A Premier, but forever a country member

It saddens me greatly when I miss significant anniversaries in the lives of those I have encountered or worked with over the many years I have served in governments of all political persuasions.

Which is why I was somewhat melancholic a few days ago when I recalled it would have been 50 years in August since Johannes Bjelke-Petersen became Premier of Queensland.

Granted, Sir Joh and his good lady wife Lady Flo are no longer with us, yet I felt sad that I had not remembered such a milestone in Australian politics.

While I very rarely talk about the successes I’ve had in my many decades as a political adviser, policy maker, and image shaper, I hope dear readers won’t mind my recounting the role I played in making Johannes Bjelke-Petersen the powerhouse politician he became, including a record 19 years as Queensland Premier.

I first met Johannes in 1963 after Country Party Premier, Sir Francis Nicklin, appointed him as Minister for Works and Housing.

Back then I was a senior adviser for “Honest Frank” Nicklin and I had the opportunity to watch Johannes, as he insisted I call him, at close quarters.

I recognised almost straight away he had a certain natural cunning that one simply cannot instill in a politician. You either have that or you don’t.

I watched with interest as he relished his ministerial role that gave him the opportunity to bestow favours and earn the loyalty of many a backbencher by approving construction of schools, police stations, roads, and bridges in his electorate and occasionally in theirs.

But what did surprise me was his loquaciousness, his command of language, and his ability to speak flawlessly and knowledgeably on just about any topic and at great length.

Often he would do so in Danish, his family’s original language, and other times in flawless French which he told me he learned from reading books by candlelight over the many years he spent as a young man “vivre dans l’étable” on his parent’s farm at Kingaroy.

But there was one drawback. While he could eloquently hold forth on any subject, clearly knew his topics in great depth, and had an unquestionable belief in the policies he espoused, he could talk the legs off an iron pot.

One of those new-fangled non-stop aeroplane flights from Australia to the United Kingdom couldn’t drone on for as long as he could.

This trait I witnessed over the last few years that I worked for Premier Nicklin. In Cabinet meetings and other discussions Johannes could articulate arguments with laser-like precision and crystal clarity. But he did go on.

When Frank Nicklin decided to retire as Premier in January 1968 my plan was to move on from my job in the Premier’s Department and seek new challenges. However, incoming Premier Jack Pizzey asked me to stay around for six months or so to help him settle into the job, to which I readily agreed.

Sadly within that time Jack Pizzey had a heart attack and died. Johannes was elected to replace him in a party room vote that surprised me.

All I could fathom was that Country Party MPs were in awe of Johannes’s verbal skills and could not resist the persistent and clear arguments he presented when advocating the need for them to make him leader. A less charitable view would be so say he bored them into supporting him.

The day after the party room vote I was summoned to the new Premier’s office in Parliament House.

“Salutations, my dear, dear Rufus,” Johannes said as he beckoned me to a seat. It was clear he was deeply affected by the suddenness of his elevation.

“The pridian events have left me far from otiant,” he began. “My preagonal conversations with Jack, the least orgulous chap you’d care to meet I’m sure you’ll agree, elicited no adumbration of his imminent fate.

“And though, fortuitously, my ascension has been incruental, I confess to being inscient of many aspects of my new responsibilities.

“Call it rhabdophobia if you will but I need an impavid soul like you to advise me, to ensure there is no  interregnum and that the advent of my administration is notably suant.”

His eyes stared into mine as I tried to process what I had heard. Although I readily admit my vocabulary was not as extensive as his, I caught the drift of what he was asking.

Basically he had been thrust into the top job fairly and squarely, albeit unprepared, and wanted me to help him at least for a while. I agreed to his request to stay on in my position in the Premier’s Department.

Over the months I worked closely with him (pictured) I made sure I prioritised the main problem — his tendency to bore people whenever he spoke.

rufus johAdmittedly it was an unfair “problem”. He could not help being as verbally dexterous as he was.

Yet when I delicately raised the issue with him he immediately saw the need to act “with some alacrity”.

And that’s how my relationship with Queensland’s longest-serving leader began. Dear readers may remember the 2010 film, The King’s Speech, where Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue worked tirelessly with King George VI to overcome his terrible stutter and become a much-loved sovereign by his subjects the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

Well, my task was the exact opposite. I had to take this intelligent, urbane, sophisticated and well-spoken man, break him back down to basics and remodel him as a simple country chap who could relate to the equally simple people of Queensland.

And so we began: sessions of basic speech therapy in a small conference room at the back of Parliament House. First, some simple vowel exercises and, believe it or not, I had the idea of forcing him to make simple farm noises that I knew he could relate to from his younger days.

After one session where I got him to use his tongue to go “cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck” over and over, Johannes joked: “I sound like I’m feeding the chooks!”

At times the Premier became frustrated with the progress he was making and I must confess I too harboured grave doubts as to whether the transformation was possible. But we persevered and finally reached the stage where we would role play and I would represent the media asking questions and he would respond as Premier.

I knew we were finally making headway when I asked Johannes what his government intended to do to resolve housing and health issues for the state’s Aboriginal people. Months before, his answer would have been a long-winded expose that included an effortless recall of current and past statistics on the issue and government action that was in place or planned.

But on this day, Johannes just looked at me and said: “I’ve got nothing against darkies but would you really want to live next door to one?”

He probably saw the shocked look on my face and rapidly changed his answer to simply: “That’s for sure. Don’t you worry about that.”

I distinctly remember thinking at the time: By jove, I think he’s got it.

Especially when he continued: “Good, strong, stable government….that’s the way we…. people want… good strong and the rest. For sure.”

And he soon started to give short, sharp, and absolutely spot-on responses whenever I used the words “Labor Party” in a question: “Well, those socialists…. communists, and others… out there on the…. trade unionists….. for sure, we don’t… at any time.”

Even so, the training continued for a few months more, but when we finally parted ways after six months, I knew Johannes was ready, even though he refused to wear the hillbilly hat, smoke the corn pipe, and have one of his front teeth removed, as I had suggested.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Rufus Badinage MBE, now retired, is one of Australia’s leading experts on politics and public administration having worked as a senior bureaucrat for various state and federal governments.