Monday, 5 February 2018
Bjelke-Petersen, Lady Florence (Flo) Isabel
by leave—I move:
That the Senate records its deep sorrow at the death on 20 December 2017 of Lady Florence Isabel Bjelke-Petersen, a former Senator for Queensland and Deputy Leader of the National Party in the Senate and places on record its gratitude for her service to the parliament and tenders its profound sympathy to her family in their bereavement.
Alongside her husband, former Queensland Premier the late Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Lady Flo remains, perhaps, one of the most iconic social and political figures of late 20th century Queensland. Yet, despite the heights of political office that she came to attain, she will remain defined by her quiet but fierce devotion to her family and faith, in addition to her home state and regional and remote areas, in particular.
Born on 11 August 1920 as the eldest of two daughters to James Gilmour and his wife, Florence Mabel, Lady Flo's childhood years were spent in the cosmopolitan inner Brisbane suburb of New Farm. In those early days she led a close-knit family life, so much so that she would go on to recall her father, an accountant and company director, often walking home to visit his wife and daughters at lunchtime. These experiences helped to inform her strong focus on the family unit that would come to define much of her world view and agenda. However, the onset of the Great Depression and her father's failing eyesight ensured that her childhood years were not free from hardship.
Lady Flo was educated at New Farm State School and Brisbane Girls Grammar School, excelling in a range of subjects, but she chose to leave early and commence studies at the state commercial high school, where she passed her public service exams with great success. In short order, Lady Flo found herself working her way up the ladder of the Queensland public service, employed as the private secretary to the Queensland Commissioner for Main Roads. It was in this capacity that she would meet the then 40-year-old Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, an imposing Country Party member for the district of Barambah and a peanut farmer. They married soon after, on 31 May 1952, and Lady Flo's transition from inner city suburbia to doyenne of regional Queensland began in earnest. Years later, Lady Flo would quip to a friend that her initial fear was that she would struggle to learn to milk the farm's dairy cows. Despite these concerns, Lady Flo settled quickly into what would be a happy lifelong marriage to Sir Joh.
Children followed in short order, with the young couple raising John, Helen, Meg and Ruth. Lady Flo's youth, often spent at religious retreats at Alexandra House on the Sunshine Coast, had instilled in her a devout Presbyterian morality and she took on her motherly role with gusto as her husband commenced his rise towards the premiership of Queensland. Throughout Sir Joh's 19-year tenure as Premier, many of the locals of Barambah came to refer to Lady Flo as their unofficial MP. She could often be found at community events and functions, ensuring that the district's residents enjoyed the quality representation that they deserved. When asked about this, Sir Joh would readily admit, 'Flo ran the electorate for me.' Their son John offered a more candid assessment when he said, 'Dad was the one elected, but it was mum who did all the groundwork.' During this time, she also developed her reputation as a homemaker, and her now famous recipe for pumpkin scones remains a fixture in many regional Queensland households today.
Lady Flo's life was not one spent sitting on the sidelines, and 1981 saw her commence a political career of her own. Appointed to fill the casual vacancy left by retiring National Party senator Glen Sheil in March of that year, she entered the Senate as Australia's 15th female senator and only the third from Queensland. Lady Flo often noted that, in her view, Australia's parliament needed more female voices not simply on the floor but in senior leadership positions as well. In her first speech in this place, she did not shrink from raising her concerns about what she perceived as the declining condition of the Australian family unit and the unfair financial burden being endured by her fellow Queenslanders, twin focuses that would remain central issues for her during her time in the Senate.
Brushing past the initial scepticism of some, Lady Flo quickly developed a reputation for her independence of mind and willingness to go her own way in pursuit of what she felt was right. In fact, the first few years of her service saw her cross the floor three times on various votes. However, that independence was never mistaken for a lack of commitment to her party, the National Party. Even in the wake of her husband's split with the National Party in 1987, she remained a fixture in its party room, serving as the party's deputy leader in the Senate between 1985 and 1990. On all sides of politics, Lady Flo came to be well regarded for her non-confrontational senatorial style and emphasis on steadfast service to her state. This strong profile extended outside of the walls of parliament and helped to secure her re-election at both the 1983 and 1987 double dissolution elections.
