The Guardian 8 June, 2005
Queensland's darkest days
Queensland Aboriginal activists have remembered former Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen as they saw him — as a "paternalistic", cruel and "racist" man who reigned over a time of great conflict and oppression in Queensland Indigenous affairs.
Cheryl Buchanan, who is now chairwoman of the Kooma Traditional Owners Association and was a prominent activist through the 1970s and 1980s when Sir Joh was in power, said she felt sickened when she heard he was to have a State Funeral.
"I nearly vomited, I felt physically sick when I heard that", she said.
"Bjelke-Petersen and the people he appointed to run Indigenous affairs at the time were cruel, vicious and aggressive. They did everything they could to destroy people.
"We were activists in Queensland at the time, trying to tell people in the communities that they had rights, trying to fight against the racism, and as a result we had Special Branch police sitting outside our front door permanently.
"They were always there, they never left. They had our house bugged, they knew everything we talked about, every where we went.
"It was a police state, like the Nazi SS, for anyone who opposed the government."
Ms Buchanan said it was difficult now for people to accept how different things were in Queensland for Aboriginal people in the 1960s and 1970s, but she has strong memories of the time.
"As a young person in Brisbane, I had a constant knot in my stomach all the time because I knew at any moment they could take charge of my life, they could take control of it and I wouldn't be able to do anything about it", she said.
"We got raped by police in those days and couldn't do anything about it. They were the SS. The police would pick us up on a regular basis because they knew who we all were, and they'd take us out the back of Samford and harass us and push us around for hours.
"All this was done with Bjelke-Petersen's knowledge — he brought in all white Rhodesians (from Rhodesia, the former Zimbabwe) to run Indigenous affairs and they were bad people.
"At any time I had any contact with Bjelke-Petersen, he made out we were unintelligent, lowly people who were incapable of looking after our own lives.
He was an extremely racist person."
When the Charles Perkins suggested that the English names for many towns and geographical features should be changed in favour of Aboriginal names, Sir Joh suggested that Mr Perkins should change his name to "Mr Witchetty Grub".
Brisbane activist Sam Watson told local media after Sir Joh's death: "Aboriginal people in particular have great cause to curse Joh and his government. For instance, many older relatives from the Cherbourg reserve were forced to work on Joh's peanut crops for $1 a day."
Mr Watson said Aboriginal people would always remember Sir Joh as "a racist, a thug and a dictator".
Another Queensland activist former federal public servant Les Malezer, said Queensland in the 1960s and 1970s was operating under a system of apartheid.
"The laws that had been thrown out of the other states in the late 1960s were still operating in Queensland right up until the 1980s because Bjelke-Petersen refused to remove them. The racism in Queensland was regimented and institutionalised, and it lasted much longer than in other States – and it was an apartheid system", he said.
Mr Malezer, who is now chairman of FAIRA Aboriginal Corporation, said there were many cases of overt racism during the time, most notably Sir Joh's banishment of the Uniting Church from communities such as Aurukun and Mornington Island because the church workers there were suggesting Aboriginal ownership of the land, and self-determination.
Make way for mining corporations
The Queensland government passed special legislation removing the Uniting Church from Aurukun and Mornington, and took over full administration of the reserves by declaring them Crown land.
This move had a dual purpose, also allowing bauxite mining to begin at Weipa, near Aurukun. Mining company Comalco was also given permission by the Queensland government to move into Mapoon territory, also on Cape York, for further mining.
It was alleged at the time that Sir Joh and his family — along with other members of Parliament — had personally received shares in Comalco in return for enabling the mines to go ahead.
Mr Malezer said Sir Joh had no tolerance for any individuals or groups that opposed government policy, and he personally chose people to work in Aboriginal affairs who would support his policies.
"There was a man on Palm Island who was talking to people about rights and self-management of the island, and Bjelke-Petersen simply banished him from the island — he was banned from going there and it was his home. Anyone who was against the government was persecuted," he said.
A teacher at Hopevale community similarly called a meeting of community members without the manager's authority — the director of Aboriginal Affairs Pat Killoran immediately called for the teacher's transfer out of the community.
Ms Buchanan said that when she gave birth to her son, fathered by fellow activist Lionel Fogarty, they visited Fogarty's mother at Cherbourg, an Aboriginal community about three hours north-west of Brisbane and near Sir Joh's home town of Kingaroy.
