Former Queensland Premier Johannes Bjelke-Petersen frequently used the expression ‘don’t you worry about that’ when he either didn’t want to answer the question, or knew the the question would suggest additional requests for information.
Bjelke-Petersen’s National Party oversaw a gradual erosion of civi rights and equality in Queensland. Bjelke-Petersen was portrayed as a strong leader that got things done. It was claimed that Bjelke-Petersen used the number of cranes constructing high-rise buildings in Brisbane as an indicator of the state’s progress. There was also considerable spending on infrastructure to service coal mines, such as new coal haul railways, better roads in coal mining areas and so on. Part of the National Party’s sales pitch at the time was that the same amount of economic activity would not be generated by the Opposition ALP. A debatable claim at best, as the world was beating a path to Australia’s door for coal and other minerals in the era and unlike a lot of other products, you can’t move mineral extraction to a country that offers a cheaper cost of production unless they also have the same minerals.
Meanwhile services to the Queensland public were lagging the rest of Australia. Health, education and other services that should be supplied by governments were starved of funding with Bjelke-Petersen priding himself on running the ‘low tax’ state. Unfortunately, the effects of the lack of investment are still being experienced today. A considerable number of Queensland voters didn’t worry about it at the time, figuring “Joh” would do the right thing by them and keep the ‘unruly’ unions and rabble-rousers that questioned the leadership at bay. The National Party government was ‘tough’ on unions and (it turned out selected) crime, labelling those that opposed the government as discontents and criminals, banning street marches and protest activity. The marketing was assisted by a generally compliant local media.
In the late 1980s the Fitzgerald Enquiry demonstrated that corruption had been evident at the highest levels of the Queensland Government. Subsequently, there were a number of referrals to the criminal justice system. A number of then government Ministers and the then Police Commissioner all served periods of time in jail. Bjelke-Petersen was personally never found guilty of corruption as the court case was abandoned due to the malfeasance of a juror. A second trial was considered but later aborted due to Bjelke-Petersen’s age and deteriorating health.
When you think about it, the Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison Coalition government used a lot of the same playbook as Bjelke-Petersen and other similar regimes around the world. In time, will the Robodebt Royal Commission have the same aura as the Fitzgerald Enquiry’s report in 1989?
Both governments were popularist paternal governments using a compliant media to reinforce the sales pitch that if you weren’t with the government, you were somewhat lacking in intelligence and really didn’t deserve a say. Bjelke-Petersen turned on ‘socialists’ and ‘unions’ as the necessary dangerous influences in his script of being a protector of morals and economic progress of society. Morrison suggested we should call him ‘Scomo’ and turned on fraudulent activities by ‘welfare cheats’ and refugees to present the myth he was keeping Australia safe for ‘god fearing Christians’ like himself. Like Bjelke-Petersen, Morrison also relied on a compliant media for support. According to the Robodebt Royal Commissioner Catherine Homes
“The evidence before the commission was that fraud in the welfare system was minuscule, but that is not the impression one would get from what ministers responsible for social security payments have said over the years,”
The recommendations for sanctions and criminal referrals in the Robodebt Royal Commission’s report is in the ‘sealed section’. It’s likely that as those named are brought to account for their impropriety, there will be sections of the media that will be quite happy to ‘name and shame’. It could be that a number of former Ministers and senior public servants – all of who should have known better – will end up serving time in prison.
The Fitzgerald Enquiry spawned the Criminal Justice Commission which is now known as the (Queensland) Crime and Corruption Commission. It is absolutely not co-incidental that Commissioner Holmes requested a 7-day extension so that matters could be referred to the Federal Government’s new National Anti-Corruption Commission.
While we don’t know for certain, there is no evidence to suggest that Albanese’s Federal Government will ignore the recommendations of the Robodebt Royal Commission. They will probably support efforts by law enforcement agencies and the National Anti-Corruption Commission to take action against those named in the ‘sealed section’. We do know that when the ALP won power in Queensland after the Fitzgerald Enquiry, Premier Wayne Goss (who’s Chief of Staff was Kevin Rudd) implemented the recommendations of the Fitzgerald Enquiry and allowed the authorities to press charges against those named in the Enquiry’s findings.
Like the Fitzgerald Enquiry, the Robodebt Royal Commission has caught the public’s attention. You would hope we all learn from recent experience. The next time a political leader invites us to call them a derivative of their first name, tells us not to worry about that and they will save us from some claimed endemic fraudulent or radical activity by some group of people that really doesn’t exist – it’s really the time to commence worrying. Those that forget their history are destined to repeat it.
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