Australian Biography

Flo Bjelke - Petersen - full interview transcript

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Everybody calls you Flo, to rhyme with Joh: the Flo and Joh Show. What do you actually like to be called?

Well actually, when I was growing up I had cousins who used to come and visit my mother and her name was Florence and they always called her Aunty Flo, and I vowed and declared that when I grew up I was going to be called Florence. I thought that it sounded nicer, and a lot of my friends do call me Florence, but of course, as time went on and the media I think, picked up this idea, that Flo rhymed with Joh and before I knew where I was, it became Flo. It's even reached the stage sometimes now where Joh calls me Flo, but I'm always inclined to sign my letters Florence and I think it's ... well let's say Flo I suppose is an abbreviated form. Someone said it's a happy abbreviation, so whether it is or not I don't know, but as long as people think I am a happy person that's the main thing.

And then you were Senator Flo and Lady Flo.

Well that's true, as a matter of fact, I must say that I probably adopted that attitude myself because when I brought out these cookery books and I was signing them for people, I used to tag on the bottom 'Senator Flo' and I mean, Senator Flo sounds better than Senator Florence I think. I probably wouldn't have used the Senator in front of Florence but that's the way it went.

But that along with the pumpkin scones shows a really natural flair for public relations because in advertising you look for something easy to say, and you also look for little symbols and those pumpkin scones have done you a lot of good in promoting knowledge of you around the country.

Well I must say that. I must say as far as the pumpkin scones are concerned I've had a lot of very good publicity. A lot of people said to me, 'But Florence do you really like being connected with pumpkin scones?' I said, 'Look', I said, 'They helped me relate to women who make scones and men who eat them and when you're in politics that's all the people, you know, who vote for you', and I thought, Well, not everybody of course who makes pumpkin scones would vote for you, but nevertheless, it gives you a nice interaction with people, and I've never been ashamed of it. And when I think of my pumpkin scones I think the tremendous amounts of money that it's made for charities. I know for Spina Care in Sydney at an auction it raised a thousand dollars, but mind you, I understand the person who bought the recipe, [who] wanted to give a donation to Spina Care wasn't because my recipe was just so great, and in fact the very first time that I wrote it out I did it for the Liberal Party - for Neil Brown who was a Member of the Liberal Party in Melbourne, and he must have heard about it and asked me would I write it out, so I did it on Senate paper and he arranged a very lovely deep red frame, and it sold at auction for a thousand dollars there. So I thought, Well, that's not too bad and it inspired me, but of course it doesn't always bring money like that, but it is amazing the number of people who write to Joh and to myself asking for something for a celebrity auction, and I nearly always send them back a hand-written pumpkin scone recipe. Sometimes it might make only twenty-five dollars, but twenty-five dollars is something extra for whatever it is they are auctioning it for. And then of course it gone into other various areas where there's been quite a little bit of money that's been raised for this pumpkin ... by this pumpkin scone recipe.

Do you find that most people connect you with it?

Oh well, I don't know. I suppose if you've been become known for it, but I always said that after I became a Senator, I hoped that they remembered me first for being a Senator, who just had to happen to make pumpkin scones, and I hope that the work that I did as a Senator is something that everybody will remember me for because I certainly worked very hard and I tried hard for all the people that I represented.

Your fame has travelled abroad with it though, hasn't it?

Oh yes. I did have that one instance of course when Joh was welcoming Prince Charles to a function at the Arts Centre that Prince Charles was opening. It was the time he was out with Princess, with Diana, when she was there with him as the Princess of Wales, and he was replying to Joh's welcome and he said, 'You know, every time I come to Queensland I find the same Premier'. Well of course, he couldn't say that now, but this is what he said in '83. And he said he wondered whether that was due to his wife's pumpkin scones, that his mother, the Queen had told him about. So I thought, Well, if the Queen knew about them, there's nothing wrong with pumpkin scones. The only thing is, I did wonder to myself on a number of occasions, who had told her and what they said, whether they said, 'Well, you know, our Premier's wife she does ... she makes these pumpkin scones as a speciality', so I just don't know what they said, but I've often wondered. [INTERRUPTION]

In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, how old were you?

I was about nineteen.

And so what did the War mean for you, living and working in Brisbane?

