Australian Biography

Flo Bjelke - Petersen - full interview transcript

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In deciding to go to the Senate were you a little bit worried that without a wife to help you, as a politician in your own right, you'd find it pretty hard?

Well that being right, having had lots of experience at being the wife of a politician, realising that there are lots of, you know, things you have to do: you have to be away, you have to work and then you have to come home and you have to, sort of, as a woman, you roll the two into one. So my attitude has always been, and I've said it many times, that men politicians come home and everything is ready at home for them. They bring their dirty clothes home, their wife does them and irons them and gets them ready to go off again, but when you're a woman politician that's a different story, because you come home, you do the washing at home, bring your own clothes home, you cook the meals and you do all your chores over a weekend and be ready to go again the next week. And it's quite a different matter and I sometimes wonder whether the men politicians really appreciate what the women politicians have to do to keep their end up you might say.

Well perhaps they'd feel quite happy if they were at home doing the washing and not there in Parliament at all? Did you fell welcome as a women in Canberra when you went as a politician on your own?

Well, I think that the other women politicians, you know, made me feel quite welcome, but the point of course was at the time, that I had replaced a sitting Senator and perhaps it wasn't quite so easy for me to go there because I think some of them felt how sad it was that here a sitting Senator was replaced, and by a women at that too, but nevertheless, it wasn't very long before I found my niche and I think people realised that I wasn't there just to do Joh's bidding as you might say. I think that's what they really thought: that he'd sent me off down here, down to Canberra, to do what he wanted me to. What they seemed to forget was that it wasn't Joh who sent me, it was the people of Queensland who voted to send me down to Canberra. And I was there representing them and I tried to do the job to the very best of my ability - put 100 per cent effort into it, and I think that's something that was very important.

How did you convince them that you weren't there just to do Joh's bidding?

Well probably, I'd say, one of the first things I did when I got there, not very long after I got there, was to vote against the government that was in power, our own government actually. And they were bringing in a Bill, at that particular time, to put a tax on essential commodities and I didn't believe that that was right for the families of Queensland. I believe that I was there representing the family unit and so I stood up and was counted and voted against it. It's hard enough to vote against the Opposition Government, you know, when like the Government that's in power now, when you're the Opposition. It's hard enough to vote against them, but to vote against your own Party people sort of look askance at you, particularly Members of your own Party.

Well Joh wouldn't like it much if his people voted against his legislation would he? What did he think of you doing that?

Well I certainly was told that many times, that if I'd have been in the State House and done that, I would have been, well, really chastised very much indeed. And I came home and I said to Joh, 'You know what they say down there now that I've done this? They said if I'd have been in your Parliament I would never have been able to do that. I, you know, would have been excommunicated you might say'. And he just laughed and said, 'Well look, if you'd have been in my parliament you wouldn't have had to have that worry because we wouldn't have brought in such silly legislation'. So there you are, where do you go from there?

Well, yes, except that he would have been cross with anybody who voted against his legislation even if that was against their conscience, wouldn't he?

He certainly would have, but, you know, it's not the only time that I've voted against the, you know, the present government on quite a number of occasions. In fact, somebody once said to me, 'What, you know ... What was the difference between being in Opposition and being in the Government?' and I said, 'When you're in Opposition it is easier to vote against the Government, than it is when you're a Member of a government'. But we also had a lot of times that we voted against the Government on retrospectivity, but you see, I was with others doing that. It's when you do it on your own that it's very difficult. But if you believe very strongly in something I believe you have to take a stand, and there were very many of us in Malcolm Fraser's government at the time, that did not believe in retrospectivity. We believed that if a law is made, the law is law from today onwards, not from today backwards, and so we were very strong on that and there was quite a number of us, but I must say that I was the only National who did it. But that's just by the way. But I think that you are there to do the best you can, to represent the people that, you know ... that put you there, and so I've always tried to do that. And as National Party Senators, quite a number of us have crossed the floor on a number of occasions against Government legislation but our Opposition was voting with the Government, but we didn't believe in what they were doing so we crossed the floor to vote against it, for rural issues mainly: sugar, wool, wheat and things like that. So that's what you have to do if you're firm and strong, because it's easier actually, to go along with the crowd, but if you believe in something very strongly you want to be strong and positive and take the step that you think is right.

