Australian Biography

Flo Bjelke - Petersen - full interview transcript

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Some think that Joh was a little slow to become a Minister once the Coalition got into power in Queensland. Why did it take him a while to get from the Back Bench?

Well he was a bit of a naughty boy actually, at least that's what they told him. Because not long ... When they were wanting to get into power they promised that they would do away with all the lease hold land, that people would be able to free hold their land, and then also with the transport of goods around Queensland, they ... if you, you know, they ... you own the railways, you use them and you were supposed to transport everything by rail and our fellows had promised that they would free up the transport laws. When they got into power, Tom Hiley, I think it was, who was the Treasurer, convinced Frank Nicklin that they couldn't afford to do this and so they said, 'We're sorry we can't keep our word', and Joh said he'd gone all round the countryside promising these things to rural Queensland and so he ... they arranged big meetings out in the west, [in] Dolby and Roma. They had huge meetings of all the people saying, 'But you've got to keep your word. You've got to promise ... You promised that ...' About three-quarters of Queensland was lease hold land and they wanted to get free hold ownership, and so the [politicians] said, 'No'. They were sorry they couldn't do it. So they organised these meetings and Joh went along, and he was the chief spokesman at [these meetings], and said, 'I promised all these things. You've got to keep your word'. And so, of course, then Frank Nicklin and Gordon Chalk, the Minister for Transport, had to come out and speak at these meetings. And who was the chief one, who was there representing the people, who got up and sort of took their part? That was Joh. And so of course, Frank Nicklin got very scotty with him and he said he just, you know, couldn't have ... wouldn't make him a Minister because he had been so naughty supporting these people against, you know, what the Government wanted to do. And the funny part about it was that these meetings were so big and so volatile that the government then had to say, 'Well we will go ahead with what we promised'. But that didn't stop Frank Nicklin from being very cross with Joh and saying that, you know, he wouldn't make him a Minister. Because when his next door neighbour, who was in the next door electorate - the late Sir Jamie Heading - [when] he retired from politics ... See Joh actually had worked very hard to get him in as a Member of the Ministry and I think he thought that when Jim said that he only wanted just three years to finish off his life and, you know, it would be a wonderful conclusion to his life, Joh thought that if he helped Jim to get in, Jim would help him, but Jim wouldn't help. He said, 'No Joh, you've been a naughty boy. I can't support you and help you to get into the Ministry'. So there Joh languished on the Back Bench a little longer, but he still maintains to this very day that he couldn't have become a Minister at a better time than he actually did. Because at that time there was a vacancy for the Minister for Works and Housing. Now, that's a Ministry where if you do your job well and if you promise, you know, a Member and [not] just [from] his own party, but if he promised the Labor people even, that he would do something for him. He wrote it down and followed it through. He's a great organiser. I must say that about Joh. Some time I think he's too well organised, you know. If you're going anywhere you've always got to be ready quarter of an hour before you're supposed to. But he did all that. He wrote these things down and he carried them through to fruition. And so, you know, the boys then really were very, very glad that he got that job as Minister for Works and Housing. He was able to do things to help them and when Frank Nicklin retired the boys voted for him first up. There was no need for a second ballot. They voted for him as the new Deputy of the Party, because they said you could rely on Joh. If Joh said he was going to do things, he did it. And the same thing applied when Jack Pizzey died about six, seven months after he became Premier, and Joh got in on the first ballot as the new Premier. And so although it took him a while to get there, because he had become the Minister for Works and Housing, he really had proved to the boys that he was somebody that they could rely on, and I believe that was what they felt when the vote came for Premier.

Now, what was your role in all of this? I mean you were going out and opening fetes and speaking and generally making people feel good about the fact that you were the wife of their local member, but what were you doing in helping Joh to make his decisions? How did he use you? Were you a sounding board for him?

Well I don't know that I'd really say that. I really don't know. A lot of people have said that that's the case. I mean, he would come home and we'd talk politics but, I mean, I have never felt that I needed to tell Joh what to do in the realm of politics or policies. He was his own man and I believe that he was a very, very ... had a very good political nous and I don't believe it was up to me to tell him what to do. I believe that he knew what to do himself without coming home and getting advice from me about different things.

