Category Archives: politics

When it comes to economic reform, the old days really were better. We checked



National Archives of Australia

John Daley, Grattan Institute and Rory Anderson, Grattan Institute

It’s become a truism of Australian politics that important economic reform peaked in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sometimes the early years of the Howard government in the late 1990s are given credit as well.

This Grattan Institute map of important reforms illustrates the story.


Important economic policy reforms in Australia

Notes: Reforms that were not passed, or that were subsequently substantially wound back or repealed, are shown shaded out. A/T/M = Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison. FTAs = Free Trade Agreements. PBO = Parliamentary Budget Office. GBE = Government Business Enterprise. CBA = Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Airline IPO = the sale and Initial Public Offering of Qantas in 1993 and 1995.
Access Economics (2019); The Economist (2011); Grattan analysis

Indeed, it looks like Australian governments have merely ‘improved’ at unwinding the reforms of their predecessors, and the reforms they propose for themselves.

But it’s possible that this is all just the rosy-hued memories of former politicians, public servants, and journalists.

It might also be that today there are fewer policy reforms worth doing – perhaps most of the big ones have already been done.

To test whether previous governments really were better at reform than more recent governments, we would need a running list of reforms proposed in advance, so we could see what proportion were adopted.

Between 1972 and 2018, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development produced 31 Economic Surveys of Australia – roughly one every 18 months.

Each publication put forward reforms that the OECD believed would increase economic growth and living standards.

The good old days were better

Our analysis of the full series finds that between 1984 and 2001 the overwhelming bulk of these recommendations were taken up by the Hawke and Keating governments, and by the Howard government in its first two terms.

But from roughly 2003 onwards, the record is a lot more patchy: many more of the reforms recommended by the OECD have been either rejected, only partially implemented, or (in the case of carbon pricing) implemented and then unwound.


Fate of OECD Economic Survey recommendations

For more details on methodology, see Grattan’s blog.
OECD, Grattan analysis.

Policies that the OECD recommended but which ran into the sand include reducing the gap between the company tax and top personal income tax rates, implementing a mining resource rent tax, reviewing negative gearing, creating competitive neutrality among Australian ports, aligning the eligibility ages for superannuation and the age pension, including more of the value of owner-occupied housing when calculating eligibility for the age pension, and raising Newstart.




Read more:
Grattan Orange Book. What the election should be about: priorities for the next government


A number of other proposed reforms continue to sit in the too-hard basket, including increasing the rate and coverage of the goods and services tax, swapping stamp duties for property taxes, congestion charging for roads, and the use of smart meters for time-of-day electricity pricing.

An imperfect measure, that tells us something

As a means to evaluate the history of reform, the OECD Economic Surveys aren’t perfect, but they’re guide.

It’s true that the scope and number of OECD recommendations has expanded over time, but that expansion was already underway during the Hawke/Keating and Howard eras.

And it’s arguable that these days, the OECD recommends smaller reforms – it certainly recommended many more between 1997 and 2010.

It’s likely that the OECD’s recommendations are partly influenced by the views of the government of the day. But many recommendations have been suggested under one government and implemented by the next.

And while OECD recommendations aren’t gospel, many policy experts support most of them. For instance, all of the policies that are on the OECD’s continuing wish-list are also advocated by the Grattan Institute.

Our review of what happened after the OECD surveys is broadly consistent with popular wisdom, or at least the recollections of old men (usually men) that the good old days really were better.




Read more:
One year on from the carbon price experiment, the rebound in emissions is clear


And it is consistent with work in progress by Alphabeta reviewing the history of Australian economic reform.

Our review also shows that it often takes a long run-up of research, advocacy, and detailing before a government implements a major reform. Many reforms were only implemented after sitting on the slate for well over a decade, including the goods and services tax, lower tariffs, a more flexible award system, lower company tax, and competition in utility industries. Reforms often require patient advocacy.

It’s hard to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Australia has got worse at it. But our review of the OECD’s recommendations for Australia over the past 48 years is consistent with the oft-cited view that governments in the most recent 20 years have rejected many more significant reforms than governments in the 20 years before them.

There’s plenty still on the slate for the 20 years to come.




Read more:
Six graphs that explain Australia’s recession


The Conversation


John Daley, Senior Fellow, Grattan Institute and Rory Anderson, Researcher, Grattan Institute

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


William Cooper: the Indigenous leader who petitioned the king, demanding a Voice to Parliament in the 1930s



National Museum of Australia

Bain Munro Attwood, Monash University

The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, looking at the way they changed the nature of debate, its impact then, and it relevance to politics today. You can read the rest of our pieces here. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.

William Cooper is not a household name, but he should be. This Yorta Yorta elder is one of Australia’s most formative political leaders.

In the 1930s, he began a remarkable political campaign, pushing for Indigenous rights and recognition, nearly all of which have significant implications for Australian politics today.

Early life

Cooper was born on the junction of the Murray and Goulburn rivers in December 1860. He was profoundly influenced by his people, who had demanded and won a reservation of land in the 1880s, which they called Cumeroogunga.

Yorta Yorta people farmed Cumeroogunga into the 1900s, only to lose it and have their families and community broken up by repressive policies of the New South Wales Board for the Protection of Aborigines in the 1910s and 1920s.

Cooper escaped the most severe of state protection boards’ special laws at the time, which denied Aboriginal people basic rights such as freedom of movement, custody of their children and control over personal property.

But he knew the suffering the laws caused and still had a very hard life, denied the opportunities enjoyed by most non-Indigenous Australians. Apart from anything else, this meant he suffered enormous poverty.

Christian influence

Portrait of William Cooper
Cooper was influenced by his Yorta Yorta people and Christian missionary teachings.
National Museum of Australia

Importantly, in his early life, Cooper also acquired the means to understand and fight against his people’s oppression. In his teens, he was taken under the wing of evangelical Christian missionaries, Daniel and Janet Matthews, at the Maloga mission on the banks of the Murray River.

