Australian Biography

Flo Bjelke - Petersen - full interview transcript

Tape of 9

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

How long have you been married?

I've been married forty-two years this year. We were married in 1952, on the 31 May actually, so it will be around before very long.

I noticed that in your wedding photo you didn't wear a veil and the traditional bridal gown. Why was that?

Oh I think it was just probably just that I thought I was over thirty and perhaps, you know, the hat looked nice and we were happy about that, so I think it worked out quite well. I notice these days in bridal photos quite a lot of folk are doing the same thing.

Did you have quite a small wedding?

Yes, actually our wedding was sort of a little bit back the front. Because my father wasn't well, we didn't want a big wedding reception. We had a party the week before the reception was held. [PLANE IN BACKGROUND - INTERRUPTION]

Tell me about your wedding day. What kind of a wedding did you have?

Well it was a lovely wedding actually. We had lots of people there, but it really was a little bit different as far as wedding receptions go, because we actually had our wedding reception a week before the actual wedding. Dad wasn't well at the time and we just had a family gathering at home after the wedding was over and ... but nevertheless, it didn't stop people coming to the church. We had a lovely lot of people at the church and at the wedding. [PLANE IN BACKGROUND - INTERRUPTION]

So how long have you been married?

Well we've been married now for forty-two years on the 31 May.

And what do you think is the secret of staying married for that length of time?

Well I think love of course is most important and Christian faith. Joh and I both have very strong Christian faith and we always have family devotions in our home when the children were growing up, and it's good to know that all our families also do the same thing.

What did you find most difficult to get used to about Joh, in terms of working out how to get along together? Was there anything about Joh that you found particular irritating or difficult to live with?

No, he's always been very easy to get along with I must say. But I must say in the early days I think he had been just so used to being home with his mother and sister that it took him a little bit longer to realise that he now had a wife and, you know, that you talk things over with your wife, perhaps, and not so often with your mother and your sister. That was probably about the only thing. But it didn't take long and we've had a very happy marriage and I think you, you know, really have to learn to give and take in all marriages and I think that's one of the things that we manage to do and ... and then again of course as far as that goes, I suppose, Joh was away in Parliament and I was at home, and I was there, sort of, being mum and dad quite a lot of the time, and I'm certainly very thankful that the children grew up to have a strong Christian faith as well.

Why do you think ... What do you think Joh got out of being married to you?

Well I'd like to think that he got a wife who loved him, looked after him, and he got a family of four very nice children to whom he is very attached I must say. And he's, I'm afraid, been always a little bit inclined to spoil them, but nevertheless, I believe that he loves his children and above all he loves his grandchildren too. [PLANE IN BACKGROUND - INTERRUPTION]

Joh has always had a great deal of confidence and strength about the particular views that he took. Have you sometimes had to pull him back and remind him that maybe he needs to take a slightly more moderate line with things?

No I don't think I ever have actually, because I really believe that his opinions were always very good ones and I ... I think I've mentioned on different occasions I've always believed that he had very good political nous, and if that's what you're talking about: his political views ... because I think that those are something that are really very strong and have been very good for Queensland.

I'm talking about his views generally. I'm talking about the kind of person that he is, and living with him as a man in marriage, because I think that the question of what is ... how far wives are expected to go in having an influence on their husbands, is one that is interesting to a lot of people.

Yes, oh well, I think that we learned to talk things over together. I think that's something, you know, that we always did and, and well his views in the home really coincided with mine, so we didn't really get into terrible arguments about what was right and what was wrong. He may have been, perhaps had, you know, sort of, you know, stricter views because he had had rather a strict upbringing in his early days than perhaps I had, but we were able to work it all out and it worked out very well.

Strict in what way?

Oh well you know, we should ... where the children should go and what they should do.

What sorts of things did he feel ... What had he been restricted in?

Oh well, I think, you know, you've got to realise that he lived out of town here in many ways and I think they were pretty poor. He didn't have opportunities perhaps to go to [the] pictures and do things like that. And I think that perhaps you know, and when I look at pictures now I think to myself, Well yes, goodness me. That's right'. But of course in those days I thought some of them were really quite harmless, and quite good, but ...

So this was the strict old Lutheran coming out, that pictures and dances and all of that sort of thing were a little bit suspect?

Well in those days yes. But we never had any problem really. The children all grew up with pretty good attitudes and that is wonderful as far as I am concerned.

