IT'S ELECTION TIME!: remembering the 1972 Queensland elections

On March 24 Queenslanders will go to the polls to decide the fate of our present Labor government. This will be a historic election, given the unusual circumstances.

Queensland had a succession of Conservative governments from 1957, when the Australian Labor Party’s long run in office came to an end, up to 1989, when Wayne Goss and the Australian Labor Party defeated Mike Ahern’s National Party government.  During this period of Conservative rule in Queensland, some years stand out: 1972, for example. 1972 is the year in which  ALP leader Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister, thereby ending  the ALP’s many years in the political wilderness.

However, while the ALP was triumphant in the Federal arena, the same cannot be said  of the State scene. 1972 was an election year in Queensland as well, but the outcome was very different. The backdrop to the election held on May 27 was a month-long state of emergency declared by Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in 1971. And what prompted this extraordinary move, you might  well ask? Was it a natural disaster, perhaps – something Queenslanders are all too familiar with? No, it was nothing like that, but a football game, of all things. Specifically a six-week long  rugby union tour of Australia by the Springboks.

John Bjelke-Petersen, 1968. State Library of Queensland. Negative number 78994   Declare a state of emergency! Collection reference: 5533 Alan Moir Cartoons. State Library of Queensland. Negative number 193627

Apartheid was alive and well in South Africa at this time, and one very effective way of attacking apartheid was through sporting contact, or rather no sporting contact with South Africa. They were due to play in Brisbane  on July 24 ; to forestall more of the anti-apartheid protests that had plagued their tour to date, Joh declared the state of emergency and changed the venue from Ballymore to the Exhibition grounds. In a venue surrounded by  barbed wire  and a large police contingent, the Springboks won the game 14-6. The ALP, university students, some clergy and the unions were opposed  to apartheid, and the state of emergency, which sparked demonstrations outside the Springboks’ hotel and strike action by the unions.

The upshot of all this was that in the political game, the Premier was the winner and Labor the loser. In the event, the Bjelke-Petersen government was returned to office  the following year, partly due to the gerrymander, but also to other circumstances such as the law-and-order issue  and another round of electoral redistribution prior to the election. The Coalition government won 47 of the 82 seats, and Labor won 33.

The temptation to look back on that election via our political ephemera, and to compare the election issues back in 1972  with the likely election issues  of 2012, is irresistible.. Then as now , you see  a concern with local issues, very local issues sometimes; however,  there was also a lot of union-bashing, which was predictable.  It isn’t possible to borrow Doctor Who’s Tardis and travel back in time, but each item in our retrospective ephemera collection is a mirror on the past. 

Trudy Bennett – Librarian, State Library of Queensland

Links to other “Queensland elections” articles –