Did you every disagree with him?

Not as far as political points were concerned. I suppose if there's one time that I wasn't 100 per cent behind him, that was when he decided that he'd, you know, make this trip to Canberra. Because, well I was down there, I mean, at that particular time and I knew just, you know, what the feeling was there. But that didn't have anything to do with it. I believe ...

The Joh for PM it was called?

Yes that's right. Yes, but that wasn't his idea: Joh for PM. That was a ridiculous arrangement of a publicity man from the National Party in Queensland. Joh was trying to go to Canberra because people everywhere were saying that he ought to be there. See what had happened was, in 1986 he'd had this tremendous win - win in our own right here in Queensland. The National Party was up at the top of the tree you might say, and people everywhere were saying, 'That's what we need in Canberra Joh'. They were tired of being in the Opposition and [they were saying], 'We need someone like you to take the lead and to, you know ...

In what capacity did he imagine himself in Canberra?

Well, I don't know. I think he sort of thought that if he could take the ... not as Prime Minister. He said he never, sort of, pushed to be Prime Minster. But if he could have a role where he could perhaps be able to lead and, you know, direct what they ought to be doing down there ... But of course, John Howard and Ian Sinclair said, 'No way. We don't want any one else butting in on our territory, no'. And then of course I think where it all fouled up, of course, was the fact that ... that Bob Sparkes, who was President of the Party ... He could see that it was gaining momentum this 'Joh for Canberra'. It was gaining momentum and so he said now was the time for him and the National Party to take over the whole cause and they even went down and picked out a building in Melbourne that they were going to have as the Headquarters and run it from there. And of course no sooner did that happen, then all the men that said they'd give money, you know ... A lot of Liberal people [who] said that they would give money to support it, said, 'Oh no'. They withdrew and a lot of the people who said they were willing to be candidates withdrew and so the thing fell flat, mainly because of National Party Queensland ... National Party interference you might say. But, I believe, that Joh had just become Premier of the state again with a tremendous majority and a role to play, and I suppose if I didn't agree with him about anything, perhaps, it was about the fact that, you know, he followed these people's advice and decided that he would try, you know, to go to Canberra. Well then of course it fell flat after this interference, and he went back and by that time his own Party seemed to be at six's and seven's and I think that, perhaps, that might have had the ... been the first sort of little chink in the armour, you might say.

His focus was moved away from Queensland?

Yes.

But was that ... Did your disagreement with him over that have to do the fact that you sort of predicted that it wouldn't take off, and there would be problems with it, because of your perspective that you were in Canberra at the time and you could see that?

Well, I don't know. I just sort of ... My attitude was that he had just been elected to Queensland and I felt that his job was there. And I know that he would have done a wonderful job and people everywhere are still telling me that if only he'd got to Canberra, things would be different now. You know, he ... It really was getting a tremendous roll on. He had candidates, you know, in Western Australia and South Australia, but then it all became, you know ... It all sort of collapsed you might say, as a result of interference. And I do believe that this 'Joh for PM' was such a silly statement. It was ... In my opinion it was 'Joh for Canberra'. But anyway, that's just past history now and I just, sort of, felt myself that it would have been better if he had just continued to concentrate on Queensland. But that's just the way it went, and I accept the fact that probably my intuition at that time might have been better than his was, but oh, on the whole, I've always said that Joh has got good political nous and I supported him very strongly in the decisions that he made.

During those years, all those many years in Queensland politics, where you were a wife and not an independent Senator, if you had disagreed with him, would you think it would be the role of the wife to do anything other than support her husband?

No, well, I think if you felt strongly about things I think it would be your place to tell him what you thought. But whether they did what you said, is another matter, because the ones who are elected are the ones that have the responsibility, not the wife, no the one ... But that doesn't say that you shouldn't say what you think, and tell them what you think.

