There weren’t many smiles back in October 1970 when members of Bjelke-Petersen’s own County Party cabinet moved against him. He had been premier just two years, was pushing sixty, and had failed to make the grade as a popular premier. The party had lost two by-elections – Isis and Albert – and members were understandably worried about the future. On the wooden seats around the lift well in Queensland’s old Parliament House building, Country party politicians whispered to each other and to reporters. They were saying “Bjelke-Petersen must go before we all go.” And all the while Bjelke-Petersen, apparently, had no idea of what was going on – or that’s the way he tells it. It was all “like a bad dream” – and certainly his political career should have ended with this nightmare situation on 20 October 1970.
The dissidents, however, made the mistake of sending a delegation of four the night before to warn the premier that he might as well step down, as they had the numbers among Country party parliamentarians, 16-10. And why shouldn’t they have been confident enough to tell him with a majority like that? Because Bjelke-Petersen was a boots-and-all fighter who refused to be beaten even when defeat seemed obvious to everyone else.
That night, Bjelke-Petersen did not go to bed. Instead, he spent all night on the telephone ringing each of his parliamentary colleagues to talk about things like cabinet posts (which the Premier handed out himself) and loyalty. He called on all his past political credits, reminding men of his campaigning for them or of the new school building in their electorate which Joh had arranged as works and housing minister. Some of the members – including many who lived on distant properties – could not be contacted at first and Bjelke-Petersen hounded switchboard operators through the night until he got what he wanted.
By next morning he had spoken to all except an old friend, Neville Hewitt, who could not be contacted. Thus prepared, Bjelke-Petersen had only one other weapon at his disposal – native cunning. Before he went into the meeting at Parliament House he arranged for Henry McKechnie (later a Minister) to, on a signal, jump to his feet and move a vote of confidence in the Premier. Bjelke-Petersen reckoned that he stood a better chance of getting supporting votes in a motion of confidence than in a motion of no confidence.
Overnight he had turned 10-16 to 11-13 and, reasoning that no one had been able to contact Neville Hewitt, produced his proxy. Then, knowing only his own vote could save him, Bjelke-Petersen refused to to a John Gorton and resign himself. Instead he voted for confidence in himself. His opponents thus could not command the votes to get rid of him. Bjelke-Petersen had won – but only the first round.