Australian Biography

Flo Bjelke - Petersen - full interview transcript

Tape of 9

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And what is a strong Conservative woman's voice? What does it say in politics?

Well I think it stands up and is counted for women and for the family. I think that it's the family unit, I always keep saying - it's the basic unit of society, and I think it stands up and is counted for strong moral values too. And I, you know, get a little concerned sometimes about the problems that confront families. There is no doubt about that. And of course, I'm sometimes a little bit inclined to lay the blame at television's feet, because as I think, young people - particularly if parents allow the television to rule their children's lives - I think that it imposes on children standards that perhaps aren't very good for them, and I think when they see all this violence and murder and rape on television, I wonder whether it ... they don't think that that's the norm, and that is all right for them to do the same thing. You get children who leave home, perhaps at the age of twelve, thirteen, fourteen, because they think their parents aren't treating them very well. And I think that, you know, that's one of the sad things that I get concerned about - the fact that governments are inclined through the Social Welfare to sponsor young people who have left home. And you get families who say, 'But we've always provided love and affection and care for our children, and you won't tell me where they are so that we can get in touch with them, and try, and get them home again'. And, you know, perhaps they get ideas from television, you know, that it's all right to go off and try life on their own. I mean, it's bad enough when they get to seventeen or eighteen to do that.

What can legislators do? What kind of legislation would a strong Conservative women support and what sort of legislation would you be against seeing being brought in?

Well, as far as legislation is concerned, I suppose that's all bound up perhaps in our social welfare legislation that comes in and making available opportunities for young people perhaps to get more than they perhaps ought to, and as I said, and I've said plenty of times in the Senate, I believe that the legislation ... I would support very strongly legislation that means you work for the dole. I think that that is something that I feel ought to be brought in and that is the sort of thing that I believe any strongly Conservative people would agree with, and I think income splitting is another way, perhaps, of helping families to sort of have, perhaps, a one income family be able to manage a little bit better financially to help, if you're ... I think that, perhaps if a mother is in a position where ... particularly while children are young before they go to school, that they are able to stay at home with them. I always think that after children are at school, well you can perhaps get a job and I think, perhaps, if only firms would allow ... say, teach women at work to share the time, to have time sharing at work, so that women with families could fit into a job that was divided into two. I know that some of the school teachers do that, because I know that here in town we have some of the classes where you're allowed say to have two days teaching one week and three days teaching another. And that I believe ... and then your partner does the opposite, and I think that all that is, sort of, legislation. If you could legislate for that. That would be State Government of course, that would do things like that.

What do you think of the families where the father decides to stay at home and look after the children and the mother goes to work?

Good on him if that's ... if he's willing to do it, and I say I know that there are quite a few families like that. In fact I think Cheryl Kernot, the leader of the Democrats, her husband looks after the home and the family. I say, good luck to them. I think that that's ... if the wife has tremendous ability and is able to do that, if they'd like ... And lots of fathers do enjoy the opportunity of being with their children. But that's something that families have to work at for themselves. But which ever way they work at it, I think if it's at all possible while your children are little, if you as mum or dad, can have, you know, a fair ... a decent amount of time at home with your children and don't have to be away with your little ones ... When they go to school well that's a different story, isn't it?

Could you ever have imaged Joh staying at home bringing up the family while you went off to Parliament?

No, I'm too sure that I could, but I feel quite sure he could adapt to it. But, seeing that he is not cook, I'm not quite to sure how the children would have managed in those circumstances.

Now, in relation to you, yourself, your own character, there's always been a lot of controversy and speculation about whether ... with you, you get what you seem to get. In other words, that you seem like a simple, at times, even naive person, with a very open manner and a very easy outlook on life, and yet there's also a suspicion that there's a very shrewd politician there as well. Which is the true Flo?