Do you ever remember an occasion where you and Joh had a really right old barney, where you had a good fight about something?

No not really. I can't say that I can recall a really good ... a really good barney. No.

And there was never any real big point of disagreement over anything?

No, not really that I can bring to my mind. I think that, you know, we ... well, life went on fairly nicely and fairly evenly here. And maybe he left all his barnies for when he got down to Parliament. I think that might have been what happened.

On your wedding day, did you promise to obey him?

Oh I guess I did. I think in those days that's what you normally did.

Do you think that that is a good idea in marriage for the woman to follow her husband?

Love, honour and obey. Well, I think that it ought to be a two way street really. But nevertheless, I mean, that's the way it was, and I mean, I don't know whether you'd say these days that all women obeyed their husbands by any manner or means.

But do you think it would be a good idea if they did?

If they obeyed them? Well it all depends what your husband wants you to do, doesn't it? [INTERRUPTION]

So if you were advising one of your daughters about how to make a good marriage, what kind of advice would you give her?

Well I'd tell her to learn to give and take, not to, you know, be dogmatic about anything. There's always two sides to the question. Of course I think that they need to have love in their home. I think that's most important indeed, and then of course if you've got Christian faith to go with it, that helps to make a very good atmosphere and I think it brings in a sense of if anything goes wrong then you can learn to say, 'I'm sorry'. I think that's one very important angle that young married couples need to keep in their mind.

What do you love most about Joh?

Well, I think I ... Well I love his ... his. shall we say, his well ... his ability to be a wonderful husband and a wonderful father and ...

How does that show itself?

Well, it shows itself in the way he is devoted to us all. I think that that sort of comes through very clearly and very distinctly.

He ... And you still feel this for you. How does he show it to you nowadays?

Oh well, I think that the fact that never a day goes by but he rings me up, morning and night, and he keeps in touch, especially when we are not here together which of course is something that's very important. And we always have plenty of time to talk to one another when he's home. I think that that's something that's really very important, and we believe in showing our affection and I think that that is something that's worthwhile too. [INTERRUPTION]

Over the years, with Joh in politics, there must have always been rumours ... There have been rumours ... I'll start that again. Over the years, with Joh in politics, there have often been rumours about other women, or about things going on that weren't quite right. How did you handle that?

I don't think you need to let that worry you. I think if you've got a strong and stable marriage I think, well then, you don't let anything like that bother you. I think that that's ... and I ... I mean I know for a fact, of course, that he wouldn't be doing things like that. So, I mean, stories can be made up very quickly and very easily.

There were some quite nasty rumours about his pilot, wasn't it? Because he had a woman pilot?

Yes, that's right. Yes.

How did you handle that?

Well, let's say that she was a very efficient pilot. She knew her job very well and she helped Joh to learn to fly aeroplanes and was interested, you know, in flying helicopters at the same time and they went to lessons and I think that that ... you know, he appreciated the fact that she was a very good pilot who was able to assist him. He loves flying, as I suppose, that is his one love apart from this family, and he's always enjoyed the opportunity. He really started flying when he used to drive to Brisbane by road, when he first became Member of Parliament. [It] took him so jolly long to get down there and the roads were so bad that he decided that this was a wonderful opportunity to learn to fly. Actually, he ... I believe he had been up for a fly when ... I don't know whether it was Kingsford Smith or one of those people had come down here to the aerodrome at Kingaroy on a grass paddock, I suppose, in those early days. And he had taken him up for a fly and he thought that was absolutely wonderful, and so he always had this urge to want to learn to fly. Even his Brother who died - he also thought how wonderful it would be to be able to fly. I don't mind flying in an aeroplane, but I have never had any urge to fly ... to learn to fly. and so I mean, you just have to you know, accept that this is all, you know, somebody makes up some talk in the paper and that's all there is.

And did you personally get on well with Beryl Young?

I managed very well yes. I mean, I didn't see a lot of her because I ... only except when we were flying in the aeroplanes, and I always got on very well with her then.

When you were in Canberra and of course from the position of Premier's wife, you were able to watch a lot of the problems that were associated with being politicians and the effect that had on marriages. Do you think it does put a particular strain on marriages, that politics takes people away from their homes so much?