Well of course I worked in the Main Roads. I worked with quite a lot of men, young men in the drafting room, and it meant that I saw them going off to war, and that made it come quite close. Some of the fellows that I knew fairly well went off and I think of one or two chaps who were in the Air Force, went off and gave their life for our country. And so, that brought it closer home to you. I joined the, you know, first aid course and did first aid and we used to have, you know, like SES I suppose it was, you know, that you have to go and do courses so that if air raids came you were all ready and ready prepared. But we were very fortunate in so far, of course, that in Brisbane we didn't have any problems, although that didn't stop everybody digging air raid shelters. At my home in New Farm we had an air raid shelter up in the back yard if anything had happened. But I always believed that God was good and spared us, and I still think that a lot of people don't fully appreciate the part that the American people played ... the American Forces played in saving Australia from being invaded by the Japanese. This is something that people often forget and I certainly don't forget, because of the Battle of the Coral Sea, when they repelled the Japanese, that meant a lot for myself and for all people, who were living in Australia at that time.

Were there many Americans stationed in Brisbane?

Oh, quite a lot as a matter of fact.

Did you have much to do with them?

Not really a lot to do with them personally, but I mean the lady next door seemed to have an awful lot to do with them, so we saw quite a few passing by here and there, but I mean, I don't know that I actually had a lot of contact. I did ... We did a little bit of waiting on tables at different places where they entertained forces, things like that, but that was probably, perhaps, as close as I got. One of the lasses, who lived over the road though, she married an American, so I met Don and we had quite a lot to do with him. So from time to time you saw people from the American forces round about, but I am very grateful to them.

Was the lady next door looked down on for fraternising with the Americans?

Oh I don't think so. The thing that annoyed me a bit, was that her husband was off fighting in the war, so I mean that's just the way it went.

That was quite common, wasn't it?

I think it was actually. Yes.

Americans were there with plenty of money. Were they ... Were they there with plenty of money to spend on girls?

Oh well, I think, they were well paid and I suppose that they had it and that was it.

What year did Joh get his knighthood?

1985 I think it was, if my memory serves me correctly.

And what did that mean to you?

Well I just felt that it was due recognition for the work that Joh had done as Premier of the state for a long time. But, Joh ... It had been actually suggested to Joh many years before that he should take a knighthood and Joh said, 'No, no, no. I don't want a knighthood. I'm quite happy for people to call me Joh'. And even after he became a knight, I mean, people still just called him Joh. I mean, there no 'Sir Joh' about it, and I mean, particularly if you moved around, 'Hi Joh', they'd say, 'Hi Joh', and I think that that, he never wanted to feel that a knighthood actually made him separate from the people that he represented.

Did becoming a Lady made any difference to how you felt about yourself?

Not really, I always hoped that I acted like a lady, and I mean, I've always said that that honour was Joh's and being a Lady, as they call it, Lady Flo - and that's not really correct it's Lady Bjelke-Petersen - but I mean it never made any difference as far as I was concerned. I've always said well I hope that I've always been a lady all my life.

It's interesting isn't it that if you became a Dame that wouldn't confer any particular honour or title on your husband? Has it ever been suggested to you that you might be elevated?

Well somebody asked me on one occasion, you know, whether I would, you know, think about it and I said, 'No, no. I was quite happy', and I think at the time Joh was already a Sir and I said, 'There's no need for me. Don't anybody think of making me a Dame', because I really think that it is people that have done an awful lot in voluntary work that should receive honours and there's a lot of people who give much, much of their time for helping people who are less fortunate than themselves. And perhaps they don't get recognised in the way they should. So I've been quite happy to go along as Joh's wife and as, you know, Lady Bjelke-Petersen. I'm quite happy about that.

Did Joh receive his knighthood from the Queen?

Yes, we went to Buckingham Palace. It was a very exciting experience actually. And you get right up into the palace and in the grand ballroom, where the Queen bestows her knighthoods, and I'll never forget it, you know, how she takes the sword and she taps them on each shoulder, and I was waiting for her to say, 'Arise Sir Joh', but she didn't. She just shook hands with him and he said she just said, 'I'll see you later today', because we were going to have an audience with her later. So Joh told me. I couldn't hear what she said anyway.

So do you think it would be a pity if you were just left with Australian honours and we didn't have a monarchy, and we didn't have those sorts of honours coming from the Queen?

Well I believe that they've played a very important role over the years. And I guess that, perhaps, people in business appreciate the fact that they have a knighthood to go with it. It's worked over the years very much so, that people in business appreciate the fact that if you have an honour, that people know about [it]. I mean, if you're made a knight through the Australian Honours people have no way of knowing whether you are or whether you aren't. I mean, you know, you just still bear your ordinary name and, as far as I know, there is no way of acknowledgement. But nevertheless, I guess that people say Australia is a country that's grown up now and it's good that we do have our own Honours, but Joh said that when the Queensland Government, when he was in at that time preparing Honours lists, it was amazing the amount of people that really wanted to be on the overseas Honours list rather than being on the Australian Honours lists, but probably things have changed since then.

