were you scared?

Well, I must say I was glad I was sort of you know, in with the ... with our ... seat belt type ... yes and so I was sort of safely secure there. But it wasn't very pleasant and I didn't really like it.

You didn't find it exciting?

Well, it was exciting enough, but it wasn't my type of excitement to be quite honest. and I was very thankful when he ... I came back one day in a terribly high westerly wind and I said, 'Look I think I've had enough of this'. And so one of his friends went out with him after that so ... See the Queensland Government, at that time, had the rule that you couldn't send parts or take parts ... carry parts in your own motor cars. You had to send them on the train. Their theory was: you own the railways you use them. And of course, the railways were pretty slow in getting parts and getting the materials they needed for the aerial spraying out to the various places and so, as I say, Joh wanted to get the parts there quickly so he used to use his own aircraft and they never stopped him doing that, so that was all right.

Had he had girlfriends before he met you?

He says he hadn't, and I take his word for that. (laugh) He must have been too busy doing work I think. I think he had quite a few girls who would have liked to have been his girlfriend, put it like that. But he didn't sort of seem to accept the invitations there so I was just a bit lucky. He saved ... he saved and waited for me.

Did it worry you a bit about marrying someone who was a bachelor of forty, who'd never had anything to do with girls? Did you think gee, what am I taking on here?

Well it didn't cross my mind really. He you know ... The point was of course that he was living next to his mother and I sort of thought, well, that I'd have to do a pretty good job because if I didn't he might ... it would be a bit too easy to go home to mum. He had a very good sister too, that helped him over all the years, and I think probably he found that in his sister he had somebody who was really very close to him and very helpful to him. But she had got married a few years before, you see, so that might have put the idea into his head: well, maybe if I see somebody nice I might sort of be attracted to her. So I was very fortunate.

But as he hadn't had a lot of practice with girls, was he a little bit awkward at the beginning? Was he ... Did he find it difficult to ask you out?

Oh, I suppose, it needed a little bit of courage I think. I remember, you know, one or two occasions when ... even the first time we went to Parliament House, I think he was a little bit nervous about it, because I can still remember the late Jim Sparkes, who was a Member of Parliament, coming along past the private dining room where ... There were a few other people in the dining room having dinner that night and Jim Sparkes went like this. [GESTURES SPECTACLES AROUND HER EYES] You know: what am I seeing? And of course that was the way it was. And I remember even ...

That was your first date.

Yes, yes. Oh I often laugh about that.

What did he say?

Oh well, what did he say. You mean, when he asked me to come?

... When he asked you. I mean it's an odd place - not a 'Will you go to the movies?'

No. No. [He asked] had I ever been to Parliament. And of course I hadn't. Even though State Commercial High School was next door to Parliament House, I'd never sort of bothered to go in to have a look to see what happened in there. And of course I said, 'No I haven't'. Well I'd be quite interested to go, especially encouraged by the engineers who told me, you know, 'If he asks you to go out you go'. So I thought, oh well, I'll go and see, and of course ... Anyway I remember once too, we'd been down south - my sister and a couple of friends - and when we came back to Sydney, the railway station, who should I see on the railway station but Joh. He'd been down to Adelaide to meetings see. Oh he was quite surprised to see me, and low and behold, I still remember he knew that one of the Members of Parliament was in Sydney and he was still a little bit nervous about being seen with a girl. But anyway he got over that, and let's say he got over it in a period of time, and finally we got married after about a couple of years or so. We were married in 1952.

What did your parents think of him?

Oh I think they thought he was a very nice young man. Oh he wasn't quite so young, put it like that, but relatively speaking to them he was. (laugh)

And what did they feel about you going away to live in the country?

Well, I suppose they got used to the idea. I guess that I sort of came up here, and Joh flew me up and I met people up here, and I didn't quite know how I'd take to life in the country to be quite honest.

Especially with your mother-in-law right next door.

Ha, well - Karen might say the same thing about me, mightn't she? Except that she's had a number of years now up on her own, up at the Ten Mile, but she's come back here to Kingaroy now. But I had very, very lovely mother-in-law. She was a really very lovely lady and she was a very fine Christian person and we got on very well indeed, and I think that she loved having her grandchildren growing up beside her, and I think that's a beautiful way to be. I've been very fortunate too, myself, in so far that I have ... Well I've had six of my grandchildren grow up here and now Karen and John are back with their three little boys, so I've got nine grandchildren within the area. And I think she was probably you know, very happy. I don't think she minded at all. But as far as mum and dad were concerned, of course, that meant that I got married and went away. They still had Margaret at home. She didn't get married, and of course she was still there. But my father didn't live very long after I got married. I got married in '52. He died at the end of 1954, but he did live to see his first grand daughter, Mar, Mar, Mar. We call my daughter Margaret, but she changed her name to Meg because she was continually being sort of misunderstood for Aunty Margaret, so I suppose as a result, my sister now becomes Aunt to all the children instead of Margaret, but anyway, that's just by the way.

