Journalist and author Matthew Condon has produced the first substantive proof that Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the late Queensland premier, was corrupt and a crook.
The evidence is spelled out in his new book, All Fall Down, the last volume in a non-fiction trilogy chronicling wholesale police and political corruption in the era of Sir Joh, aptly nicknamed “the hillbilly dictator” by journalist Evan Whitton.
Former ABC host Quentin Dempster launched Condon’s book at the Queensland State Library last night following introductory speeches by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Queensland University vice-chancellor Peter Hoj.
Since his death in 2005, strenuous attempts have been made by Bjelke-Petersen’s outspoken band of apologists to revise and sanitise his career. Their cause was assisted by ex-Labor premier Peter Beattie’s decision to give the old reptile a taxpayer-funded state funeral in 2005 and the Murdoch-owned Courier-Mail’s elevation of him as the most outstanding Queenslander during the Sunshine State’s 150th-birthday celebrations in 2009.
A question mark was raised over Bjelke-Petersen’s culpability when the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict at his 1991 corruption trial after the jury foreman tenaciously supported his innocence. The runaway juror, later named as Luke Shaw, was a member of the Young Nationals and identified as a member of the “Friends of Joh” movement.
In 1992, a special prosecutor abandoned any prospect of a retrial because the 81-year-old defendant was considered “too old”.
Condon’s diligent research has put an end to the sordid shenanigans surrounding Bjelke-Petersen’s administration of the Moonlight State. His latest book in the trilogy published by University of Queensland Press (UQP) presents an indictment of Sir B’donkey that establishes beyond all reasonable doubt he was corrupt and a crook.
As Condon tells it, Bjelke-Petersen promised overseas developers he would deliver cabinet approval for the construction of the state’s tallest building in Brisbane’s CBD. In return, the developers arranged a $20 million bribe to be held in a Hong Kong bank account.
But the 107-storey project faced 11th-hour opposition from some ministers, which erupted into a fall-scale revolt. Rising National MP Huan Fraser led the charge, telling Bjelke-Petersen: “I know there is a bloody big payoff to you coming as a result of this. You’re a corrupt old bastard, and I’m not going to cop it.”
A shaken premier stormed out. At a later party room showdown, health minister Mike Ahern easily ousted Bjelke-Petersen to become the new premier in November 1987.
Ahern, who attended last night’s State Library launch, told Crikey that the unravelling of the skyscraper project had put an end to Bjelke-Petersen’s grip on power. He said cabinet loyalty had kept a lid on the bribe scandal for 30 years but it was important that the new generation of Queenslanders knew the truth.
He admitted talking to Condon about the incident and justified his breach of cabinet protocol by quoting Voltaire: “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.” (He wrongly attributed the saying to Mark Twain).
Award-winning journalist Chris Masters and two former police officers, Kingsley Fancourt and Peter Vassallo, joined Condon and Dempster in a one-hour discussion about corruption scandals that affected all levels of Queensland’s public life for two decades. The culprits “all fell down” as a result of the era-changing dynamic of Tony Fitzgerald’s 1987-88 inquiry into police involvement with starting-price betting, prostitution, drugs, licensing and protection rackets.
Palaszczuk recalled that her father, Henry, a Labor MP in the 1980s, had given a newspaper interview about corrupt police. A few days later an anonymous phone caller rang her grandfather, who was listed in the directory as “Palaszczuk, H” and asked: “Is that Mr Palaszczuk?”
When the 80-year-old replied “Yes”, the caller continued: “How tall are you? We’re measuring you up for a coffin.” And then he hung up, believing he had delivered a dire warning to the MP.
“My father was threatened because he dared to speak out,” the Premier said. “We have a duty to teach a new generation about this history so they don’t have to learn the hard way.” She told Condon: “Thanks for telling this incredible true story.”
Condon’s two previous books on the Joh era, Three Crooked Kings and Jacks and Jokers, were written with the collaboration of Terry Lewis, the disgraced Queensland police commissioner who was jailed for more than 10 years for corruption and forgery in 1991. But Lewis, now 87 and stripped of his knighthood, withdrew his co-operation last year, accusing Condon of betraying his trust and writing falsehoods about him.
Condon told Crikey he had never undertaken to write Lewis’ biography or a Lewis-friendly version of events. “He is now using commercial television to give his own account of his total innocence and he is talking about writing his own book. Good luck to him.”