So you wouldn't be one of the women who would think that the real job of a wife would be to be just a help mate to her husband and do what she could to support his line, whether or not in her heart she might have a little bit of a disagreement with him or felt ... wondered about what he was up to?

Well, I suppose you can still, you know, wonder and you probably could give advice if you thought you know they were doing wrong, but as I say, if you're there and you've been elected, you're the one who has to make the final decision, and whether husbands are strong enough to take advice from their wives is another matter again, isn't it? I mean sometimes, some men don't like to be told that they are wrong. And you can sometimes see that when you are down in Parliament. That's where it comes out quite distinctly at times.

Apart from politics, have you ever had occasion to tell Joh that he was wrong?

Oh, well, I don't know when it comes to, you know, life in the home I think that I, sort of, think that mums have a great control over the family. I know there were times when Joh has come home when the children were small and he used to say to me, 'Don't you think that they should have a smack Florence?' and I think to myself now, why didn't I say to him, 'Well if you think they should have a smack, you give it to them'. But he was just like my father. My dad never smacked us. It was always left to mum to be the disciplinarian, and I still remember the time on television when Helen, my middle daughter, was once asked on a television interview ... and I think if she'd have known they were going to interview her she probably wouldn't have come over here that day, but they sat her down in front of the TV and they said, 'And what's it like to have a dictator as a father?' And Helen looked at them and said, 'Oh', she said, 'Dad's the soft one in our family. Mum's the hard one'. So I often wonder whether that made me a dictator or not. But nevertheless, I mean that was, you know ... I was the disciplinarian and I think that, you know ... Well Joh ... Joh was away a lot and I think that that sort of leaves you to be mum and dad and I think if you want your children to grow up the right way, you try and keep them on the right track, and I've done the best I could for the children and I'm very happy to say, that I ... Well we always had family devotions in our home as the children grew up, and I'm very happy to say that they are Christians themselves, and they are bringing their children up that way too.

All of them?

Yes, and I think that's a lovely feeling to know that that has happened in our home and I ... That is why I do believe that if parents set a good example of the children, so often it helps them in the future, you know, and the way they act. I can't say that it happens always because I know of some fine Christian parents who haven't had, you know, that success rate, shall you say, that their children are followed their Christian example but, I think it certainly helps very much indeed.

Now, when the children where growing up and Joh was a Minister and then Premier and you were being such a support to him, you were talking care of the electorate, you were still taking care of the books and the management of the farm, and you were also occasionally acting as his secretary when he needed it, how did you manage to do it all?

Well, I think God gives you health and strength, and I was very lucky that I always kept healthy. I think that's one, you know, angle to it. I was also very fortunate in so far that up until, I suppose, Ruth the youngest was about fourteen or fifteen, I had a lovely girl helping me in the home. Elizabeth came when Ruth was about three years old, and she was in my home working for me for five and a half years, and then after that she got married and we were very fortunate at the time. We had a small little home on our place and we asked Elizabeth, you know, would she like to get married and when she got married would she like to live there. She wasn't too sure about living so close, you know, but her husband thought it was a wonderful idea so together they came and lived on our place for another five and a half years and during that ... That's eleven years you see, and Ruth was about fourteen by that time, and so I had somebody that if I had to go away for a few days, I didn't go away for long periods, but if I had to go away for a few days, Elizabeth and John would come and live in. They had one or two little boys then, by the end of the time, and they came and lived in here and acted like mum. She was like a big sister to the children. And I've been very grateful over all those years for the eleven years that Elizabeth was willing to help me so that I could do a good job. I gave her, you know, like she was ... We paid her but nevertheless, I mean she was just so lovely and she was just so part of the family that it was marvellous.

You've sometimes spoken about your concern about the expansion of child care and the fact that that takes mothers away from their children, encourages them to be away yet you had rather a good child care around you yourself. Do you ever see there might be a bit of a tension between your position on that and your own experience?