As a passionate advocate for her state, some of Lady Flo's greatest achievements can be traced back to Queensland. She remained committed to securing investment in its struggling power infrastructure, the cutting of death duties and the lowering of taxation levels. In addition, her efforts in support of the World Expo 88 played a critical role in its success, bringing over 15.7 million visitors to Brisbane between April and October 1988 and showcasing the state that she loved to the world as part of the bicentennial celebrations. Reflecting on her tenure in the Senate, she also noted the value of her time spent on numerous Senate committees, including many years as a Temporary Chair of Committees.
Retiring from the Senate at the conclusion of her term in 1993, Lady Flo's service was not yet over. When Sir Joh was diagnosed with supranuclear palsy, she was ready by his side. As his battle with the disease took its toll, Lady Flo's undimmed love for and devotion to her husband shone through.
The remarkable life of Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen is of a kind that we are unlikely to see again. In her, we can discern a spirit of humble, unassuming and dedicated service, not simply to her state and country but to her family, friends and neighbours. That she did not set out with such high expectations is something that she would openly admit, once stating:
… when I was a little girl, I would have been absolutely amazed if you'd have told me that I would one day be married to the Premier of Queensland and become a Senator in my own right.
Nonetheless, her life has left an indelible mark on the Queensland community that she loved and was one filled with so many who returned that affection. Recent weeks have seen that sentiment borne out in the flood of letters to the editor penned to local and interstate newspapers, with many Queenslanders paying tribute to her life and legacy. I also note the fine tribute to Lady Flo and her husband, Sir Joh, from one of Australia's most consequential Indigenous leaders, Noel Pearson. He wrote last month:
I pay respect now to the couple who came to know our people after the war, who helped break our exile and returned us to our promised land, on the basis of shared religion rather than politics.
To Lady Flo's children, John, Helen, Meg and Ruth, and to all of her grandchildren, on behalf of the government I offer my sincerest condolences.
I rise on behalf of the opposition to acknowledge the passing of former senator Lady Florence Isabel Bjelke-Petersen, known to all as Lady Flo, who passed away in late December 2017 at the age of 97. I commence by conveying, at the outset, the opposition's condolences to her friends and family.
Lady Flo was an outsized personality in Australian politics. Of course, she is inextricably linked to her husband, Sir Joh, the longest-serving Premier of Queensland, and, of course, she is widely associated with her famous pumpkin scones. There is no doubt that the role she played in Queensland alongside her husband is how many Australians will remember her. However, for this reason, it is easy to overlook her own contribution to national politics as a senator for 12 years.
Born in 1920 in Queensland, Lady Flo grew up in the riverside suburbs of inner Brisbane. Educated at the local state school and then at Brisbane Girls Grammar, she refined her shorthand and typing skills studying at State Commercial High School. She went on to pass the public service exam, becoming secretary to the main roads commissioner before meeting her husband in the course of her work.
As Senator Cormann has described, religion—the practice of faith, her church—was a central aspect of Lady Flo's life. She held what would be generally understood as traditional values. Many would not share her beliefs on many things, including in relation to the role of women in the home and the homogeneity of the family unit. Many would find some of her statements at best outdated and at worst simply unacceptable, but these views were formed early in her life and were solidified over time and remained a consistent and important foundation for Lady Flo in the approach she took to her political life.
Lady Flo won preselection to be a National Party senator, not without controversy given her husband's position, and was subsequently elected, in 1980, to a term commencing in July 1981, although prior to taking her place she was appointed to fill a casual vacancy, so arrived a little earlier. She would go on to be elected in 1983 and 1987 before retiring at the end of her term in 1993. She was the first woman to be elected a senator from the National Party. During her time, she served on a number of committees, in particular the Senate Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes, from 1981 to 1985, and the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare. In the National Party, as Senator Cormann mentioned, she was also Deputy Leader in the Senate and briefly the party's whip.