Well I don't know that I particularly want to be thought of as simple and naive. I wouldn't like to think that that's what people think of me. But certainly, I have tried in my political life to relate very positively to people with whom I come in contact. I have always tried to be efficient and to deal with their problems. I've been very fortunate, while I was a Senator, in so far that I had excellent staff to help me, and I have never ceased to appreciate the wonderful support that they gave me over the years. So I've tried to deal with the problems that came our way, faithfully and well, and I pay a tribute, indeed, to all my staff who helped me over the twelve and a quarter years that I was in the Senate. But, I like to think that I ... I ... some of Joh's political nous rubbed off onto me, and I have always tried to take the line that I thought was helpful for families and helpful for strong standards, good standards, and that's how I've tried to operate and certainly I would like to think that I've ended up with good political judgement of issues that came forward in the Senate, when I was in politics. And most certainly, I have never hesitated to take a stand for what I thought was right. That's obvious due to the fact that I crossed the floor against the tax on essential commodities - all on my own - to vote with the Democrats, and I was most unpopular and sent to Coventry for a while. I voted with quite a number of Liberal colleagues in the Senate against retrospective tax because, tax laws should be made from today onwards, not from today backwards, and there were a lot of us who believed very strongly in that. And then I was willing to take a stand against our Opposition Coalition on issues that affected our rural community. There were bills about sugar, bills about wheat, bills about wool, and we crossed the floor, admittedly with my colleagues, but nevertheless, I was willing to stand up and be counted. And I think that that makes for a shrewd politician, for a politician who's strong and decided, and willing to stand up and be counted for what their Party wants, and for what they think the people that they represent want, and that's what it is all about as far as I was concerned.

Politics is also about numbers, as in the end Joh learned to his cost, and marshalling those numbers and some people have said that you were actually extremely good at that, that you understood the psychology of people and how to reach them, how to get them onto your side and Joh's side. In some ways you were better at that than Joh, who's more inclined not to be good at that manipulation, but more inclined to take a very strong position and think that people should fall into line. Is that true? Did you sometimes come along after him and make sure that people were lined up?

Oh well, I don't know. I think that Joh was very good myself with people all the time. And I think if you could go around with me even now, as I, you know ... people ... When I've been around with my cookery books I said to Joh, 'I nearly get upset at times. All the people who say to me, all the time, 'How's Joh?' They don't say, 'How are you?' They say, 'How's Joh?' ' So I believe that Joh still has a very strong following, and I believe that he has always been interested in people - so interested in people that people used to ring him up in the middle of the night quite often to tell him their problems and he would always try and help people. But if you class, you know, being interested in people ... I've always been interested in people and I like people. My mother once told my sister and a friend, you know, she said, 'Florence likes people too much. That's her trouble', but I think that that was probably the reason why I, you know ... People seemed to like me in politics because I was interested in people and I wanted to do all that I could to help them, and I think that probably I know what I like in people and I think I try and, you know, act to them as if I was in their shoes, how I would like people to act to me.

In the course of this interview quite often when I have asked you a question you answered it in terms of Joh and what you admire about Joh. Has that become a habit in your life, to look to Joh and to look to the promotion of Joh as a very important part of your job?

Well I suppose over the years that I was the Premier's wife, certainly that was part of the job that you do. You work together as a team. I was here representing him in Barambah for many years and, of course, he was the Member and I was just his wife. But then, again, when I became a Senator I suppose you could say the same thing applied because I was representing Queensland and Joh to me was the Premier of Queensland, so I suppose that stands to reason that it's quite obvious. And then if you're married to somebody and you very much love him and you're part of a family situation, I think that it stands to reason that you can sort of speak up and be counted along those lines.

But have you ever felt a bit in his shadow, or hasn't that bothered you at all?

No I don't believe that I was in his shadow. I mean I was his help mate you might say. I think that's a good way to look at being a wife and a mother, but I do still remember at the time that there was talk that I should go to the Senate and this had all come out and dad - you know, Joh - they said was promoting me, and they said, 'You go mum. This will give you a chance to do something on your own, on your own right, rather than just helping dad all the time'. Well I like to think that as a Senator I was still helping dad, because I felt that the job that I was there to do was to make sure I wasn't Canberra-ised, as he said, but that I was there to help and support the Queensland Government as one of their Senators and we actually got quite a number. We ended up with four Queensland Senators at the last election when I stood at the head of the double dissolution ticket. And, you know, we got four Senators up in 1987, and so it was quite a good representation for the National Party, apart from the fact of course that the Liberals had two as well, so that we had, you know, solid Conservative representation for the state of Queensland in the Senate. Sad to say the numbers have deteriorated in Queensland somewhat since then, as far as our National Party is concerned. In fact I think it's turned out to be four Liberal and two Nationals now.

After Joh had sent you to the Senate which he obviously was delighted with the ...

Well now, the people of Queensland finally sent me to the Senate.

But after he had gone along with the idea that you should go with the Senate, and he took a certain amount of delight in thinking now this will surprise them, and he'd done that. When you got there and you got quite a lot of limelight, quite a lot of attention at that time, was he, as a husband, ever at all put out by the fact that suddenly you were ... you had the focus on you?