"We got there and we were immediately given five minutes to leave the settlement by the National Party people who ran the community then. They were Aboriginal people, but they were hand- picked by the government as people who would toe the government line", she said.
Les Malezer recalls: "A good Aboriginal person under Bjelke-Petersen was locked away on a reserve, and said nothing. Anyone who tried to move outside that mould, and establish something for themselves and try to claim rights was a troublemaker.
"In those days, for Aboriginal people working in Aboriginal affairs at the time it wasn't about sitting down and writing policy documents and speeches. We had to get out there and roll up the sleeves and wrestle with police on the front lines, just to stop people being thrown out of their homes and all that kind of thing."
Mr Malezer said the Premier himself was rarely available for meetings with activists to discuss issues — this was all left to his chief public servant, Pat Killoran.
Ms Buchanan said she remembered an occasion when Pat Killoran "pulled her aside" one day at the departmental offices. She had just begun seeing fellow activist Denis Walker, with whom she later had a child, and Mr Killoran told her she should "stay away from him, he is trouble for you".
"He said all this while he was patting me on the bum. Here I was, a very young girl, about 17 or something, and he's rubbing my bum and telling me I shouldn't hang around Denis because he's no good. What a joke", she said.
The Bjelke-Petersen government became notorious for its refusal to abide by federal legislation, such as the Racial Discrimination Act when it was introduced in 1975, because Aboriginal people might then be able to gain control over some of their land and be paid equal wages to non- Indigenous workers.
Mr Malezer said, "From 1972 onwards, through both the Whitlam and then Fraser years, the federal government was constantly trying to override the Queensland government's "Black Acts" in order to give Queensland Aboriginal people some sort of recognition and rights as people, but the Bjelke-Petersen government was fighting them on every turn."
The New Internationalist magazine reported in the late 1970s that Sir Joh had always claimed the Aboriginal land rights movement was a "Soviet takeover plot" and "that Aboriginal land would be used as bases for assaults by foreign forces on Australia".
In 1971 the World Council of Churches labelled the Queensland government's Aborigines Act "almost as iniquitous as South Africa's Apartheid".
In order to eliminate Aboriginal demonstrators against the 1982 Commonwealth Games, Sir Joh declared a State of Emergency and proclaimed street marches illegal, rushing through legislation making it illegal to even hold a placard or hand out any leaflets within 16km of the games venue.
Indigenous historian Gary Foley writes: "The demonstrations went ahead anyway and the Queensland police lived up to Bjelke-Petersen's threats of mass arrests. At the end of the day hundreds of Indigenous activists and their supporters were arrested, but they achieved their goal of international headlines focusing on the racist policies of both the Queensland and federal governments..."
Denied right to own land
In May, 1982, Queensland Aboriginal man John Koowarta successfully gained funds from the Commonwealth Aboriginal Land Fund to buy his traditional land on the Archer River Bend in Cape York. When Sir Joh heard about the case, he said Aboriginal people should not be able to own their own land in Queensland and immediately converted the land to national park so it could not be purchased. Mr Koowarta died in August 1991, and never obtained title to his traditional land.
Historian Rosalind Kidd recorded in her book The Way We Civilise that the Bjelke-Petersen government continued to pay Aboriginal workers often one-third to one-half of their proper wages after the 1967 national referendum which granted them equal status as citizens of Australia.
Dr Kidd found the Queensland government received funding from the federal government for certain projects in communities, paid the Aboriginal workers half of the award rate, and kept the remaining money.
London writer for Britain's The Guardian newspaper, Phillip Jones, said Sir Joh had once stated that Indigenous Australians were "as rich as the sheikhs of the Middle East".
Ms Buchanan said that in hindsight, activists operating in the 1960s through to the 1980s under Sir Joh's government were very courageous.
"It took a lot of guts, looking back, to do what we did. I realise now how much guts it took, how we had to get up every morning and work out what we could do, what strategies we could come up with to get our message out. All the while we were dealing with this constant harassment and persecution in our lives", she said.
Sir Joh was Aboriginal Affairs Minister in 1963, and then appointed as Police Minister before becoming Premier in 1968. His government was exposed during the Fitzgerald Inquiry when a number of high-level police and National Party politicians were jailed for corruption.
Sir Joh himself faced a perjury charges and a lengthy trial, but a hung jury saw him acquitted (the jury voted 10-2 to find him guilty). He died last month aged 94.