But you were representing the people of Queensland, and specifically the country people of Queensland had voted for you to be there, and yet you're also in the National Parliament with national issues to consider. Did you ever find a conflict between a situation where you felt the country as a whole would benefit, say, from having certain rural subsidies lifted and yet [for] your particular constituency, that is the Country Party voters or the National Party voters of Queensland, it was against their interest? Did you ever have a conflict over that?

I didn't believe I did because I didn't believe that the tariff should be lifted. I felt very strongly that they shouldn't be lifted, that they should be left there. But you see, you have the Liberal section of the Coalition who don't agree with tariffs, and so that you see that you've got the National Party on one side and the Liberal on the other. And this is where it is, I think, sometimes quite difficult to be in Coalition in Opposition but that's what they voted for and that's where we were. And so you have to take a stand and you have to decide to do what you think is right for the constituency of Queensland that you represent. The Senate is meant to be a States' House. Unfortunately it doesn't always act like that. It is very politically motivated just the same as the House of Representatives but it is meant to be, and I always adopted that attitude and tried to look at it from a States' House point of view.

Do you feel generally that what's good for the country people in Australia is good for Australia as a whole?

Well I think that one thing that you have to remember, of course, is that the country vote people play a very, very important role as far as our export earnings are concerned. I think a lot of people forget that. Admittedly they haven't got so many people in that part of the area but when you look at, you know, the money raised from exported wool and wheat and all these other different rural commodities - the sugar industry, they all play a very important role in our export earnings, and I think that these are some of the things that have to be recognised when they say, 'Oh, you know, that's rural Australia again wanting this or that', but unfortunately we have a Government in power who believes that you do the best you can for where the most people are and they forget ... they're inclined to forget about rural Australia and that I believe is a rather a sad thing.

For quite a long time, when Joh was Premier, with a relatively small part of the vote - 28 per cent of the vote - he was able to have about 38 per cent of the seats in the House because they were these rural seats. Do you think that that really gave a, sort of, corrected a little bit the fact that the country voice tends to get left out because it's not so populated?

Well what I think you have to remember is that the vote eventually was more than 50 per cent because you add the Liberal vote as well to it. The preferences that the Liberals give ... so that you end up with ... you've got more than 50 per cent and, you know, the Labor Party in Queensland just was never able to beat them, that was the reason why. Might have only been 28 per cent of the vote, but when you look at the amount of the export earnings that they produce, it is well in excess of what the people in the cities do. I mean, the people in the cities most of the time are just, you know, are the ones who are using up the money from ... that are more or less provided from the export earnings by the country people. So you've got to sort of balance it both out, and as far as I am concerned Queensland was governed by the Party that obtained the most votes in addition to getting preferences from the other side, and I think that that is something ... And that is, of course, why the Labor Party was so very cross with Joh and wanted to get rid of him because they felt that, you know, he shouldn't have been there. They, you know, didn't like what he was doing and they reckoned that he didn't treat the workers correctly, but when I look at what happened to Queensland under his Government and the tremendous success it was, I believe he did a wonderful job.

What did you feel when the people used to call it a gerrymander?

Well, I thought it was quite ... It was really quite wrong. And I mean, you just look at it. How could it be gerrymandered if eventually without any redistribution at all, the Labor Party was able to win? Now where does that leave you? I mean, you know, if you look at it like that. I mean, that's the right answer to it, that you sort of ... they were able to win so it couldn't have been very gerrymandered, could it?

Well unless they had such an overwhelming support?

