Tag Archives: John Howard

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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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.


1996-1997 cabinet papers show how Howard and Costello faced a budget black hole


File 20181220 45385 17exejd.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The newly sworn-in Howard ministry in March 1996.
National Archives of Australia

Frank Bongiorno, Australian National University

On the morning of Monday, March 4 1996, the young treasurer in the Howard government, Peter Costello, and his press secretary, Tony Smith – now the speaker of the House of Representatives – took an Ansett flight from Melbourne to Sydney for their first departmental briefing. The treasury secretary, Ted Evans, who had initially asked to see Costello privately, offered his resignation in light of the change of government. Costello assured Evans he wanted him to stay on.

Once the meeting began, Evans had some startling news for his new boss. The budget had an underlying deficit of about A$9 billion. “Costello appeared genuinely shocked”, his biographer, Shaun Carney, has reported. The size of the deficit probably did take him by surprise, even if the existence of a deficit of some kind did not. John Howard recalls that he had wind of it before his March 2 election victory.

A submission released today by the National Archives of Australia in its 1996-1997 cabinet records sets out the nature and scale of the problem that the new government saw as its most serious during its first term. But problem would become opportunity. In his autobiography, Lazarus Rising, Howard would call the 1996 budget “the most important of all budgets” delivered during his almost 12 years in government, as well as “the best and bravest in 25 years”.




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Howard is hardly a disinterested party. Nonetheless, there is a persuasive strand of opinion among commentators that the fiscal decisions taken in 1996, while creating political pain for the government and economic pain for voters, were foundational for Howard and Costello.

Some have credited this early decision-making for Australia’s economic resilience in the face of turbulent global winds: the Asian financial crisis, the bursting of the dot-com bubble, even the global financial crisis.

The cabinet submission of March 18 1996 predicted economic growth of 3.75% for 1995-96 and 1996-97, on the back of improved performance from the farm sector as the drought ended. Weak demand was likely cyclical, a “temporary slowdown of the type which often occurs at this stage of the business cycle and that growth should strengthen in subsequent quarters”, as business investment again took off.

Howard’s quip from opposition in 1995 – that the recovering economy was “five minutes of economic sunlight” – was effective politics. But it was not supported by the new government’s own records, which referred to a “generally favourable outlook”.

Compared with the skyrocketing interest rates and then the recession the Hawke and Keating governments faced in the early 1990s (or the recession the Hawke government inherited in 1983), these were happy days.

However, unemployment remained high at well over 8% and was projected to stay there in the following year.

The government was also concerned about the drag on economic performance of continuing budget deficits and rising government debt. This was running down national savings, undermining investment and worsening Australia’s current account deficit – the difference between the value of imports and exports of goods, services and capital.

Costello committed the government to reducing the underlying deficit of 3.5% of gross domestic product to 0.5% over three years, thereby reducing public sector lending, relieving pressure on the current account deficit, and returning the budget to a structural surplus. The government rejected the idea of a single massive cut of A$8 billion in the 1996 budget as running the risk “of knocking the economy off course”. It therefore committed to cuts of A$4 billion in each of the budgets of 1996 and 1997, with an eye to less pain in the 1998 budget leading up to an election.

With defence spending quarantined from the cuts, the August 1996 budget was indeed a tough one. The usual suspects – health, welfare, the public service and tertiary education – bore much of the load. Nonetheless, the government’s own polling suggested most voters thought its measures “tough but fair”, dispensing necessary if bitter medicine.

Howard remarked at the December launch of the latest cabinet records release that the government applied to the budget a “fair go” test, although he would ultimately bear pain for his too-clever distinction between “core” and “non-core” election promises.

Tony Abbott was a young parliamentary secretary in 1996, on his way up but still some way from the real levers of power. By 2013, however, he had his own government and with his treasurer, Joe Hockey, faced the problem of framing his first budget.