Their teachings were fundamental to the political work Cooper would eventually
undertake. They had a view of humanity that encompassed all people as God’s children, and so held the lives of Aboriginal people mattered, too. This provided a powerful antidote to the prevailing racial prejudice Cooper experienced and witnessed.

The Matthews saw God and religious principles as a higher order than government. And they provided a prophetic or predictive view of history that promised salvation for the Yorta Yorta, just as the Bible, especially the Book of Exodus, had promised to the persecuted and suffering Israelites.




Read more:
Charles Perkins forced Australia to confront its racist past. His fight for justice continues today


It is understood Cooper spent much of 20s on and off missions and then earned a living working as a shearer, drover, horse-breaker and general rural labourer.

He was a member of the Shearers’ Union and Australian Workers’ Union. He also acted as a spokesman for Aboriginal workers in western New South Wales and central Victoria, having a “longing to help his people”. After returning to Cumeroogunga in his 60s, he moved to Melbourne, so he could get the age pension.

Petitioning the King

Now in his 70s, Cooper began a remarkable political campaign. This had several strands, many of which continue to have significance in Australian politics today.

First and foremost, in 1933 Cooper drew up a petition to King George V. With more than 1,800 signatures by the time it was presented to the federal government in 1937, the petition’s central demand was representation for Aboriginal people in the Commonwealth Parliament. This call for a federal MP who would be chosen by Aboriginal people was, if you like, a demand for a Voice to Parliament.




Read more:
Constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians must involve structural change, not mere symbolism


Cooper believed this was crucial, as government laws about Aboriginal people were made without any consideration of their opinions. He argued Indigenous perspectives differed markedly from those of white Australians – which Cooper called “thinking black”.

Cooper was heir to a tradition among Aboriginal people in New South Wales and Victoria that held they had a special relationship to the British king or queen. Certainly, Cooper believed Aboriginal people had a right to appeal to the British Crown on the grounds that it still had a responsibility for them because of duties it had undertaken to perform in the past.

Regrettably, prime minister Joseph Lyons did not pass the petition on to Buckingham Palace, and it has never been found in any archive. But in 2014, a copy finally reached Queen Elizabeth, after his grandson Boydie Turner travelled to London.

Equal rights and ‘uplift’

In 1936, Cooper founded the Australian Aborigines’ League, which he envisaged as an organisation to represent all Aboriginal people.

Under his leadership, the league developed a program to call for the rights and privileges that other Australian citizens enjoyed, while also seeking the “uplift” of Indigenous people, so they could overcome the disadvantages they suffered.

Indigenous advocates on the 1938 Day of Mourning.
Cooper (second from the right) wanted the Australian Aborigines’ League to represent all Indigenous people.
National Museum of Australia

“Uplift” entailed a claim for special rights for Aboriginal people — to land, capital and other resources — that rested on their disadvantage, rather than their status as the country’s Indigenous or First peoples.

But in the course of demanding the rights of citizenship and “uplift”, Cooper repeatedly sought to draw attention to his ancestors’ prior ownership of the land and their subsequent dispossession, displacement and decimation.

He did so in order to remind white Australians of their obligations to Aboriginal people, incurred as a result of this history. As Cooper noted in 1938,

Surely the Commonwealth, which controls all that originally belonged to us, could make what would be a comparatively meagre allowance for us, by way of recompense.

To remind people of Australia’s black history, Cooper called for a “Day of Mourning” to mark Australia’s sesquicentenary in January 1938 and an “Aborigines’ Day” to be held in the nation’s churches every year on the Sunday closest to Australia Day.

Protest against Nazi persecution

Cooper and the League also rejected government policies advocating for the absorption of Aboriginal people into Australian society. Instead, he asserted a vision of Aboriginal people as a permanent and ongoing community in Australia. As he said in 1936,

all thought of breeding the half-caste white, and the desire that that be accomplished, is a creature of the white mind. The coloured person has no feeling of repugnance toward the full blood, and in fact, he feels more in common with the full blood than with the white.

Cooper and other members of the league identified very strongly as a persecuted racial minority and made common cause with others beyond Australia’s shores, including the Jewish people.

In the incident for which Cooper now seems to be best known by non-Indigenous Australians, in December 1938 he led a protest against Nazi persecution to the German Consulate in Melbourne.

Inspiring a new generation

Cooper’s life and work seem astoundingly relevant for today. But during his life his campaign for rights for Aborigines fell on deaf eyes as far as government was concerned.

As he lamented in 1937,

We asked [for] bread. We scarcely seem likely to get a stone.

Yet, by the time he passed away in March 1941, he had inspired a new generation of Aboriginal leaders, most notably his grand-nephew Doug Nicholls but also the Onus brothers, who became prominent in the struggle for Aboriginal rights in the immediate post-war period.

His notion of “thinking black” would in time also catch the imagination of yet another generation of Aboriginal leaders, such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal.

Most importantly, perhaps, Cooper is remembered above all else for his prescient call for an Aboriginal voice to Parliament.

Through this, and his fight to overcome Aboriginal disadvantage, he continues to speak to us today.The Conversation

Bain Munro Attwood, Professor of History, Monash University

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


How Graham Berry brought party democracy to colonial Australia – and then was forgotten



Wikipedia

Sean Scalmer, University of Melbourne

The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, examining how they changed the country and political debate. You can read the rest of the series here.


You may never have heard of Graham Berry, but he was one of the most creative and controversial Australian politicians of the colonial era. Born in 1822, he was three times the premier of Victoria, but he is now almost unknown. He should be recalled for his daring and fascinating career, but even more for an enduring influence on the nation’s politics.

Berry’s significance lies partly in his identity and appeal. The son of a servant, he was apprenticed as a linen draper aged 11. He emigrated from England to Victoria during the gold rush of the 1850s, setting up as a grocer in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran.