When Lady Flo was first preselected, there were some who commented she would not be up to the job. However, she brought the same quiet determination, discipline and concentration to the Senate as she practised throughout her life. In some ways she might have been old-fashioned, but she was always true to her word and believed in what she did, which earned her respect from other senators across this chamber even if they vehemently opposed her positions. She also brought many years of experience of political life, which made her a perceptive interpreter of the mood of the people in her home state of Queensland, and she channelled this ability to become a politician in her own right.
There were times when her strong beliefs led her to cross the floor. For example, she voted three times with the Labor Party when she thought people were getting a bad deal on a sales tax increase proposed by the Fraser government. I'm sure this was not without consequence. Her principles led her to decline to accept the suggestion that she should serve as an Independent after her husband was deposed as Premier, recognising she had been elected as a National Party senator. She believed in keeping faith with the people of Queensland who had voted for her based on this fact. This is a worthy principle. In one obituary she was described as 'the human side of a ruthless and corrupt political machine'.
She could be tough, but she could be warm, and in character assessments made of her it is this warmth which shone through. A former Labor leader in this place, Gareth Evans, spoke about Lady Flo on the occasion of her departure from the Senate. In his remarks on the valedictory he commented that since her arrival in 1981 'she has unquestionably been a personality in her own right'. He went on to describe what he regarded as her 'genuine warmth and good humour', and he said this made her 'rather irritatingly someone that is absolutely impossible to be irritated with'. I have to say, knowing and loving Gareth Evans as we do, that is quite an extraordinary thing to say—that he finds someone impossible to be irritated with.
In the same debate, the late Senator Pat Giles, whom we spoke about here just a few months ago following her own passing, lamented that Lady Flo's pumpkin-scone-making reputation had overshadowed her own place as the champion sponge maker of Bassendean for many years. Clearly, competition in politics takes many forms!
By the time she left the Senate in 1993, Lady Flo had outlasted her husband in political office. She retired at the age of 73 but later lamented that she did not keep going, because she felt fine mentally and physically, and she certainly continued to be politically engaged and remained a source of advice for many within the National Party.
The overarching theme from those who served in the Senate with Lady Flo was her humanity. Many senators from across all sides of the chamber spoke about her common touch and her ability to form connections with people from across different walks of life. It was this relational touch, the friendships she formed and the impressions she left which underscored her approach to life. Her colleagues liked her, as did many in the community. She was held in high personal regard, and that is a very good way in which to be remembered. A woman of enduring Christian faith, she would have had no doubt about her next destination. On this day we again extend our sympathies to her family and friends.
I rise on behalf of the Nationals to acknowledge the passing of former Senator, First Lady of Queensland and a giant of the Australian political scenes, Lady Florence Bjelke-Petersen, affectionately known by many as Lady Flo. It's not often that a public figure possesses such and is seen as such a force of life, who is known to so many who have never actually had the opportunity to meet her but who is remembered much by reputation and by her name. Along with her husband, the formidable former Premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Lady Flo completely loved Queensland, and everything she said—I was lucky to meet Lady Flo on a number of occasions, and she provided me with such succinct advice, but what was evident to me was the complete love of where she lived and the love of people who identified as Queenslanders. I think she felt an obligation to Queensland because she had such a love for those people and that place. Her time in this Senate was very much influenced by her obligation. That's why she spoke to me—an obligation to look after Queenslanders.
She certainly left a lasting impact on the footprint of our nation. Her reputation for elegance, passion and energy preceded her in this place. Anyone who knew her can genuinely say how much she contributed to the political landscape of Queensland and beyond.
Lady Flo met her husband when she was working as a stenographer for the Queensland government, and their 53-year marriage was something many would see as a perfect story—although I'm not sure a first date at Parliament House is the romantic setting that many would imagine. As we've heard, not only was Lady Flo the driving force of her time here but she also influenced the Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, during his years of leadership in Queensland.