Well, I don't think so because it was rather a different situation in that case. My children were a lot older. I mean I wasn't away very much from home when my children were young and they were going to school. I did quite a lot of work. I mean I became ... I did tuck shop duty for the children, I was secretary to the local ... to our women's auxiliary at the school. When they went to high school I went and did high school tuck shop duty. I was a real mum and I was able to play my part in that way. I mean it is not everybody these days that's able to sort of do those [things] if you're so busy, you know, that you have to have your children in child care. And probably parents circumstances these days are somewhat different from mine. I mean Joh had a very good job. I wasn't paid for anything I did. I was just going out, you know, doing little jobs around the community and I was, as I often said ... When I became a Senator when they said, 'What's the difference between being a Senator and a Premier's wife?' I said, 'I get paid now for what I used to do for nothing'. And see, but my children had grown up. By the time I sort of went off to Parliament my three girls were all married, and John was up in Central Queensland, and I didn't have that problem, but even when they were smaller, I suppose I had a mother-in-law that lived next door, and a sister-in-law who was there part of the time and they had like a second home, but most of the time I didn't have to worry about having any problem, and of course I had ... As I say, Elizabeth was in the home as, sort of, part of the home situation, but I wasn't away for long periods of time. I might now and again have been away for a week here and there, but that was because I was trying to be helpful, particularly I suppose 'round about election time. That was when you, sort of, had to leave them for a little while, but I was secure in the knowledge that I had Elizabeth and her husband, John, here in those later years, and a mother-in-law who was living close by. So I didn't have quite that problem of having to deliver children to a child carer. I've got daughters who - one daughter anyway, who's needed to have somebody to help look after her little fellow, but circumstances are different these days, and I think a lot of people find that they need two incomes to help keep things going, which I don't think says too much about the government that is in power at the present time. [laughs]

So has that changed your feeling a little bit about, you know, because you have spoken out sometimes, about government assisted child care in the sense that you feel concerned that it is contributing to the break up of the family values. You feel perhaps a little bit that maybe things are changing in that regard, or what is your position now?

About child care?

Yes.

Well, I think that where women have to work ... I think child care where you can have a carer who's in her own home looking after children is my ultimate for child care, and I just feel sad that there are mums, who when their babies are very tiny, feel that they have to leave children with other people. I think that the first five years of life are really the time mums want to set ... you know, be there and, you know, direct the children themselves if it is at all possible. But I accept the fact that in these days it's not always possible and that there are many, many women who go to work, not because they want to go to work, but because they feel they have to go to work. And this becomes, of course, a necessity then, that you have to have somebody to help you look after your children. That doesn't say that they love them any the less. I'd say that about it, but provided you can do it and still have your own home and show love for your children, and look after them when you, you know, are at home, I suppose that that's the best way they seem to be able to do it. But I certainly think ... I know that my daughter who has, you know, put her little boy into care now and again ... He's at kindergarten as well now, but if you can find a mum in her own home that's willing to do this, it's a bonus as far as I'm concerned, and I think that the child care people certainly go through the mums who offer with a fine tooth comb to make sure that, you know, they're suitable for looking after children.

Do you remember the day that Joh became Premier of Queensland?

Well, yes I suppose I do.

Do you remember your reaction, what you thought about how life would be now that you had this responsibility?