So when you decided to marry Joh, did you appreciate just what a big change it was going to make in your life, do you think? Or were you just young and ... not so young, quite a mature bride?

Yes, yes, that's right. But you see, when I think about it, I thought, well he was a Member of Parliament and I thought, well, I'd sort of go ... being married to a Member of Parliament meant going with him and listening to him make speeches and things like that, but I soon found out it didn't take long before I started making speeches. Now I had never really done this before I got married. I'd been secretary of church, of my, you know, young people's organisation in the Presbyterian church and I'd always make sure I was a secretary, never a president or a vice president in case I made a speech ... I had to make a speech. Well you'd never believe it, but we were on our honeymoon in New Zealand, when my first invitation came to open a fete. My heart sank. I thought, Oh no, what will I do? and I said to Joh, 'Look what on earth will I do'. 'Oh Florence', he said, 'You go', and I think he had the idea in his mind that if I went he mightn't have to. And then of course, gradually you know, as soon as [you] start one, then people get the idea, oh well now he's got a wife now, we can ask her to come and do things. And of course, then I gradually got into the habit of going places and doing things because I was asked to go and do them and I, I suppose really, I liked people. I'd always liked people. I'd always had lots of friends and I really enjoyed people and I loved meeting people and I've always that, and I suppose that's a bit of an asset if you're either a politician in your own right, or a politician's wife, because I think that's something that's really very important. So I married a politician and mum and dad got used to the idea that I came up here to live, and I got used to living in the country. And now of course, I wouldn't want to go back and live in the city. But I was fortunate in so far as, in those first years, Joh travelled backwards and forwards down to Brisbane and I had no reason to stay at home, so I used to go backwards and forwards with him, so they didn't really lose me completely. They saw me quite often when the parliament was sitting because we stayed with mum and dad, and that was how, you know, I suppose, I gradually got weaned from Brisbane and I came to love life in the country, and let's face it, we only live about five miles, or eight kilometres, out of Kingaroy. You hop in a car and you get in there in less than ten minutes. You get a bit spoilt actually. I've noticed Karen, who is used to living way out - two and a half hours drive from Rockhampton, she'll always go into town and buy for a fortnight, because she is used to doing that, whereas I sort of am a bit inclined to ... I like to get the paper daily and I like to, you know, sort of keep the things going and I seem to have over the years ... Of course as a Member of Parliament's wife I had so many appointments and things like that that. I have never felt that there was any great loss from living in Kingaroy, and it's really a lovely country town and it's, oh well, I suppose different from Brisbane of course. You don't have quite so many shops, but it's lovely. And I think, let's face it, it's lovely when you live in a country town and you know so many people. You go to Brisbane and you could walk for hours and never see anybody you know. So, you know, I mean, I like it and I've really always enjoyed living here.

So you really took to this new life, as something very welcome to you, something that you really enjoyed?

Well I did actually, although of course, as the little ones came along ... I had four children between 1952 and 1960 and I was kept fairly busy with them. Although after I had the first two I had help in the home, which was very, very good, because, particularly if you were going out and doing jobs to help Joh. I always adopted the attitude too, about being a Member of Parliament, even when Joh was Premier: if you didn't look after your electorate and get back into power, there was no way in the world that you could be a Minister or a Premier. You have to look after your electorate first. And so I did quite a lot of work for Joh in the electorate, particularly after he became a Minister and he was busy going around Queensland, and then even as Premier ... so much so that when I used to go down to Murgan Shire, which is about thirty miles away from here, I'd go down representing Joh. And then when Joh and I both went together the Shire Chairman used to say, 'The Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and the Member for Barambah, Mrs. Bjelke-Petersen'. So there you were you see. And I kept on saying to Joh, you know, at election time, 'We have to work the electorate. We've got to work to make sure that you get back because if you don't get back as a Member you won't be Premier'. But nevertheless, I mean he did have a wonderfully safe seat here and Barambah: Inanga first and then Barambah, and we worked the electorate well and I liked it. All the people liked us for what we were and certainly I can say this to you very happily, that Joh was never beaten by the people. And even when he was Premier he was never beaten, although I used to worry about it. I ... you know, in every election that came along, even in the early days, I was always concerned that he mightn't get back but he used to take it very casually and think everything would be all right. And even when the media was so ... in '83 and '86 saying, 'You won't win, no way you'll win', he won both times. Well he ... That wasn't the first time. I think it was seven times he had elections as Premier, but you know, when the media was ... the media through television, gets a fair bit of say in what's going on and sometimes I think that some of the people who interview think they ought to be the politicians, rather than the people that they are interviewing. But that's just by the way. And so of course he had a lot ... he had all that to contend with, but he was never beaten by the people. He was only just beaten by his own party, who now, of course, realise the stupidity of their action, but they didn't do that at the time so that's the way it ended up.

Now he wasn't beaten by the people, but the people also had two of you. Do you think that it is fair of the country to expect the wives of politicians to work as hard as they do? They got two for the price of one with you and Joh, didn't they?