The 1996 effort would have provided a strong clue for Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey to frame their first budget after their 2013 election win.
AAP/Lukas Coch

The 1996 effort would have been a powerful precedent for a new Coalition government in 2013 and, at a superficial level, the Abbott government did many similar things. As Howard and Costello had done, it established a National Commission of Audit.

Costello had complained of the “Beazley black hole” – the deficit bequeathed by Labor’s finance minister, Kim Beazley. Conveniently for the government, he was also the new opposition leader. The phrase lived on as a way of reminding electors of the Labor Party’s weaknesses in economic management and the Coalition’s achievements and strengths.

In 2014, Abbott and Hockey spoke of a “budget emergency”. But whereas the public seems to have bought the “black hole” image – although described recently by economist Warwick McKibbin as more like a temporary “pothole” – voters appear to have regarded the Abbott government’s “budget emergency” as invented.

One reason for this failure ironically lies in legislative changes that Costello announced at the very time he drew public attention to the black hole. This was the Charter of Budget Honesty, which mandated more rigorous reporting on the national finances, including the alphabet soup of MYEFO (Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook) and PEEFO (Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook), as well as five-yearly intergenerational reports.

These initiatives, which a Costello cabinet submission of August 2 1996 said were intended to promote “responsible fiscal management”, made it well nigh impossible to spring the surprise of a large deficit on an unsuspecting public and successor.

Unlike Hawke and Keating in 1983, and Howard and Costello in 1996, Abbott and Hockey could not stoke panic to implement unpopular measures and back out of difficult election commitments. The Charter of Budget Honesty meant they could not claim to have been blind-sided by an unanticipated budget deficit.

Howard and Costello also faced a much more helpful set of parliamentary numbers than their Coalition successor. With a massive 94 seats in a House of 148, they had political capital to burn. While few imagined the government would last almost 12 years, equally few considered it could be defeated after one term.

But it is in the Senate that the differences between 1996 and 2014 become clearer. There, the Howard government held 37 seats in a chamber of 76. After the defection of disgruntled Labor senator Mal Colston in August 1996, the government could get its legislation passed without the support of the Australian Democrats if it had Colston and the other independent senator, Brian Harradine, on side.

By way of contrast, the Abbott government faced a Senate cross bench of considerable complexity and diversity. And, as Howard has remarked, dealing with the Australian Democrats was notably easier for a Coalition government than getting Greens support.




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In 1996, Howard and Costello got the politics right. They still paid a political price, but it did not prove fatal. McKibbin argues that the introduction of a GST in 2000 was made easier by the reduction of government outlays and the elimination of the budget deficit in the government’s first term.

By dealing with spending in 1996, the government was able to turn its attention to revenue and taxation in a more favourable fiscal environment for politically difficult reform.

The image remains: as they contemplated their own horror budget, Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann relaxed with cigars. Trivial in itself, this clumsiness epitomised the Abbott government’s muddled budget politics.

In 2014, after decades of strong economic performance, few believed that the drastic measures the Abbott government proposed in 2014 were either necessary or fair. Hockey declared the “age of entitlement” over, but voters suspected this did not extend to politicians or their friends.

The contentious measures in the 2014 budget – such as the Medicare co-payment and the winding back of unemployment benefits – did not pass Howard’s “fair go” test.

But the tough spending cuts Costello announced in 1996, while hardly provoking an outbreak of national joy, were an early taste of the professionalism and toughness that he and Howard brought to their long years at the helm.The Conversation

Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

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


Australian politics explainer: the MV Tampa and the transformation of asylum-seeker policy


Alex Reilly, University of Adelaide

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


Some time before August 23 2001, a small Indonesian fishing boat, the KM Palapa 1, left Indonesia en route to Christmas Island with 438 asylum seekers aboard.

Like many before them, the asylum seekers hoped to reach Australia and apply for permanent protection visas. The Palapa’s engines failed in international waters between Indonesia and Australia, and it lay stranded for many days.