Yes, well I think, I was delighted that he was able to achieve the fact that he had become Premier of the state. I believe that that was really something wonderful because you just never know. When people are voting for you, you don't know how the other Members of Parliament are going to vote for your husband. There's not doubt about that. But at the time he felt that he had done a good job as a Minister and he thought the boys would support him, but of course, a lot of the Members ... a lot of the Members put their name into the hat, and some of them ... They all had to be Ministers, of course, who were going to be Premier. But Joh got it on the first ballot, and I was very pleased for him. I thought that that was a real achievement, that he was able to do this. I wasn't really quite so worried about that vote as I was about the vote that occurred a couple of years later, after the first election. Joh had run an election and they'd won their election, but for some reason or other there was disquiet about this Karoola Sands issue - environmental issues - and they sort of ... Some of the boys felt that things weren't going as well. See, Joh was probably the first Premier that had a lot of television. See prior to that, the television hadn't been used very much. Even Jack Pizzey I don't think had had a lot of television. Certainly Frank Nicklin hadn't, and Joh struck the first flush of television and you're fairly, you know ... need to be fairly experienced to be able to cope with television, don't you? I've sort of found out over the years. And so it ... it just wasn't perhaps quite so easy, and with these problems ... Blow me down, you know, the ... I think it was his own President who was sort of saying things, you know, that it was ... that he didn't know that Joh was doing too well and of course, that gave these Members of Parliament the idea that they'd have another vote to try and get rid of Joh. The only thing was - I find out so often, how God leads and guides in different things - the night before ... They were going to have the vote the next morning [and] they told Joh. Now if they hadn't told Joh that they were going to have a vote, and try and toss him out as Premier, and he would have been one of the shortest, you know, shortest Premiers of all time ... If they hadn't told him that he wouldn't have been organised and ready, but they told him the night before. So I tell you, Joh and I had a lot of talk about that, the night ... during the evening where Joh ... We were at one of the motels. I was there staying with him because Joh had been to this dinner, and blow me down, he worked and he worked and he got in touch with people the next morning and he managed to get in by two votes, I think it was, and that was a ... that was a real worry because I knew he was doing a good job but you see, you get people who run you down in public and it doesn't take long for it to sink in and Members of ... And as Joh said they said, 'Oh we're not doing very well', and Joh said, 'Well that's as much your fault as it is mine. You can't hold me responsible for everything that's been done', and so, there you were.

If it were Joh he probably would have been shrewd enough not to tell him the night before, if he'd been in charge of all of that?

Exactly yes. Exactly. That's right. He wouldn't have. No.

So he was always a master tactician like that: never let the enemy know what he was up to?

Well I think you could say that about it. I mean I think he always did try to. But he ... but see, you know I often think when I think of things that happened and even in my day when I cross the floor to vote against the Government, our own Government, mind you, about a tax on essential commodities a lot of the fellows said to me afterwards, 'But Florence, Joh would never have let his Members do a thing like that. He expected his Members always to vote the way he said so'. And when I told Joh this he just laughed, he said, 'I'd never had brought in such silly legislation so that you would have had to vote against it'. And that's how he ... you know, he always had an answer for things like that.

But the fact was that he did expect people to vote his way.

He certainly did. That's right yes. But he always said they were doing a good job and there was no need to be, you know, sort of, crossing the floor and doing things like that.

He always had great confidence that he was right. He had great confidence about his view. Was that something that you always shared? Did you always feel that he was pretty right too?

I did. I believe that as far as politics went, I believe he had great political nous, and I ... I've always adopted the attitude that he did a wonderful job and when I look at politics in Queensland now, when I hear so many people saying as you move around, how wonderful Queensland was in the days when Joh was Premier ... I certainly believe that the decisions that he made so often ... You just look at the decisions he made about the Commonwealth Games. They went ahead with the Commonwealth Games. You look at the decision he made about Expo and I must say this to you, that he did not have any support at the time in Cabinet. The Cabinet said, 'It's too big, we'll never cope. If New South Wales can't do it and Victoria won't do it, how can we expect to do Expo?' And Joh said, 'We'll do it'. Someone said to him, 'Did you really do it without Cabinet approval?' 'Oh well', he said, 'It eventually went to Cabinet', but he made the decision and told Malcolm Fraser, 'Yes they'd do it'. And look what a wonderful job Expo was. I mean, that all proved to my way of thinking of course, that his decisions in the main were the right decisions. The unions, of course, never thought that he made the right decisions, but the people of Queensland thought that he made the right decisions when he controlled the unions, when we had this electrical ... you know the strike of electricity workers and so, you know ... And I always know how long ago that was by our dog Sparky, because we called him Sparky. He came at that right time. So there you are and, I mean, I believe that Queensland was a great place, and it really progressed wonderfully, and people used to laugh at him because he ... he counted cranes on the skyline and said that that was the sign of progress in Queensland. Well I'll tell you this, the cranes went down certainly to a very few in number over recent times. I think there might be a few in the skyline now. I think things are starting to pick up a little bit, but he did a good job and that's my opinion about it and I think a lot of people feel the same way.

