Mike Ahern (Australian politician)

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Mike Ahern
32nd Premier of Queensland
In office
1 December 1987 – 22 September 1989
Preceded by Joh Bjelke-Petersen
Succeeded by Russell Cooper
Constituency Landsborough
Personal details
Born (1942-06-02) 2 June 1942 (age 72)
Maleny, Queensland
Nationality Australian
Political party National Party of Australia

Michael John Ahern AO (born 2 June 1942) is a former Queensland National Party politician who was Premier of Queensland from December 1987 to September 1989. After a long career in the government of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Ahern became his successor amidst the controversy caused by the Fitzgerald Inquiry into official corruption. Ahern's consensus style and political moderation contrasted strongly with Bjelke-Petersen's leadership, but he could not escape the division and strife caused by his predecessor's downfall.

Early life[edit]

In common with most National Party politicians, Ahern had a rural background. His father Jack Ahern was active in the Country Party (the former name for the National Party), in Landsborough and was campaign manager for Premier Sir Frank Nicklin. From 1964 to 1967 Jack Ahern was President of the Country Party. Michael Ahern was born in Maleny, Queensland and was educated at Downlands College, Toowoomba.[1] He then studied Agricultural science at the University of Queensland, afterwards became active in the Young Country Party. He was state president of the Young Country Party in 1967 and national president in 1968, as well as junior vice-president of the Country Party. He took Nicklin as his political mentor, and when Nicklin retired in 1966, Ahern nominated to succeed him in his Landsborough electorate. He was elected into the Legislative Assembly of Queensland in 1968, being the youngest member of the Country Party in Parliament by nearly twenty years.

Parliamentary career[edit]

When Jack Pizzey, Nicklin's successor, died, Ahern's prospects suffered a setback when the wily conservative Joh Bjelke-Petersen was elected as the Country Party's new leader. Bjelke-Petersen viewed Ahern with unconcealed mistrust. This was founded partly on Ahern's closeness to Nicklin, whom Bjelke-Petersen had resented; partly on Ahern's youth and intellect; and partly on Ahern's Roman Catholicism, unpalatable to Bjelke-Petersen as the son of a Lutheran preacher. Bjelke-Petersen was determined to stymie Ahern's ambitions to be in Cabinet. Ahern was passed over for promotion twice during the 1970s.

Ahern was chosen as National Party whip in 1972. He lobbied for Queensland to establish a system of parliamentary committees on the model of the Canadian parliament. Facing Bjelke-Petersen's opposition to such a system, he was successful in seeing established a Subordinate Legislation Committee and a Privileges Committee, the latter of which he became chair.

Ahern once again found himself at odds with Bjelke-Petersen in his role as chair of the Select Committee on Education. The Queensland Department of Education proposed two new additions to the social science curriculum, resisted by fundamentalist lobbyists as promoting secular humanism. Bjelke-Petersen immediately banned the two courses but faced a backlash from the Queensland Teachers Union and State School organisations. The government appointed the Parliamentary Select Committee with Ahern as chair to investigate. Ahern supported the recommendation that sex education be incorporated into the curriculum but was predictably vetoed by Bjelke-Petersen. Nevertheless, the Committee's final report was eventually endorsed by the National Party and became policy.

In 1980, Ahern nominated for the vacancy in the Deputy Leadership of the National Party as a way of securing his entry into Cabinet. Fearful of having Ahern as his deputy and rival, Bjelke-Petersen decided to placate him by offering the portfolio of Minister for Mines while successfully running his own preferred candidate, Vic Sullivan, for Deputy Leader. Other portfolios held by Ahern over the course of his ministerial career were Minister for Primary Industries, Minister for Industry, Small Business and Technology, and Minister for Health and Environment. Ahern was significantly younger than most of his Cabinet colleagues, and was the only member of cabinet with tertiary qualifications.

By the late 1980s Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen's (knighted in 1984) standing as Premier had begun to be compromised by the failure of the disastrous "Joh for Canberra" campaign in 1987 and the establishment, against Bjelke-Petersen's will in 1987, of the Inquiry into Police Corruption and Other Matters led by Tony Fitzgerald QC. Facing internal pressure to resign, in October 1987 Sir Joh announced he would step down in 1988 after hosting Expo '88.