How do you feel about the Republican movement?

Oh, I don't feel very happy about it at all. I'm not a republican. I'm a monarchist, and I believe in the British Empire. I believe in the type of government that we've had since Australia became, you know, Australia and had its own constitution in 1901, and I can't see any reason for any need for change. People say, 'Oh but we're getting more multi racial', and I just say, 'Well people shouldn't come to Australia if they don't like our type of government and the fact that we are, you know, part of the British Commonwealth of Nations', and I really can't see myself that being a republic is going to do anything extra for us. One thing you have to be careful of is, that if you get a President that he doesn't become a dictator. I look around the rest of the world and I see places that are republics, how they long once again to free democratic people. And that is one thing I believe that you do have to be very careful about, that you ... by changing into a republic that you don't become someone [sic] with a head that then becomes a dictator. And I don't think that there is anything wrong with our style of government at all. And I certainly believe in the Senate. I believe very strongly in the Senate now that I've been a Senator, and I believe that as it represents the states and that how it can, at times, do very special work to ensure that Australia doesn't ... isn't run by a dictator. I think that's something we have to be grateful for. And I'm certainly a monarchist through and through, and I believe that I have yet to have proved to me that being a republic would be better for Australia than the present system of government that we have now.

Some people argue that it would give us a sense of independence, of being in control of our own destiny, that we don't have while we've still got this maybe symbolic [tie], but nevertheless this thing with the old country.

Yes, well that could be so, but I mean I don't see that the Queen interferes in one way at all. The Governor General is her representative and all the laws and legislation go to the Governor General to be passed. I can't see that it makes ... that we are not independent. We're as independent as we need to be. And, I haven't ever found the Queen interfering in any business of Australia at all, but I still feel that the way it's been set up in 1901, I believe, that's the way we should continue to go.

So being an Australian, is being an Australian more important to you than being part of the British Commonwealth?

Oh, I think that we are first of all an Australian, who happens to be part of the Commonwealth of Nations in the British Commonwealth, in that case.

Now what about being a Queenslander? Some people feel that perhaps you and Joh feel that being a Queenslander is really more important than being an Australian?

Well, I don't know that we would think that because Queensland actually is part of Australia. But most certainly I've been pleased to have been a Queenslander, pleased indeed to have been a Senator for Queensland, representing Queensland in the Federal Parliament, and there of course, you know indeed that you are part of Australia, but you do represent your state to the best of your ability. And I mean, it's a case [that] the whole Federation was all these states that joined together and worked together, and sometimes of course, I hear Joh recommending that Tasmania should secede from the Commonwealth, but I haven't heard him ... although I think in some time in Mr. Whitlam's day, I think he was probably feeling the same way, but nevertheless, we are part as the Constitution ... part of the Constitution we are involved with Australia and I think I'm proud to be an Australian who is a Queenslander.

Do you think Queenslanders are a little bit different?

Oh, they say so. I don't know whether it is the vast distances that make the difference, but I don't really know that we are actually all that different from the rest of Australia. I notice that our Premier at the moment is complaining bitterly that it looks ... he thinks the Prime Ministers' going to deprive Queensland of much needed money, and I've heard people say that he's beginning to sound like Joh, the way he complains about the Commonwealth. But I guess that's just part of politics and ... in Australia and it's something that you learn to live with, and I think if you love your state you fight for your state. You do the best you can for the state that you ... particularly if you are in Parliament, for the state you represent.

Now talking of politics and the sorts of things that you do in politics, that you don't always do in relation to the rest of your life, I am interested looking on, as I think a lot of people are, that there often seems to be a bit of a gap between what is right in ordinary life and what is right in politics. Did you see things done in politics, when you were in Canberra, and also when you were watching Queensland politics, that you felt, Look that isn't quite right, but it is probably necessary for political reasons?

Well I think you only need to look at some of the things that have been done just recently down in Canberra, that you sort of feel that things aren't done perhaps the way you'd do them in private business. I don't think there would be anybody in the wide world who would say that they would distribute thirty million dollars of money on a whiteboard. I can't believe that something like that could be correct business procedure. I don't think that anybody in private business would do their business like that. They would have it on a computer. They would have all the details there. They would have every ... Every action would be explained. I think those sort of things certainly make people wonder what goes on in politics, and I suppose you could say probably pork-barrelling has been around forever, but nevertheless, I mean, I don't think anybody pork-barrelled in quite that way where you don't keep any details. I mean, you know what you're doing, and I think that that ... and I think that, you know, really, if you are a good government, you try and be fair in which ever way you're working.