She was a person loved by many—her family, her community and right across the general public. They saw her as someone who would stand up for her country but certainly one who in doing that didn't need to abandon her home life in order to pursue politics. She was known for so much more than just her perfect pumpkin scones; although they were surely Australia's best scones, given their ability to be used to turn a negative story into a positive one with any visiting journalists. They'd get pumpkin scones, and she was associated with turning a few minds in that respect.
Her parliamentary career in this place was a remarkable feat of endurance, leadership and commitment. She made a name for herself. She was no longer just the wife or partner of the Queensland Premier. I can recall that when I was a young man, so often I was introduced quite naturally to a woman as the partner—'By the way, this is the wife of someone.' She was like an addition. Obviously, we've changed so much now to acknowledge that. It must have been difficult for her, coming here as the housewife of the Premier of Queensland, but she certainly changed minds then. They recognised that she was, in fact, a hardworking senator, absolutely ruthless in her commitment to her beloved state of Queensland and that she would deliver real outcomes for Queensland.
No doubt, some would argue that Lady Flo's initial election was a bit controversial. But no-one could possibly deny that she took her job very seriously. In the early days, it was just about Queensland—what she believed in. Very early, she crossed the floor and voted against the coalition government in this place on a sales taxation bill. That was quite early in her career; I think she was sending a clear signal about ownership, and I think that was very important. I would like to think that if she were here today all senators in this place would respect Lady Flo's values, integrity, conviction and dedication to her position as a representative, first and foremost, of regional Queensland.
As Leader of the Nationals in this place, I particularly want to acknowledge Lady Flo's devotion to the National Party. Although a Liberal Party member in her younger years in Brisbane, she adopted the National's brand so naturally and became what we consider to be a quintessential National Party advocate. She fought for families and businesses in regional Australia, and she was a complete National at heart. Sometimes people talk about what the difference is between conservatives: we have Liberal conservatives and National conservatives. Well, we share the same values. We would say, and I'm sure Flo would agree, that the National Party is really focused on contextualising those values in rural and regional Australia.
Many people will remember Lady Flo fondly, and we are reminded of her often. I'm sure many people in this place, one way or another, have travelled to Lady Flo's heartland country—South Burnett, Kingaroy, Wondai and some of those surrounding towns. She fought tirelessly for those towns, and, in some ways, she really put those towns on the map. When you go there, they still say, 'Welcome to Joh's country', today. But many say, 'Welcome to Flo's country'. I think that is really a reflection on just how warmly local communities in Queensland felt about their Lady Flo. She showed all Queenslanders and all Australians the importance of fighting in quite a focused way, in her way, for small regional towns. Basically, the fight is, when you say 'for regional towns', the reality is it's against the interests of those people advocating for the larger cities. There are more representatives in the larger cities, and many of those people who represent small businesses and regional Australia in this place would acknowledge that.
I particularly would like to acknowledge, as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, that her commitment to Queensland extended to the very challenging practical efforts that she made to support the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. We've just heard a quote from Noel Pearson that the Bjelke-Petersens are 'the couple who came to know our people, to help break our exile and return us to our promised land', which was Hope Vale community. What's not well-known is the work that they did to return it so they could have some ownership of their own land. Perhaps it's not well-known here in this place either that it was actually Bob Katter from that other place who started the DOGITs. These are all small but significant—from Aboriginal peoples' perspective—changes in their lives. Flo was an absolute champion in that time.
Lady Flo was a real example to us all—a constant reality check about what we're in this place for. We're not here to agree or argue or disagree. We're here to represent all of those we stand for, no matter how small the population. She was a person who believed in people. She believed and loved her communities. As her daughter recalled—and if you can think about this for a moment—at the age of 90, she drove herself around some of these small towns, playing the organ regularly at nursing homes, and, if one of the local priests became a bit ill, she'd stand in for one of the local priests. This is at 90 years of age. She will always be remembered. Lady Flo made a remarkable contribution to this place and particularly to Queensland. On behalf of the Nationals, I give my deepest sympathies and condolences to her four children and all of her family and friends. Lady Flo was a great lady who we could all learn something from. Vale Lady Flo Petersen.