Oh well that could have had something, been, certainly was, was certainly ... They were voting very much at that particular ... on that particular election, against the fact that the National Party was divided over what they had done to Joh. I guess that had something to do with it. But nevertheless, I mean all this talk about [a] gerrymander, I mean it's ... I think if you look right throughout the world - you look in Britain: they have electorates that are, sort of, given a little bit extra. Down in Britain. Down ... Up in Scotland, the electorates away up in Scotland are electorally sort of loaded, you might say, so that they've got the opportunity of having a reasonably equal vote with the people in the electorates around London. It's done the whole time. I mean you're just trying to organise the people [to] have a better chance to have a say. See there aren't very many people out in the west, and if they were only going to be counted as one vote - one value, they'd never have a chance, and the more that they talk about one vote - one value, the bigger the electorates become, and I mean, some of those Members who represent those far flung electorates in Queensland, even in Western Australia, why they have a great proportion. There's ... In the Federal sphere, Bob Catter and Bruce Scott have tremendous areas of Queensland that they have to represent, and I mean, how can you ... the people that they represent expect to be properly represented if they are unable to get to see them or talk with them.

Now as a Senator you felt you were representing the whole of Queensland. How did you manage that? How did you manage to feel that you were in touch with the whole state?

Well, when I first became a Senator I travelled. I travelled by small plane quite a lot and actually [on] many occasions I went out with some of Joh's Ministers when they ... see Bill Glasson represented a great part of the west in his state electorate and he was going out visiting his electorate, [and] I was able to go along with him too. And I used to, sort of, really try and do what I could to help the people who lived out there. I suppose the women, sort of, felt a bit of, you know, a feeling towards me that I ... I was, you know, a woman there representing them and they used to love to come along to meetings and tell me their problems and what they thought, but I tried to do that on a fairly regular basis, particularly over the first number of years that I was there. Then I felt that the people got to know me. They could write to me and I was quite willing to do what I could to help them with any problem that they might have had.

Now that was your traditional constituency. Those were people that you knew and were associated with. What did you do as a Senator for the whole of Queensland about getting in touch with the people in the city?

Well, I must say that during state elections I worked in the city as well as I did in the country. I met lots and lots of people right throughout the city areas. Of course, I mean not everyone wants to talk to you. Not everybody. If you're a very strong Labor person, I don't suppose you feel a great desire to have Flo come in and talk to you, and work for you. But I always adopted the attitude that I represented the whole - everybody in the State - and anybody who wanted me could ... I had a phone, my phone [number] was in the phone book, and actually that's one thing I must say about Joh, that all the time that he was the Premier, our phone number was listed so that anyone could ring up at any time. I can assure you we had many calls in the middle of the night - people making prank calls more often than not. But I mean, we were there, we were available and people were able to contact us if they felt any need. And as a matter of fact, I still get letters from people who want me to help try and solve problems. I don't know whether they don't know that I am not a Senator any more, but certainly I still have letters coming from people who have problems, don't seem to be able to solve them and they still seem to think I can do a little bit of a miracle job and help them solve their problems for them.

During the time that you were campaigning as a Senator, as a politician in your own right, did you have anybody do anything nasty to you? Were you heckled or jostled or have any unpleasant incidents?

No, I don't recall any in particular. I think I've had people, you know, yell out and scream out, you know, when they haven't liked what you're saying. You got to shopping centres and you have talks there and you are quite likely to have somebody yell and shout out at you but, of course, you know, if you're a good politician you don't really mind things like that. I recall one story about Sir Robert Menzies. [A woman] yelled out she wouldn't vote for him if he was the Angel Gabriel', to which he replied, 'If I was the Angel Gabriel you wouldn't be in my electorate Madam'. So you see you can sort of, you know, have things like that happen and, I mean, if you are clever at repartee you're able to get your own back on them.

Did you get good at that? Did you get good at handling ...

I wouldn't say that I had enough of it really to bother, but I know Joh's had many, many times that he's, sort of, been able to answer people back on street corners when they were yelling and screaming out at him about different things, 'cause they didn't like him too much so they really just, sort of, took it out on him at the meetings.

Now, you were working as a Senator and you were having to look after yourself without any back up, but for some of this time Joh was still Premier. What did you do about being the Premier's wife at the same time as you were an active Senator in Canberra?

