BJELKE-PETERSEN, Florence Isabel (1920–2017)
Senator for Queensland, 1981–1993 (National Country Party; National Party of Australia)

Florence Bjelke-Petersen was born Florence Isabel Gilmour, in Brisbane on 11 August 1920, eldest of two daughters of James Pollock Gilmour, an accountant and company secretary, and his wife Florence Mabel, née Low. Growing up in the Brisbane riverside suburb of New Farm, her childhood was a secure and happy one, embedded in a contented family life. Florence began her schooling at the New Farm State School, and later attended the prestigious Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School. After two years at Grammar, Florence decided to look for a job to help the family finances (her father had to give up work due to failing eyesight), and took a twelve-month public service course at the State Commercial High School. At the course’s end, she finished twenty-ninth in the state public service exam and was allocated to the main roads department, where she worked for fifteen years, from 1937 to 1952. When she had spare time she attended church meetings. She was a member of the Liberal Party in Brisbane.

In time, Florence worked for the Main Roads Commissioner. He took her on road inspection tours and the experience was not wasted: ‘I was getting used to public life, which was a valuable exercise for me later on’. She also acquired considerable administrative and secretarial skills. As receptionist for the commissioner, Florence liaised with many deputations from local authorities. Accompanying some of the deputations was the Country Party member for the state seat of Nanango, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen (later Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen), whom she first met in 1950. Joh liked ‘her cheery manner’, and Florence was ‘pleased when [she] found out he was a Christian man’.

Joh and Florence married at her church, the Fortitude Valley Presbyterian Church, on 31 May 1952; after the marriage, she adopted her husband’s Lutheran faith. For both, it was a comparatively late marriage: Florence was thirty-one, Joh ten years older. They lived on Joh’s property ‘Bethany’ at Kingaroy, and their marriage would last nearly fifty-three years, until Joh’s death in 2005. The couple had three daughters and a son. In public life, Florence’s name was shortened constantly to ‘Flo’, rhyming with ‘Joh’. Although she preferred ‘Florence’, she conceded in 1993 that ‘everyone calls me Flo. Even Joh calls me Flo’.

As a member of the Queensland Parliament, a minister from 1963 and Premier from 1968, Joh was often away from his family and electorate. Florence’s personal, administrative and secretarial talents came to the fore as the wife of the local member. As Joh put it: ‘After I became a minister and had to concentrate more on state matters, Flo really ran my electorate for me’. Many local organisations simply became so used to her standing in for Joh, that after a while invitations came directly to her. During election campaigns she would tour the state separately, maximising her husband’s effectiveness.[1]

Florence Bjelke-Petersen’s career as a senator had its genesis in the 1979 decision of the Liberal Party to field a separate ticket for the 1980 half-Senate election for Queensland. The traditional joint ticket with the federal National Country Party (NCP), which maximised the conservative vote by consolidating preferences, would almost certainly have ensured that the status quo of two ALP, two National and one Liberal senator elected would be maintained, but the Liberals believed that a separate ticket would give them a good chance of winning two seats to the NCP’s one. In such circumstances, sitting senators Ron Maunsell and Glen Sheil, were not seen as sufficiently popular to shore up the NCP vote, even though Maunsell was well known in North Queensland. The idea of the Queensland Premier moving to the Senate was floated by the media, but Joh Bjelke-Petersen quickly denied the story. Instead, he proposed that his wife could fill the role, given that she had a well known name and was popular. Neither Maunsell nor Sheil was keen on ceding the first place on the ticket to any newcomer. The issue was decided at the Queensland National Party conference in mid-1980, when Florence was chosen to head the party’s Senate ticket, with Sheil placed second, and Maunsell relegated to the unwinnable third place.[2]

After securing the party nomination, Florence Bjelke-Petersen began campaigning, establishing her political identity. In what probably would have been a blunder for almost anyone else, she addressed two hundred people at a seminar jointly organised by the League of Rights and the Queensland Housewives Association. While critics of the right-wing League perennially accused the League of being racist, anti-Semitic, and pro-Nazi, Florence’s explanation for her attendance was a simple one: ‘They are anti-socialist and that’s what I like’. When someone suggested that she withdraw, her reaction was a ‘horrified no’, and she added: ‘Joh thought it would be very nice for me to go along. He said I should speak to as many people as I could, especially if you are going to the Senate’. Her wide-ranging forty-minute speech outlined the themes to which she would consistently return as a senator: governments needed ‘to protect and support the traditional family, and regulate the welfare payments to other “family groups” that are being promoted’. She accused the feminist movement of aiming to have: ‘all the women in the workforce, children in government-funded care and denigration of all that is associated with marriage’. She criticised the press and television emphases on violence and sex: ‘Gee, you are always reading of homos and lesbians. Why, 10 years ago you didn’t hear about these things’.