The Australian colonies were unusually precocious in their extension of democratic rights to working-class men, and Berry was among the first to exploit these opportunities. But his opponents mocked him for his Cockney accent and his low status: “tradesmen” were still widely thought ill-suited to high office.

As I detail in my book about him, Berry responded by attacking the “snobbery” of his opponents and the self-interest of squatters and merchants. He proudly declared his identity as the “embodiment of human labour”. His supporters called him a “self-made man”.

The rhetorical appeals worked. Berry blazed a path for the language of “class” to play a central role in Australian democracy.

The grocer-turned-politician was the leader of a movement for “protectionism”. He argued taxes should be applied to certain categories of imported goods, especially manufactured goods. This would stimulate new industries, he said, and create good jobs at high wages.

Leading political economists attacked the doctrine. Berry was its most eloquent advocate as a platform speaker, newspaper editor and parliamentarian. He passed the first clearly protectionist tariff as Victorian treasurer in the early 1870s. He entrenched the system as premier in later decades.

Sir Alfred Deakin
Berry’s protege, Alfred Deakin.
National Archives of Australia

He also travelled to New South Wales to spread the creed, arguing that protection against “cheap and underpaid labour” provided an impetus to national unity. Berry called the federation of the Australian colonies behind a great tariff wall “the great dream” of his life.

His protégé, Alfred Deakin, would advance that dream, but Berry’s earlier campaigns were the foundation of later success.




Read more:
What Malcolm Turnbull might have learned from Alfred Deakin


Berry also reshaped the practice of politics. He first emerged as a major public figure as an “out of doors” speaker in mass gatherings in central Melbourne at the end of the 1850s. Even when these turned violent – one climaxed in an attack on Parliament House and on several parliamentarians in August 1860 – Berry continued to support the rights of the citizenry to meet “where they liked, when they liked, in as great numbers as they liked”.

He equated “agitation” in the “body politic” with the “circulation of the blood in the human body”. To the extent that Australian democracy is active and contentious, it adheres to a tradition Berry fought to establish.

Berry also considered organisation to be central to political life. In 1877, he founded Australia’s first mass political party, the National Reform and Protection League. That party developed a network of more than 150 branches across Victoria, overseen by a central office. It had a common “platform” (an unfamiliar term at the time), its candidates were pre-selected and its parliamentary members met as a caucus and were expected to vote as a bloc.

As president, Berry campaigned for the party across the colony. This was widely seen as an importation of “American” methods of “stump oratory”. It helped to win Berry a stunning majority in 1877 and inspired widespread emulation. Australia’s “party democracy” begins with Berry.

As premier, Berry’s plans for legislation were frustrated by the power of the upper house, elected at that time by a small number of men who possessed substantial property. Berry sought to reshape the Victorian constitution and break the power of the upper house. The London Times likened its key passages to a “revolution”.

The episode precipitated a political crisis that ran from 1878-81. It generated a wider debate on what democracy should be.

From a contemporary perspective, the limits of Berry’s democratic vision are perhaps most striking: he supported women’s franchise (and voted for an unsuccessful bill in 1873) but did not make gender equality central to his political campaigns.




Read more:
Birth of a nation: how Australia empowering women taught the world a lesson


He supported the claims of Aboriginal people at the Coranderrk reserve against the attacks of the Aborigines Protection Board, but he also supported the so-called “Half-Caste Act”, which helped to threaten and fracture Aboriginal communities across the colony. Berry showed no interest in Aboriginal political organisation or capacity for self-government.

Berry also understood “protection” in racial terms and sought to exclude Chinese people from the colony.

These policies exerted a considerable influence on later Australian politics.

Recognising and examining these significant limits, contemporary democrats can nonetheless draw inspiration from other aspects of Berry’s career: a driving determination; a refusal to be bound by convention; and an understanding of democracy as an incomplete project, never a settled state.

Those frustrated by the limits of our own democracy might profit from a close examination of Berry’s life.The Conversation

Sean Scalmer, Associate Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne

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


‘Palace letters’ reveal the palace’s fingerprints on the dismissal of the Whitlam government



Independent Australia

Chris Wallace, University of Canberra

The “palace letters” show the Australian Constitution’s susceptibility to self-interested behaviour by individual vice-regal representatives. They also reveal the vulnerability of Australian governments to secret destabilisation by proxy by the Crown.

They reveal a governor-general, fearing his own dismissal, succumbing to moral hazard, and the British monarch’s private secretary encouraging him in the idea that a double dissolution was legitimate in the event a government could not get its budget bills passed.

The letters confirm the worst fears of those who viewed Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s sacking of the Whitlam government as a constitutional coup. They reveal Kerr shortened by at most a mere three months the resolution of the crisis created by the conservative Malcolm Fraser-led opposition’s refusal to pass the government’s budget bills, compared to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s own timetable shared with Kerr.

The correspondence shows Kerr was privy to Whitlam’s plan to hold a double-dissolution election in February 1976 if all other avenues, including a half-Senate election, failed to secure passage of the budget beforehand. Whitlam candidly told Kerr he would be replaced as governor-general if he obstructed that plan. This introduced the element of moral hazard that saw Kerr take a reckless and self-interested route in ending the crisis rather than the steadier one privately put to him by Whitlam – one that Kerr could have, had he chosen, quite properly facilitated.

Crucially, the palace provided a specific nudge to Kerr in the direction of dismissing the government as a solution. It did so by highlighting one expert’s view that Kerr could secure an election while saving his own position as governor-general.

The palace provided a specific nudge to Kerr on dismissing the government.
AAP/EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

A September 24 1975 letter from the queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, to Kerr pointed him to Canadian constitutional law expert Eugene Forsey’s opinion that:

[…] if supply is refused this always makes it constitutionally proper to grant a dissolution.

In such correspondence, the queen’s private secretary is understood as speaking for the queen herself. As such, this could be interpreted as the monarch providing not just comfort but actual encouragement to the governor-general in his sacking of the government.