Well it certainly does. There's no two doubts about that. But see, I'd grown up with this situation, you know, from the time I got married, that Joh was away quite a bit and coming and going. But I think that you'll probably find that people, who are married, and then you find that your husband takes on being a job of being a politician, and he's away, I think it does probably put a strain on the marriage, but I think a lot depends on the marriage itself. I think that if you feel strong and secure with your marriage, with your husband ... and I know so many of the men down there who are lovely husbands and who regularly kept in touch with their wives. But then you get the others, perhaps, who you know, perhaps mightn't be so secure and you certainly ... There is no doubt about ... You can certainly hear lots of stories. There's no two ... you know, that really is something that you can hear all the time when you're down there. But I think that you really need to have a strong, stable base and that's most important. [INTERRUPTION]

Do you think that it is important for a wife or a husband to offer each other criticism?

Oh, I think it does ... I think it is important. I think that occasionally you need to, you know, be told something and, you know, as long as you are providing criticism in a helpful manner. I mean there are different ways of criticising, you know, and I think that that's something that you have to take into account as you deliver, you know, any suggestions. I think that those are some ... And when you're in public life that often has to take place. As a matter of fact, thinking about Beryl, she ... she went round with Joh a lot more, around to meetings, than I used to, particularly because she flew him wherever he had to go, and after I became Senator, of course, I was down in Canberra quite a lot of the time and she would, sort of ... If he ... If she thought he was too close to a microphone she could go like that [GESTURES DISTANCE WITH HER HANDS] and, you know, give him little helpful hints and I think that they ... you know. if you can offer advice in a helpful way, that is something that is really important.

You've told us that when you became Senator you were very clear in your own mind that you weren't just going to be Joh's mouthpiece down in Canberra, but did he, in that time, offer you any good advice?

Oh yes, I think I could say that he ... he did, and I mean, I'd have been a bit of a dill if I hadn't taken any notice of any suggestions that he made, because I was ... as I say I always thought that he had very good political acumen and I was sort of quite happy to hear what he said. Of course, when you get down into the party room and you listen to what the party room has to say, you can't always carry out Joh's advice. But, I just sort of felt that I was my own person down there and I tried to do what I thought best for the people of Queensland and let's face it, Joh was Premier of Queensland for a ... quite a lot of the time and representing the people himself, so I mean, any advice that he might have given me in relation to Queensland I tried to tuck away in here [POINTS TO HER HEAD] and hope that I would be able to use it.

Did he every say to you, 'Flo, you know, it would be a really good idea if you did this about it', and then you got into the party room and changed your mind and then came back and had to face Joh? [Flo laughs]

Well, I'd ... I can't recall any exact instances but I do know, you know, different times I used to laugh and say it was like walking a barbed wire fence, because I had Joh on one side of the fence and our National Party party room on the other, and I suppose that particularly applied during that period that Joh decided, you know, that he would accept peoples advice and go to Canberra, or try to go to Canberra. Put it like that.

And you could see the other point of view?

Well I ... I sort of realised it wouldn't be very easy to sway our leaders, who were there at the present time, who thought they were doing a good job. Regretfully of course, they weren't doing as good a job as they had thought. Also, they had been beaten the previous time and I think people were scared that they would get beaten again, which of course did happen, but we're ... Unfortunately we're in the situation now where we've been in Opposition for a long time and I hope that [when] the next election comes around they'll get their act together and we'll be able to get into government. All the ... I was down there for twelve and a quarter years and I was actually only as part of the government from '81 to '83, so, it was a fair length of time that I sat on Opposition benches, and I've long since learnt that you can't achieve as much as you'd like to when you are part of the Opposition.

During the time that you were part of the government, Malcolm Fraser was leading the Government. How did you get on with him? And there were also at that time some tensions between him and Joh over a few issues. How did you fit into that picture?