On the campaign trail she covered a variety of topics, some predictable but others surprising: ‘roads, petrol prices, Joh, Queensland first, God, heaven, and how the theory of evolution is wrong, God created the world, Whitlam-bashing … children, animals, classical music, scones and pikelets’. Although her grasp of international affairs was suspect (she referred to Cambodian dictator Pol Pot as ‘that tricky problem in the Middle East’ and misidentified the homicidal Ugandan leader Idi Amin as President of Ghana) she proved to be ‘a media natural’, ‘shrewd and determined’ and possessing ‘somewhere in her ordinariness … the elusive star factor’.

Bjelke-Petersen’s first election campaign brought mixed results. At the October 1980 poll, she achieved 21.8 per cent of first preference votes, which was slightly higher than the vote for the first-placed Liberal, Neville Bonner. However, her strong vote at the top of the NCP ticket was not enough to keep Glen Sheil in Parliament (although he would return to the Senate in 1984). Nor did the Liberal strategy succeed, with Michael Macklin taking the final Queensland seat for the Australian Democrats. Bjelke-Petersen was re-elected in 1983 and 1987, and her presence at the top of the Senate ticket did pay dividends for her party (known as the National Party from 1982) at the double dissolution election of 1983, when her popularity was enough to secure the election of a third Nationals senator from Queensland, Ron Boswell. Doug Anthony, federal National Party leader told him: ‘You made it here on Flo’s petticoat tails’. [3]

While her term was to begin on 1 July 1981, the early resignation of Glen Sheil to contest a House of Representatives by-election allowed Bjelke-Petersen to fill the resultant casual vacancy. She was chosen by the Queensland Parliament on 12 March 1981 and was sworn in the Senate twelve days later. Senator Bjelke-Petersen made her first speech in the Senate on 6 May 1981. None of the themes that she covered were surprising for a Bjelke-Petersen, though some might have been tempted to name her husband when she said: ‘I do not think anyone would seriously suggest that there should be a development at all costs approach’. She generally supported development and said that: ‘governments owe it to society to ensure that developments which are in the public interest are not stopped, slowed down, prevented or costed out of the range of people they could benefit’. She saw social welfare as a ‘budgetary monster’ and supported work for the dole schemes. She advocated income splitting for single income families so that those in this category could benefit from lower tax rates. In her view, other concerns had supplanted those of the family:

We talk about saving the whale and saving the seal … We talk about saving the kangaroo and saving the elephant, but alas, not the babies to help our population growth … It seems a poor society that will allow deductions for a businessman’s car but will not allow them for the country’s young.

The most novel aspect of Bjelke-Petersen’s first speech was her advocacy of a flat tax, which she believed would encourage productivity and enterprise.[4]

Some senators sit for decades without crossing the floor, but Senator Bjelke-Petersen voted in the Senate against the Coalition Government six months after taking her seat. In September 1981 the Fraser Government introduced sales tax amendment bills that proposed new or increased sales tax of 2.5 per cent on almost every commodity. The Democrats sought exemptions for some ‘basic family needs’, including books, newspapers, clothing and footwear, and building materials. During consideration of this legislation, Bjelke-Petersen crossed the floor three times, including twice at the committee stage, when she voted with the Democrats, the ALP, and Independent Senator Brian Harradine (Tas.), in support of successful requests for amendments to defeat sales tax increases on books, newspapers and other printed items. Although the bills were being introduced by her own side, she did not mince words in her condemnation of Liberal Treasurer John Howard:

… we see less and less incentive for private enterprise and worker alike to be more productive. Why bother when the Federal Treasurer … simply steps in and confiscates the fruits of one’s labour … The 2½ percent increase in sales tax brought down by the Treasurer in his Budget has probably been the last straw for many people who want to set up home and for families who simply want to keep house.