Who made the decision that you should go to Canberra as Senator?

Well I made the final decision. I couldn't have gone to Canberra if I hadn't made the final decision to go. But I can still remember the time that the paper ... see there was ... They needed somebody, the Liberals. I would never have gone to Canberra if the Liberals hadn't decided to have a separate Senate ticket, it is as simple as all that. For some reason or other when this election was coming up there was three vacancies and the Nationals had two of them, and the Liberals thought that they could take one of those seats. And of course, the Nationals didn't want to lose one of the seats, and they said they had to find somebody to head our Senate ticket that people knew. And, anyway, there was a great talk about this in the papers and one day in The Australian Hugh Lunn wrote an article to the effect that Joh was going to leave Queensland and become a Senator. He was going to lead the ticket and of course Joh laughed his head off and said, 'Oh that's ridiculous. Of course I'm not going to do that'. And the next week out came the paper: 'Sorry, we've made a mistake. It's not Joh that's going to go for Canberra, it's Flo'. Now that's where the first ... In my memory, the first thing that happened, because I can still remember I was over at the Carnival of Flowers in Toowoomba that day when this heading came out on The Australian paper and I nearly died of fright. I thought, oh no! It was a very, nice feeling to be the Premier's wife. I didn't have any responsibility really. Joh had the responsibility. I just helped where ever I could and I went around the state and I ... When things were bad for the women of the west, I went round there and I'd been around with my friend, Lady Logan, and we'd done tremendous amount of touring around Queensland, meeting the women and knowing their problems. And low and behold, here they were suggesting that I should go and be a Senator. And as soon as Joh read it in the paper, he said, 'What a wonderful idea. Oh that's marvellous. We'll, you know ... What about it?' and I thought, Oh, I don't know, you know. My heart was in my mouth and I thought, Oh. I didn't know how I'd go. But anyway ...

Why were you afraid? What were you afraid of?

Oh well, I don't know. I think, you know, it was ... I still had, you know, plenty of opportunities, plenty of ... as a Premier's wife - plenty of opportunities to move around, talk to people, meet people, but here I felt, well now, I would be a politician in my own right and I wasn't just too sure whether I believed that there should be two politicians in the one family. Especially when one of them was going to go to Canberra, and Joh had had so many fights with Canberra over the years, I just wasn't quite sure. I thought that the time would come when I would be like ... Joh often used to say he felt like he had ... you know, you were sitting on the barbed wire fence with one leg on one side and one on the other, and I thought that might be what would happen to me. You know, because I might find myself having to do things in Canberra that the Queensland Government mightn't like, and I thought, Oh dear how would this go. But anyway, suffice it to say that the Party then themselves thought that I would be one who would be able to perhaps take the, you know ... sort of win the seat and stop the Liberals from gaining the second seat. The only thing I regret to say is that one of our candidates was ... who had been number three, went round telling everybody to vote number one for him and go up the ticket, so it sort of split the ticket up somewhat, and it meant that Glen Shiel who was number two on the ticket didn't get enough votes to get him in as well, and it left the way open for the Democrats to get in in Queensland, and they've been there ever since. So that was rather one of the sad things as I saw it about that, but I ... Once I finally decided well, you know, the Nationals thought it was all right, Joh thought it was all right, I decided, well, I was willing to go and we'd see how it went, because I could see there was a great need for somebody that people knew to head the ticket. And I must say that, although I only got myself in on that occasion, due to this, you know, vote one for me as number three and go up the ticket, and we got the Democrat in, I must say that the next time we had an election we had ten Senators to get up and I led the ticket on a double dissolution and we got three up, and the following election when we had a double dissolution, out of twelve, we got four up as Nationals, so I sort of felt that I had tried to do the best I could for the Nationals in Queensland and I believed that, you know ... that spoke for the fact that people knew me and were willing to support me.

[end of tape]

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