Well they did. That's what I often say as a matter of fact. But not all wives like doing it. There's a lot of wives who don't really want to ... to do this. And I must say that a lot of wives don't know that their husbands are going to become politicians. They marry them when they are in other jobs and then all of a sudden they get the bug that they think that they would like to go into politics and their wives are always terribly happy about this. But I was in a different situation. I knew Joh was a politician when I married him, and if I didn't want to, you know, do anything like that, I should have said, 'No I don't want to marry you. I'm not interested'. But I ... As I say, I liked people, I liked ... you know, I'd be very involved with a lot of people through the Presbyterian church and I'd had a lot of, you know, time with people. I worked with a lot of people in the Main Roads and I liked my people and I think that that's something that's very important. And so, I was in a different situation, perhaps, from a lot of wives, but some wives do work very hard to help their husbands and I think ... I think men who are politicians want to be truly grateful to their wives who are willing to assist them. And, I guess, the people whom they represent ought to be grateful, as you said, they get two for the price of one. I think that's something that's important. But, then again, wives can never actually make the decisions. I mean, the people who are elected by the people are the ones who are responsible to the people. The wives are just a little bit extra that they get thrown in for good measure.

But some people think it was your judgement, your understanding of people and what they wanted and what they needed, that was the really crucial factor in Joh's success.

Well, perhaps dealing with people might be all right, but he actually, himself, has got tremendous political nous as far as I'm concerned. I think it was proved time and time again during the time that he was Premier. I look back to the Gair Affair to when, you know, Mr. Whitlam decided he was going to send Mr. Gair to be Ambassador to Ireland, and at the time Joh took action through, you know, [the] Queensland Government to call nominations for all the Senate vacancies and he sort of, shall you say, cut the ground from under Mr. Whitlam's feet. See Mr. Whitlam never thought there was any likelihood that Queensland would be able to do what Joh did, and Joh fired ahead and called these nominations against the advice, I might say, of his Under Secretary at the time, but he ... Joh went ahead and said, 'No we're going to do this', and of course, I mean it ...

That was to get ...

Yes, that was so the Labor Government could get the majority in the Senate and as Queensland were able to do this, call nominations, and of course it thwarted Mr. Whitlam at that particular time. So that's part of Joh's political nous. I believe he had that, and then of course people said when he put Albert Field in to the Senate of course ... And of course Joh said, 'Well,' he said, 'I asked for three nominations from the Labor Party. They wouldn't give them to me, and so when they wouldn't give me three nominations, I chose a man who was a Labor man himself'. But anyway, it didn't last all that long before, of course, the final thing came around where Malcolm Fraser finally got back into power. But, the thing that of course, annoyed me about all that nonsense about John Kerr and how terrible everybody said it was ... People forget that it wasn't very long after Malcolm Fraser took over and they had this awful ... Mr. Whitlam had this terrible who-hah about Sir John Kerr, [but] the people of Australia spoke and they gave Malcolm Fraser the most tremendous majority. If they hadn't liked what was done, and hadn't thought that it was right, they would never have given him that tremendous majority. The only thing that I feel sorry for was that Mr Fraser didn't go ahead and change a whole lot of things that Mr. Whitlam had done, but anyway that's past history and it's not for me to say so.

I'd also like to talk about some of these things too later, but now going back to when you first married Joh, he was an Opposition Back Bencher.

He was indeed yes.

So you didn't know that an Opposition Back Bencher of the Country Party would necessarily end up as Premier. How long had you been married to him before he became a Minister?

Well, he became a Minister in 1963 and we were married in 1952, so that was about eleven years. But you see, from 1952 to 1957, he was a Back Bench Member of the Opposition, and being a Back Bench Member of the Opposition with a nice electorate meant that, you know, life wasn't too hard and he was home quite a bit with the children, growing up. See he had young John. I can still remember occasion when they were burning some old tree stumps down on the far corner of our property, and John was with his father, and he got a hot coal, young John did, in his rubber boot, and I can still see Joh rushing back here with young John, you know, and we had to take him ... He had this terrible burn on his foot. But that was ... you know, he was here and he was able to really enjoy the early years of the children. As a matter of fact, Meg was only five when we transplanted ... Joh transplanted, with the help from one of the aerial spraying pilots I might mention, a scrub tree to the corner of our house, and the scrub tree is just an enormous tree now. But those are the sort of things Joh was able to do and be interested in the property, and still serve his people of the electorate well, aided by his dear wife of course. Nevertheless, in 1957 - that was when the Labor split came when, you know, Mr. Gair stood up to the unions and very bravely I thought, and he said ... and you know, they had the argument and John Duggan then took over the Labor Party and Mr. Gair formed the DLP and that, of course, then split the Labor Party and in walked the Coalition. In the same way, we had a repeat performance when they knifed Joh in the back and it split the National Party and in walked the Labor Party. So it doesn't pay very well to do those sort of things in politics. But Joh was then a Back Bench Member of the Government for quite a long period of time. He and I both thought he should have been made a Minister a lot earlier. But, he'd been what they call a 'naughty boy'.

In what way?

Well, actually when we got into power in 1957 ... [END OF TAPE]

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