By adding his point about Forsey as a handwritten postscript to the letter, Charteris created a degree of ambiguity on this score, giving rise to a potential argument that it was Charteris’s personal view and not that of the queen.




Read more:
‘Palace letters’ show the queen did not advise, or encourage, Kerr to sack Whitlam government


But this should be read in the context of the overall correspondence in the year leading up to The Dismissal. In these letters, Kerr repeatedly canvasses the opposition’s potential blocking of supply, the likely resulting constitutional crisis and his difficulties in that context. There is, notably, no counterveiling call from the palace to let the legitimately elected prime minister see his plan through, even though Kerr had conveyed Whitlam’s plan to the palace.

In a crucial letter to Charteris on September 30, Kerr outlined Whitlam’s privately proposed electoral path to a resolution.

In the event the opposition continued to block the budget bills, Whitlam wanted to hold a half-Senate election. After that the government would again put the budget bills to the Senate. Should the opposition continue to block them, Whitlam planned a double-dissolution election. Kerr relayed to Charteris Whitlam’s view that it “could not take place until February 1976”.

Why didn’t Kerr co-operate with Whitlam to implement this relatively speedy path to resolution of the crisis? The answer likely lies in Whitlam’s candour in telling Kerr he would ask the queen to replace Kerr should he not accede to the plan.

Since the letters through Charteris also confirm the queen’s intention, unreservedly, to accept Whitlam’s advice to sack Kerr should she be asked to do so, Kerr knew this threat to be real and increasingly immediate.

The question is, since the queen made clear through Charteris she would uphold Australia’s constitutional convention that the monarch follow the prime minister’s advice, why would her representative, Kerr, not simply do the same with regard to Whitlam’s plans for the crisis’s resolution?




Read more:
The big reveal: Jenny Hocking on what the ‘palace letters’ may tell us, finally, about The Dismissal


This is the note missing from the palace side of the correspondence – an absence against which Charteris’s handwritten postscript pointing Kerr to the Forsey opinion that “dissolution” was a legitimate option when governments fail to get their money bills passed is stark.

Forsey was later a strong public supporter of Kerr’s sacking of the Whitlam government. No wonder the palace fought to stop these letters being released.The Conversation

Chris Wallace, Associate Professor, 50/50 By 2030 Foundation, Faculty of Business Government & Law, University of Canberra

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


‘Palace letters’ show the queen did not advise, or encourage, Kerr to sack Whitlam government



AAP/EPA/Toby Melville

Anne Twomey, University of Sydney

For more than four decades, the question has been asked: did the queen know the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, was about to dismiss the Whitlam government, and did she encourage or support that action?

The release of the “palace letters” between Kerr and the palace can now lay that question to rest. The answer was given, unequivocally, by the queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, in a letter to Kerr on November 17 1975. He said:

If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe that in NOT informing The Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.

Certainly, Kerr had kept the palace up to date with the various developments in Australia. While governors-general usually communicate with the queen only three or four times a year during ordinary times, it is common during a crisis for updates on the political situation to be made every few days – particularly if there is a risk of the queen becoming involved or the exercise of a reserve power.




Read more:
The big reveal: Jenny Hocking on what the ‘palace letters’ may tell us, finally, about The Dismissal


Drawing the palace into the crisis

In 1975, there were multiple issues that might have drawn the palace into the crisis.

First, there was the question of whether Kerr should exercise a reserve power to refuse royal assent to an appropriation bill that had been passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate. Fortunately, Whitlam dropped this idea, so that controversy disappeared.

Then there was the question of whether state premiers would advise state governors to refuse to issue the writs for a half-Senate election, and whether Whitlam would then advise the queen to instruct the governors to issue the writs. This didn’t happen either, because Whitlam did not get to hold his half-Senate election. But the prospect was enough to worry the palace.

The Whitlam government was dismissed on November 11 1975.
AAP/National Archives of Australia

Next there was the issue of what to do with the Queensland governor, Sir Colin Hannah. Hannah, in a speech, had referred to the “fumbling ineptitude” of the Whitlam government. Hannah held a “dormant commission” to act as administrator of the Commonwealth when the governor-general was away.

Whitlam, contrary to the advice of both the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General’s Department, advised the queen to remove Hannah’s commission to be administrator.

Separately, the Queensland opposition petitioned for Hannah to be removed as governor, but that required the advice of British ministers, as Queensland was still in those days a “dependency” of the British Crown.

So the palace had to juggle advice on Hannah from two different sources.

A race to the palace

Another pressing question was what should be done if Whitlam advised Kerr’s dismissal. Kerr’s letters more than once referred to Whitlam talking of a “race to the Palace” to see whether he could dismiss Kerr before Kerr dismissed him.

Kerr saw these “jokes” as having an underlying menace. Kerr knew he didn’t have to race to the palace – he could dismiss the prime minister immediately. But he also knew, after Whitlam advised Hannah’s removal merely for using the words “fumbling ineptitude”, that Whitlam wouldn’t hesitate to act.

Sir John Kerr.
AAP/National Archives of Australia

The letters also show Kerr had been told that while the “Queen would take most unkindly” to being told to dismiss her governor-general, she would eventually do so because, as a constitutional sovereign, she had no option but to follow the advice of her prime minister. This would inevitably have brought her into the fray in an essentially Australian constitutional crisis.

Kerr explained in a letter after the dismissal that if he had given Whitlam 24 hours to advise a dissolution or face the prospect of dismissal, there was a considerable risk Whitlam would advise the queen to dismiss Kerr. He wrote:

[…] the position would then have been that either I would in fact be trying to dismiss him whilst he was trying to dismiss me, an impossible position for The Queen, or someone totally inexperienced in the developments of the crisis up to that point, be it a new Governor-General or an Administrator who would have to be a State Governor, would be confronted by the same implacable Prime Minister.

