Remembering Bjelke-Petersen's abject reign

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Bjelke Blues is edited by Edwina Shaw (image via

Life under Joh was no joke. In fact, for a lot of people it was downright dangerous, writes History editor, Dr Glenn Davies.

BJELKE BLUES: Stories of Repression & Resistance in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland is a collection of 45 powerful stories, articles and memoirs by those whose lives were shaped during the Joh era, when corruption and the gerrymander defined politics in the Deep North.

The stories in Bjelke Blues are potent reflections and reminders of what can happen when the mainstream public allow divisive politicians to use the law against anyone seen as "dangerous" or "different" – such as those who fought for ethnic and gender equality, or who opposed environmental vandalism. A lesson we need to take note of today.

The discrimination and marginalisation of the Joh years helped to ferment an underground cultural response that flourished in the face of Joh’s efforts – an equal and opposite force of music, art, unity and activism. In striving to divide the community, Joh made himself a common enemy, radicalising and politicising generations of Queenslanders who refused to give in.

As Matthew Condon states in his foreword:

'Bjelke Blues gives heart and soul to the remembrances of the men and women who were at the end of police batons… at the front line fighting for justice and decency.'

Edited by Edwina Shaw, the collection includes stories from noted Queensland writers including, Nick Earls, Melissa Lucashenko, Warren Ward, respected Indigenous activists Sam Watson and Bob Weatherall, historian Raymond Evans, agitator Dan O’Neill, musicians John Willsteed, Anne Jones and Debbie Zero, cartoonist Matt Mawson, reporter David Margan, comedian Mandy Nolan and director Sean Mee.

Queensland has a long history of protest activity. One of the great traditions has been taking to the streets to express dissatisfaction with current political decisions, or even just expressing yourself.

In 1912, during the Brisbane General Strike, more than 25,000 workers – many of who had taken to wearing red ribbons as a mark of solidarity – marched eight abreast in a procession three kilometres long from the Brisbane Trades Hall to Fortitude Valley and back, with more than 50,000 supporters watching from the sidelines. However, the ferocity of the police response on 2 February 1912 is still known as Black Friday.

The Red Flag Riots of 1918 and 1919 resulted from a federal ban on the display of the Red Flag. The Federal authorities were worried about the Russian Revolution of 1917 and had banned the display of the Red Flag. When Russian and British radicals attempted to march displaying the flag, they were attacked by police. On 24 March 1919, about 8,000 demonstrators and ex-servicemen marched from the city to the Russian Hall in Merivale Street where they clashed again with police. Up to 100 people were injured.

The rapid and widespread outbreak of social movement activity in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in many important reforms in Australian society and politics. This was seen, for example in the environment movement which, through militant grassroots action and community-based campaigning, won many important victories right up to the 1990s, especially in the area of nature conservation.

In 1967, the Queensland Premier was Joh Bjelke-Peterson, a Kingaroy peanut farmer with no understanding of the Westminster Parliamentary System of the “separation of powers”.  At the same time, the Queensland Police culture was distinct, with its own Special Branch. On 8 September 1967, a massive illegal march protesting involvement in the Vietnam War occurred after Queensland University students were refused a "permit to march". As many as 4,000 students marched from the University of Queensland into the city.

During the 1971 Springbok rugby tour, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared a state of emergency over the anti-apartheid demonstration in Wickham Terrace. The police implemented their new powers vigorously.

In the 1970s and 1980s, street marches in Brisbane always seemed to begin in King George Square ― outside Brisbane City Hall. King George Square was the crucible for the city’s social disquiet and ferment, where thousands of protesters once risked the batons of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s police force, over issues as diverse as the Vietnam War, the Springbok rugby tour, Aboriginal issues, nuclear disarmament and the right to protest. When the protesters went to walk out of the square, hundreds and hundreds of police in military ranks stopped the marchers. As people tried to step out onto the roadway, they’d be strong-armed to the ground by police who would try to push them back into the square.

In 1978, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ban on all street marches led to violent clashes between police and protesters and the arrest of more than 2,000 people in 26 separate incidents. Tensions rose as the year progressed, with the biggest march of all being in December, when 346 people were arrested and packed like sardines into cells, often being denied a lawyer.

A pacifist current ran through the campaign favouring disobedience without being militant. On April Fool’s Day 1978, student protesters from University of Queensland adopted a tactic of the No-March or Phantom March. They announced a campus to city march and marched to the edge of the campus. Then 1,000 police had arrived and lined up to arrest the protestors once they left the campus. The police stood for over four hours waiting for a march. The organizers then called it off.