Shortly afterwards, Sir Joh threw his support behind a proposal to have the world's tallest building built near Brisbane Central Station, objected to by the Brisbane City Council and many sectors of the public. Facing objections also voiced within his own partyroom, Sir Joh met Sir Walter Campbell the Governor of Queensland in November, with a request to allow him to purge dissenters from his Cabinet. Eventually Campbell agreed on 24 November to allow him to sack Ahern and two other ministers.

Sir Joh refused to call a party meeting to allow his opponents to request a leadership spill, so the Management Committee of the National Party called one for 26 November. Sir Joh boycotted this meeting, which elected Ahern as leader of the National Party, and refused to resign as Premier for a week, before finally stepping down on 1 December.

Premier[edit]

As Premier, Ahern faced a National Party that was increasingly riven between Bjelke-Petersen supporters and opponents, and a Fitzgerald Inquiry that was steadily provoking new revelations of official corruption at the very highest level during Bjelke-Petersen's tenure. Police commissioner Terry Lewis and several former cabinet Ministers were forced from their posts and convicted of criminal charges. Ahern, in a signature phrase, promised to implement the Inquiry's recommendations "lock, stock and barrel". Bjelke-Petersen worked actively to destabilise the government from outside of Parliament.

Ahern tried to change the image of what had been one of the most unshakably conservative state governments in Australia. He announced plans to reform the public service and the parliament but resisted calls to abolish the "Bjelkemander," the rural overweighting that favoured the National Party. Ahern also brought in legislation relating to domestic violence and established the Southbank Corporation to redevelop the site of Expo '88 (now South Bank Parklands). Ahern oversaw the parliamentary dismissal of a Supreme Court of Queensland judge, Angelo Vasta, who had been adversely implicated in some findings of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

The publication of the results of the Fitzgerald Inquiry in 1989 were seriously damaging to the Nationals, and all but negated Ahern's efforts to rehabilitate the government's image and distance the party from his now-detested predecessor. A Newspoll released after the inquiry came out showed that the Ahern government had only 22 percent support—the lowest ever recorded at the time for a state government in Australia.[2] The damage was magnified by the fact that the Nationals faced a statutory general election that year, and polls showed Labor having its best chance in years of winning government. Indeed, if the result of the Newspoll had been repeated in an election, the Nationals would have been defeated in a landslide. Although Ahern was not implicated in any form of corruption, hardline Bjelke-Petersen supporters blamed him for his alleged weakness and vacillation in allowing the crisis to engulf the National Party. On 25 September 1989 Russell Cooper, a National Party traditionalist, successfully challenged Ahern for the leadership. Ahern resigned from Parliament and proceeded to a successful business career. The Nationals lost the election just two months later, ending 32 years of continuous National Party government.

Since retiring from politics, Ahern has undertaken board roles with predominately technology companies. He is Chairman of Intrapower Ltd, Family Care Medical Services Ltd, McIntosh Financial Planning, Indue Group of Companies and NeuMedix Health Group. He is also Director of Brisbane Markets Limited.

Ahern is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences and Engineering, chairman of the Australian Liver Foundation, a Member of the Board of Governors of the ATSE Clunies Ross Foundation, also a Member of the Board of Governors of the Queensland Community Foundation and has been appointed Special Representative of the Queensland Government for Africa, The Middle East and India.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Ahern, Michael John". Parliament of Queensland. Retrieved 10 February 2010. 
  2. ^ Salusinszky, Imre (29 October 2010). "Kristina Keneally leading the most unpopular Labor government in history". News.com.au. Retrieved 26 March 2011. 
Political offices
Preceded by
Joh Bjelke-Petersen
Premier of Queensland
1987 – 1989
Succeeded by
Russell Cooper
Treasurer of Queensland
1987 – 1989
Party political offices
Preceded by
Joh Bjelke-Petersen
Leader of the National Party in Queensland
1987 – 1989
Succeeded by
Russell Cooper
Parliament of Queensland
Preceded by
Frank Nicklin
Member for Landsborough
1968 – 1990
Succeeded by
Joan Sheldon