by Professor Anne Tiernan
Cabinet is arguably the most powerful political institution within Australian parliamentary democracy. It is recognised as the ‘apex’ of decision-making within Westminster style political systems. Its decisions are authoritative and binding.
Nowhere are these nostrums of public administration more evident than in the 1986 Queensland Cabinet minutes. This year’s minutes, released by the Queensland State Archives today confirms the primacy of Cabinet. They also reveal that other persistent and recurrent theme of Queensland public administration: the ‘strong leader’ tradition.
Governing in his own right after his victory in the 1986 state election, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen was at the height of his political powers. But portending the old adage that ‘pride comes before the fall’, the Premier’s assertion of authority over his colleagues, using the levers available to him as Chairman of Cabinet, sowed the seeds of his downfall in December 1987.
Then, as now in our system, political leaders are as powerful as their colleagues allow them to be. The 1986 minutes show a predominant Premier prevailing most of the time, but burning political capital in the process. Indeed future Premier, Mike Ahern’s views about the importance of Cabinet process were shaped by his experience in the Bjelke-Petersen Cabinet.
These crucial public documents offer a glimpse into the contending visions that ministers sitting around the Cabinet table in the now-abandoned Executive Building held for Queensland’s future. While most, including the Premier clung to what had served Queensland in the past; others saw the need to diversify and innovate amidst profound shifts in the global economy.
Readers who delve into the details of the 1986 Cabinet minutes will find striking parallels to contemporary demographic, economic, social, technological challenges — particularly for regional Queensland.
by Erin Maclean
In 1986, images of outback Queensland and the Northern Territory were beamed to audiences worldwide in Crocodile Dundee, one of the highest-grossing Australian films of all time.
Back home, the Queensland government led by Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen entered its 18th year — an election in November would see Bjelke-Petersen, returned with 39 per cent of the vote. 1986 was a time of Bjelke-Petersen’s National Party government — not the Liberal National Party of today, or the state-level Coalition of recent years — at the height of its powers. Now, after 30 years, the 1986 Cabinet minutes have been released by the Queensland State Archives.
This follows the release of the 1985 Cabinet minutes in 2016, which, among other things, revealed undeclared conflicts of interest that were later uncovered in the Fitzgerald Inquiry into state corruption.
While Phil Dickie at The Courier-Mail and Chris Masters at the ABC did not publish their explosive reports of corruption until 1987 (sparking the commencement of the Fitzgerald Inquiry), much of the data-gathering was during the period that these newly released Cabinet minutes cover.
In the following years, several ministers and high-level members of the police force were implicated — including so-called Minister for Everything Russ Hinze, who died before charges could be brought, police commissioner Terry Lewis and assistant commissioner Graeme Parker. Bjelke-Petersen was charged with perjury regarding his evidence in the Fitzgerald Inquiry, but, due to a mistrial, it wasn’t until Matthew Condon’s All Torn Down book that Bjelke-Petersen’s corruption was finally substantiated. Ministers Leisha Harvey, Don Lane and Brian Austin were convicted of misappropriating public funds and falsifying records.
It is within this context the Cabinet minutes are discussed below, divided into sections based on the Selected Highlights report prepared by Dr. Tracey Arklay from the School of Government and International Relations and Jennifer Menzies, Deputy Director of the Policy Innovation Hub at Griffith University.
In the Cabinet minutes, corruption and conflicts of interest often manifested through poor tendering practices for development projects. More expensive bids were sometimes chosen without explanation or decisions were seemingly made for the wrong reasons — as in the notorious construction of the four-lane Pacific Motorway, which was supposedly affected by Russ Hinze’s ownership of the Oxenford Tavern that conveniently found itself positioned by an off-ramp.
According to the Policy Innovation Hub’s summary, “development was valued above everything else.”
It was common for Cabinet to cut red tape and push through enabling legislation for proposals from the biggest local developers of the 1980s — including Alan Bond, Christopher Skase, Thiess Watkins and John Minuzzo. In the Kangaroo Point development, the government was willing to overrule local council zoning permissions.