No I must say that he never did. He's never been upset when I've been praised or, you know ... He's always been happy that I'd been able to get, you know, television coverage and when I left the Senate, I must say, if I got plenty of coverage when I went there, I certainly got plenty of coverage when I left, and I did an interview with Kathy Jobe on, you know, the 7.30 Report. I did an interview with every media I think under the sun just about. Who ... And when I look back on some of the speeches that were made about me in the Senate by even Labor people, at that particular time, I was truly grateful for the fact that I had been able even to deal across Party lines with people down there. Perhaps, you know, I wasn't, perhaps, shall we say, as strong as Joh. He took a stand and he was firm and strong, particularly in relation, perhaps, to his Labor opposition, but when you're working on committees in the Senate you find that you have to deal with the Members of the Labor Party as part of the committee, and you become quite friendly with them and I ... I found in my early days in the Senate, I was on the private hospitals and nursing home committee with a number of Labor Senators and we all managed to deal quite amicably and ...

You actually found that fraternising with the enemy, as Joh might have called it, wasn't so bad?

No, well that's quite right, and I think that you know, you learn to live with it. It wasn't perhaps quite the same as being in a single House at Parliament there, and I suppose when you're leader of a state you have your own ideas and you play the game as you think correct. I don't know if you can call politics a game, but it's certainly a job that requires great tactician ... you need to be a good tactician when you're trying to be a Premier of a state. But when you're a Senator, and you're in the Senate, and you're ... it's a cosy little, you know, communion of us all together there. And one thing I still remember was one of my Labor Senator colleagues, at the time that there was a talk - media speculation - that when they ... they were doing something down there that they said, well, Joh was going to go to the Senate and I was going to give up my seat for him so that he could come down to the Senate. I don't know what it was that was annoying Queensland at the time, [what the] Labor Government was doing. And Joh was going to come down and take my place. They must have thought that, you know, [he would] give us the firm strong position. And this Labor lady Senator said to me, 'Florence is it true that you're going to give up your seat for Joh?' 'Oh no', I said, 'That's not true'. 'Oh', she said, 'I'm so glad. We all love you down here'. Now I thought to myself, well, that was a very nice thing for her to say. I didn't know whether perhaps that meant I wasn't as strong as Joh in my decisions that I made, but certainly, I did feel that I had some colleagues who were friendly towards me. I notice that Margaret Reynolds even said, when I left the Senate, 'That our political opinions were as far apart as the pole but we got on very well together'. You see, you travel in the aeroplanes with them, you sit beside them, you talk to them, and I mean, I've been over on overseas delegations. I went over an overseas delegation with Margaret Reynolds, and we were away for a month or more, and you ... you learn to get quite friendly with them, and you'll never change the political aspects but you can certainly change your manner of dealing with people.

Were you a little bit surprised, given that Joh saw politics not just probably as a game, but as a bit of a war, when you found that the enemy could actually be quite nice? Did it surprise you?

Oh yes, will I, you know ... I've always, you know, sort of realised that you take the political angle in one way and you take the human angle, perhaps, in another way. That was how I dealt with it and, perhaps, that might be somewhat of the difference, perhaps, I had. And yet Joh, himself, could deal with Tom Aitkins, who was, you know, the Independent Labor Member for Mundingburra and ... but I do think that he had to deal as Premier with the leader of the Opposition, who was always saying nasty things about the Government that he lead, and I think that probably that is why the difference is. I was never in a situation where I was leader of a government down there. I was just a backbench Member and I was able in that way to deal with other backbench Members on a one-to-one basis and I think that might be perhaps the answer and ...

Would you have liked to have a Ministry?

No. I never was very anxious to do that.

Why not?

Well,first of all, I felt that I had a big enough job. See, when I first went down there and I could have, you know ... And let's face it, I was only there as part of a Ministry for two years and they don't invite people who are backbench Senator[s] into the Ministry, under two years. I mean, that wasn't possible. And then, of course, we became the Opposition and I never hankered for having a frontbench portfolio in the Opposition. I always thought it would mean that you wouldn't be able to give the same amount of time to travelling the state, and to working hard when state elections came up. I used to get in and work as hard as any Cabinet Minister probably. Joh's even been kind enough sometimes to say he just as soon have me on his platform as some of his Cabinet colleagues. And ...

It wasn't that you didn't feel capable of being a Minister?

No I believe I could have done it if I'd have been given the opportunity but, I mean, I had a husband for up till '87 who was a Premier, and there was plenty of work to do on the home base and I didn't,you know, feel that that was right. And, let's face it, the people on the Opposition frontbench I believe had probably a much harder job than the Ministers themselves because the Ministers have plenty of Ministerial staff backing them up and they've got the finances of the Government behind them, that they're able to, sort of, help. But when you're in the Opposition you manage ... have to manage with very limited staff, and you're expected to know as much as the Minister knows. And I believe that I did my job. I was temporary chairman of committees for quite a lot of years while I was down there, and they were all kind enough to say that I did a good job in that position. And I ... What else did I do? I was on the House Committee and I ended up by being the Party whip. I was Deputy Leader of the National Party for a number of years in the ... Deputy Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, so I had plenty of responsibility ... extra responsibilities while I was down there. [INTERRUPTION]

How important do you think it is to have enough money in life?