Well actually, I got on really quite well with Malcolm Fraser, but you've got to remember that there's a difference between a back bench Senator and a Prime Minister and when ... He was always very nice. He always said, 'Hello Flo', to me, whenever he saw me, and I can remember on one occasion ... Actually it was the very night that they were going to take the vote on the bill about tax on essential commodities and I got a message: would I please come around and see the Prime Minister and I thought, Oh how does he know what I'm going to do - that I'm going to vote against the Government? I mean, here's one back bencher ... It wasn't such a terrible ... terribly large number or anything and I went round there and I sort of felt like going to the dentist room. You know they said, 'Oh sit down', and I thought, Oh dear, the Prime Minister. What does he want to tell me? And when I went in he said, 'Oh come in Flo, come in. Would you like a cup of tea?' And I thought, Well he can't be going to blow me up or anything. And do you know what he wanted me to do? He wanted me to take a message to Joh. I can't remember now what the message was, and that was all he wanted me for, to take a message to Joh. And I've often wondered to this day, why he didn't pick the telephone up and ring Joh up himself. It might have been an easier way to do it. But certainly I delivered the message to Joh because I think I got back to my office and just rang Joh up and said, 'Malcolm Fraser just got me on the phone and he wants you to do this', and but Joh and actually Malcolm, I think on the whole they got on very well, particularly in the early days of his Prime Ministership because actually Joh stomped the whole countryside in 1975, at that election, telling everybody - not only in Queensland but in other states too - to support Malcolm Fraser and change the government and ... But he felt at the time, that perhaps, you know, Malcolm should have changed some of the things that Mr. Gough Whitlam had brought in at the time that he was Prime Minister. He gave him ... Joh gave Malcolm plenty of free advise but I don't think Malcolm always accepted it. I think he thought, well, he was Prime Minister and Joh was only a Premier, but it was ... you know, I don't think they ever got on, you know, really too badly, but as I say, in the later times I think Joh felt that there was some of the things that he should have done that he didn't do, but that's past history.

Now, if you ... When you were down in Canberra and you were getting a different perspective on things for the first time, because before that as Joh's wife you'd been in a position to see things pretty much from his point of view ... You went to Canberra and got this different perspective. Did that lead you to have more occasion to advise Joh against things that he was wanting to do?

No, I wouldn't say so. I think I've always held out, that I believe that he had a very good political acumen and I believe that the vast majority of decisions that he made were quite right. I mean, you only have to look at what happened to Queensland while he was the Premier of the state, how it developed and grew, and the actions that he took: doing away with death duty and gift duty and different things like that. I believe that it wasn't necessary for me, as somebody from down in Canberra, come home and say, 'Listen, I think you should be doing this or that or the other thing Joh'. I think he'd have probably told me to that I was getting Canberra-ised. That was one piece of advise he gave me before I went to Canberra, and that was to say, 'Don't get Canberra-ised Florence. You just, sort of, are a Senator for Queensland. You represent the state down there and try and remember that the Senate is supposed to be a states' house and you are there as a Senator from the state of Queensland'. So that was his advice to me and, well, I tried to do my best as far as that was concerned.

Now, you and Joh have always been known for the stand that you've taken on moral issues, especially the issues relating to sexual morality and there's been issues like condoms in schools, and so on, where Joh has taken a strong stand, but it was also true that one of the things that came out of the Inquiries was that during the period that Joh was Premier there was a lot of corruption and protection of prostitution and other sexual activity around Queensland. How did you feel about that, when it all came out, that that had been going on all along?

Well I was very sorry about that. Actually Joh had done what Mr. Whitrod had asked him in the earlier days, and had had two Scotland Yard Inquiries into the police and whether there was corruption and they couldn't find any. So I wasn't quite sure how Joh, himself, was able to be supposed to know that that was going on. You feel very sad about it when ... if this comes out that that was true, and actually even putting away the Police Commissioner was on the word of a corrupt policeman himself, but that's by the way. But all I say to you is, if you read the papers now, there's plenty of prostitution around still and, I mean, for all the talk about it and how they were going to clean things up in Queensland, crime and murder and rape, prostitution and all these problems are still there and much, much worse than they were in Joh's day. That does ... two wrongs don't make a right. Don't get me wrong. But, I mean, I ... when they talk about Joh and, you know, how he should have known, if two teams from Scotland Yard couldn't know, how was Joh supposed to know? I mean short of running around and holding peoples' hand and going out and being part of the police force himself, how on earth were you supposed to know?

You mentioned the Police Commissioner. He was one, and there was a number of other people that were really quite close, not just to Joh, but in a couple of instances to you, who were caught in this net and who are now in gaol or have had something happen to them as a result of [the] Inquiry into their activities. How do you deal with that? How did you feel about this with some of the people that were your friends like ...?

You mean some of the Members of Parliament that I knew?

People like Allen Callaghan and some like this?