The redevelopment of the Queensland Railway and Capital Hotel land — suggested Bjelke-Petersen’s complicity. Although Seymour Developments had the most advantageous proposal and guaranteed completion for $95 million, the Premier championed another offer — that of Minuzzo’s Mainsel Investments for an 83-storey tower to the tune of $300 million, which Queensland Rail described as “grossly oversized to meet future predicted demand”.
Cabinet agreed to accept the Mainsel tender for the “World’s Tallest Building”, but not without controversy; the following year, Bjelke-Petersen tried to fire five ministers who allegedly discovered that he would financially benefit from the project.
This was said to have caused Bjelke-Petersen’s political downfall, but it was the Port Office redevelopment — where Robert Sng Swee Lee’s Historic Holdings was unmeritoriously deemed the preferred applicant — that was examined in the former Premier’s trial. According to The Courier-Mail, prosecutors claimed he tried to hide the connection between Sng’s $200,000 donation and the company’s offer.
Throughout 1986, Cabinet heard several submissions about the troubled funding of the Sanctuary Cove Resort, which Hinze had pushed through Cabinet the year before. Bjelke-Petersen argued for a $5-million loan to the developer, on top of previous government and private funding. This project was linked to the Gold Coast’s infamous White Shoe Brigade, a group of developers who later supported the “Joh for Canberra” campaign.
Having been approved in 1985, the Port Douglas Resort for Christopher Skase’s Qintex was often discussed — Cabinet agreed to consider legislation to overcome the need for individual approvals and, in July, approved rezoning. Qintex also proposed a luxury hotel for the Mariner’s Paradise development on the Broadwater.
Thiess Watkins’ companies were awarded many government contracts, including the construction of the HM Prison in North Queensland and the renovation of the Queensland Tourism and Travel Corporation premises. According to Thiess’ Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, it was later found he “bribed” Bjelke-Petersen with gifts like an aircraft hangar and equipment repairs worth roughly $1 million. At the end of 1986, the Premier recommended Watkins be allowed to spend an additional $9 million in developing the Expo ’88 site.
While this sounds damning, it does not implicate the entire ministry.
The Cabinet minutes include a large volume of submissions (roughly 50 per meeting) and an unprecedented amount of oral submissions with astonishingly little detail that contradicts now-rigid practices. This indicates Cabinet was expected to make quick decisions, even without the full story. Those already implicated — at least Bjelke-Petersen and Hinze — appear to have kept others in the dark through poor process and high workload.
There were, of course, some relatively uncontroversial decisions, like the extension of the Queen Street Mall and additional parking at Sea World.
Law and order
Under Deputy Premier Bill Gunn’s leadership, Cabinet took positive steps towards combating the rising criminal activity — introducing legislation for rehabilitation (where minor convictions would eventually be removed from non-reoffenders’ records), increasing police numbers and amending rules about police education standards.
Unfortunately, this was against a backdrop of police and governmental corruption that resulted in Gunn calling for the Fitzgerald Inquiry the next year.
In one example that was used as evidence in the Fitzgerald Inquiry, the Attorney-General reported to Cabinet on the Enquiry into Sexual Offences Involving Children and Related Matters. While he recommended the report be made available to the Premier and relevant ministers, Matthew Condon suggests the police and State government were already aware of such offences — as in the earlier case of Clarence Osborne, the evidence of which could supposedly “bring down the [then Queensland] government overnight”.
Likewise, Cabinet deferred granting the National Crime Authority permission to conduct Operation Vigilante, an investigation into drug importation and tax evasion. Months earlier, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia had granted identical references to the Authority — with only Queensland conspicuously refusing. The operation eventually went ahead, but not without protest.
Such tension between Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland and Bob Hawke’s Federal government was common. On the issue of the Commonwealth’s Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Bill 1986, Cabinet supported enabling State police to intercept calls on drug-related matters, but Bjelke-Petersen was concerned that a Commonwealth Minister would supervise and Telecom employees would be involved.
