Australian Biography

Flo Bjelke - Petersen - full interview transcript

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

Well, I'm inclined to think that a lot of women in the early days, you know, when they get married, they want to start up a home and a family or even if they're working, they're so busy trying to do two jobs, being a wife and mum and, you know, going to work or looking after a family, they haven't got the time to get involved in politics. I think that's something that people are inclined to forget. And of course, unless you're really involved in a political party you don't have the same chance of getting into politics. I think you've got to be in a party before you can become involved in politics and perhaps get preselection for a seat in Parliament. I think that [is what] people are inclined to forget. And so, you know, there have over the years been rather few women in the Parliament. I have noticed the numbers growing since I got down there in '81 and gradually women have been able to get in, particularly in the Senate. Perhaps they feel that, you know, that's a better position to put their women into. We have some very capable women in the Senate and I have enjoyed very much listening to them and watching them operate but ...

Do you think that generally speaking we'd be better off if we did have a lot more women in a much more representative sample?

Well I suppose that's right. I think it wouldn't hurt, but I don't believe that women ought to be just put there to get the numbers. I really don't. I think you've got to show an intense interest in politics to be chosen to be a Member of Parliament. And then again too, apart from that, you've got to have people to vote for you. You've got to have a winnable seat, and you've got to have a winnable position on a Senate ticket. We had an experience in Queensland when I got out. When I got out and they chose the Senate team, because Bill O'Chee was a sitting Member of Senate and a very capable young man let me say, of course they naturally chose him to be number one. And they chose Deanne Kelly, whom I had thought would be a good replacement for me. She was number two on our ticket. Now if enough women in Queensland had wanted another woman to represent them, a Conservative view point for women I might say, because Dianne Kelly was a good strong Conservative voice for women - if they wanted her, surely they could have voted over party lines, to vote for her. It's all very well for people to say we need more women in politics but people have to vote for them. You can't get into politics without people voting for you.

You also can't get into politics without the party machines being behind you. Do you think they are often not so in favour of women, especially perhaps with the National Party?

Yes, well, of course, I believe they haven't chosen enough women. See Deanne got number two and if we could have got enough votes she'd have got in all right, but we've had women Presidents at our National Party, but for some reason or other they haven't been able to gain winnable seats. We have Di MacAuley in the State Parliament. She's a women down there and over the years we have had a number of women within the State Parliament but you've got to stay there. You've got to get the votes to stay there, and there is no doubt about it, the party machine does need to perhaps have, perhaps, a stronger view. But then again, if women don't always nominate and I think it's up to the women themselves.

You've told us how you really do admire Joh's political acumen and that the more you learned about politics the more you appreciated it. I wonder then what you feel went wrong for him at the end?

Well, I don't know whether it was the 'Joh for Canberra' campaign that started it and it ... Let me say it was 'Joh for Canberra' not 'Joh for PM' really. It was none of his idea about that. But I wonder whether that, sort of, started it and then when he was away working that year ... Just bear in mind that he'd had the most wonderful election success in, you know, the previous December that you could have possibly had. We got in in our own right without any bother. And, I just sort of wonder, you know, whether the boys, while he was away working on this idea of going to Canberra, whether they got the idea that perhaps they could manage without him. I don't know. And then, finally, you know, he wanted to move some of his Cabinet Ministers and that to me is a Prime Min ... a Premier's prerogative. It's not something that you can't do. I mean, Prime Ministers do it all the time and Premiers in other states do it and nobody seems to turn a hair.

Why did he want to do it?

Well that's something that I think you'd have to ask him. I think he felt that there was disquiet in amongst the Part ... in amongst his politicians and I suppose that that must have had something to do with it. Whether he thought that they were manoeuvring behind his back, I just don't know. But most certainly I think it was a very big shock to Joh when he really found out that this was, you know, what they were ... what they were doing. And I believe now, in retrospect looking back, it was the most stupid move that the National Party could have made. I thought so then of course, but I certainly looking back in retrospect I'm sure of it now.

You'd had a lot of certainty in your life up until then. You'd had a belief system that you felt you could rely on, you had a husband that you really looked up to and felt was in a sense, set for life and then this happened. What effect did that have on you?