As a Queenslander, just about everyone knows of Lady Flo. Did I know her very well? No, I didn't, but I took the time to go and visit her towards the end of last year at the nursing home in Kingaroy when I visited Kingaroy. Her son, John, was there as well. I spent some time with her and had a talk with her. I remember, in my 20s, when her husband Joh Bjelke-Petersen was on the political scene in Queensland, I was a big supporter of his. I believed in his politics and what he was doing for Queensland. Lady Flo was a woman who, I understood, started her life and career in the Public Service and then met Joh. Having spoken to her and her family—she was a very caring mother, a very strong believer in her faith and she was a community leader. She worked tirelessly for her community. She then got into politics, and I'd say that was possibly her forte. In listening to people in this House comment on her actions in this parliament, I understand she was a person who stood up for what she believed in—not so much that she played politics, but she played the person who she was elected to be and was representing the people of Queensland.
I do thank the government and Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Premier of Queensland, for holding a state funeral for Lady Flo. The community turned out and political leaders from all persuasions turned up to pay their respects to this special woman. I call her special because, when I listened to the comments not only from her children but also from other community leaders and people of the town, they believed she was special. I'm sure other people, including myself, believe that she offered Queensland and the parliament a lot. I do offer my condolences to her children, Ruth, Helen, John and Meg. They were a very tight family. They loved their mother very much.
It was quite a blow for them to learn of her death, because it was unexpected. She was quite 'not senile' when I saw her and talked to her. She was still witty and would have a laugh and a joke, and it was only through a fall that she went downhill very quickly. So it was a tragic loss to the family. I would like to offer my condolences, on behalf of the people of Queensland, to the family and to all those who had respect for Lady Flo.
I'd like to speak to this motion as well. It is perhaps apt, as I spoke in this place in May 2005 on the condolence motion for Flo Bjelke-Petersen's husband, Joh—a motion, I should note, that was not moved by the government at the time but by an individual senator.
Lady Flo died last month in December 2017, which also marked the 30th anniversary of the end of the Bjelke-Petersen premiership in Queensland. I would like to note the positive comments people have made in regard to Flo Bjelke-Petersen's time as a senator in this chamber. I certainly, in a condolence motion, would join in sending best wishes to Flo Bjelke-Petersen's family in what is always a difficult period. No matter how old somebody lives to, and 98 is a good innings, it is still always hard when a parent or a family member passes away.
Flo Bjelke-Petersen's time in this chamber coincided a little bit with my time as a staffer for Democrats senator Cheryl Kernot and Democrats senator John Woodley, who spent a lot of time around rural Queensland. It is certainly fair to say that Flo Bjelke-Petersen's work as a senator in this place, on behalf of her constituents and the party she represented, was such that people had a lot of positive things to say about her, which are consistent with the sorts of comments that have already been made.
As has been clear from the comments that have also already been made, her work as a senator can't be disconnected from her role as one half of the Bjelke-Petersen couple that ruled over Queensland for so long and had such a massive impact on Queensland for so long. Some people, understandably, in the context of this debate, want to point to the positives of that partnership. I feel it is very important to put on the record, as politely as I can in the context of a condolence debate, the very deep and destructive negatives of their role in Queensland. I speak as a lifelong Queenslander. I was three or four years old when Joh Bjelke-Petersen became Premier and was about 23 when he finally was kicked out by his own party under a massive cloud.
Regarding the Bjelke-Petersen partnership, it is worth noting that in her final interview to the media before her passing Flo Bjelke-Petersen wanted to emphasise again her desire to restore the reputation of her husband. I can understand that. That's good to see such loyalty. But I think it is important for the many, many people whose lives were destroyed—deliberately—by her husband that his legacy is not whitewashed. I think it is important to correct the record in regards to the statements of the Prime Minister, who put out a tweet at the time of Flo Bjelke-Petersen's passing. Again, of course, one should express acknowledgement for the contribution people make and express condolences for their family, but to go on and then say that Queensland's 'success and dynamism owes so much to their vision and leadership' is an attempt to whitewash history. If people are going to use somebody's passing to whitewash history, a legacy of corruption and the deliberate destroying of people's lives, then it is necessary to correct the record. Otherwise, there is a great risk of the enormous injustices of that era being revisited. Of course, good was done but a lot of harm was done.