Actually I believed that the two jobs complimented one another because as a Premier's wife I travelled the state. On one occasion I went out working, you know, as the Premier's wife. It was in 1974, I think it was, when Mr. Whitlam was in power, and things were pretty bad for the people of the west, and I went out and I did a great big tour with my friend, Lady Logan, from up ... out in Richmond, and she said, 'Florence it's time you came out and talked to the women. They are having a terrible time'. So I went out with her. I did another one with Mrs. Win Painter right a way down to the south-west, and do you know, I came home with eleven foolscap pages of typing and I said ... I came back and I said to Joh, 'Now Joh I've done this trip as the Premier's wife. I'll give you these jobs and you can see if you and your staff can try and do something about helping these people'.

Were they eleven pages of problems?

Yes, that's right they were indeed. But of course, once you become a Senator and you go out, then it's your job to try and fix the problems, particularly if they are Commonwealth problems.

And did you have much success?

I always tried hard, but one thing I must say is that I wasn't in the Government for long enough to be able to do too much about it. One thing I've long since learnt, that if you in the Opposition it's not very easy to get things fixed up by the Government. I suppose one of the best things I achieved was when I went with Warren Trust, the local Federal Member here, to interview Mr. Neil Blewett, who then was the Minister for Social Security, and we had a problem that we had so many unemployed people here in this district and we had no proper Social Security office, and so when we went to see him he was ... He treated us very nicely. He was very good to us and he told us they were going to build a Social Security office and believe it or not, [at] the present time it is being built in Markville Street at Kingaroy, so that's about ... That's one thing we sort of achieved together. But it was rather ... There were other things, perhaps, that I would have really rather have had to deal with, but if you've got that problem of unemployment you've got to do something about it.

Yes it does seem ironical because one of the things that you have spoken against at times is the ready availability of welfare, and you've always had a rather reserved attitude to assistance for people who are unemployed, so how did you feel about assisting them to get a centre?

Well I think it was a job that we had to do, and that they wanted us to do, but I've always believed actually that people who get unemployment benefits should work for the dole. I believe that. I started to say that when I first got into the Senate and I was saying it when I got out again. Nobody took any notice of me, but now at long last I think they are starting to think that that might help the present situation if they bought in a scheme like that. All they used to say to me was, 'It's too hard. We can't manage it. It is not possible to do it'. Well I think that it would be a good idea if they put some of their multitudinous public servants onto the job like that and tried to work out how to do it. There's lots and lots of scope for people, who are getting the dole, to go and help at some of the retirement villages, old peoples homes and different things like that, and help councils and do a lot of cleaning up around the place, that would be a very great assistance for the amount of dole they get.

There has always been concern that it might be a way of getting cheap labour for jobs that would otherwise might be available at a proper level.

Well, I suppose that could be so, but I certainly think that it is terrible to give people a mentality where you just put your hand out, get the money and do nothing for it. And the thing that does worry me is all the young people who can sort of put their hand out and do that, and get half a dozen people together in a house down at the coast and don't have to really do anything for it. If everybody had to do something for it: a couple of days work a week - nobody's asking them to do anything that is beyond what they should - then I believe that that would be much better for them. I'm sure about that.

In relation to your work then as Premier's wife, did that mean that you ever had to be away from Canberra when you were expected to be there?

Well I tried, you know, to make sure that it didn't. If you were away you always had to have leave, you always had to have a good excuse. Our Party Whip wasn't terrible good at, you know, giving you too much leave, but if they were very important jobs, she would certainly do that, and I must say, thank you very much indeed to Margaret Reid for the time when Joh was having his trial in Queensland. She gave me leave for the complete time because she said that was where my place was, with my husband. And I think that if, you know, there was a reason for you to need leave or for a very important function, they would grant you leave, but I mean, you tried not to over do it. But certainly there were occasions: if you had a Royal visit or anything like that, your place was there as Premier's wife. But anyway, after 1987 I didn't have that problem any more so that was all right.

When Joh stopped being Premier and there were all the problems that beset him and yourself at the time in his relations with the National Party in Queensland and the problems of his future, did that mean that a whole idea you'd had of an old age with Joh that was much more relaxed and prosperous and happy went up the spout? Did you lose out on a whole expectation of life at that point?

