Cabinet papers show how Queensland premier Mike Ahern struggled to move on from Sir Joh era
“The new Government in Queensland will be a government that puts people first” — those were among the first words spoken by Mike Ahern when he took over from Queensland’s longest-serving premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
Mr Ahern’s reign in 1988 sat between two powerful eras in Queensland politics — Sir Joh and Labor’s Wayne Goss.
Sir Joh resigned in 1987 after widespread allegations of bribery and corruption, which engulfed parts of Queensland’s Parliament and police force.
Cabinet documents held secret for 30 years, revealed Mr Ahern’s first decision in 1988 was to implement a Public Accounts Committee, to record and examine ministers’ spending.
“It told Queensland that there had been a change, ” Mr Ahern recalls.
But Mr Ahern’s regime of reform to rebuild public trust was not always given the full support of the National Party — with many of whom were unimpressed with Sir Joh’s treatment.
Mr Ahern also clashed with his cabinet over the ongoing Fitzgerald Inquiry and his decision to widen the terms of reference of the inquiry to outside the police force.
“I went into cabinet and they were all looking at me silently not liking it, but these things had to be done and they were necessary as soon as possible,” Mr Ahern said.
But he persevered, and the documents show Mr Ahern’s cabinet made dozens of decisions to increase accountability, many of which set the tone for the state’s political future and are still part of modern politics.
Cabinet also voted to force ministers to table their spending in Parliament for public scrutiny.
Three of Mr Ahern’s ministers were then imprisoned for misappropriating public money.
He made further enemies when his cabinet agreed to block the pension for disgraced former police commissioner Terry Lewis.
Lewis later spent a decade in jail for taking $700,000 in bribes.
However, Mr Ahern’s hard line did not satisfy his party, who overthrew him just two months before the 1989 election.
South Bank celebrates with Expo 88
While State Parliament was in crisis, the state of Queensland was being celebrated on the world stage with Expo 88.
The extravaganza attracted 15 million guests from across the world, including international dignitaries like the Queen and then-UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
But cabinet was grappling with Parliament to make future use of the land at South Bank.
Queen Elizabeth II watches an opening performance at Expo 88 with other dignitaries in 1988. (Supplied: Noel Pascoe/John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland)
Without any consultation, it initially approved a private development including an artificial island in the Brisbane River for a world trade centre and plans for a casino.
But public backlash forced the State Government to reverse its decision, writing off $150 million in the process — though also guaranteeing the public parkland for future generations.
Political scientist Anthony Marinac said most Queenslanders do not realise how close they came to having the famed South Bank parklands completely blocked off.
“It came very close to being sold off to private developers and there would have been a negligible amount of public space,” Dr Marinac said.
Most Queenslanders do not realise how close it came to having the famed South Bank parklands blocked off. (Supplied: Queensland State Archives)
Prisoners forced to use buckets for toilets sparked inquiry
The next year Boggo Road was shut down, as a result of scathing findings from the inquiry. (ABC News)
Corruption in Queensland prisons was also exposed when cabinet approved the Kennedy Inquiry, which would lead to sweeping corrections reforms.
The inquiry revealed shocking treatment of prisoners at the infamous Boggo Road jail in Brisbane, including an entire block of inmates using buckets for toileting overnight because there was no plumbing to the cells.
But the clean-up on corruption angered some corrections officers, who helped five prisoners escape from jail, using 70 bed sheets tied together.
The next year Boggo Road was shut down, as a result of scathing findings from the inquiry.
An entire block of inmates had to use buckets for toileting overnight because there was no plumbing to cells. (ABC Brisbane: Saskia Edwards)
Bid to block forests to be World Heritage listed
The documents reveal a surprising amount of time and money was spent trying to block a Federal Government bid to list north Queensland’s forests as a World Heritage Area.
Government delegations were approved to go overseas to fight against the proposal.
But the Queensland Government lost — and in 1988, the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area was established.
In 1988, the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area was established in north Queensland. (ABC News: Casey Briggs)