You're out of politics now so you can look back on it a little bit more objectively perhaps, and I'm just wondering whether in the years that you were involved in politics, whether you felt sometimes: look it isn't ... it is necessary to do it this way because if we don't do it this way we won't win? Did you ever feel that that was a reasonable line to take?

Well I think when you are campaigning for elections you certainly are going full steam ahead to try and win the election for your party. There is no two doubts about that. You certainly do the best you can and I guess the party that you represent aims to bring forward policies that they believe will suit people. I suppose sometimes when you get into power you aren't always able to carry out all the promises that you make, but I think about the experience that ... that Joh had in the early days when he and his Government just got in to power in 1957 and the ... and his party had promised that they would do away with lease hold land and allow free hold land to go ahead and that they would alter the transport laws in Queensland, and when our Government got into power they said they were sorry that would cost too much, and they would have to ... they couldn't carry out their promises. Now Joh believed that those promises that he had gone around, stomping around the countryside, saying, 'This is what we are going to do when we get into government' ... He believed that they ought to keep their word and so he lead the revolt in Dolby and in Roma, and of course, as he ... he became a bad boy, you might say, for doing that, but they had to in the end - the revolt was so strong - that they changed their mind and said, 'All right we will go ahead with our free holding of land and altering the transport laws and making them easier'. And so, you know, I do believe that if you make big, strong promises you've got to be very careful, you got to calculate how much they will cost first so that you can really keep your word.

Now when Joh was himself in power, and came up against the realities of managing a state, did he ever find himself in a situation where he had to make choices that he wasn't very happy with?

Well I think he was fairly good at standing up for what he believed in. See I look back to the time when Queensland did away with death duty and gift duty. Now that was something, of course, that really put Queensland on the map and it made all the other states and the Commonwealth do the same thing, because so many people died and their ... and they have to, sort of, give away so much of their land to the government. So Joh ... It had been National Party - or Country Party as it was then - policy for many years, to do away with death duty and gift duty. And well, Frank Nicklin had had ten years in office, and Jack Pizzey had been there, and some years after Joh got in he decided that he was going to implement the National Party to do away with death duty and gift duty. Now he had a tremendous job because Gordon Chalk said, 'Over my dead body you'll do that. We can't afford to do it', and so he ... they called a special Party meeting and they discussed all this and Gordon went round all the Members in the ... in the Party and said, 'If we have to away with death duty and gift duty, you know the school that you want? I won't be able to do ... you won't be able to build that, and you know the road you wanted in your electorate, you won't be able to have that, and the houses you want, you can't have those', and he went around everybody and he said, 'Now, who of you Members here want to have ... do away with death duty and gift duty?' and, of course, I suppose Joh might have been the only one that put up his hand. Yes, he wanted to go ahead with it. Anyway, then Joh thought, Well how will I manage this? And he got up and he said, 'Now', he said, 'I'll make you one promise', he said, 'And you know if I make a promise I keep my word', he said. 'If you people vote for keeping death duty and gift duty I will put in every paper a photograph of you - in every local paper - and say this Member of yours voted to retain death duty and gift duty. Now', he said, 'I'll promise you on my word I will do that. How many of you are going to support Gordon Chalk?' Do you know how many did? Gordon Chalk and one other, and the other man lost his seat at the next election. So, you know, sometimes if you're willing to stand up and be counted for what you think is right ... I think that's very important in politics.

Now, you have very conservative views, what is described as conservative views in politics, how do you deal with the fact that in the modern world there are problems. For example, in relation to Social Services, you described how when your father had to leave work early because of his eyesight you had no welfare and you had to live on investments and so on. Supposing you hadn't had any money to live on, on those. I mean, what I'm asking is are all old way always the best way? Without that private income that you had, wouldn't your family have been a family that would have very much needed some sort of support from Social Services?

Well I suppose we would have. But over the years I suppose dad adopted the attitude that you tried to save when you had something, and I don't know whether these days ... Perhaps people are more inclined to buy what they need when they want it, without giving much thought for the future, and so we do have a lot of people, perhaps, who haven't got anything behind them and I guess who would be destitute. There are many people who feel that they're destitute now. Even with Social Security that they don't get enough. So, I don't know. I think too, of course, families have a responsibility to help their older people. If you go to Japan or China you wouldn't find anybody getting Social Security there. They just have to ... In China, in particular, they all have to look after their own old people and just take them into the home and look after them. But, here in Australia, of course, we do have a different system. We pay taxes that are supposed cover that, but nevertheless, I mean, I do think that, perhaps, people need to, you know, see to the future and hope that they'll be able to just save a little bit, so that they can help themselves in some way.