Bjelke-Petersen’s hesitation on Operation Vigilante and fear of Commonwealth monitoring was not necessarily related to the Fitzgerald Inquiry’s later findings, but in more damning evidence, the wife of his media adviser was jailed for misappropriating public money. A month later, Cabinet — again, conspicuously — authorised the granting of an indemnity to the bank against any losses occurred in the recovery of misappropriated money.
Considering the State government’s advocacy for development above all else, it is little surprise the Cabinet minutes indicate Bjelke-Petersen was uninterested in environmental protection; he opposed the nomination of further areas for World Heritage status and was adamant against a review of the rainforest timber industry.
Of course, the Premier’s opposition was also grounded in his aversion to Hawke’s Federal government. He frequently refused to contribute to Commonwealth initiatives and often challenged federal intervention on Constitutional grounds, such as in the management and conservation of Far North Queensland’s rainforests.
Regardless, Cabinet closely considered some environmental issues; it recommended discontinuing the Nile Perch introduction program, as the African fish devastated freshwater ecosystems, and considered expanding the National Parks and Wildlife Service’s crocodile relocation project as an alternative to open culling.
Social policy: health and education
With the government’s focus squarely on development, social policy generally took a backseat through funding cuts and denied proposals — except where it meant building hospitals and educational facilities.
Eight schools and 78 preschools were built.
Likewise, a number of new hospitals and redevelopments were to be commissioned in 1987, although Health Minister Brian Austin was concerned there would be insufficient staff to open the facilities. Cabinet refused immediate funding and, as with Austin’s other requests (such as for Queensland’s first heart transplant service), agreed to consider the proposal in the next budget.
During this period, Cabinet decided to discontinue or refuse additional funding to several programs. The Royal Flying Doctor Service had to close one of its three centres and reduce services to rural Queensland, while the mass vaccination of Queensland school children against tuberculosis was stopped for not being cost effective.
However, drug use became a national health priority in the 1980s and so Cabinet, as part of its commitment to the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse, agreed to adopt provisions to make it unlawful for a Queenslander to commit a drug offence punishable in other states. Cabinet also approved a $1.2 million tender for the construction of the Royal Brisbane Hospital’s Alcohol and Drug Dependency Detoxification/Rehabilitation Unit.
This was a rather rare case of cooperation with the Commonwealth. Cabinet frequently felt Queensland did not receive its share of federal funding, especially in education where the state was lagging behind others.
To secure as much funding as possible (and, oddly enough, guarantee its fair share of migrants and other Commonwealth projects), Cabinet passionately pursued the Census; it pushed against the Commonwealth’s plans to make the Census every 10 years, instead of five, and previously resolved to shift the mid-winter school holidays of 1986 to ensure Queensland families would be at home on Census date.
Economic development, assistance and trade
At this time, “rocks and crops” were considered the major revenue earners for Queensland — and streams that the State government was determined to support, even if they were proving to be unsustainable. Funding to social policy was cut, but there was no shortage of money for troubled industries and businesses.
For example, the Greenvale Nickel Project near Townsville was struggling, so the government worked to permit nickel importation to boost the plant and save 700 jobs — with an investment of $42 million for infrastructure.
Likewise, the sugar industry in Queensland already received considerable government subsidy, but Bjelke-Petersen asked Cabinet — in a secret submission — to provide additional assistance to specific mills. The industry was heavily regulated, so other submissions pertained to industry deregulation or regulation of sugar prices.
Cabinet considered specific cases of businesses needing financial support; this included Arnott’s Biscuit factory, which needed to move from its Coronation Drive location because of major Brisbane City Council road works, and the O’Phee group of companies that had secured a contract to build trailers for China.
This was the same year that Cabinet decided to foster Queensland-China trade relations in the private sector with the reestablishment of a Queensland/China Trade Advisory Committee.
