4 June 1999

Leaving school early, a bout of polio and a foreign background spurred former Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen to succeed, according to a University of Queensland study.

For her thesis with the Government Department, Dr Rae Wear conducted one of the most comprehensive examinations of Sir Joh's long reign as Premier.

"In childhood, Sir Joh had to overcome the fact that he had a Scandinavian background (and was therefore a foreigner), polio and the fact that he left school at 14. Leaving school early made him resentful of education and anti-intellectual. These obstacles pushed him to achieve in life," she said.

Using existing books, articles and news items as well as interviews with Sir Joh and other figures including former National Party president Sir Robert Sparks and former Deputy Premier Bill Gunn, Dr Wear compiled an in-depth profile of Sir Joh's populist leadership.

"I looked at his relationship with the party organisation, Parliament and cabinet, public administration and the media," she said.

Contrary to Sir Joh's own stories about how he was an "accidental Premier" and was not a driven man, Dr Wear said her study found him to be highly strategic and ambitious, employing a high level of personal charm to get what he wanted in life.

"He was engaging and gregarious but with a very short attention span when it came to briefings from public servants. One former senior public servant told me that Sir Joh's attention was fading after a few minutes during a briefing one day when the telephone rang. Sir Joh answered it and chatted away for a while quite happily. It turned out to be a wrong number," she said.

"He worked the system to stay Premier for as long as he did (1968-87). His Government dominated Parliament, not allowing committees or impartial speech, and ran a very sophisticated media operation, sending press releases out right on deadline so journalists had very little chance to research news items."

She said Sir Joh was part of an authoritarian government and demanded loyalty. He was kept in power by the people and a political culture of dominating leaders that had always pervaded Queensland regardless of political ideology.

Dr Wear said her thesis rejected the notion that Sir Joh's Lutheran beliefs had shaped his personality.

"The Lutheran faith is very diluted in South-East Queensland anyway. I found that religion in general rather than Lutheranism was a big factor in Sir Joh's life. It gave him a sense of rightness, that God was on his side. It was no-one else's business how he arranged his personal life and business affairs," she said.

"For example, at his perjury trial, Lady Flo echoed his belief that God had put Luke Shaw on his jury to help get him acquitted."

For more information, contact Dr Rae Wear (telephone 07 3365 2090).