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