Tagged: Mike Ahern

By Joh, it could be Trump!

For Queenslanders of a certain age, there is so much about the rise of Donald Trump that seems eerily familiar. For 19 years, his prehistoric ancestor ruled the swamps of Australia’s deep north – a hillbilly dictator who beat up protesters and confounded the media with complete gibberish while a dark web of corruption flourished behind him. Thankfully, Joh Bjelke-Petersen didn’t have the codes, or a Twitter account.

At the time, the sheer lunacy of Bjelke-Petersen seemed beyond the reach of satirists, despite there being numerous comedic imitators of Joh’s folksy, stammering idiosyncrasies. These days, it’s getting harder to convince people who weren’t there that certain things actually happened, such as police being sent to university campuses on pre-dawn raids to rip condom-vending machines from toilet walls in 1987.

When he was eventually rolled by his own party, Joh locked himself in his parliamentary annex for days, phoning Buckingham Palace seeking Her Majesty’s intervention. If that’s not enough, imagine the corpulent figure of Russ Hinze – the minister for everything – bent at the waist, peering through the keyhole with tears streaming down his cheeks, beseeching his master: “Joh! Maaaate! It’s over!”

For many of those who lived through it, though, Bjelke-Petersen’s iron-fisted rule was no laughing matter. Apologists for his regime occasionally wave away the vast and vicious corruption uncovered by the Fitzgerald Inquiry that ignominiously ended his career as a victimless crime. Those people need to read Matt Condon’s extraordinary Three Crooked Kings trilogy and count the bodies.

The truly nasty, brutish side of Joh’s regime is mostly sidestepped in Joh For PM (yes, that really happened too), a musical comedy by playwright Stephen Carleton and composer Paul Hodge. What’s striking about it, 30 years after his downfall, is how prescient it is, as though this utterly reactionary figure was some kind of seer. References and parallels to the present day are deliberate, frequent and often uncanny.

Southern journalists, for example, are described thus: “They come up here and write fake news. We need someone to build a wall between us and them!” There’s also his press secretary Allen Callaghan (a show-stealing turn by Kurt Phelan), who describes himself to his boss as “Henry Higgins to your Eliza Doolittle”. Callaghan teaches him to “feed the chooks”, telling him “It’s good TV to try to keep them confused.”

It’s as if the satire has somehow had time to catch up. Some of these songs seem to have written themselves – The White Shoe Shuffle, for example, which skewers the so-called white shoe brigade of Gold Coast developers, and which cleverly riffs on the jitterbug of Wham!’s contemporary hit Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Don’t You Worry About That, similarly, nods to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.

It’s campy, glorious fun, and if it has a weakness, it makes Joh, who’s well played by Colin Lane, look dumber than he was. As one song points out, much of his rise, from local member to minister to deputy to premier – thanks to his predecessor Jack Pizzey dropping dead of a heart attack – seemed accidental, if not divine intervention. But you don’t stay premier for 19 years without ruthlessness and rat cunning.

Joh had both in spades. Like Trump, it’s easy to make him look like a bumptious fool, but it’s perfectly possible to be a bumptious fool and a dangerous megalomaniac at the same time. To suggest that Joh was largely directed by those around him – his wife Flo (Barb Lowing, whose song Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy is a highlight); Callaghan; his pilot Beryl – is a mistake.

But Joh For PM also gets one thing right: his progeny are all around us. Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter (who described the aforementioned condom-vending machines as “despicable things that would do nothing to help prevent the spread of AIDS, but would encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon”), Jacqui Lambie, Clive Palmer, and even Kevin Rudd have all taken a lead from Joh’s dinosaur footprints.

The show was greeted with a standing ovation at The Powerhouse. Among them was Mike Ahern, who briefly replaced Bjelke-Petersen as National Party premier and whom Queenslanders can thank, along with the late police minister Bill Gunn, for having the political and moral courage to institute the Fitzgerald Inquiry that resulted in their party being cast into the wilderness for decades.

Famously, Ahern promised to implement Fitzgerald’s recommendations “lock, stock and barrel”. He didn’t survive long enough as premier to fulfil his pledge, and is an almost forgotten figure today. Described as a “sneaky Roman Catholic” by his devout Lutheran adversary – a line that had him visibly shaking with laughter – he had every right to feel vindicated, both by history and by this highly enjoyable play.

First published in The Guardian, 8 July 2017

Arse-backwards in Queensland’s backwoods

It’s one of those things that gives us poor Banana Benders our backwoods reputation. In 1987, just as AIDS crashed into the national consciousness via the Grim Reaper advertisements, a brawl broke out in the Queensland National Party – its moral façade soon to be torn to shreds by Tony Fitzgerald QC – over contraception.

Mike Ahern, the progressive health minister and future premier, took a proposal to Cabinet to allow the sale of condoms through vending machines. The premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, rebuffed him. When students defied the ban and installed machines around university campuses, police were despatched to rip them from the walls in the dead of night.

Without so much as a shred of irony, Bob Katter Junior – then the minister for Aboriginal affairs in Joh’s infamously corrupt government – defended the ban with these immortal words: “Condoms are despicable things that won’t prevent the spread of AIDS but will encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon.”

A few years later, Katter promised to “walk backwards to Bourke if the poof population of North Queensland is any more than 0.001 percent”, adding for good measure, “Mind you, if the percentage is what they say it is in the rest of Australia, I’ll take to walking everywhere backwards.”

Bob is, shall we say, not for turning. Less than two years ago, at a rally against same-sex marriage, he lamented what the word gay had come to mean. “No one has the right to take that word off us,” he spluttered, as if it ever belonged to anyone.

But Bob doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. Hasn’t talked about it since his Katter Australia Party broadcast advertisements ahead of the Queensland state election, which suggested that a centre-right government led by Campbell Newman would legalise same-sex marriage. He couldn’t have been more wrong, of course.

Later, Bob described the ads as a mistake “of major proportions”. Naturally, he meant a political mistake. It was politics, rather than principle, that forced the resignation of a Victorian KAP candidate, Tess Corbett, after she stated that paedophiles would be next in line to “get rights”.

And it was politics that forced the Katter Australia Party to suspend another Queensland senate candidate – the improbably named Bernard Gaynor – after he said he didn’t want gays or lesbians teaching his kids. Gaynor is fighting his suspension, claiming (with some justification) that Katter privately agreed with his comments.

Will Katter disendorse himself for his own long history of homophobic statements? He’s not saying. He wouldn’t answer when The Project’s Charlie Pickering asked him to repudiate the equation of homosexuality and paedophilia. “You are taking me outside the area of my concern,” he said. He was certainly out of his comfort zone.

Nor would he answer on Steve Vizard’s The Circle when asked what motivated his antipathy towards gays and lesbians. “The truth is I don’t think about it at all,” he said last June. “Never have, never likely to in the future.” Pressed, he buried himself in his own book on camera, presumably to remind himself what an incredible race of people Australians are.

One could speculate that all this was possible evidence of repressed sexuality on Bob’s part, because it’s obvious from his public statements over the years that he’s spent a lot more time thinking about it than he cares to admit. But, like so many ageing white men of his era, he’s befuddled by the shift in public mood.

Not so long ago, his views were cheered. Here in Queensland, before homosexuality’s decriminalisation in 1990, The Courier-Mail rendered the word “gay” as I just have, in quotation marks, and employed a prominent columnist who frequently spewed the sort of rhetoric that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Westboro Baptist Church.

Katter is regarded warmly by many Australians outside of his Deep North constituency. A contradictory man (his heroes are Red Ted Theodore and Black Jack McEwen), he has deservedly won admiration as a voice for farmers driven to the wall by deregulation and an all-powerful supermarket duopoly.

But, like Pauline Hanson before him, he represents a longing for old certainties and values that the rest of us mostly view as outdated at best, and bigoted at worst. Like Hanson, he has attracted candidates driven by fear and anger, confused and alienated by a country that no longer resembles the one they grew up in.

If Katter wishes for his party to attract credible candidates and become a force beyond the provinces, he needs to revisit this issue. He could start by having a conversation with his gay half-brother, Carl. Then he needs to have a conversation with himself about whether this is working out for him.

Otherwise he might as well begin that long march backwards to Bourke.