In 1982, Brisbane Commonwealth Games protests that marked a historic turning point in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights in Queensland and across the country. 10,000 people set up tents in Musgrave Park, hundreds were arrested every day outside sporting venues across Brisbane. Soon after these massive protests, the Aborigines Act was repealed and the first land rights legislation started appearing around the country.

The Australian anti-nuclear movement emerged in the late 1970s in opposition to uranium mining, nuclear proliferation, the presence of US bases, and French atomic testing in the Pacific. During the 1980s, there was a mushroom-cloud shadow cast over Australia. The anti-nuclear protest movement was successful in linking the horror of nuclear war to the zeitgeist of the 1980s.

Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is a traditional day of protest for peace. During the 1980s, Palm Sundays in Australia were the occasions for enormous anti-nuclear rallies all across the country. On Palm Sunday 1982, an estimated 100,000 Australians participated in anti-nuclear rallies in the nation’s biggest cities. In 1985, more than 350,000 people marched across Australia in Palm Sunday anti-nuclear rallies. The biggest rally was in Sydney, where 170,000 people brought the city to a standstill.

In 1985, I was a first year student living in University Hall on James Cook University (JCU) campus in Townsville. JCU students in Townsville joined in the massive Palm Sunday rallies with our southern cousins in public protest as part of the nuclear disarmament movement by tagging on the end of the May Day march along the Strand. “2, 4, 6, 8. We don’t want to radiate, 1, 2, 3, 4. We don’t want no nuclear war."

North Queensland has always been a hotbed of political protest from the century-long push for a north Queensland separate state to the trench warfare of the early 1980s by Olive Scott-Young who had several sit-ins in Townsville where she would sit in potholes to protest the Townsville City Council dodging her complaints about dust and danger to cyclists. "Pothole Ollie" pulled it off though and had roads throughout the city fixed.

A few years later, we marched behind the Townsville unionists with their hats and placards remembering and publicly affirming the sacrifices their forebears had made: the mateship, the loyalty and the determination to build and protect the freedom and rights we now enjoy.

May is a beautiful time of the year in Townsville, with breezy, high-skied blue days. Marching along The Strand in Townsville it was fitting and right that the students of James Cook University were following behind the Labour Day march. We were proclaiming to the good burghers of Townsville our concerns for ensuring a better and safer world for all our futures.

For us northern protestors, there was no resistance from police. They were certainly there, watching from footpaths as we passed by, but perhaps the heat had sapped the energy from them. No mango madness from the police. We were fortunate the extreme humidity slowed down cognitive function resulting in a lack of caring about enforcing southern street march legislation.

This march was about empowerment in a world where individuals still too often have little control over their own destiny when it comes to the workplace. And this was the lesson we young students learned on that day from our older working brothers as we also were desperately looking for more say in the safety of our world.

Standing on Australian soil with a blue sky canopy on a late autumn day under a southern sun it would be irresponsible for us not to chant: One, two, three, four. We don’t won’t no nuclear war.

Matthew Condon reflects in Bjelke Blues that:

At the time, many of the factual stories in this book were under-reported, often ridiculed and belittled by those in power, their nuances ironed out by their sheer regularity and underlined by a sense of hopelessness. The Joh regime will never end? What is the point?

Well, it finally did in 1989.

But the people of Queensland must not forget, never forget, what it was really like on the ground when the Hillbilly Dictator ruled.

One way to never forget is to read stories from the time, from people who remember what it was like to live in "Joh’s Queensland".

Matthew Condon emphasises this about the stories in Bjelke Blues:

'This is exactly what it was like. Unplugged and unvarnished. As stark as a yellow piece of earthwork machinery, alone in a green pasture.'

One hundred years on from the Red Flag riots and just over fifty from the "Big March" from the University of Queensland, the right to demonstrate continues to be "a simple case of freedom". Thankfully, the Queensland police no longer indiscriminately bash street protestors.

On 15 March 2019, about 10,000 climate change protestors, including many school students, flooded the heart of Brisbane as part of a global day of action. It’s pleasing to see the next generation sweeping across the streets of your town and having the chance to participate in one of Queensland’s great traditions.

You can follow history editor Dr Glenn Davies on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

Bjelke Blues: Stories of Repression & Resistance in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland is available here.

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