The death of Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen has prompted an awkwardly unprecedented mixture of tributes and tirades, as memories are reignited of the highly controversial Queensland political regime of her husband Sir Joh.
The disparate views have been illustrated by the hundreds of puzzled (and in some cases outraged) replies to a tweet by the Prime Minister about Joh and Flo, the Kingaroy couple who led Queensland public life in the 1970s and 80s.
Here’s the PM’s tweet:
And here’s two responses:
The answer lies in the story of the man that Lady Flo was so devoted to.
To some, Sir Joh was a strong leader who helped Queensland grow economically while maintaining a bastion of northern safety, protecting a gratefully conservative population from the evils of socialism, poker machines and rude movies.
To others, he was a hillbilly dictator who used an electoral gerrymander to keep his National Party-led government in power for decades, crushing democracy in the Parliament and on the streets.
He was premier from 1968 to 1987, and even at his peak was a divisive figure.
In 1971 he declared a state of emergency to give police more power to shut down protests against the South African Springboks’ rugby union tour. (Another former premier, Peter Beattie, still tells the story of being injured by police as a young man in the street violence.)
In 1975 Sir Joh’s government used the Queensland Parliament to appoint little-known Albert Field to a fill an ALP Senate vacancy — against the wishes of the Labor Party — a move which played a part in the fall of the Whitlam government.
In 1977 he announced that street marches would no longer be lawful without a (hard to get) permit.
Through all this time, Special Branch police were keeping tabs on political opposition.
‘Joh for PM’ the beginning of the end
By the 1980s, Queensland under Sir Joh had become a strange state of economic development, low taxes, population growth and entrepreneurial advancement, combined with hidebound restrictions on civil liberties, Indigenous rights and social progress.
Sir Joh received his knighthood in 1984 while he was still premier, but by 1987 it was all unravelling.
In that year he embarked on a fruitless and fantastical bid for Canberra — the “Joh for PM” campaign has gone down in history as one of the most ridiculous political exercises in this country.
Having abandoned that goal, Sir Joh was overseas when his deputy Bill Gunn announced the formation of a Commission of Inquiry into police corruption, sparked by media investigations into the years of crooked practices which had gone on while the Bjelke-Petersen government was in power.
Soon the allegations aired in the Fitzgerald Inquiry were linked to government, and the end was nigh for Sir Joh.
He lost the confidence of the National Party team he’d ruled for so long, and resigned in December after a bitter but forlorn attempt to hang on.
A year later he was called before the Fitzgerald Inquiry himself, and was questioned about receiving corrupt donations, allegedly delivered in cash to his office.
In 1991 the former premier, then aged 80, was charged with perjury arising out of his evidence to the inquiry.
But in yet another controversial twist, the jury couldn’t reach a verdict, and it later emerged that the foreman was a member of the Young Nationals.
Lady Flo overcame initial scepticism as a senator
In 1980, Sir Joh had contentiously arranged for his wife Florence to get the number one spot on the Queensland Nationals’ Senate ticket.
Before that, Flo Bjelke-Petersen already had an increasingly public profile for her “down-home, church-going, Country Women’s Association” persona and steadfast loyalty during her husband’s political career.
Critics were shocked that a serving premier would so blatantly get his spouse appointed to the Senate, and were almost universally sceptical of her political skills in Canberra.
But senator Lady Bjelke-Petersen, as she was officially known, was re-elected in 1983 and 1987, and enjoyed a modest if unremarkable regard for her solid service and non-confrontational senatorial style.
Her term expired in June 1993.
State confronted again with the legacy of its political first couple
It’s this combined Bjelke-Petersen history that explains the disparate reactions to Lady Flo’s death.
When Sir Joh died in 2005, Queensland didn’t know whether to celebrate the life of its longest serving premier or condemn his time as corrupt and insular.
There was a state funeral, but the public mood was conflicted at best.
Twelve years later, the passing of Lady Flo has rekindled those memories and the same passionate political reactions.
This month, just weeks before she died, Lady Flo was interviewed by the Courier-Mail.
“I was certainly very happy to be married to him and he did a great job as premier of Queensland. I was proud to be his wife,” she told the paper.
“People still come to me and tell me how good it was when Joh ran the state.
“There will never be anyone like Joh. You would have to be pretty brilliant to beat him.”
The courteous comments after her death, followed by more angry denunciations of her husband’s career, are a strange but understandable conclusion to the lives of Queensland’s most famous political couple.