The return of Joh Bjelke-Petersen

By | | comments |

Some of the decisions by the new Queensland LNP Government have a striking resonance with those of long-time Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.


Joh Bjelke-Petersen and the new Mr Queensland, Campbell Newman.

The Queensland conservative Restoration

LAST TUESDAY 3 July 2012, it had been 100 days since the Newman LNP government had been elected in Queensland. It’s worth remembering the ALP interregnum came to power in 1989 with the execution of the Bjelke-Petersen government. Just over 22 years later, the conservative Restoration has begun moving the ideological clock back by changing Senior Counsel back to Queen’s Counsel and revisiting moving the Labour Day public holiday to late in the year rather than the Queen’s Birthday holiday. However, during these 100 days there seemed little public support for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

The Newman State Government is showing its monarchist colours with Queensland set to become the first state in Australia to restore the title of Queen’s Counsel.  After nearly two decades of Senior Counsel, the state’s top barristers are expected to soon resume the old title, QC. The title QC dates back to the late 16th century, when Sir Francis Bacon was appointed the first Queen’s Counsel. When Queensland decided to dump the title in 1994, it was riding the wave of modernism that was sweeping though many Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries. It was replaced in many places with various permutations of Senior or State Counsel, with no apparent loss of efficiency or purpose. The Bar Council of the Queensland Bar Association has confirmed to the Attorney-General’s office its in-principle support for the proposal to recommence the appointment of QCs, and the matter is expected to go before Cabinet soon. Queensland Bar Association president Roger Traves SC, acknowledged in a letter to members that some might view the move as pro-monarchist.

“The arguments against included that the stance was pro-monarchy,” he said.

This seems to have taken some members of the Bar Association by surprise, because it has not been an in-house issue for years and there was no public mention of any such proposals before or after the conservative Restoration.

The 2012 Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June was to be the last after the former Labor government shifted the Queen’s Birthday holiday to the first weekend of October, while retaining a one-off Queen’s Jubilee public holiday in June 2012. But now the traditional Labour Day holiday in May is under the gun again even though there had been widespread consultation last year when the holiday system was changed and it was agreed that Labour Day would remain in May. At the time Premier Anna Bligh said all holidays, except for the Queen’s Birthday, marked significant dates and were punctuated with official ceremonies or significance.

“Unlike other public holidays, it’s not celebrated on a date that is particularly meaningful,” Ms Bligh said.

However, Labour Day has special significance for Queensland because of its links to events in the labour movement of the late nineteenth century. The change in attitude towards the public holiday timetabling suggests the Newman government is determined to take an ideological stance against the union movement. The Newman government has clearly shown in the past week that it puts cost cutting ahead of Queensland jobs, services and communities. The first 100 days is just the beginning of a concerted attack on public sector services, and the wages and conditions of workers in Queensland.

Labour Day / May Day is a public holiday held on different dates in different Australian states. It has its origins in the eight hour day movement, which advocated eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest. Labour Day, like Anzac Day, is a day when we remember the sacrifices our forebears made: the mateship, the loyalty and the determination to build and protect the freedom and rights we now enjoy. For, like Anzac Day, Labour Day is – above and beyond its historical significance – a day all Australians can celebrate our egalitarian society, our innate sense of fairness and equity, and our willingness to campaign side by side for a better world. It is the day we celebrate the winding back of the exploitation and oppressive working hours that were the norm in the early nineteenth century during the Industrial Revolution. It is a day we remember the efforts of the labour movement which brought us the eight hour day and over the ensuing decades of struggle such basic advances as minimum wage levels, safety in the workplace and the right – bar a brief return to the industrial relations Dark Ages during the Howard era – to bargain as a collective.

In Queensland, the first Labour Day celebration took place in Brisbane on 16 March 1861 and was essentially a celebration by a small number of skilled building workers who had recently achieved an eight-hour working day. The date of the event was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the first workers achieving the eight hour day in Queensland. For a large section of the Brisbane labour movement it remained important that the Labour Day celebrations be changed to 1 May to make them part of the international campaign, begun by the International Labour Congress in 1889, to make 1 May an official workers holiday around the world. In light of the labour movement’s successful push for an eight-hour day, a large May Day meeting was held in Melbourne on 1 May 1890. Other Australian capital cities also held May Day meeting at the same time. This campaign was given a major boost when, on 1 May 1891, hundreds of striking bush workers held Australia’s first May Day procession through the streets of Barcaldine. On 1 May 1891, more than 1,000 striking shearers participated in a May Day march in Barcaldine, Queensland, where their leaders wore blue sashes and they carried banners and the Eureka flag. It was reported that cheers were given for “the eight-hour day”

Henry Lawson wrote “Freedom on the Wallaby” to mark the day:

    So we must fly a rebel flag
    As others did before us,
    And we must sing a rebel song
    And join in rebel chorus.
    We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
    O’those that they would throttle;
    They needn’t say the fault is ours
    If blood should stain the wattle.

