Johannes Bjelke-Petersen : a study in populist leadership

Wear, Rae (1999). Johannes Bjelke-Petersen : a study in populist leadership PhD Thesis, School of Political Science and International Studies, The University of Queensland.

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Author Wear, Rae
Thesis Title Johannes Bjelke-Petersen : a study in populist leadership
School, Centre or Institute School of Political Science and International Studies
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1999
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Total pages 311
Language eng
Subjects 160601 Australian Government and Politics
Formatted abstract
The primary aim of this dissertation is to explain the former Queensland Premier's leadership style, together with its development and role in his government's repeated electoral success. Governments he led were, between 1968 and 1987, re-elected seven times despite the authoritarian nature of his leadership and a constant stream of allegations covering corruption, repeated conflict of interest and the politicisation of the state public service. Although the Bjelke-Petersen government manipulated the political system in order to stay in power, it did so with at least the acquiescence, if not active support of the Queensland electorate.

To understand the success of his leadership style it is essential to explore Queensland's political culture, owing to the high degree of congruence between the attitudes and expectations of Queensland society, and the values and performance of the Bjelke-Petersen government. Any examination of Queensland's political culture leads inevitably to a consideration of the so-called "Queensland difference". There is sufficient evidence of this to suggest that Queensland's political culture warrants separate consideration. There is also a considerable amount of evidence to link the narrow, social circumstances experienced by many Queenslanders with the development of authoritarian tendencies that, in turn, lent support to populism.

Bjelke-Petersen's own childhood socialisation, in rural Queensland, mirrored the circumstances associated with the development of such authoritarianism. In his case, the influences of family, religion and education were cumulative, and his childhood socialisation fitted him well for the role of state premier. Additionally, previous incumbents had established a pattern of authoritarian leadership, which, in the Queensland case, became associated with strength and purposefulness.

As a young man he was ambitious. At first his ambitions were directed to business ventures, but eventually were transposed into the political arena. Bjelke-Petersen disguised this later ambition by encouraging the perception that he was a reluctant and accidental politician. I argue in this thesis, however, that the contrary was the case. Although Bjelke-Petersen could not plot the path his career might take, his ambition drove him to seize opportunities as they arose and to consolidate power as he achieved it. As Premier he took increasingly immoderate policy decisions, but there were no concurrent electoral penalties, in part, because he was able to convince the electorate that 'Joh gets things done'.

In every political relationship, Bjelke-Petersen strove for dominance. The only person who came close to matching his power was Sir Robert Sparkes. For most of his premiership, theirs was a formidable partnership which, in 1983, culminated in the return of a National Party Government in its own right. The seeds of his eventual defeat lay in this victory, as Bjelke-Petersen, buoyed by success, turned from Sparkes to a group of flatterers who encouraged his federal ambitions. His 1987 assault on Canberra was a failure, removing his primary attention from Queensland and revealing the extremity of his ambition. This, in turn, lost him the support of his parliamentary colleagues, his party organisation and most importantly, the electorate which, he had come to believe, would support him in any and every endeavour.
Keyword Bjelke-Petersen, Johannes, Sir, 1911-2005
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