For much of 2020, time has felt like it has been pushing through molasses.
Always an artificial construct, hours are loaded with fatigue, adrenaline and a sense of getting nowhere. Last week may have been a lifetime ago. September will be here in the blink of an eye.
No one understood holding back time as well as Joh Bjelke-Petersen. His ironfist rule over Queensland lasted from 1968 to 1987 and he managed to make those 19 years stretch over the next 20; a political fart blanketing the state long after the perpetrator had departed.
You can’t understand Queensland until you understand what Joh did to the place. And you can’t understand Joh until you understand Bethany, his beloved Kingaroy homestead – and what Joh and Lady Flo did to their own place.
Turns out Queensland’s most controversial couple loved themselves some free stuff. Those little kitsch souvenirs you get from conferences? Loved them. Kept them all. And now you can pay to own one – or any number of weird and terrifying household items that Queensland’s most notorious son once touched.
Look at this trove of treasures untold – how many wonders could one Bethany hold? Looking around the Bjelke-Petersen auction, you’d think – they had everything.
They had cake pans and pocket watches aplenty. Weird nightmarish car vases and cuff links galore. Japanese vases? They had 20. But no big deal – they wanted more.
You could own his typewriter – think of the missives he wrote on it, demanding more rights be stripped away, or proposing a deal with Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu or banning the sale of condoms on university campuses. Or his briefcase – complete with Ansett tags – which presumably accompanied him to Disneyland where he announced his (aborted) bid to be prime minister. It was at least near him as he was tried for perjury – and around when the jury failed to come to a verdict.
There’s always the 1982 Jaguar Sovereign, the man of the people, who once tried to build a tunnel from the Executive building to the parliament so he could avoid the media, fanged around in while in Kingaroy.
Or the filing cabinets, presumably filled with development approvals – the ones which were approved in the middle of the night to bypass protesters attempting to uphold heritage laws, and winning ideas such as mining the Great Barrier Reef for concrete, because it just sat there doing nothing for the economy.
Looking through each of the 705 lots in the Lloyd auction – each item described as thrumming with “energy” by the person tasked with cataloging the haul, and which the federal government has declared culturally significant enough to be kept within Australia’s shores for all time, you have to wonder – why?
The lots, while fun for some Queenslanders – and perhaps not so fun for those on the receiving end of the beatings and arrests meted out by Joh’s notoriously corrupt police force – are reminiscent of the boxes of knick-knacks your parents didn’t know what to do with after your grandparents passed on.
Does Aunty Shirl want another crystal bowl which was kept in the good room but no one can remember using? Do you think Barry would want the Harvey Bay opal chip drink coasters? How many of the souvenir teaspoons do you think Karen wants?
National party MPs aside – who really wants one of Joh’s old ties?
And like all things related to the Joh era, the auction only raises more questions than it answers. Like why on earth is someone willing to pay close to $400 for some of Flo’s cake tins? Does the bidder know her ghost won’t be helping to make those sponges rise? Who needs one, let alone two pairs of gold-plated scissors? And is this cat actually just a horcrux?
Joh was many things, but classy was never one of them, which this auction proves.
But if it brings you joy to own a slice of Queensland’s Bill Heslop prototype, who is anyone to Marie Kondo you?
There’s a certain satisfaction of knowing some of those homes those pieces will be landing in, and how much Joh would have hated it.
Or you could always buy the Jag and park it underneath the Australian Parliament House. It’s closer to the prime minister’s officer than Joh ever got it. That in itself is worth the $10 grand.
And just in case Joh and Flo’s collection of tchotchkes makes you forget how terrible the Bjelke-Petersen government truly was for the people of Queensland, here’s our list of their achievements:
The Joh Bjelke-Petersen government wielded “state of emergency” declarations as a political weapon to put down dissent.
Declared a month-long state of emergency to head off anti-apartheid demonstrations during the Springboks’ 1971 tour.
Banned street marches entirely in 1978.
Encouraged the creation of a police state, where opponents and journalists were regularly harassed by uniformed police.
Openly supported police strong-arm tactics, including the raid of a north Queensland commune where officers burned huts for being “poisonous”.
Launched publicly funded defamation actions against opposition MPs.
Bjelke-Petersen told one of his ministers (who later forced him out as premier) to allow HIV to wipe out Indigenous communities.
Emboldened the police commissioner, Terry Lewis (later jailed for corruption), to crack down on the gay and lesbian community; attempted to ban gay men – who were publicly denounced as “deviants” – from entering pubs and clubs; encouraged raids (and the closure) of premises suspected of being LGBTI-friendly; arrested men suspected of being gay; considered banning gay men from swimming pools, claiming there was a risk they would contaminate the water with HIV; tried, as other states were decriminalising homosexuality, to make Queensland the first jurisdiction to make being a lesbian illegal.
Demolished historic buildings, including Brisbane’s much loved Bellevue Hotel, which was destroyed in the middle of the night after public outcry.
Oversaw raids on suspected abortion clinics and tried to ban women from flying to New South Wales or Victoria if it was suspected they wanted to terminate a pregnancy.
Was responsible for large tracts of infrastructure, including dams, major expressways and universities (which most likely would still have been built) but oversaw the culture that created the “white shoe brigade” among developers, particularly on the Gold Coast, where bribes for special treatment became common.
Bjelke-Petersen was charged with perjury for evidence he gave at the Fitzgerald inquiry, but his 1991 trial ended in a hung jury. A second trial was scrapped, given his age.