Would you like to see major cut backs in that whole area of social security.?

I don't think, at the present time, there is any way in the world that ... that we could do that. I think that it's been going and established for so long, but one thing I do believe when it comes to dole money, I still strongly believe that people should have to work for the dole. I've said this dozens of times in the Senate, and of course all the thanks I got was to say, it was far too hard to organise it, but I still feel myself that this is one way that they could get some good from particularly young people, who these days are on the dole, and let me say too, that I believe policies of the Government that's in power have brought about lots and lots of unemployed, but that's my idea and it's not very easy to, you know, get people going. I think that the trouble with this Government is that they don't help private enterprise enough. If private enterprise got some more assistance from the Government they would possibly be in a position where they would be able to provide more jobs, and job opportunities, but that's private enterprise, as against what the Government believes in: socialism. So it's just the difference.

Another major area of change politically that's occurred in your life time is a big change in attitudes to Aborigines. What do you feel about the whole move towards giving Aborigines land rights?

Well, I've been connected with Aboriginal people for very many years. Actually when I was a little girl, our church used to run what they called Junior Mission Bands and we used to support the Aboriginal people in Yeppoon, Weipa, Arakuen and Mornington Island. We worked and we gave money. The church as a whole gave money to help these people up on their Aboriginal Missions Stations. Now, people looking back now will say, 'Oh paternalistic'. Well I believed that the missionaries who were there gave the people in those days good spiritual understanding and help. And I think you'd find the people look back on the days with the Late Reverend Mackenzie up on Arakuen and say, 'Arakuen was a wonderful place in those days'.

But you are aware that there were some places that weren't regarded as wonderful at all, that weren't very well run, and that also restricted the Aborigines a great deal. What do you feel about all that?

Well I don't know that it was actually necessary to restrict them. I look at Cherbourg, that was in our own electorate. I don't think that anybody was really restricted there. I used to ... We used to come and go. We had ... The people of Cherbourg voted for Joh amazingly regularly, and during the war, Joh had Aboriginal people that came and worked with him, and for him, on the peanut thrasher and the work that he did there. I still remember how he tells the story about Peter Heggity, one of the Aboriginals that came and helped him, how he bent down one day and looked underneath the refrigerator and he saw a flame under the refrigerator and he says, 'Boss that's funny', he said, 'Here you've got a flame burning to make the refrigerator be cold', but you see they came into the house. Joh entertained. You know, Joh's family looked after them and fed them, as well as paid them for working for them. And Joh himself actually, had a lot to do with changing Hopevale Mission during the war of course, because they were under a German church. You know, they classed the Lutheran church as a church from Germany. Because they were under that they said, 'Oh they were a big risk', away up there, in the north of Queensland, and they took them to Woorabinda. And after the war was over Joh worked hard to get those people back up to North Queensland. He went up. He looked for a site so that Hopevale Mission could be established there, and I didn't think that they were restricted in ... in any ways really like that.

When they worked for Joh did he pay them the same as sorts of wages as he would ...?

As far as I understand. I never asked him, but I'd imagine that that would be the way he would pay them the same way as he paid the other chappies, yes.

So what would you like to see happen in the future for the Aboriginal people of Queensland?

Well I think the Aboriginal people of Queensland now have the same opportunities as everybody else. I think the best thing in Australia would be if they brought in a bill in Parliament making all black people and white people equal. Now I think that would be the very best thing that could happen, that you know, that there's nobody [that] thinks they're better than anybody else. We're all equal and we all receive the same assistance in every way. I think that that is something that Australia could look at and, you know, really think about.

Well, of course, some people would say that Aborigines would need some special assistance in order to be able to participate properly in life because of the background that they've come from in the past, and they would see that as an area that might need some special attention.

Yes, I suppose that's so, but of course, let's face it, we've been ... you know, it's been nearly two hundred years now, you know, that we're, sort of you know ... since white people first came into this land - 1770, 1970 - well over two hundred years, and I think that over the last number of years, of course, that the people have been trying to treat the Aborigines in a ... in a ... perhaps a more equal way. Some people would say they've certainly been given quite, you know, a lot to help them along their way, and I think that perhaps Aboriginals have to accept the opportunities that white Australian people are giving them now. I think that that is something. I think they have to learn when homes are provided for them, that they treat them well and look after them well. I wonder perhaps whether education in that way is very necessary for them. But, you know, it's quite a long time that things have been being done for them and I think perhaps if they ... the children, who are going to high school now ... There are quite a number of them, who are going forward and are learning to accept the opportunities that are offered, but I guess that it's just something that seems to me to be taking quite a long time for them to understand.

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