Well, let's say I think that it sort of helps to have enough money. Not everybody is fortunate enough to do that. But we, of course, here, we've still got our home properties here but it's you know, you still need ready cash to help you to keep going, and as far as our farms are concerned too, you certainly have plenty of expenses. I always feel sorry for people on the land because, you know, people say, 'Oh well you've got the assets', but you might have assets but you mightn't have ready money. See actually, I left the Senate with an entitlement to superannuation after somebody wrote some rude remarks in the early days that they said Joh was putting me into the Senate a few months ... The Government was putting me into the Senate a few months early so that I'd get extra superannuation, and I hadn't even thought about anything like that. Anyway, Joh himself, of course, never even took his superannuation, which he ... if he'd have only had ...

How could that be? I thought all politician ended up with superannuation?

Well what actually happened was is that the superannuation scheme only came in after Joh got into Parliament and before he married me. Because I always say that if he'd been married to me he would not have said that he wouldn't join the superannuation scheme. He said that they were lining their own pockets, that it was too good a superannuation from, you know, like the amount that they put in by comparison with what the Government put in, and so he said, no he didn't think it was right.

So you were so much more practical about it?

Well I would have said ... see I would have been ... I was used to being in the Public Service scheme ... superannuation scheme when I was with the Public Service. You had to. You couldn't join the Public Service unless you decided you'd be in the superannuation, and so I believed that, you know, that [it] was a very worthwhile idea, but he wasn't in it and ...

Couldn't he have joined then? Couldn't you have persuaded him to join then?

Well actually the opportunity came later on when they wanted to amend the superannuation scheme and one of the Liberals and a Labor man came and said to Joh, when he was Premier, 'Now we want to amend the superannuation scheme and you could use the opportunity to get into it. It's only fair to Florence and the children that you should join it'. And you know what Joh said? 'If it was wrong in the beginning it's wrong now, and I won't join'. And I must admit that I told him he should do it, but he didn't. He didn't take ...

Now that was a disagreement you had.

That was a disagreement! I had forgotten about that. Yes, that was a disagreement I must say, but anyway he didn't. But when I went to the Senate after these rude remarks about how they'd put me in early to get me extra superannuation, I joined the superannuation scheme which everybody else did. You had to do it. And so when I left, Brian Archer, who was sort of our Parliamentary Representative on the scheme, he said, 'Now Florence, don't you take a lump sum', he said, 'You take it all as annuity. That will be much better for you', because he knew that we owed the banks quite a bit of money. But I'm sorry to say, that the banks expected me to pay them back some of the money that we'd borrowed, so I had to take half of my superannuation as a lump sum, pay it to the banks to pay back some of the money that we owed them. And so, I mean, we live on just a little bit more I suppose than the pension, but you have to be grateful I guess, that we've got that. We've got our home and the farms here and John's come home now and we live in hopes that he'll organise things so that things will go all right.

So the money that you're living on now, really comes from your superannuation?

Yeah, well, at the moment, that's right. But Joh's working down there and one of these days we think that we'll hit the jackpot.

But you had this property and also the controversial Ten Mile property that kept on bringing you attacks for manoeuvring.

Yes, that's right.

And out of those at the moment you ... you're not able to derive any income?

Oh well, we've sold Ten Mile. The banks said well they wanted us to sell the property, so we've sold that. And that's how John comes back here to look after these properties we've got at home.

And did the borrowing from the bank come, as it does with so many rural people, because of the problems of droughts and floods, or was it because of the legal costs?

Well I think you add them all together. We did have two very big floods there up on the Ten Mile, and we had droughts as well, you know, that you've, sort of, got to learn how to not overstock, that you've got to, sort of, you know, look after your property pretty well, and feed ... when you have to buy, you know, feed and molasses and meat meal, things like that. It all takes quite a lot of money to cope with. But then, you see, we did have all the extra additional costs of the legal fees so life, it's been said, wasn't meant to be easy and so it hasn't been. But we've been able to manage and we look forward to, you know, things straightening themselves up one of these days. But in the meantime, you know, we just ... we're managing all right but, there's no doubt about it, I think if you ... if you've got a little bit extra it certainly comes in handy.