Advice from the palace

The letters reveal much of Kerr’s thinking, but little from the palace. Charteris rightly accepted the reserve powers existed, but they were to be used “in the last resort and then only for constitutional and not for political reasons”.

Charteris stressed the exercise of such powers was a

heavy responsibility and it is only at the very end when there is demonstrably no other course that they should be used.

This did not give Kerr any “green light” or encouragement to act. No-one suggested to him that the end had come and there was no other course to be followed. That was for Kerr to judge, and rightly so, because the powers could only be exercised by him – not the queen.

Whether the end had come and there was no other course is essentially what continues to be debated today. Should Kerr have waited? Should he have warned Whitlam? Was another course of action available?

All of these questions may justly be debated. But, no, the queen did not direct Kerr to dismiss Whitlam. He was not encouraged to do so. He was only encouraged to obey the Australian Constitution, which is something we all should do.The Conversation

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney

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


Jenny Hocking: why my battle for access to the ‘Palace letters’ should matter to all Australians



Independent Australia

Jenny Hocking, Monash University

Professor Jenny Hocking recently won her longstanding campaign for the National Archives of Australia to release the so-called “Palace letters” about the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975. This is her account of that campaign.


In August 1975, speaking at a private dinner at Sydney’s Wentworth Hotel, Governor-General Sir John Kerr proudly described himself as “the Queen’s only personal representative in Australia with direct access to her”.

Kerr was a staunch monarchist, and what he saw as his “direct” access to the Queen was of great moment to him:

I am in constant communication with her on a wide variety of matters, on most of which I am communicating directly to her.

We now know just how constant that communication was. Kerr wrote frequently, at times several letters in a single day. There are 116 of his letters to the Queen, almost all of them sent through her private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, containing extensive attachments including press reports, other peoples’ letters to Kerr, telegrams and articles. There are also 95 letters from the Queen to Kerr, all through Charteris.

These 211 letters in the National Archives of Australia, written during the entirety of Kerr’s tenure as governor-general and with increasing frequency after August 1975, constitute “the Palace letters”. They are without doubt the most significant historical records relating to the dismissal of the Whitlam government in November 1975. Yet, until last week’s landmark High Court decision, they had been closed to us by the archives, labelled as “personal” records and placed under the embargo of the Queen.




Read more:
High Court ruling on ‘Palace letters’ case paves way to learn more about The Dismissal – and our Constitution


Aware of their immense historical significance, and with the support of a legal team working pro bono, in 2016 I launched a Federal Court action against the National Archives in an effort to secure access to the Palace letters.

It was not only the obvious importance of letters between the Queen and the governor-general, her representative in Australia, relating to Kerr’s unprecedented dismissal of the elected government that drove this case. It was also the importance of asserting the right of public access to, and control over, our most important archival records.

It took four years and a legal process through the Federal Court, the full Federal Court, and finally the full bench of the High Court of Australia – at which the federal attorney-general Christian Porter joined with the archives against my action. But in an emphatic 6:1 decision, the High Court ruled against the archives. It found the letters were not “personal” but rather Commonwealth records, and as such must now be available for public access under the provisions of the Archives Act.

Jenny Hocking last month won her case in the High Court to have access to the Palace letters.
AAP/Peter Rae

Why it matters

This is an immensely important decision, overturning decades of archival practice that has routinely locked away royal records from public view as “personal”. It also provides a rare challenge to reflexive claims of “royal secrecy”, here and elsewhere.

Its implications will be felt broadly in other Commonwealth nations and potentially in the United Kingdom, where the Royal Archives are firmly closed from public access except with the permission of the monarch. Of equal importance is that the High Court’s ruling has brought the Palace letters firmly under Australian law, ending the humiliating quasi-imperial imposition of the Queen’s embargo over our archival records, and over our knowledge of our own history.

What made this case so important was the significance of original documents to the evolving history of the dismissal. A series of revelations in recent years, much of it from Kerr’s papers, has transformed that history and deeply challenged our previous understandings of the dismissal.




Read more:
Australian politics explainer: Gough Whitlam’s dismissal as prime minister


As a deeply contested and polarised episode, access to original records – as opposed to subsequent interpretations – was unusually significant. There could be no more significant records than the letters between the governor-general and the Queen regarding what the Federal Court described as “one of the most controversial and tumultuous events in the modern history of the nation”.

What the Palace letters might tell us

I first came across the Palace letters more than a decade ago, when I began exploring Kerr’s papers as part of the research for my biography of Gough Whitlam. When I sought access to them I was told they were “personal” papers -– “non-Commonwealth, no appeal”. This meant I could neither access them nor appeal that denial of access to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The only way of challenging the label “personal” was a Federal Court action, an onerous and prohibitive prospect.

A series of revelations from Kerr’s papers highlighted their importance and the travesty of their continued closure. These include: a personal journal Kerr wrote in 1980 in which he cites several of the letters and recounts his critical discussion with Prince Charles in September 1975 expressing concern for his own recall as governor-general if he were to dismiss Whitlam; extracts from some of the letters; and his frequent references to the letters in other letters to friends and colleagues. Perhaps the most crucial item of all was a handwritten note, “Points on Dismissal”, in which he refers to “Charteris’ advice to me on dismissal”.

There could scarcely be a stronger indication that the Palace was intensely involved with Kerr’s consideration of the possible dismissal of the elected government. This, along with other materials, suggest that at the very least, Kerr had drawn the Palace into his planning before the dismissal.

Kerr cites a letter to the Queen in August 1975 in which he raised the “possibility of another double dissolution”. Just why he would be raising this two months before supply had been blocked in the Senate, and when the prime minister had held a rare double dissolution just the previous year and was intending to call the half-Senate election which was then due, may be answered when we see the letters.

Kerr writes that his conversations with Whitlam “were reported in detail to the Queen as they happened” for several months before the dismissal itself. This is a simply extraordinary situation: the governor-general is reporting to the Queen his private conversations, plans, matters of governance, and meetings with the Australian prime minister, and this is kept secret from the prime minister himself.