Bjelke-Petersen never regretted crossing the floor against the sales tax increase, even though she was ‘sent to Coventry where I had plenty of time to contemplate the ramifications of my actions’. The episode ‘helped me to communicate to the people of Queensland that I was prepared to go in and do battle for them if I truly believed that what I was doing was right’. In November and December 1982 she crossed the floor again to vote against the second and third readings of the Coalition Government’s Taxation (Unpaid Company Tax) Assessment Bill, largely in protest against the retrospective character of the legislation.[5]

Senator Bjelke-Petersen was a regular contributor to Senate debates. Many of her principal concerns reflected her focus on her Queensland constituents, especially those in rural areas. She was troubled by falling farm incomes, and believed that the Labor Government had little understanding of the difficulties faced by rural producers. Her early dissent from the party line on the sales tax issue reflected her wider belief that the imposition of too many taxes reduced initiative and incentive for small business and exporters. She attacked the cost of fuel excise for rural producers, and opposed the introduction of a capital gains tax in 1985, and a fringe benefits tax in 1986.

Above all else, Senator Bjelke-Petersen was an advocate of ‘the traditional family and traditional values’. ‘Families are the cornerstone of society … In order to maintain our way of life, health, safety and order we must protect the interests of the family’. The best way to protect the family was through the maintenance of ‘moral standards’, buttressed by Christianity. She perceived a variety of threats to those standards, including the ‘increasing use of pornography in our electronic media’, and the Family Law Act 1974, which, she said: encouraged people ‘to look on marriage as a temporary arrangement which is easily terminated’. Bjelke-Petersen described the 1983 Sex Discrimination Bill as ‘social engineering’; three years later, she attacked equal opportunity and affirmative action legislation in similar terms. She considered such measures to be unnecessary and dangerous, believing that their intent was to change ‘moral and social values’ in ways which undermined the role of women who chose to be homemakers.[6]

When her formidable husband came up for criticism in the Senate, even if such criticism was only implied, Florence defended him. She remained loyal to Joh during his ill-conceived 1987 campaign to become Prime Minister, although she did cite it as the only time she questioned his political judgment: ‘I wasn’t 100 percent behind him’, but ‘I didn’t sort of exactly oppose him. I just sort of told him I didn’t think it was a very good idea’.

Even matrimonial loyalty, however, had its limits. When the parliamentary party in Queensland deposed Joh from the premiership in 1987, he suggested that Florence resign from the party and serve in an independent capacity. She refused on the basis that she had been elected as a National. She was conscious of her responsibility to represent all Queenslanders, even those whose opposition to her party was a given, and told a group of hostile coalminers at Swanbank in 1983: ‘I’m here as a messenger from Joh, but don’t forget I’m a Senator too, I belong to you as well as the other side’. From 1985 until 1990 she was Deputy Leader of the National Party in the Senate. She also served as a temporary chair of committees from 1985, often using her shorthand skills to make notes to assist her in the chair.[7]

As Senator Bjelke-Petersen’s retirement approached in 1993, there was little evidence that over twelve years in the Senate had changed her outlook. Although the period had seen the prolonged and public exposure of flaws in her husband’s political judgment, she continued to accept his advice: ‘I still maintain he has the best political nous of anybody’. She asserted that ‘feminists’ who wished to ‘promote women in the workforce’ had ‘to make sure there are enough jobs available for the young people and the men as well’. And, despite her service as a senator, she remained convinced that it was not the most important role she had played: ‘I still believe the most wonderful role a woman can play is one of wife and mother’.

Senator Bjelke-Petersen was respected and liked by her Senate colleagues, including political opponents. When she retired, Labor’s Bob Collins remarked: ‘I will be sorry to see Senator Bjelke-Petersen leave the Senate. She is one of the few human beings on the coalition side of this chamber’. The Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Kernot described her as ‘a most charming and gracious Queensland woman’ and expressed admiration for her ‘stamina’ (years later, Bjelke-Petersen said, ‘I wish I’d stayed in the Senate longer … because I was only 73 when I resigned, and I still felt fine mentally and physically’). A National Party colleague, Senator Brownhill said that ‘her willingness to stand up for what she believes is a quality which set her apart from most politicians in this place. Her speeches were always about ordinary people and the people she represented’. Her kindly side was to the fore in her many newspaper and magazine profiles, but others could see a much firmer side. One commentator remarked that the ‘guileless façade’ concealed a formidable political operator, ‘a thug dressed as a granny’.

