When former Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, was finishing off his autobiography Lazarus Rising in 2010 I asked him whether it would contain any political bile.
‘Yes. But just one chapter ,’ he answered.
‘On Costello?’ I queried, presuming that Howard would have reserved a special serve for his deputy after years of acrimony which persisted up to the ill-fated 2007 federal election.
‘Oh no….on Joh,’ he said. It was clear from his demeanour that the scars from the ‘Joh for PM’ campaign, mounted by the erratic Queensland National Party Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, that skittled Howard’s ambition to win the 1987 election, had still not healed.It seemed that any fallout with Peter Costello over leadership of the Liberal Party was a long way down the political pain pole compared with the coalition chaos created by Joh.
If a week is a long time in politics 28 years is a lifetime and few of today’s voting generation probably know or care who Joh was. Many were not even born when he made his push to Canberra. But they do know of another eccentric Queenslander who followed Joh’s political path on a similar mission in more recent times with a higher degree of success – Clive Palmer.
Palmer, who as a member of the National Party in Queensland was strongly influenced by Bjelke-Peterson’s style, managed to win a seat in the House of Representatives when he made his push for Canberra. The closest Bjelke Petersen got to this was getting his wife Flo into the Senate at the 1980 federal election by arranging for her to be placed at the top of the Queensland National Country Party ticket despite opposition from his state party president Sir Robert Sparkes.
Flo brought with her to Canberra a warm, homespun style, and a willingness to share her personal recipe for making pumpkin scones. As a result she was well liked particularly by the media. It seems she felt that Joh’s real strengths lay in Queensland politics and that marching on Canberra was a mistake.
Like Palmer, Joh was no shrinking violet when it came to being in the public spotlight and the media found him strangely irresistable even though he derisively referred to press conferences as ‘feeding the chooks’. Both Joh and Palmer believed that they should be prime minister because they had more to offer than anything the federal conservative coalition could offer.
Palmer summed up both men’s personal ambitions when he declared, in the run up to the 2013 federal election: ‘The reason I am standing for federal parliament is because I am standing to be the next prime minister of Australia’.
Joh’s decision to launch a political blitzkreig on Canberra was fuelled by a combination of hatred for Labor and despair over the inability of the Liberal-National Party coalition to seize power, coupled with what he saw as policy ineffectiveness when it did get into Government – pointing to the post dismissal Fraser Government as a case in point. He had already played a prominent role in undermining the Whitlam Government in the Senate.
And it seemed that he was clearly indifferent to the collateral damage that his campaign inflicted on his own side of politics, and the National Party in particular. He wanted more action on issues such as taxation and trade union reform. And so in 1987 he believed that with 19 years as Premier of Queensland behind him, and with Labor in power in Canberra and all the other states, he was more than qualified to lead the nation out of the clutches of socialism.
In his latest book, Joh for PM, National Party historian and journalist Paul Davey has chronicled the rise and fall of the man who would be prime minister. And he has done so from an unique position as the then federal director of the National Party. He was able to observe at first hand a party he describes as a true family tearing itself apart as a result of one man’s brinkmanship in his quest for power.
Joh’s mission was to set up a new conservative party under his leadership; smashing the federal coalition on the way along and the then National Party Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Ian Sinclair,whom he saw as a closet Liberal, for good measure.
While Joh is the central character in this book, Davey devotes considerable attention to Sinclair’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to prevent a coalition collapse.
Sinclair’s concession that the coalition split meant that the Nationals and the Liberals would go into the 1987 election campaign with separate policies,was seized on by the Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, who claimed that with Joh offering another set of policies the electorate would be confronted with an ‘alternative of chaos’.
Meanwhile, disunity within the Liberal Party, speculation about a leadership tilt against Howard by Andrew Peacock, and botched policy strategy during the election campaign did not help the conservtive cause and Labor ended up being re-elected.
Despite all its bravado, the Joh for Canberra campaign had been a disaster and so began the rapid disintegration of this movement and with it the career of the Queensland Premier. In the wake of the election defeat, Sparkes, who had been a co-driver of the push for Canberra, toured Queensland extensively to gauge local reaction and reportedly picked up ‘the strong feeling from all sections that Joh should gracefully retire as Premier within a year.’
Joh had indicated that his wish was to stay on in the job until August 8 the following year, which would see him through Queensland EXPO, but the momentum of recriminations within the state party was such that he quit in Demember 1987, blasting Sparkes and his former National colleagues on the way out.
Meanwhile, in August 1987 the Coalition reunited on John Howard’s terms exacty 100 days after Joh’s campaign had blown it apart. But it would be another nine years of struggle and disappointment before it would be back on the Treasury benches.
Davey records Sinclair’s belief that the party was never the same again after the Joh campaign. ‘The sad part to me was that it destroyed what I thought was the ethos of the party and the partnership and camaraderie and trust that was in the party.’
Sinclair, who is now 86, will have the opportunity to publicly reflect on these turbulent times when he launches the book in the National Party room in Parliament House in Canberra on June 24.
Davey weaves a painstaking, methodical, path through what was an unprecedented period of conservative upheaval in Australia. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea this fly on the wall analysis is a must for political junkies.
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Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist.
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