Well, I think it sort of showed you that God doesn't always let everything happen the way you think it ought to happen. We do all have trials and tribulations of some sort as we go through life and most certainly the trial period afterwards was a very big worry. More particularly, of course, as we knew there was nothing in it. It was a political vendetta, I believed very, very strongly against Joh, and as I look back on it now, I'm sure that if we hadn't had Luke Shaw on the jury Joh could have quite easily gone to gaol because I think the other lady would have probably given up the fight, but we were very fortunate. And Luke Shaw was not a Member of the 'Friends of Joh'. Luke Shaw had been a branch secretary for a little while in one of the Young National Party branches, and bear in mind that Luke Shaw wasn't even a Member of the National Party while Joh was Premier. He only became a Member of the National Party after Joh got out, so you wouldn't have thought that he was particularly a Joh supporter, but, if he hadn't been there, who knows? I think Joh could have easily reposed in gaol because I believe that the Labor Party in Queensland, in particular, were anxious that that's where he should go. I think he'd annoyed them for so long and they hadn't been able to get rid of him for nineteen and a half years. I think that they probably wanted to perhaps pay him back. [INTERRUPTION]

Luke Shaw was the cousin of one of your secretaries, wasn't he?

Yes well I found that out after the trial was over. I'd never heard of Luke Shaw and I certainly ... I mean Kathleen had I don't know how many cousins she had. I think she did tell me once and it was up to sixty or seventy, something like that, and I'd never heard of Luke Shaw. I knew she had plenty of cousins. But I only found out his name after the whole trial was over. Fortunately she had never mentioned it to me and I thought it was very sensible of her that she didn't.

How did he get put on the jury?

By the same way anybody else got put on the jury. He just went through, and I remember looking at the jury and I remember this, you know, seeing this young man and he ... You wouldn't have taken him for a National Party support actually. He was very much a university student, you know, long hair pulled back, and jeans and a T-shirt on, and I honestly believe that the ... when the prosecution were choosing the jury as they went through I think they looked at him and thought, He'll be right, he'll be okay against Joh, and of course, they found out that he wasn't, that he was you know, just a Joh supporter, who having listened to the case, believed that Joh ... that there was nothing there that Joh should be put in ... into gaol for. See actually, they charged him originally, you know, with corruption, and then after four years of searching high and low into all our business activities, after four years of putting Joh where he couldn't get a job because this charge of corruption was against him ... and that came two or three times you know, that he could have had very good jobs only for this corruption charge. Low and behold he ... after the charge was sort of bane on it, then he got a letter after four years saying there was no corruption. Well then, of course, I suppose they wanted to have something, so then they decided they'd charge him with perjury. Well I always thought perjury was telling down right lies. In his case they said his perjury was that he hadn't told the whole truth. And it turned out he went to his solicitors and he said, 'Didn't you send a letter to the Fitzgerald Inquiry telling everything I knew about this amount of donation and the money that this man brought in?' and he said, 'Yes', that the Inquiry had had all that information in the form of a letter. And yet they decided that they'd try him for perjury and it was ... it was really a big hoax as far as I was concerned.

Did it ever, during that period, cross your mind that they might be right, that he might have something to hide that you didn't know about?

No because well, certainly as far as our own private business was concerned, I knew everything that went on because I did all the ... I did all the financial work and all the office work and all the accounts. And I knew, and I knew jolly well that you know, there was nothing there. And then they had this ridiculous trial about Sir Leslie Thiess, how he had given Joh a million dollars, and I regret to say that that was brought on by a television station's interview, and when they ... the fellow, who did the interview, was asked why didn't he discuss it with Sir Joh or Leslie Thiess, he said, 'Oh that would have spoilt a good yarn'. And the point was, of course, that even though in that case they took information from the fellow that built the hanger ... They had the receipts. We had every piece of information to show that we had paid for that, that we had paid for the repairs to the dozer and everything, they still maintained that Leslie Thiess had bribed Joh to the extent of a million dollars. It was absolutely false and there was nothing to it but, I mean the jury believe the fellow from the ... from the case, and the fellow who laid the claim in the first place, he had been dismissed for ... for taking things that he shouldn't have taken and I mean, you know, it wasn't the first time he'd been in trouble. And they preferred to believe him rather than a man like Sir Leslie Thiess who had a tremendous job for Queensland. When I think of the tremendous development of coal-selling to Japan, how Sir Leslie Thiess in the first instance, started that going with his mine up there near Moura, and [he was a] tremendous man for Queensland, it was sad to me that he went to the grave with that hanging over his head. And I ... There was ... We certainly never had received any million dollars for Sir Leslie Thiess. It was absolutely lies. When we proved that we had built the hanger, then the prosecution came up and said, 'Oh yes, but Sir Leslie Thiess extended it, so that it would take the government jet'. Now the government jet could not land on John's airstrip in the first instance, and if they ... if they had wanted to really find out about it, the judge would have sent out and said, 'Find out from Civil Aviation whether the government jet has ever landed on the Ten Mile Strip'. They'd have found out that the government jet never ever went in on the Ten Mile Strip, and if you'd a seen the hanger, you'd have known jolly well that the government aircraft could never possibly have got into the little hanger. I've been in John's aeroplane there and I know it's a very dicey business of trying to get it into the hanger - his small Cessna 172 or 182, whatever number it is that he's got. So I mean, it was all a fanciful flight of imagination.