Well most certainly Joh did. There's no doubt about that because, I mean, when you look around Australia and you know what retired Prime Ministers and Premiers have received in other states and you know what happened to Joh, and everything went by the board when this political vendetta was launched against him, because that's all I can actually say that it really was. The ... After they had charged him with corruption and it took four years for them - four years of inquiry going back in our books, a way back to the 1940s, in the 1940s, checking over everything. After four years they wrote him a letter and said they couldn't get ... There was no sign of corruption, so that was all right. So I don't know whether they felt duty bound that they had to do something about it, and then they decided they would charge him with perjury and I always thought that perjury was telling down right lies in the case of the law. Well all they said about him was that he hadn't told the whole truth and it turns out that his solicitor had sent a letter of complete evidence to the Fitzgerald Inquiry and to my way of thinking, if the legal representatives in the Inquiry had done their job properly and they hadn't thought that Joh had completely answered the question they asked him, why couldn't they ask another question. I think that shows very bad legal representation myself. But that's by the way. But it was very hard. Joh had two excellent jobs offered to him when he got out, but because they'd put this charge on him, of course, people didn't want him any more. And that was a very sad happening and, of course, it certainly meant that financially we were badly off because we had to use ... We had to spend a lot of money on the court cases and, well, we're still suffering as a result, and when I got out of the Senate my friends down there said, 'Don't take a lump sum Florence. Take it as an annuity - your superannuation'. See I wasn't like Joh. Joh didn't take his superannuation - well over a million dollars, about a million and a half dollars he would have been entitled to if he hadn't decided that it was feathering your own nest and he wouldn't go into it. If I'd have been married to him at the time, I reckon I'd have said to him ... That would have been one very big disagreement we'd have had. But anyway, I was in the superannuation fund and when I got out I had to give half of my superannuation to help pay the bills to the bank. And they're still not paid of course. There's still more do to. But anyway, we're gradually getting there, but it certainly hasn't been an easy time since the National Party, sort of, stabbed Joh in the back you might say, and decided he wasn't doing a good enough job. I wonder what they thought after they lost the next election. Anyway that is past history.

From your point of view, when that happened, did you get a shock when the decided that they didn't want Joh to continue as Premier? Did you? As the leader of the Party and so on ... Did you get a shock? Were you surprised?

Well, I was surprised actually, because it was only less than twelve months since he'd won the election with a great big majority. I mean, I couldn't believe it, and as a matter of fact, somebody told me that you know that was going on, but I couldn't believe it. I thought that couldn't possibly be right. But of course, I suppose I was naive, put it like that. I mean, in politics you've got to accept the fact that life isn't meant to be easy as some great Australian once said. And it turned out that, exactly that way in Joh's case. There is no doubt about that. But, we've, you know, together, we've gone on and he's sort of tried hard and working hard to try and get rid of our legal debts and I hope that eventually we'll get to the stage where we're okay again.

Naive isn't a word that I would think of in relation to you because you've had a lot of experience and seen a lot, and also learned from a very shrewd politician, and maybe taught him a few true things as well. So why do you think it actually was that the National Party of Queensland decided to drop Joh?