The Labour Day date was moved from May to the second Monday in March in some parts of Australia after World War II.  Since 1948, Labour Day in Western Australia has been observed on the first Monday in March and marks the granting of the eight hour working day to Western Australians. However, from May 1893, the holding of Labour Day and May Day in Queensland has continued hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, over time, the reasons for shifting Labour Day so that it corresponded to May Day have been forgotten. But, equally clearly, the now largely forgotten campaign to link the two had made Labour Day in Queensland a significant occasion — when not just the eight-hour working day is celebrated but also the international solidarity of labour. In fact, Queensland unionists are almost alone in celebrating Labour Day on or around May Day as most other states still time their celebrations to coincide with anniversaries of eight-hour day victories.

The Queen’s birthday public holiday originated in 1912 to observe the birthday of King George V on 3 June. Over the years, Queensland – along with most other states – has continued to observe the Queen’s birthday in June, even though the actual birthday of Queen Elizabeth II is 21 April. In Western Australia, the Queen’s birthday public holiday is held in either September or October. The Queen’s birthday is observed as a mark of respect to the sovereign but is not widely celebrated in community events like other public holidays. In 2012, the Queen’s Birthday holiday in June was rebadged in Queensland as the ‘Queen’s Diamond Jubilee holiday’.

The 2012 British bank holiday was held a week before the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee public holiday was held in Queensland. On 4 June 2012, a 1000 strong boat procession floated up the Thames River. As for the 6 February 2012 Diamond Jubilee ascension there were again no public demonstrations or celebrations in Queensland. Instead there appeared to be greater excitement from everyday Australians at the release of the opening title track off the first Cold Chisel album in 14 years. On 4 June 2012, Jimmy Barnes launched No Plans with the guttural scream


“I’m standin’ in the sun / Smokin’ a cigarette – noooo plans.”

No Plans is written from the perspective of an outsider, a homeless guy who is looking out at the suits on their way to work, giving them the finger and saying , ‘To hell with you all, I’m happy with my lot’. Perhaps it’s this egalitarian, leveller message inherent within many lyrics of Cold Chisel that defines Australia’s attitude towards class and monarchy.

One wonders what the next 100 days of the conservative Restoration will bring to Queensland. Perhaps all state schools will be required to hang a picture of the Queen in their school hall (or principal’s office) or the playing of the royal national anthem will resume in cinemas before the feature. Goodness knows. At a time when we should be casting aside period costumes and using plain-speaking language in courts, it appears senior lawyers in Queensland want to divorce themselves from the people they represent. Anachronistic titles do nothing but add to the mystery of the law that makes it a stranger to the people and them a stranger to it. The abolishing of Senior Counsel and reintroduction of Queen’s Counsel seems a retrograde step that has nothing to do with the administration of the law and everything to do with the aggrandisement of the practitioners.

One of the first Labour Day processions in the world was in Barcaldine on 1 May 1891 and the public holiday has been celebrated in Queensland on the first Monday in May since 1901. Labour Day is celebrated by workers across the state and May 1 is deeply ingrained in Queensland’s history as a day to recognise workers’ rights — and yet the Newman government is talking about moving it to October or November to appease the business communities concerns about paying overtime. The ALP interregnum is over and it seems the reign of Bjelke-Petersen II has begun.


Recent articles by Glenn Davies
Eggs: Queensland's weapon of choice for political dissent

Steven Miles becomes the latest in a conga line of egged Queensland politicians ...  
Palm Sunday is fundamentally a day of protest

Palm Sunday is a traditional day of protest for peace. During the 1980s, Palm ...  
November's 'republic season' a time to ponder Australia's future

November is always a time of remembering. However, it is a time for remembering ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support Fearless Journalism

If you got something from this article, please consider making a one-off donation to support fearless journalism.

Single Donation


Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate