Category Archives: National Party

Issues that swung elections: the dramatic and inglorious fall of Joh Bjelke-Petersen



Joh Bjelke-Petersen with his wife, Flo, on their wedding day in 1952. Bjelke-Petersen made an ill-fated bid for PM in 1987 that ripped the Coalition apart.
Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd/Wikimedia Commons

Shirleene Robinson, Macquarie University

With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.


Johannes (Joh) Bjelke-Petersen’s reign as Queensland’s premier began in 1968 and came to a dramatic and inglorious end 19 years later with the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption. He is still Queensland’s longest-serving premier, but he leaves a complicated legacy. For many, he is remembered most for his rigid control of over all areas of government and his anti-democratic stance on public protests.

Bjelke-Petersen governed the state as leader of the Country Party (which later became the National Party) until his downfall in 1987.

In May that year, the ABC television programme Four Corners aired the first public allegations of organised crime and police corruption in Queensland. Bjelke-Petersen would hang on to office for only a few more months before being forced to step down.

The Fitzgerald Inquiry, launched in the aftermath of the Four Corners programme, continued for another two years, uncovering a deep and systematic web of corruption that implicated many at the highest levels of Queensland government and the Queensland Police Force.




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The man who would be commissioner: Bjelke-Petersen’s crooked pick


For Bjelke-Petersen, not only was his career as a state premier over, but so, too, were his national ambitions. In early 1987, Bjelke-Petersen had launched an ill-fated “Joh for PM” campaign in a brazen attempt to challenge then-Liberal Party leader John Howard as head of the Coalition, then run against Prime Minister Bob Hawke in that year’s federal election.

His bid for power split the federal Coalition. Capitalising on the internal dissent of the Opposition, Hawke easily won the 1987 election, holding onto the prime-ministership for another four years.

Bjelke-Petersen ends interview prematurely after questions about Fitzgerald Inquiry.

An ill-fated run for federal office

Hawke’s win in the 1987 election had been far from inevitable. The Coalition had actually been ahead in the polls for much of Hawke’s 1984-1987 term. However, internal divisions, typified by the rivalry between Howard and Andrew Peacock over the Liberal leadership, put pressure on the party. Tensions were further stoked when Bjelke-Petersen announced his intention to enter the federal arena.

In January 1987, when Bjelke-Petersen announced that he intended to run for parliament, he assumed that his success in Queensland could be duplicated at the federal level. Fresh from a win in the state election the previous year, he and his backers did not acknowledge the distinctive set of circumstances in Queensland that had given rise to his long time in office.

His bid for PM did make a brief splash in the national media, drawing further attention to the deep ideological rifts within the federal Coalition. Howard, leader of the Liberals, and Ian Sinclair, leader of the Nationals, struggled to contain the division caused by Bjelke-Petersen’s ambitions. The discord reached a breaking point at the end of February 1987, when the Queensland National Party decided to withdraw its 12 federal MPs from the Coalition in support of Bjelke-Petersen’s efforts. The Coalition formally split soon after.

Hawke seized on the Coalition’s infighting and quickly called an election on May 27. Bjelke-Petersen was not even in the country at the time, having gone to the United States. Outplayed and dealing with increased coverage of corruption and dissent in Queensland, Bjelke-Petersen swiftly abandoned his plan to run for prime minister.




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The larrikin as leader: how Bob Hawke came to be one of the best (and luckiest) prime ministers


By the end of the year, Howard’s Coalition was fatally divided. Labor was returned to government and increased its majority in the House with 86 seats to 43 for the Liberals and 19 for the National Party.

The win allowed Hawke to take his place in history as the party’s longest-serving prime minister.

Bjelke-Petersen meets with fellow Queensland politician Russell Hinze. Both figures left office amid allegations of corruption.
Wikimedia Commons/John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland/ Queensland Newspapers Pty. Ltd.

A tarnished legacy in Queensland

The failings of the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland extended far beyond the arrogance that saw him attempt an ill-conceived move into federal politics.

Under his leadership, Queensland was not democratic. His government exploited the state’s electoral gerrymander, which over-represented rural electorates at the expense of urban ones. The state’s unicameral parliament meant the checks and balances a second house would have provided were absent.

Bjelke-Petersen also relied on a police force rife with corruption to prop up his government. Dissenters faced brutalisation at the hands of police when they took to the streets. A repressive set of laws that banned protests meant taking to the streets could result in time in prison. For too long, the media were silent about the corruption taking place in the state.




Read more:
Jacks and Jokers: Bjelke-Petersen and Queensland’s ‘police state’


Journalist Evan Whitton called Bjelke-Petersen “the hillbilly dictator” in reference to his carefully cultivated parochial style of leadership. Yet, Bjelke-Petersen was guided by a shrewd political awareness. He styled himself as a defender of a unique Queensland sensibility and scorned the more progressive southern states. He was not opposed to using fear and prejudice for electoral gain.

His treatment of LGBTIQ issues provides one strong example. During the 1980s, the Bjelke-Petersen government made efforts to prevent gay and lesbian teachers from being employed and gay students from forming support groups. When the AIDS epidemic reached Australia, his government demonised LGBTIQ individuals. As most other Australian states decriminalised sex acts between men, Bjelke-Petersen’s government attempted to introduce anti-gay licensing laws and criminalise lesbianism. In 1986, the Sturgess Inquiry into Sexual Offences Involving Children and Related Matters was used by the government to further ostracise gays and lesbians and turn the public against them.

The Bjelke-Petersen era provides a cautionary tale. It is difficult to imagine any other premier maintaining his or her position for this long again. His ill-fated bid for federal politics also reveals the impact that egomaniacal and divisive figures can have on political parties.

Bjelke-Petersen may not have been the only factor behind Hawke’s 1987 win, but his intervention certainly did Howard no favours – and deepened a rift in the Coalition that took years to mend.The Conversation

Shirleene Robinson, Associate Professor and Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Fellow, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Issues that swung elections: Labor’s anti-war message falls flat in landslide loss in 1966



Anti-Vietnam War protesters march from the US Consulate to Hyde Park in Sydney in 1966.
State Library of New South Wales/Wikimedia Commons

Jon Piccini, Australian Catholic University

With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.


As far as 1960s policy issues go, none were bigger than the Vietnam War. Images of helicopter gunships and long-haired protesters overlaid with rock music are the era’s stock footage. But, was it ever a major election issue in Australia?

In November 1966, an Australian Labor Party that had been in opposition for 17 years finally saw victory within its grasp. And the party’s ageing leader, Arthur Calwell, focused on the war as Labor’s main point of difference with a seemingly divided, aimless government.

Organisations like the Australian Peace Council, Save our Sons and the Youth Campaign Against Conscription pushed hard for a Labor victory. But, in the end, Prime Minister Harold Holt not only won the contest, his Liberal-Country Coalition actually gained 10 seats, leaving Labor to lick its wounds.




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Student protests won’t be the last, and they certainly weren’t the first


Australia’s involvement in the war

An Iroquois helicopter picks up member of the 7th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment during the Vietnam War.
Department of Defence/ AAP

Australia’s involvement in Vietnam began in 1962. What started as a 30-person training deployment quickly grew to a battalion after then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced – inaccurately at the time – that South Vietnam had requested further assistance in its defence against the North Vietnamese-backed communist insurgents in April 1965.

This was a strategy of “forward defence” that marked Menzies’ policy towards Asia, which was widely supported by the Australian electorate as a way to stop the spread of communism across Southeast Asia. This strategy mirrored fears of a “domino theory” that would bring communism to Australia’s shores.

Public reactions to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War were positive at the start.

However, conscription was not as popular as the war among Australians. Polling in October 1966 showed that the public opposed conscription for overseas service by about 60%. Calwell, who had been the Labor leader since 1960, knew this and made it the most important issue in the next election.

Menzies’ retirement in January gave Labor confidence going into the 1966 election. Holt was a relative unknown who barely differed from Menzies on policy. At the same time, Labor was modernising its platforms by doing away with things like support for the “White Australia” policy.

Also, an October 1966 visit from US President Lyndon B. Johnson, which Holt hoped would buoy his chances, was marred by anti-war protests that were broadcast around the world.

Labor’s failed conscription tactic

Prime Minister Harold Holt (left) shares a drink with Lyndon B. Johnson during the American president’s visit to Australia before the 1966 federal election.
Wikimedia Commons

Yet, if anything, the focus on conscription showed not Labor’s revival but its continued stagnation. During the first world war, Calwell had been involved in the defeat of conscription in two national referendums in 1916 and 1917. Fifty years later, Labor hoped to use the timing of the anniversary of those defeats to its political advantage.

Speaking in April 1966, Calwell cautioned that conscription was a “sinister word” for Australians that would “split the nation and leave the same bitter memories as did the referendum campaigns of 50 years ago”. Then, in a campaign speech only days before the vote, Calwell condemned those who wished to plunge their “arthritic hands wrist deep in the blood of Australian youth”.

While not particularly innovative politically, Holt’s relative youth and seeming vigour – demonstrated by somewhat salacious photographs he took on the beach with his young daughters-in-law – seemed a breath of fresh air.

But this was just one of the reasons Calwell’s rhetoric fell flat. The audience for his messaging was also unclear. Australia was an increasingly youthful nation, but the voting age of 21 meant the “baby boom” generation had little electoral weight.

And while growing numbers of young people were protesting the war, they did so without reference to the first world war, but with theatrical protest tactics from overseas.

Legacies of the 1966 election

A 2012 ceremony involving Australian and New Zealand troops to commemorate the battle of Long Tan during the Vietnam War in 1969.
Australian War Memorial/ AAP

Holt’s unexpected landslide victory – winning twice as many seats as his opponent –proved politically explosive. While receiving little credit for the win, which most put down to Calwell’s ineptitude, Holt used his remaining year in parliament to cement an independent reputation through such initiatives as the May 1967 referendum on Indigenous rights.

His disappearance off Cheviot Beach in December of that year left an unfinished legacy.