It wasn't the only occasion where there'd also been accusations about favouring Ten Mile was there? There was also the issue of ... [Flo laughs]

Oh yes, that happened of course in parliament. I'd asked questions [of the] Minister for Finance and he was great on turning my questions around and telling everybody in the Parliament that Joh was the one who had built a bitumen road up to John's place. He had built a high level bridge on the way up to John's place.

John being your son.

That's right. Yes, on Ten Mile, and of course, if you travelled over the road now, you'd know that there's a tiny little bitumen ... bit of bitumen just outside Gurindji itself. And [there's] the rough corrugated road on the way ... the rest of the way up to John's. There's nothing there that's ... that is any truth in it. I got so mad at one stage with Peter Walsh, who was the Minster for Finance, that I suggested he might like to come and have a trip up on the road so he would see for himself and David Brownhill, one of our Senators, very kindly made a speech on the adjournment in Parliament one night, and he presented a whole lot of photographs to the Senate to show exactly what the state of the road was. He showed a photograph of the low level bridge over the Mackenzie River, which I might mention is out of action now, because there's a flood in the Mackenzie. Every time the water comes up a little bit the bridge goes underwater. And so instead of being able to go to Gurindji the easy way you've got to go right away around up the northern way, up through Marlborough. So, talk about being able ... this is one occasion I believe when the parliament wasn't used for its correct, you know, role. You tell big stories because they sound very wonderful and they're not right at all. But people are listening in. They could easily believe it and they could quite easily say, 'Well Joh did use his position to do those things for John', which was absolutely wrong.

Flo, during the trial those of us who knew your faith, and your bearing, and the air of serene confidence that we'd all got to know in you, saw a very different person. You looked much less confident, much less sure, very, very worried. What was going on in your mind during that trial? What was happening for you emotionally at that time?

Well I think that you've got to admit that it was a very worrying time. I think Joh might have borne up better than I did actually. But I think when you see your husband placed in a position like that, where you really know that it's not ... there's nothing in the charge that they've laid, but that his future lay in the hands of twelve jurors, who are inclined ... particularly when you realise, at that particular time, that there were within that jury a number of very strong Labor supporters. We know that one was a shop steward. We know that one was the wife of a Unionists. We had been told that, so we knew that there were very strong Labor people there. Now nothing much comes out about that. All they talk about is Luke Shaw and how he was at one time a secretary of a Young National Party branch. But they don't talk about the Labor people, and we know for a fact, that they wanted to get Joh. I was told, whether it's true or not, and I take it that it was true, that the wife of the strong Labor union man went home that night, after she had been chosen on the jury, [and] called all her friends and neighbours together and had a beer party and said, 'We're going to get Joh this time'. But, you know, that's a terrible thing to have happen, and I suppose it was a worry there's no doubt about that. But one thing was absolutely fantastic, our families were absolutely loyal and true to their dad because they knew that there was nothing in it, and they were willing to come down, stand up and be counted. And we had some wonderful friends. Sir Douglas and Lady Logan were marvellous friends. They were there everyday during the trial. 'Friends of Joh' like Geoff Woodward and Laurie Morrison - there were all these people - came regularly and gave their strong and solid support. And so I guess if I looked worried I guess that it was a very worrying and traumatic time, but I was very thankful, and I still say that God provided Luke too. Even if we had the trial, and we had to put up with the four weeks of problems and trial, to find that you had somebody there in the right place at the right time was absolutely marvellous.

Did you mentally face the possibility then that he might go to gaol?

I suppose it's something that does go through you mind, and I thought, How terrible that would be for somebody who had given forty-one years of his life to serving the people of our state and had given nineteen and a half years of that time as Premier of the state, leading us to a very fine and prosperous situation. I thought that that was a ... would be a very poor repayment, but I knew that they wanted to get Joh and had Luke Shaw not been there, I guess they would have got him. And I believe they wouldn't have worried about the fact that he was over eighty. I'm quite sure they would have plonked him in gaol, as simple as that. So I am very grateful to Luke Shaw, very grateful to the dear Lord for making sure that he was there at exactly the right time.