This is the crucial context of secrecy and deception in which the Palace letters must be considered: that Whitlam knew nothing of these discussions because Kerr had decided on a constitutionally preposterous policy of “silence” towards the prime minister, who retained the confidence of the House of Representatives at all times.

It is this extensive communication through hundreds of letters to and from the Queen, when taken in the context of Kerr’s self-described “silence” towards his own prime minister, that shows Kerr’s aberrant perception of his vice-regal role as acting as “the Queen’s personal representative” while failing to consult his own prime minister.

As historian John Warhurst has noted, from what we already know of the Palace letters:

…the British crown was interfering in the 1975 dispute in ways that should offend anyone who wants Australia to be a fully independent nation … the Palace did not stand above the fray … Kerr consulted the Palace and took advice from the Queen’s secretary acting on behalf of the Queen.

Knowing our story, in full

The National Archives’s denial of access to the Palace letters has prevented us knowing the extent of that consultation and advice for too long. The High Court’s resounding rejection of the basis for that secrecy is an historic opportunity for the director-general of the archives, David Fricker, to make good his claim the archives is a “pro-disclosure organisation”, recognise the profound breach with the past the decision represents, and embrace the spirit of public access that underpins it by releasing all 211 of the Palace letters.

It’s time for an open reckoning with our past, a fully informed debate about the events of 1975, and an answer to the lingering questions over the role of the Queen.

No matter how unpalatable this story may be to some, it’s our story and we have a right to know it.The Conversation

Jenny Hocking, Emeritus Professor, Monash University

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


How Julia Gillard forever changed Australian politics – especially for women



Lukas Coch/ AAP

Blair Williams, Australian National University

The Conversation is running a series of pieces on key figures in Australian political history, examining how they changed the country and political debate.

When Julia Gillard was sworn into office as Australia’s first female prime minister on a chilly Canberra morning in 2010, it seemed like the ultimate glass ceiling had been smashed.

But this momentous occasion was marred by the onslaught of sexism and misogyny Gillard endured from the opposition, and especially the mainstream media, over the next three years of her term.




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Since she lost the prime ministership in 2013, Gillard has fostered a legacy that extends beyond parliamentary politics, with a focus on women’s rights, education and mental health.

The two Es: education and equality

Born in Wales in 1961, Gillard’s family moved to Australia in 1966. She grew up in Adelaide as the daughter of a nurse and aged care worker.

Gillard was educated at local public schools before studying at the University of Adelaide and then the University of Melbourne.

She told the Harvard Business Review last year her involvement in the student movement, protesting education cutbacks, was a formative experience:

That’s what spurred an activism and engagement in public policy in me, and I went on to lead the student movement nationally … people had said, ‘You really should consider politics’. It was a slow dawning over time that it would be a fantastic way of putting my values into action — and realising that someone like me could do it.

Graduating with an arts/law degree, Gillard joined law firm Slater & Gordon in 1987 and was a partner by 1990.

While she has said she felt “quite at home in many ways” as a young woman in the “larrakin” culture of the law firm, she also worked on affirmative action campaigns in the 1990s. She was a founding member of Labor women’s support network, EMILY’s List Australia.

She continues to maintain this focus on gender and education in her post-politics advocacy.

Going to Canberra, creating history

Gillard was elected to federal parliament in 1998 and was a frontbencher by 2001.
In 2007, with Labor’s election victory, she became deputy prime minister and minister for education, workplace relations and social inclusion.

Gillard was sworn in as Australia’s 27th prime minister by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.
Alan Porritt/ AAP

However, despite the popularity of prime minister Kevin Rudd, the Labor party became increasingly frustrated with his leadership style ahead of the 2010 federal election.

These tensions saw Gillard challenge Rudd for the top job in June 2010, in one of the most dramatic episodes in recent Australian political history.

Gillard’s unexpected promotion would have lasting consequences for her, the Labor Party and Australian political culture.

It initiated a “coup culture” in Australian politics, where a series of challenges saw the removal of four out of the five most recent prime ministers.

A sexist backlash

The unprecedented removal of a popular first-term prime minister during an election year also prompted an overwhelming backlash from the opposition, the media and the public.

Gillard faced accusations of disloyalty that marred the historic significance of her victory and status as the “first woman”. It also unleashed what seemed like a ceaseless tirade of sexism and misogyny that she endured for the next three years of her term.

The more prominent examples include broadcaster Alan Jones saying Gillard should be put in a “chaff bag” and taken “out to sea”. A menu at a Liberal National Party fundraiser described a dish as “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.




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Opposition leader Tony Abbott stood in front of – and tacitly endorsed – sexist placards.

Julia Gillard faced repeated sexist abuse during her time as prime minister.
Alan Porritt/AAP

A productive parliament

After the 2010 federal election, Gillard had to work with a minority government.

But in a sign of her formidable negotiating skills, Gillard’s term as prime minister was extremely productive.

Despite the surrounding political turmoil, 570 bills were passed by the Senate, with key achievements including the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the child abuse royal commission, a carbon price, education funding and paid parental leave.




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Labor’s legacy: six years of … what exactly?


It wasn’t all warm and fuzzy

Yet not all Gillard’s policies are so fondly remembered.

On the same day Gillard delivered her famous “misogyny speech”, her government passed welfare reforms that moved single parents off the parenting payment and onto Newstart (now called JobSeeker Payment). This reduced people’s payments by $60 to $100 a week, disproportionately affecting women.

Her asylum seeker policies and opposition to marriage equality also garnered widespread criticism from progressive Australians, particularly the LGBTIQ+ community and refugee advocates.

‘I will not be lectured by this man’

Twelve iconic words have come to define Gillard’s legacy:

I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man.

This statement launched a blistering 15-minute speech, in which Gillard called out the sexism and hypocrisy of Abbott during Question Time in October 2012.