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The photographer’s war: Vietnam through a lens


As for the antiwar movement, Labor’s election failure led to disenchantment and reorientation. Increasing numbers of young agitators saw the result as a sign of deep public apathy with the movement. This led to more provocative and controversial protests, such as the daubing of soldiers with fake blood during parades, raising money for the Viet Cong and rioting outside the US Consulate in Melbourne.

Labor largely went quiet on Vietnam after its defeat, only returning to the barricades in time for the Moratorium marches of May 1970, by which time public opinion had finally turned against the war. It has been said that the 1966 election’s most significant legacy was as

the last stand of a distinctive Labor style – impassioned, traditionalist [and] Irish-Catholic.

Calwell’s post-election position proved untenable and he was replaced by the deputy leader, Gough Whitlam, who would spend the next five years modernising a party many considered stuck in the past. In the end, Calwell’s overzealous commitment to wielding the past as a political weapon only fast tracked this process.The Conversation

Jon Piccini, Lecturer, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Australian politics explainer: Robert Menzies and the birth of the Liberal-National coalition



Image 20170326 18995 1tmmvi2
Robert Menzies knew the Liberal Party would never be able to govern in its own right.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Gregory Melleuish, University of Wollongong

The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today. The Conversation


It has become an established fact of Australian politics that when the non-Labor side of politics is in power, the government will be a coalition of the Liberal Party and the National Party. This has been the case for almost 100 years, since the formation of the Country Party in 1920.

Even on those occasions when the Liberals have won a House of Representatives majority in their own right, the Coalition has held.

What happened?

It is also true that when the then Nationalist Party and the then Country Party came together in coalition in 1922, the Country Party had much more clout than it has today. In the 1922 federal election, the Nationalists won 35% of the vote and 26 seats in a 75-seat House of Representatives. The Country Party won 12.5% of the vote and 14 seats, including seats in Tasmania.

The price Country Party leader Earle Page demanded for coalition was the political execution of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, and the treasurer’s job. He got both, creating the Bruce-Page government.

Former National Party leader Stanley Bruce, who became prime minister in 1923 in a Coalition government.
Government of Australia, CC BY

When Robert Menzies became leader of the United Australia Party in 1939 following the death of Joe Lyons, Page attempted the same trick again. He made a savage personal attack on Menzies and refused to serve under him – only this time the Country Party refused to follow suit, and replaced Page as leader.

The political reality was that to form an effective political relationship, any non-Labor prime minister needed to have a good working relationship with the Country Party. Menzies understood this.

When Menzies put together the bits and pieces of the non-Labor political forces following the collapse of the United Australia Party and formed the Liberal Party in 1944, he knew the Liberal Party would not be able to govern in its own right.

What was its impact?

At the 1949 election, which swept Menzies to power, the Liberal Party won 55 seats in a 121-seat House of Representatives. The Country Party won 19 seats.

Country Party leader Arthur Fadden became treasurer and remained so until 1958, when new leader John McEwen chose not to move to Treasury. McEwen’s influence in non-Labor governments, especially in relation to tariff matters, was considerable until his retirement in 1971. His antipathy to William McMahon effectively forced him out of the contest to elect a successor to Harold Holt in early 1968.

During this period, the Country Party could use its influence to shape Coalition policy. It did so because it had strong electoral support, which kept its numbers in the House of Representatives hovering around 20.

Liberals seemed to be quite happy to acquiesce in that influence, especially as Menzies and his immediate successors – with the possible exception of McMahon – were not opposed to government regulation of the economy.

Over time, Australia’s demography worked against the Country Party. The number of people living in urban areas has always been high in Australia, but the numbers have swung even more against rural areas. The size of the House of Representatives increased in the 1980s to 148 but the number of Country Party members remained static.

In 1982, it officially became National Party policy to indicate it was not merely a sectional party. This was followed in the 1980s by an attempt by Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to create an urban base for the Nationals in Brisbane. This had some initial success, but ultimately failed.

Joseph Lyons makes an election speech in Sydney in the 1930s.
State Library of NSW, CC BY

What are its contemporary implications?

The Nationals remain a country-based party in an Australia in which urban areas experience the greatest growth in population. Since the 2016 election, the Nationals have held 16 seats in a 150-seat House of Representatives.

What this means is that National Party policy will not disappear in the medium term, unless the party agrees to a union with the Liberals. The Liberals will have to take account of the wishes of the Nationals, up to a point.

However, it is clear that current Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce does not have the power to veto particular individuals from the leadership of the Liberal Party.

It is also clear that a Nationals leader will not be able to influence policy in the way McEwen did. Joyce may be a sort of agrarian populist, but times have changed – and the Liberal Party is no longer the party it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

It all comes down to numbers. The Nationals have relatively fewer seats in parliament than did the old Country Party 50 years ago. So, their capacity to influence what the government does has diminished.

Nevertheless, the Liberals need the Nationals if they are to form stable governments. They need each other. But, ultimately, the Liberal Party can only become the more powerful part of the relationship.

Gregory Melleuish, Professor, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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