On August 26, the MV Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship en route from Fremantle to Singapore, answered a call from the Australian Coast Guard and rescued the crew and passengers of the Palapa. Makeshift accommodation and bathrooms were organised on the open deck. Pregnant women were among the passengers.

A delegation of five asylum seekers was taken to see the Tampa’s captain, Arne Rhinnan. They pleaded to be taken to Christmas Island (four hours away) and threatened to jump ship if they were returned to Indonesia (11 hours away). Rhinnan told the coast guard he planned to take the rescuees to Christmas Island, which was duly noted.

However, some hours later, Neville Nixon of the Department of Immigration contacted Rhinnan to inform him that the Tampa was not to enter Australian waters – and if it did so, Rhinnan risked imprisonment and fines of up to A$110,000.

What was its impact?

It was the prime minister, John Howard, who decided to prevent the Tampa entering Australia. The decision heralded the beginning of a new, executive-led change in policy, which has been the underlying basis of the approach to asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat ever since.

When the 438 asylum seekers left Indonesia on the Palapa, Australia’s policy was to rescue asylum seekers at sea and detain them in Australia while their claims for protection were processed. If their claims were successful, they would be released into the community on permanent protection visas. If they weren’t, they would be returned to their country of origin.

On October 8, six weeks after the Tampa was told it could not enter Australian waters, the Palapa survivors were forcibly removed from the HMAS Manoora onto Nauru. In the intervening period, the Australian government had introduced a policy of boat turnbacks.

The ability to construct and implement this policy less than three months out from an election was an extraordinary achievement of the Howard government, particularly given it involved complex negotiations with a foreign country (Nauru).

Also in this six-week period, ten more boats (now labelled Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels, or SIEVs) attempted to reach Christmas Island. It was a period of high drama. The Australian Navy was under orders to forcibly return boats to Indonesia under Operation Relex.

Several boats sank under navy observation. Despite the best efforts of navy personnel to rescue asylum seekers flailing in the open sea, many people drowned. In the case of SIEV-4, cabinet ministers seized on a navy communication feed that children were being thrown overboard. They immediately made the allegation public; Howard and his immigration minister declared these were not the type of people Australia wanted.

The government maintained its reliance on unverified naval intelligence right up to the federal election on November 10, without providing the navy with an opportunity to correct the record. This politicisation of navy information was the subject of a Senate inquiry in the next parliament.

Boats ceased arriving altogether after SIEV-10 sank on October 19, killing more than 350 of its 400 passengers.

The exact circumstances of the sinking of SIEV-10 remain uncertain. There can be little doubt, however, that its sinking had a significant deterrent effect on asylum seekers in Indonesia considering the journey to Christmas Island by boat.

What are its contemporary implications?

At the time of the Tampa incident, the government’s new policy of boat turnbacks seemed extreme.

However, the government ran a highly successful campaign claiming that the policy was necessary to control Australia’s borders and keep the nation safe, particularly in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

The government kept strict control of information. It withheld information about navy operations involving asylum seekers at sea and restricted the access of journalists to Nauru and Christmas Island. It also downplayed the effect of offshore detention on the mental and physical health of asylum seekers, and cast rescuees as undeserving of Australia’s protection – and potentially a risk to security.

The Rudd Labor government ended the Howard government’s asylum-seeker policy in 2007. Offshore detention centres were closed; boat turnbacks ceased. But, from 2010 to 2013, boats began arriving in unprecedented numbers, and Tony Abbott and the Coalition were elected on a platform that included “stopping the boats”.

The Abbott government introduced a new policy mirroring the post-Tampa policy – which included an added sting introduced by the Rudd government prior to the 2013 election that no asylum seeker arriving by boat and processed in an offshore detention centre would ever be resettled in Australia.

This present-day asylum-seeker policy has bipartisan support. It is a direct legacy of the Howard government’s decision to refuse entry to the Tampa in August 2001.

Alex Reilly, Deputy Dean and Director of the Public Law and Policy Research Unit, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

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


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