The anger and frustration she felt about Abbott – known for his sexist sentiments – and the systemic double standards she’d endured for years, resonated with women around the world.

Julia Gillard delivered her “misogyny speech” on October 9 2012.

Though it was initially critiqued by the Canberra Press Gallery, which accused Gillard of “playing the gender card”, the speech went viral.

It has become the definitive moment of her prime ministership and is often the only thing people overseas know about Australian politics.




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Earlier this year, it was voted the “most unforgettable” moment in Australian TV history by a Guardian Australia poll. Last month, a senior advisor to former-US President Barack Obama revealed they often watched the speech whenever they were frustrated with then-prime minister Abbott.

The misogyny speech has even entered into the pop cultural canon, inspiring young women today to create memes and TikToks paying homage to those famous words.

Changing the way we talk about sexism and politics

Gillard’s misogyny speech and her time as our first woman prime minister changed the way that politics and sexism were talked about in Australia and highlighted the toxic nature of parliament.

Rather than “playing the gender card”, Gillard drew attention to it, calling out the sexism and misogyny that many women in politics had to silently endure.

Julia Gillard, pictured here with former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, continues to advocate for gender equality.
David Moir/ AAP

Speaking with Gillard last year in preparation for my doctoral research, she noted how the conversation around gender and sexism is “everywhere now”, and that people are far more aware of and likely to challenge gendered double-standards.

In recent years, we have seen multiple women politicians breaking their silence, from Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young suing fellow senator David Leyonhjelm for defamation, to former Liberal MP Julia Banks calling out “gender bias” and “bullying”.

Post-politics: ‘what would Julia do?’

Gillard lost the Labor leadership in 2013, when Rudd got his revenge and his old job back.

Gillard left Parliament immediately after she lost the leadership.
Lukas Coch/ AAP

But she has left a lasting legacy as a role model for girls and young women. This stems not just from her political career, but for the way she has gracefully moved on.

Since leaving politics, Gillard continues to work in the areas she cares about, with high-profile appointments in education, mental health and women’s leadership. Earlier this month, she was also appointed as the next chair of medical research giant, the Wellcome Trust.

Julia Gillard’s official portrait was unveiled in 2018.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Like all politicians, she’ll continue to have her critics, but her post-political life and demeanour has largely been admired. Gillard’s former foe, Abbott, even attended the 2018 unveiling of her official portrait.




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And her career continues to resonate with people, particularly women.

This was recently seen when she received a handwritten note from a stranger on a flight, which thanked her for being “such a strong, intelligent and unapologetic role model for myself and so many of my peers”.

The note added that the author and her female colleagues used the phrase “WWJD” or “what would Julia do”.

As the woman explained: “It’s our rallying cry to be the absolute best at our jobs”.The Conversation

Blair Williams, Political Scientist, Australian National University

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


High Court ruling on ‘Palace letters’ case paves way to learn more about The Dismissal – and our Constitution



National Archives of Australia

Anne Twomey, University of Sydney

The High Court has ruled that Sir John Kerr’s correspondence with the queen comprises “Commonwealth records”. This means access to them is now in Australian hands and can no longer be vetoed by the private secretary to the queen.

This correspondence, which includes Kerr’s briefings to the queen on the political crisis prior to the dismissal of the Whitlam government on November 11 1975, and his explanation to her afterwards of why he exercised this power, have so far been kept from public view.




Read more:
Explainer: what is the ‘palace letters’ case and what will the High Court consider?


The High Court’s decision opens the possibility that we will finally see the last pieces of factual evidence about The Dismissal – revealing the concerns and reasoning of the governor-general, as events occurred, without the gloss of hindsight.

It could even allow this festering wound in our political history to be healed, once all the information has been revealed. But it depends now on what the National Archives does next.

How were these letters treated until now?

Until now, the National Archives has claimed all correspondence it holds between governors-general and the queen, even when written in their official capacities, is “personal” and not a “Commonwealth record”.

This means there was no legal obligation on the National Archives to provide public access to these letters. Instead, the National Archives had stated it could only release these documents in accordance with the conditions placed on them by the person who lodged them with the National Archives.

But it let those conditions be changed on the instructions of the queen in 1991 so that her private secretary and the secretary of the governor-general held a veto over the release of any such correspondence.




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Australian politics explainer: Gough Whitlam’s dismissal as prime minister


Professor Jenny Hocking.
AAP/James Ross

In the case brought by academic Jenny Hocking against the National Archives, the High Court held by a majority of six to one that the letters between Sir John Kerr and the queen were created, received and held as institutional documents by the “official establishment of the Governor-General” before being transferred to the National Archives by the official secretary to the governor-general in his official capacity. This level of official control over them was enough to make them “Commonwealth records”, even if the governor-general still held ownership rights over them (which the majority said it did not need to decide).

In their joint judgment, Chief Justice Kiefel and Justices Bell, Gageler and Keane said they could not see how the correspondence could be described, however “loosely”, as “private or personal records of the Governor-General”.

They said it could not be supposed that Kerr could have taken the correspondence from the governor-general’s official establishment and destroyed or sold it.

Justice Gordon thought even if Kerr did have property rights in the original documents, he gave up any claim to them when they were deposited with the National Archives. Justice Edelman agreed the correspondence between the governor-general and the queen was “created or received officially and kept institutionally”.

Only Justice Nettle concluded these letters were personal communications between Kerr and the Queen, and were not Commonwealth records.

Does this mean we get to see the letters now?

The court did not order that the letters be publicly released. Instead, it ordered the director-general of the National Archives reconsider Jenny Hocking’s request for access to the correspondence held by the archives, treating them as Commonwealth records.

Section 31 of the Archives Act 1983 requires the National Archives to give public access to any Commonwealth record that it holds that is within the open access period and is not an “exempt record”.

The correspondence between Kerr and the queen has been in the “open access period” since 2006/2007. The only question that remains is whether the director-general will now claim that the correspondence is comprised of “exempt records”.