Bjelke-Petersen continued to be of interest to, and quotable by, the press after her retirement. Her husband’s legal problems wiped out many of the family assets, leaving the couple with financial headaches late in life. Fortunately for them, Florence, unlike her husband, had superannuation. Well into her retirement, the National Party was still listening to her. When mercurial National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce (Qld, and later MHR New England and Deputy Prime Minister) was upbraided by one of his party for crossing the floor, Joyce retorted: ‘My mentor is Flo Bjelke-Petersen’. When Nationals’ Senator Ron Boswell’s (Qld) place on the Senate ticket was under threat for the federal election of 2007, Florence spoke on his behalf, and helped carry the day for him. A grateful Boswell later said: ‘She had a bad back but I persuaded her to come down from Kingaroy … It did me a lot of good’.

No biography of Florence Bjelke-Petersen, however brief, could omit a reference to her scone-making skills, the motif with which she would be most identified. She said: ‘my scones became famous, it was the best public relations gimmick anyone could have had’; she also said: ‘pumpkin scones have helped me to relate to women who make scones and men who eat them and that just covers about everybody, doesn’t it’. While her ability to effect changes through her Senate career was hamstrung by spending all but the first two years of it in Opposition, she remained personally popular throughout and is among those senators who are most remembered, and that with fondness.[8]

Brian Stevenson

[1] Helen Cameron, Lady Flo: Politics and Pumpkin Scones, Kingaroy, Qld, 1998; Transcript, SBS TV, ‘Australian Biography’, 8 March 1994; Questionnaire completed 15 Sept. 1982 for Parliament’s Bicentenary Publications Project, NLA MS 8806; Australian (Syd.), 27 Feb. 1993, p. 3; Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Don’t You Worry About That! The Joh Bjelke-Petersen Memoirs, A&R, North Ryde, NSW, 1990, p. 59.

[2] Hugh Lunn, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen: A Political Biography, UQP, St Lucia, 1984, pp. 299–310; Christopher Beck, ‘Flo’s secret weapon’, New Idea, 9 Feb. 1980, pp. 8–9; Ross Peake, ‘Lady in a shark pool: the making of a Senator’, National Times, 27 July–2 Aug. 1980, p. 18.

[3] Australian (Syd.), 11 Aug. 1980, p. 4, 16 Aug. 1980, p. 13; Age (Melb.), 24 Sept. 1980, p. 11; Gold Coast Bulletin, 27 Sept. 2007, p. 31.

[4] CPD, 6 May 1981, pp. 1672–7.

[5] CPD, 9 Sept. 1981, pp. 583–6; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 17 Sept. 1981, p. 1; Senate, Journals, 23 Sept. 1981, pp. 502, 522, 24 Nov. 1982, p. 2754, 1 Dec. 1982, p. 1268; CPD, 23 Nov. 1982, pp. 2665–6, 27 May 1993, pp. 1532–7.

[6] CPD, 3 June 1981, pp. 2579–82, 26 March 1985, pp. 833–7, 5 Nov. 1985, pp. 1549–51, 30 May 1986, pp. 3075–9, 11 Oct 1990, pp. 2961–5, 18 Aug. 1982, pp. 163–5, 6 Dec. 1983, pp. 3335–8, 14 Feb. 1986, pp. 395–8, 12 June 1986, pp. 3849–52, 2 March 1989, pp. 331–2, 9 Nov. 1988, pp. 2309–11, 13 Oct. 1992, pp. 1725–6, 26 Nov. 1992, pp. 3673–4.

[7] Transcript, ABC Online, ‘Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen: Sunday Profile’, 1 May 2005; Cameron, Lady Flo, p. 27.

[8] Cameron, Lady Flo, pp. 31, 33–34, 36; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 17 Feb. 1993, p. 2; CPD, 27 May 1993, pp. 1558, 1597–9; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 9 July 2011, pp. 1, 12–15; Advertiser (Adel.), 6 Aug. 2005, p. 29; Gold Coast Bulletin, 27 Sept. 2007, p. 31; SMH (Good Weekend), 14 Sept. 1991, pp. 12–17; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 21 July 1991, p. 27.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 189-193.

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Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Qld, 1981–1993 (NCP; NPA)

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee C, 1981–82; B, 1983–85; D, 1988

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1981–83

Standing Committee on National Resources, 1981–83

Select Committee on Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes, 1983–85

Standing Committee on Social Welfare, 1983–87

House Committee, 1985–93

Selection of Bills Committee, 1993