We've had some positive comments with regard to actions regarding Aboriginal people but we have many examples, which I will not detail here, of quite destructive actions towards many Aboriginal people. To use just one example of the stockman, Johnny Koowarta, whose own land in Cape York—
Senator Hanson, there is no point of order. Given it is a condolence motion, I'd remind all senators there are many forums in the chamber where political issues can be raised, but I'm afraid there's no point of order to be raised there, Senator Hanson. Senator Bartlett.
Thank you, Mr President. As I say, it is appropriate when people use somebody's death to whitewash history to at least put a small component on the record of the negatives of that person's record when it caused so much harm and so much damage to so many people's lives.
I would draw attention to an article in the Courier Mail by journalist Paul Syvret at the end of December with regard to this issue and simply say that the legacy of this era is not something for commemorating. Condolences to a family regarding an individual is appropriate but to use that to commemorate an era that caused so much harm and damage is not appropriate. It must, rather, serve as a reminder that we must never, ever repeat that. When we have a Prime Minister saying that somebody's vision and leadership was so pivotal to the success and dynamism of the state when it was actually a barrier to it, then it is necessary to put that on the record. I'm sorry but I just know far too many people.
Thirty years later the hurt is still so deep and so strong as is the damage done to the institution of government. There has never been any attempt on the part of those who were responsible to accept or recognise that. If that is not done, then it is up to others to point that out. Otherwise, we run a much greater risk of repeating the injustices and the deep corruption of that era, the major shredding of civil liberties and human rights abuses that occurred and the politicisation of the police force that was all justified and continued to be justified many years subsequently.
This is not my first speech. After that thinly-veiled attack on Sir Joh by Senator Bartlett, I rise to support the condolence motion for Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen. My wife Fiona and I had the honour of knowing Lady Flo and her husband, Sir Joh. Sir Joh was the patron of the aircraft manufacturing company I was involved in, and our families counted Sir Joh and Lady Flo as friends.
Lady Flo was a wonderful person, filled with genuine warmth. She possessed a genteel eloquence which charmed even her political opponents. She was famous for her traditional pumpkin scones, the recipe for which still adorns the tea towels in many Queensland kitchens. Like her husband, Sir Joh—who was the greatest premier Queensland ever had in my opinion—Lady Flo was a staunch advocate of families, especially those from the bush and, even prior to her election, was a tireless supporter, along with her husband, of their political interests. Once elected to the Senate, Lady Flo astonished even her strongest political foes as they discovered that, behind her Country Party roots, Flo had a very shrewd political mind.
Many people who did not know Joh and Flo well did not realise there was a genuine political partnership between them in which they discussed and analysed political developments together, planned together, and together they best tried to serve the people of their home state. Like Sir Joh, Lady Flo was a committed Christian and, in an age of social ratbaggery, stood firmly for traditional values once shared by politicians across the political spectrum. Yet, despite her long political involvement with the hardened leftists who hated Sir Joh, it must often have been a trial. Lady Flo rose above it all and never lost her kind and thoughtful outlook.
In a long life well lived, Lady Flo touched so many people, my family included. It is a great consolation to know that, in passing, she is reunited in spirit with her lifelong partner and soul mate. Rest in peace, Lady Flo, and know that the world is a little brighter and certainly a better place for having had you in it.
On behalf of Queensland's Liberal National Party senators, I rise to support this condolence motion and to indicate a number of us will be making our remarks in the adjournment speeches during the week. Lady Flo was a wonderful Queenslander, a brilliant advocate for rural and regional Queensland. I had the honour of attending her funeral on your behalf, Mr President, in Kingaroy, along with other senators in this place. What was interesting, when we were walking out of the Kingaroy town hall, was the number of people who were crying. There was a genuine sadness at the loss of Lady Flo. But, as I said, we will be making more comments in detail later on in the week.