But during the time did it every make you wonder whether or not your faith in God was justified that this sort of thing could have happened?

Well I think that these things happen from time to time. I look at those martyrs, over the years, that gave their life for their Christian faith, who were willing to stand up and be counted, and I think that just because you're a Christian doesn't mean that you're immune from problems. You get them, which ever way they come. Sometimes you have people in your family that pass away early. Look at Joh's brother, Christian, who died when he was in his early twenties, but that didn't stop Joh's mother and father and Joh himself, and his sister from having their fine Christian faith because we live in hopes that we'll meet again, in the life that is to come. If you have no Christian faith you haven't got that hope. [INTERRUPTION]

Leaving aside the charges that were made against Joh, the charges that were made against a lot of people that were around you and were close to you, how did you feel about those and how did you feel about the fact that Joh had not been aware that people that he was working with and that were quite close to him were doing things that, perhaps, they shouldn't have been doing?

Yes well I think that if you are thinking about Allen Callaghan, he had left Joh's department at that particular time and Joh really wasn't sort of involved with him. He wouldn't have any way of knowing what was happening in a case like that. And even as far as Ministers are concerned, you appoint Ministers and you think that they know right from wrong and, you know, I sort of believe really when you look at what they were put in gaol for, and for the length of period of time that they served for three or four thousand dollars, and when you think sometimes that people can commit heinous crimes and the judges sort of don't give them perhaps terribly long sentences for things that, you know, perhaps you feel that they ought to get longer terms for ... I sometimes wonder about. you know, judgements that come that way but that's the legal profession and we're not in a situation where we're able to judge what is right and wrong. Sometimes I know the government themselves apply to judges or magistrates because they say they don't believe that the term is long enough. Whereas I believe as far as our ... the people who were in the Government were concerned, I just was unable to understand how for those amounts of money they were given reasonably long sentences. I mean, I personally believed that if they'd, you know, paid it back and had a sentence that was sort of suspended [it] would have been a much better way to deal with the problem as far as I'm concerned. But, then again, I'm not a judge. If I'd have been in that position I might have felt differently, who would know?

Don't you feel, though, that there's a special responsibility on people taking care of public funds to be particularly scrupulous?

That certainly is. I mean I know all my life when I was being secretary or minute secretary or loan members ? when I was Presbyterian, I always was very, very careful that I didn't take the treasurer's job because I was always thought, you know, well I mightn't just get my last penny right, and you were responsible and the same way, of course, I suppose you could say that that's what you know, Ministers and ... are responsible for using public monies and they must have made, perhaps, an error of judgement. It was the time of the Expo. I believe that they were entertaining people as their guests at Expo so it's not for me to sit in judgement on them. I was sorry about it and I still look back on it and think, Well, it was rather [a] sad ending and of course it all reflected very badly then, of course, on the National Party.

So when they were going through Joh's books and your books with such a fine tooth comb looking for corruption, did you have any moments of worry that perhaps inadvertently there had been things there that weren't right?

You always have to be so very, very careful. That's right. But I knew there was nothing, you know, that really should have caused us any bother at all, but, that doesn't say that, you know, over the years whether you'd sort of slipped up in some way with some amount or anything. But see, we've always had auditors and accountants doing our books and I mean I would have known that, if we'd have had anything go wrong, we've got fully qualified, first class accountants. And so I mean, you felt you could repose on that, that there was nothing wrong that they could charge you with. But so of course, as I say they couldn't charge him with corruption so then they got this half-baked case of perjury, and I mean, it was just. He ... they said that he hadn't told the whole truth. Well now if you're a man of eighty years of age and you're trying to remember exactly what you're supposed to tell the Inquiry, I mean even when I'm being interviewed by you, I mightn't always just be able to remember the exact point of every little thing that you come to. You're thinking back over a period and it's not always easy to remember exactly, and so it's all very well to say that you didn't tell the whole truth. My attitude at the time [was] that if they didn't think that Joh had answered with complete accuracy the question, what was wrong with the prosecution asking him a further question? That's one thing I've never been able to find out. Why didn't the prosecuting barrister ask another question of Joh, so that he could then give him the information that they said he only gave half of the information.

