As a bred (if not born) Queenslander with a long memory of the Joh years, I can never quite recapture the feeling of relaxation that used to wash over me driving over the NSW border into the land of Wran in 1985 and 1986.
I was having a beer with a couple of friends on Saturday night at the Pavilion on Boundary Street. Boundary Street is the main drag of West End, a suburb once removed from the City which up until, say, ten years ago, could accurately be characterised as a free anarchist commune in a semi-permanent state of secession from Brisvegas. The booths around there recorded the lowest One Nation vote in the 98 state election. Despite its inevitable gentrification, the “colourful street life” is still not precisely what the developers envisaged, and West End plays host to perhaps the oddest local rag in Australia, the innocuously titled Neighbourhood News.
Disappointed with the dust-blown West End Festival, my friends and I leafed through the latest edition to update ourselves on the views of gay Marxist cultural studies lecturers, Indigenous activists, anarchists and Catholic Workers. I came across an article which called for donations towards placing an ad in the Courier-Mail calling on Premier Pete to deny Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen – Premier from 1968 to 1987 – a state funeral.
This got me thinking.
It’s hard to recapture the sense of what life in Brisbane in the dying days of the Joh era was actually like. It’s been tried a few times in fiction, perhaps most successfully by Andrew McGahan in Last Drinks and a few of his short stories. It was an interesting time to be a teenager. Some random memories came to mind – the smile on Russ Hinze’s face when he announced on tv that there were no illegal casinos or brothels in the Valley because the Police Commissioner had driven him round the night before and shown him where they weren’t, working by candlelight during the Seqeb strike, observing the Transport Minister (and former Special Branch D), Don Lane, hiding behind the bushes taking photos at Albert Park of the Labour Day march crowd, watching a priest in alb and stole and a young one-legged woman on crutches being bundled into a paddy wagon at a demo. Socialist subversives enslaved by the alien Canberra, all.
A number of veterans of those years, including anarchist and former tennis player Brian Laver, and Greens Senate candidate Drew Hutton, among others had initiated the call to Premier Pete to deny Joh a state funeral. No doubt they were there banging on the glass walls of Mayne Hall when UQ gave Joh an Honorary Doctorate (of Law!) in 1984. Our current Premier and multiple honorary doctor, Mr Beattie, famously played himself in a dramatic reconstruction of his dash to Bethany to try and negotiate a temporary alliance on the floor of the House with the deposed Joh to abolish the gerrymander in 1987. Odd things happened in Brisbane in those days. More recently, Premier Pete has both embraced Joh publicly, and taken a leaf out of his book in some of his political tactics. It helps Labor win the rural vote up here.
I don’t want to dwell here and now on Joh’s many political transgressions. But nor do I think they should be forgotten. Even though it’s hard to recapture exactly what life felt like back then. But I think the move to deny him a state funeral (which as I understand it, just means the state pays) raises an interesting question – what is the difference between a politics of justice and a politics of revenge? Or, as Brisvegas prepares for the somnolent slumber of a steamy summer, should we “not worry about that”?