Cabinet also discussed building stronger ties with Turkey. A secret submission outlined plans for a consortium with State backing to build a coal supply, distribution and power generation plant at Iskenderun Bay on the Turkish Mediterranean. Officials travelled to Turkey to assess the project’s feasibility and, while the deal fell through in 1988 when Queensland withdrew equity, the station’s 3.4 million tonnes of coal each year would have meant Queensland opening a new mine.
Though rocks and crops were the government’s overwhelming focus, Minister for Industry, Small Business and Technology Mike Ahern (unsuccessfully) pushed against the hostile Cabinet to diversify Queensland’s economy with increased manufacturing. His proposed strategy was a precursor to the Smart State policy of the 2000s.
Government and public service
Tensions between the State and Federal government erupted once again over workers’ rights.
As part of 1986’s National Wage Case, the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission reviewed wage fixing, indexation and superannuation. Cabinet made several submissions and strongly opposed the superannuation proposals — arguing in the High Court that the Commission did not have jurisdiction to address superannuation.
Throughout the year, Cabinet also supported the abolition of annual leave loading, argued against large wage increases and sought a 12-month moratorium on the superannuation issue. Bjelke-Petersen publicly opposed superannuation, having refused his own parliamentary entitlement, and was concerned about the State’s wage bill, so Cabinet established a Superannuation Review Committee to investigate the proposals.
Meanwhile, the Queensland public sector was struggling after 11 years of the government’s nil growth policy — more staff was needed to open new buildings and implement legislation. When the issue was finally brought to Cabinet, the submission asked for 116 positions to be considered. This meant Cabinet spent time considering positions that would, in 2016, be addressed by departmental heads.
Cabinet decided to give additional power to such departmental heads and increase their salaries, as these were below other major states and the Commonwealth, but advised the State Industrial Commission it would not support incremental increases to public servant wages.
Such dramas about staffing and wages occurred at the same time that Hawke’s proposed introduction of the Fringe Benefits Tax threatened elected officials’ entitlements — prompting Bjelke-Petersen to make an oral submission confirming the State would pay the tax if electorate allowances or home telephones were included. Further, Cabinet believed it could challenge the Constitutional validity of the legislation (a common occurrence for Bjelke-Petersen), claiming the State government as an employer could not be taxed in this manner.
Cabinet also set out a program for overseas travel allowances for government staff, including an unusually expensive three-week trip for a Public Service Board member and senior officer. This is hardly shocking after the Bronwyn Bishop travel entitlements scandal of 2015.
Another perk of being a minister or government associate, thanks to an oral submission by the Premier early in the year, was that the government would pay the costs of defamation action related to official duties. The submission prompted five writs to be issued the next day.
The Fitzgerald Inquiry pointed out that Cabinet “failed to reveal any written submission or formal record which explains the basis for this policy”, that defendants were often political opponents or media organisations and that “the subject matter in every case concerned allegations which had been made of corruption”.
But politicians from all sides and levels of politics in Australia (and beyond) have continued to threaten and pursue defamation action. It was also recently revealed that former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman and Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars defending against defamation claims — a policy the Palaszczuk government has since reviewed, so that taxpayers will not pay if a minister acts “maliciously or in disregard of the State’s interest”.
During the years of Bjelke-Petersen’s government, Indigenous affairs — particularly regarding land rights — was fraught with tension. The 1984 Cabinet minutes included a racist tirade from Bjelke-Petersen and, according to the ABC’s report on the 1985 Cabinet minutes, Bjelke-Petersen once said “this land rights stuff has to stop”.
But, even against such resistance, the 1986 minutes were peppered with Northern Development & Community Services Minister Bob Katter working tirelessly to protect the Deed of Grant in Trust communities (DOGIT), which were established in 1984 to allow Indigenous councils to administer former reserves and missions.
In 1986, Cabinet approved the creation of the Woorabinda DOGIT. Katter repeatedly tried to convince Cabinet to make the Council economically viable by including pastoral properties, cattle and timber. Those attempts were unsuccessful, but Katter continued pushing for the economic sustainability of Indigenous communities.