Callaghan, oh yes. Well that was rather sad. At the time that he was caught up in that net he had left Joh's employment, and I really must say, I haven't seen Allen for a while, but I must say, that Allen was a man of great ideas and he was always full of bright ideas. As a matter of fact, I often wonder when I read the front page of The Australian, with Hugh Lunn's headline, about it wasn't Joh that was going to Canberra it was Flo, I often wonder whether Allen Callaghan wasn't behind talking to Hugh Lunn about that. They were very great friends, I know that. And I was very sorry about that. I think that, you know, it is sad when somebody has to serve a term in gaol. I also feel it was very sad about our Members of Parliament, who were put in gaol for quite small amounts - entertaining their family and friends. And if it had been private enterprise I don't believe that people would have been, shall we say, reported, or looked at for doing things like that. I think you'll find that people in charge of big companies are entertaining their family and friends all the time, because that is one of the understood things that happen. And as for poor Leisha Harvey, who was put in gaol for buying cosmetics to make herself nice for television and things like that I, I mean, to me it just seemed so utterly way out, and when I look at what happened in other states - Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria - I ... I really wonder. And they've got an ICAC Commission in New South Wales inquiring into corruption there, and problems. Seems to be endemic, unfortunately, in our society at the present time. I wonder whether a lot of it doesn't stem to the fact that, perhaps people need good strong morality and good standards to live up to.

I suppose people felt that there was a difference between the spending of tax payers' money on yourself and the spending of private company money. There is this feeling, isn't there, that taxpayers money has to be taken care of in a particularly careful way.

Well there certainly is, but then, I mean, you can get thirty million of taxpayers money and spend on a whiteboard and hand it out right, left and centre. I mean, don't know whether there's much difference in my own estimation, but that's by the way.

One of the things we often hear about morality is that both in business and in public life there are certain things that people do that they wouldn't do in their private life, but they say it's necessary in the real world, in the tough hard world of politics and business. We have to do these things otherwise we won't win or we have to do these things because it's politic and this is smart to do. What do you think about that, coming from where you sit as a Christian, a moralist, somebody who's concerned about standards? Do you see that in public life and do you think it is necessary, that they are right?

No, I don't really think that it necessary and that it's right. I think if you've got standards, you should abide by them and live by them, and particularly if you've got Christian standards, I believe that it is up to you as a Christian to abide by them and live by them, so I don't go along just because, you know, it's politics that you've got to change your standards. Some people apparently seem to think that that's okay, but it doesn't agree with my standards.

Do you think that's difficult in politics, to maintain those standards?

Well, I certainly think in a lots of cases it is. I mean, I know, you know, if you wanted to speak in the Parliament against things that you thought were right, you could quite easily get somebody on the other side interjecting and, you know, sort of saying things about you. Brian Harradine, the Labor Senator ... He's an Independent Labor Senator. He's a very strong man from Tasmania and he will not let people interject him, or bother him at all. He sticks to what he believes and he's firm and he's strong, and I admire him very, very much indeed, and if we had a few more Brian Harradine's scattered right throughout the parliament I believe that would indeed be a very great help.

And what did you try to contribute to that debate about morality when you were in Parliament?

Well I always tried to take a stand when issues such as pornography and things like that came to the fore. I believed that I had a, you know ... a duty to speak up, and I think that those are some of the things. And then of course, I don't suppose I've ever been a great, strong supporter of pushing women. The ... you know, they had this discrimination bill against women, and I mean, I was never really for that, because I believe if you discriminate in favour of women then you're discriminating against men. I think we should all be equal. And I don't believe that any need for all these bills. Mind you, I suppose, if you looked back probably women didn't always have the same chances as men have had, but over latter years, I believe they have. But I really have never been able to be a very strong supporter of pushing women. If they've got the ability they can get where they want to. That's always been my theory. And I've spoken up and I've had women Senators on the other side get up in the Parliament and heckle me, or, you know, they don't get up, but from their seat ... And you have to stand firm and strong for things that you think are right.

Why do you think there are so few women in Parliament? [COUGH]

Why do you think there are so few women in Parliament?

Well I think it all goes back to the fact that lots of women start out wanting to be wives and mothers. I mean. I had three girls who were very pleased to get married before they were twenty-one. They met the right man and they wanted to get married, and a lot of women get married and settle down and get a home. And I think you don't get into Parliament, really, unless you're involved in a political party. And if you're busy at home, doing work at home, or even if you're working in an office, and you have to go home and look after a home, you haven't got really, perhaps, enough time to be involved as a woman in politics.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 7