Section 33 of the Act lists a number of exemptions. These include documents that could reasonably be expected to cause damage to international relations, or where disclosure of matters in the record would constitute a breach of confidence.

The damage that might be caused by the release of documents necessarily diminishes over time. So even if these exemptions are claimed, consideration would have to be given to whether they remain applicable, given the age of the documents.

The director-general of the National Archives responded to the High Court’s decision by stating the
“National Archives is a pro-disclosure organisation” that operates on the basis of making records publicly available “unless there is a specific and compelling need to withhold it”.

It will be interesting to see what “compelling” needs it might identify.

Are there any wider implications of the decision?

The High Court’s decision will also affect the release of correspondence by other governors-general. The release of Lord Casey’s correspondence with the Queen was recently blocked by Buckingham Palace, which stated it would refuse access to any correspondence with the queen until at least five years after her death, and then only if the private secretary to the new monarch agrees. That veto has now been destroyed by the High Court.

So not only is Kerr’s correspondence with the queen liable to be opened, but also the correspondence by all other governors-general with the queen, when it is in the “open access period” and subject to any exemption.

That may mean we get a better idea of how the roles of the governor-general and the queen operate under our Constitution, which would be a good thing.The Conversation

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney

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


Sydney’s 9,189 ‘sister politicians’ who petitioned Queen Victoria


Kiera Lindsey, University of Technology Sydney

One spring morning in 1850, over 8,000 Sydneysiders marched through town to protest the resumption of transportation – the act of sending British criminals to Australia.

It was the largest protest in Australia thus far, an event Henry Parkes (later Premier of NSW) described as “the birthday of Australian democracy”.

Transportation ceased in New South Wales in 1840. Over the following decade, colonists worked hard to transform their penal colony into a respectable civil society.

By the late 1840s, people like Parkes believed they were on the brink of not only greater self-government but perhaps even democracy.

However, Henry George GreyColonial Secretary in charge of all the United Kingdom’s colonial dependencies – had been planning to resume transportation. In 1849, he decided to test the waters by sending out a boat of convicts. When the vessel sailed into Sydney Harbour, thousands rushed to Circular Quay to prevent it from docking.

The people had been triumphant and confident they had sent a firm message.

They were, therefore, deeply outraged in 1850 when they discovered Grey was so indifferent to their protests, he was planning to send another boat.




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Rallies and petitions were organised throughout NSW, including two, the press snidely described as “ladies petitions” in Sydney.

Of the 36,589 signatures collected, 9,189 were from Sydney women – at least 42% of Sydney’s female population at the time.

These were delivered to the NSW Legislative Council, then the UK House of Commons and Queen Victoria.

While historians have typically focused on the male orators and agitators of this age, these “ladies petitions” challenge the narrative of colonial democracy as created by men for men. These documents also suggest women could not have been completely confined to the domestic sphere, nor entirely excluded from politics.

For me, they also promised a rare encounter with voices difficult to hear within the colonial archive.

Reading the petition

Although the right to petition the monarchy had been enshrined in British law since the Magna Carta, in the 19th century petitions were regularly used to galvanise the masses and give voice to those excluded from political processes.

By the time colonial women put ink to paper in 1850, over 10,000 petitions were tabled to British parliament each year.

While most petitions of this era were destroyed once submitted, a few survived. Much to my delight, after weeks of searching the stacks, Rosemary Sempell, archivist at the New South Wales Parliamentary Records, found the original 207 pages from the “female inhabitants of Sydney.”

The opening address describes the “deep anxiety and alarm” these “wives and daughters of the citizens of Sydney” felt in regards to transportation and how it would prevent them fulfilling their “sacred and responsible duties [regarding the] moral instruction” of the colony and their children.

Most of all, these women were furious Grey had repeatedly ignored the colony’s “solemn and unanimous” rejection of transportation.

Ultimately, it was this disrespect for due process and local authority that compelled these women to petition the Queen directly.

The petition was signed by a broad range of Sydney women: members of the colonial elite such as Lady Eleanor Stephens, middle-class mothers who feared the corrupting influence of convicts, and those who signed their names with a simple cross that suggested they may have had firsthand experience of transportation.

A rising of ‘sister politicians’

When this petition was tabled in Legislative Council, it was described as “the first of its sort” in Australia and conservative politician William Wentworth was quick to question whether members of the council should consent to such political activity.

He warned husbands “would have their dinners far better cooked, their shirts better washed” if their wives were not “political ladies”.

He also predicted such activity would encourage other petitions “praying for the rights of women”, perhaps even cause “some Mary Wollstonecraft” to rise up and instruct her “sister politicians” to ignore “their husbands” altogether.

Although the Australian suffragist movement did not begin in earnest for another 30 years, Wentworth may have been correct in connecting this moment of female activism with all that would unfold. At the very least, these petitions proved colonial women could unite against a common enemy.




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A role for women

The women who signed this petition did so because they believed the colony was ready to chart its own course, and they wanted to be part of the process.

It might be telling that in the final sentence of the address the word “particularly” has been crossed out and replaced with “patriotically”. Although this may have been an editorial error, it suggests Parkes was correct: 1850 did represent a new spirit of “local feeling”. One that mattered to these women and was also effective in finally putting an end to transportation to NSW – as was resolved in the UK House of Commons the following month.

The colonial archive has encouraged us to assume only men were involved in the push for greater political freedoms in Australia. These “ladies petitions” confirm that thousands of Sydney women were not only present at the birthday of Australian democracy, but determined to play a role in its future.

In this first foray into the political domain, Australian women also proved they could have their voices heard: not only by other colonists and the British Parliament, but even, the Queen herself.


The author would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for sharing their expertise in the search for these petitions: Edith Ho, State Library of NSW; Bonnie Wilde, State Records of NSW; and Rosemary Sempell, Parliament of NSW Archives.The Conversation

Kiera Lindsey, , University of Technology Sydney

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


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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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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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.




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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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