For example, Katter proposed money from the sale of Aboriginal reserve land in Charters Towers go to helping a group of Aboriginal men begin farming projects. He also insisted the Torres Strait Islander workforce participate in the construction of an electricity plant for Coconut Island through a formal program.
Perhaps most significantly, Katter made regular submissions about paying award wages to Aboriginal workers, since those in the Department of Community Services were paid less than the relevant industrial award at the time. Although the department advised Katter it was not feasible, he conducted “private research” that said otherwise — and that the government was in a position of “extreme legal vulnerability”.
Cabinet eventually agreed to pay award wages to Aboriginal workers, but only through existing departmental funding, which unfortunately meant job losses.
1986 was an election year — the first under new boundaries and increased districts. It would be held on 1 November. In the first half of the year Cabinet heard several submissions about the format of the ballot paper and how to deal with preferences — timing of when preference decisions could be lodged and what to do if preferences did not follow the party list. Several of these were later rescinded. On 10 March the position in regards to the above were clarified as was how to manage the electoral roll in regards to new electoral divisions.
In January, Cabinet agreed to a Joint Commonwealth State electoral enrolment card in regards to a joint State/Commonwealth form and for the operation in Queensland of a single enrolment procedure.
In June it was agreed to a likely expenditure of $400,000 in order to embark on ‘a vigorous advertising campaign’ to educate voters on the new electoral boundaries and districts.
By October the venue and arrangements for the Tally room and media centre were being discussed. Labelled secret, Cabinet decided that the QE11 stadium was the most suitable venue and in order to minimise any disruption to the election coverage, the general public would not have admittance. Visitors’ passes would be issued and Ministers were requested to advise the number and category of passes required to the Attorney-General. Other parties could request passes from the Principal Electoral Officer.
Curiosities and Cabinet
The 1986 Cabinet minutes were full of relatively unsurprising revelations — of corruption and bad process that kept much of Cabinet in the dark, of Bjelke-Petersen’s passion for building but not necessarily staffing projects, but also of ministerial success with stand-outs like Mike Ahern and Bob Katter.
However, there are always a few curiosities in the mix; the 1985 Cabinet minutes, for example, revealed Bjelke-Petersen’s leadership on the building of an international square dancing centre on the Sunshine Coast.
While nothing quite so unusual happened in 1986, Cabinet finally approved the adoption of the “statuesque” brolga as Queensland’s official bird emblem, decided to set aside $50,000 to hold an annual Senior Citizen’s Week and modified the Order of Precedence, which determines the order of guests at state-level ceremonies.
Halley’s Comet was the subject of several submissions, as it passed over in April. The initial observation date clashed with the Inter Dominion Harness Racing Championship, so it was moved. A committee investigated the feasibility of reducing the light across Brisbane to enhance the view, but there were concerns about the legal implications of turning off streetlights; the Department of Main Roads would be liable if an accident occurred.
As with some other submissions, it seems like the politicians were out of their depth — and often lacking much-needed information to make decisions.
The 1986 minutes have certainly whetted the appetite for the Hillbilly Dictator’s downfall — but they also revealed bright moments among Queensland’s dark past. Considering the reports of corruption and Bill Gunn’s calling for the Fitzgerald Inquiry in 1987, it will be fascinating to see the Cabinet minutes released next year.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Professor Anne Tiernan is Director of the Policy Innovation Hub at Griffith University, Australia.
Professor Tiernan’s research focuses on the work of governing. Her scholarly interests include: Australian politics and governance, policy advice, executive studies, policy capacity, federalism and intergovernmental coordination. She has written extensively on the political-administrative interface, caretaker conventions, governmental transitions and the work of policy advising.
Erin is a freelance journalist and PhD student at Griffith University.
Erin specialises in news media depictions of popular culture, but is particularly interested in the way media framing affects public perception and politics.
Follow The Machinery of Government