Well I still wonder whether it had anything to do with the fact that he decided to, you know, try and go to Canberra, whether they got used to the fact that he wasn't there. That might have something to do with it. I wouldn't really, you know ... can't really understand why. Then again, of course, he fell out with his Party President, Sir Robert Sparkes. Sir Robert Sparkes wanted him to bring in condoms in the schools. He wanted him, you know, to sort of allow prostitution and things like that and Joh said to him, 'Bob', he said, 'I don't believe in those sort of things. I don't want to do it. If you believe that that's what the people want wait till I get out, and I'm getting out within this term'. But he couldn't wait, and I believe that that had a lot to do with it too: that his ideas and Bob Sparkes were poles apart in as far as morality was concerned, and moral issues, and so I think that that's was another thing that sort of upset the apple cart because, see, Bob was sort of anti Joh and perhaps having had time away they might have though, Oh well, you know, we can slip in. But the thing that annoyed me, perhaps more than anything, was the fact that when Expo time came after they got rid of Joh ... Had they allowed him to stay till the eighth of the eighth '88, which would have been twenty years, there wouldn't have been all this commotion and, you know, upset in the Party, but certainly he would have still been there when Expo was on. Now he was the only one who believed that Expo should go ahead, and yet the Premier after him got up and made a great starry speech and said what a wonderful idea it was, and how everybody in the Government was all behind them and it was really great. And we weren't there at the time. We were at the opening but there was no mention made of Joh. We were seated, you know, up the back a bit and I still remember, I suppose, it was the following week that the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen were down at Parliament House to open the new Parliament House, and I was behind the red ribbon and the Queen went one way and the Duke came the other, and the Duke of Edinburgh came over. He looked at me, and then he came over. I admired him. I thought what a wonderful memory he had and he came of and said to me, 'I didn't see you at Expo', and I said, 'I was there your Royal Highness'. 'Oh', he said, 'I saw Joh'. I said, 'Oh yes, yes he was there too'. 'Oh', he said, 'You know about Joh don't you. He's an extinct volcano now'. And I laughed. I thought that was funny because I think it was Disraeli or somebody who used to talk about retired or beaten politician as extinct volcanoes, so I suppose, perhaps he meant he couldn't erupt any more, now that he wasn't Premier.

Do you think that some of it had to do with the fact that the Party got worried about all the things that came out of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, that were going on, that had got a bit out of control? Do you think that that was part of it?

Nothing had happened at that particular time. They were still dealing with the Police Department. It was actually to be an inquiry. Fitzgerald was inquiring into the police and it wasn't until they changed the Premier that the Premier then decided he was going to sweep a broom right through the Government. And then of course, I mean, they ended up with about four of their own Ministers put into gaol and, of course, people seemed to think that if you ... they used three or four thousand dollars, you know, to entertain their relatives ... I actually believe that if it was private enterprise and heads of private enterprise departments were entertaining their, you know, relatives, nobody would have queried it at all. I sort of felt that they were ... It was a very small amount. Not that I'm suggesting that it is right to do anything that they believe is wrong, but when you look at some of the things that have happened on the whiteboard and all these political things that have happened down in Canberra just recently ... I mean, I believe that it was a pretty bad, you know, judgement and pretty bad justice for ... for these men with their small amounts. I look at West Australia and what happened there, [the] South Australian bank, the Victorian bank and all these things - politicians involved wholesale - and nothing has happened to any of them.

Do you feel bitter about it?

Well I don't think it is any good being bitter, because I don't think that that is any good for you. I've always tried, you know, [to] forgive until seventy times seven our Lord tells us in the Bible. Sometimes it is rather difficult to do, but nevertheless, I mean, I think if you harbour bitterness and grudges it only turns you into somebody that is very bitter, and I don't think that that is very good at all. And so, I felt sad - perhaps is the better way of putting it - that, you know, the Party for which Joh had worked for forty years, forty-one years as a Member, ten years before that helping other people to get into Parliament ... He worked as a Secretary of the branch and everything up here. He'd done all that work and I had worked like as the unpaid Member all those years beside Joh, and helped. And to think that they would want to do that, and in such a horrible way, act to get rid of him when really he had said that he was getting out. They just couldn't wait and that was the whole sad story about it, and I guess that it's no good being bitter you just sort of regretful - perhaps that's a better way to put it I'd say.

Do you think people within the Parliamentary Party at the time too, perhaps some who felt that Joh wasn't particularly supportive of them or whatever, also had an effect on the outcome?

In what way do you mean?

Well, in that there had been some tensions within the Cabinet in Queensland at that time and some requests for resignations and so on.

Oh yes. Oh well that was the time that, yes, that he did decide that, you know, he wanted to change some of his Ministers, but when you look around, other people change Ministers all over the place. That's the right of a Premier, and if you feel that there is a need to do that, well then, I believe that you ought to be able to do it. Perhaps one at a time might have been better. That might have been my advice to Joh if he, you know, had thought that it was necessary. But anyway, he took the action that he thought was right, and well, we've seen [the] sad way it all ended up and now we've got a Labor Government in Queensland, and the Nationals and the Liberals between them have to work hard to try and have a change of government at the next election.

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