If you ended up with nothing do you think you could manage?

Oh I guess you probably could. I suppose there's always the pension isn't there? But the point of course is that if you've got assets, you can't get a pension, so you have to get rid of your assets so we hope that it won't come to that.

You were brought up Presbyterian, with Scottish blood. Have you always been careful with money?

Yes, I've always tried to be careful.

There was a period where there would have been a fairly large income coming into the house when you were both working?

Yes that's right, that's right. But of course, at that time, we also had the Ten Mile and it seemed to be like a, you know, what do you call it? A bottomless pit is it?

That absorbed a lot of money.

That's right yes. So it just, sort of you know, took quite a bit of that.

So at a stage where most people can relax and enjoy the fruits of their lives labour, Joh's down in Tasmania trying to get a business venture off the ground, well into his eighties, and you're up here living really a very simple, unostentatious life on a small annuity?

Yes, oh well. We're happy. We've got our families and we're grateful that God's looked after them all. You see, at one stage we thought we'd lost John when he was on the Ten Mile property. He went out mustering and he was riding a bike, and he very nicely must have been chasing a cow or bullock or something further down around the property, and he went over a fifty foot incline on his bike and we got a message late at night to say that he hadn't come home and they didn't know where he was. And my word, that was a very worrying time. We said plenty of prayers that night and anyway he ... the next morning we went up there very early. Beryl Young came in the plane and we went up very, very early and we arrived just before daybreak and she got a message to say they'd found the bike at the bottom of the fifty foot drop, but no sign of John. So we didn't know whether that was good or bad. Anyway, Graham McCambly, one of the next door neighbours up there, brought his helicopter in at daybreak and he went looking and then they saw where the bike was you see, but they ... and finally, John had walked in the dark, at night time ... walked the soles out of his socks and he had got back to his cattle yards. Well you can't ... That was divine leading and guiding I reckon. But they did say that if he hadn't been found within a half an hour to an hour, his lungs would have all filled up with fluid and he would have died. He got to hospital, I suppose with, you know, a little bit of time ... They took him in an aerial ambulance and got him there with a bit of time to spare and ... or did the plane take a ...? Anyway he got in by plane and we're very thankful that his life was saved and I said to him, 'John, don't ever ride a bike chasing your cattle again'. So he said, 'No Mum', so the next accident he had was off a horse. And fortunately that wasn't anything quite so dangerous. I think he broke a collar bone or something like that, at that particular time. So I mean, no, be very grateful that you've got all your family and that we've been spared, to be together.

Do you feel that your children ever suffered because Joh was Premier?

Well, Helen likes to think that she might have endured a bit of taunting at training college. She went over to the University of Southern Queensland to do her teachers study, and I tell you this, she didn't call herself Bjelke-Petersen for very long. She called herself Petersen about half way through her course. After she was only about ... I don't think she was quite twenty, actually, when she got married and she changed her name, so that suited her very well indeed.

And did they have a lot of ... Did they ever come home from school when they were little?

Oh no, I don't think as far as ... I think, see, they all went to school and they had a politician for a father. I don't think it made the slightest bit of difference. I think that people just accepted the fact that they were Joh's kids and that's all there was to it. And I mean, Joh was just Joh around here, and I don't think that they really bothered about it.

And they were never deprived because he was away so much, do you think?

Oh no I don't think so. He was home in his earlier days, particularly when they were small, he was home a deal of the time during the week while he was a backbencher and he was ... He always tried to be home at weekends. I mean, let's face it, I suppose Saturday's usually, you know, when it comes to politicians you nearly always got something to do on a Saturday, but I mean, we always kept Sunday for ourselves and our family and God. And he was nearly ... We always tried to be home. When he was Premier I suppose there came times when he wasn't always able to be home every weekend, but by that time, of course, '68, well, I suppose the, you know, children were growing up and they were quite, you know, getting old enough to understand and they accepted the fact that dad wasn't always here. But then, if he'd been a commercial traveller he wouldn't have been home all the time, and I mean there's lots of fathers, who perhaps ... who's job takes them away from home for periods and I think that, provided your children are old enough to understand, you can accept this.

You've had a very varied and stimulating life, and I wonder what you feel is the secret of your success in what's amounted to three careers: one as a wife and mother of the traditional kind, a farmer's wife and mother, you've been a Premiers' wife and you've been a Senator. What do you think you've brought to those things that's resulted in them all being rather successful?

Well, I don't know that I have any special trade perhaps. I always try to be pleasant. I always try to be interested in people. I think that that is something that's very important, that you need to be interested in people.

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