Mind you, Joh was always rather good at not answering questions when it doesn't suit him.

(laughs) Well I think he'd had a fair bit of ... a fair bit like that because he always said to me, you know, 'If they ask you a question you can't answer, ask them a question back'. I don't think he had asked them a question back. I think he told them really what he knew about the whole instance, but they said that there was just one little piece that he had left out, so I really can get a bit, you know ... think that that was a little bit way out.

Do you think that perhaps he ... one of the problems was that he stayed a little bit too long as Premier in terms of his age? At the height of his powers he was hard to beat in any war of wits or politics, and that perhaps by the time that all of this started to fall in on him, he was just a little bit older than he needed to be, to be able to command the situation.

Well, I don't know if you saw him now, he's still got plenty of oomph and go. He did an interview just recently with George Negus and he did a fantastic job on that and in fact I think George himself said, 'There's nothing wrong with his brain', and I believe that he had ... where it all went wrong I think myself was [that] he had this wonderful win in 1986, the National Party winning in their own right, and nobody even thought that [it could be done]. All the commentators said, 'No way'. And, he'd had the wonderful success and he had said, then, that he would get out before the next election. He would, you know, like to help some ... one of his underlings, you know, come on and help them. He wasn't really expecting that the underlings would up and get rid of him in the meantime.

Perhaps they didn't think he meant it.

Oh well, he had said it in public and he wasn't one of these people who were given to saying things in public and then doing the opposite thing. He's always ... he always ... His attitude was always: is it right or is it wrong? And you say what you think and you mean what you say, and I believed him because I felt that it was time, that he'd had a long innings, but I ... it was just a shame that they didn't let him go until he'd had twenty years on the eighth of the eighth '88. There wouldn't have been the division within the Party and he would have at least been there to gain the qudos for Expo which was really his own doing at that particular time.

If he had left on the eighth of the eighth '88, what kind of an old age would the two of you had had together? Could you describe the sort of things that you were looking forward to.

Well we mightn't have had the worry quite so much about our ... about our financial situation as far as legal fees are concerned. I think that would have been better. And we may have been able to have more time at home. Joh wouldn't have had to worry about trying to solve so many other peoples problems for them and help them, and be away with his partner down in Tasmania. Although in lots of ways I think we've made very good friends with Peter and Bev and we've all worked very well together.

This is what he is doing now?

That's right.

Could you tell us what that is?

Well he's into a business with Peter Murray. He and Peter are partners in this business and they're in corporate management and they're trying to help people who have financial problems, as well as trying to help Joh solve his financial problems too. And they deal with ... work for other governments and they're trying hard. I don't think it's probably up to me to reveal what they're doing but, they are working together well and ...

Do you feel this is a good plan for him, now that he is getting on in years? Don't you feel that he should be back here with you?

Well I think it would be better if he was able to, but, as he said, 'I'm always, you know, one of these people who believe that first things first', and we really do need to get our financial situation, you know, fixed up a little bit so that at least when he comes home we're in a situation where we don't have too many financial worries.

You know, the rumours never stop. Before I came up here I heard a rumour that he had gone down to Tasmania because you two weren't getting on.

(laughs) Yes well, that certainly went through one of the magazines too, that that was the case, but no, I can assure you I had a phone call from him last night and another one this morning and I'll be in touch with him again later this evening.

One of the things that's happened as a result of the way things ended in Queensland, you must feel a certain amount of disillusionment with a lot of things you trusted, like the National Party, and like your faith in the established order of things. Did that happen to you? Did you feel disillusioned?

Well I suppose in a way you could say I did with the National Party. That possibly was one of the reasons why I decided that I wouldn't seek a further term as a Senator. I thought ...

You actually said at one point that if Joh went you'd resign.

Oh well I did say that if Joh was put out of the National Party because of all this trouble, I would leave the National Party too, but I didn't say that I would resign as a Senator. I would have gone on as an independent, but I didn't want to do that because I believe that I was elected by the people of Queensland. The National Party elected me. And I was there to represent the National Party and so I wanted to stay with the National Party. Well they never did expel Joh, so I never had that problem, and I continued to work and do things for the National Party in the same way I tried very hard with Dianne Kelly to get her up to replace me when we had our election for the Senate, at the last election, and unfortunately it didn't come about because as I said, not enough women listened to what I had to say when I told them that if they wanted a strong woman's Conservative voice in Canberra, they ought to forget about their Party line ticket and they should vote for her. But they didn't, so there was nothing. I did my best.

[end of tape]

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