My last memory of Lady Florence Bjelke-Petersen was driving her home from the funeral of the most powerful man in the National Party at the time.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen gave Australia the coal industry. This industry has carried the economy of Australia for the last half century. He also keyed the creation of the aluminium and Qld tourism industry.
I was very close to the family; my mentor was a good friend of Lady Florence, Dr ‘Lady’ (Pearl) Logan.
Lady Florence was always a player in her own right. At an ugly sit-in at the Ipswich mine – where coal miners occupied the mine scheduled for closure – their wives asked Lady Florence to go down the mine. She did and Joh subsequently had the decision reversed. Humanity prevailed over economic rationalism.
Lady Florence was elected to the Senate on her own merits. I’ve enjoyed accolades from school onwards for my speaking abilities, my wife said I did not speak as well as Lady Florence. I remodelled my speeches upon a lady who was universally thought of – and very wrongly – as a country bumpkin, “the pumpkin scones lady”.
She became the first ever woman politician elected to Parliamentary leadership.
Lady Florence played a pivotal role in self-management and title deeds for First Australians (so they could own their own land).
Legendary Torres Straight Island Leader George Mye, (one of the real fathers of Mabo) subsequently declared ‘Lady Florence Mother of the Islands’.
One of her greatest achievements was her family, every one of them a great credit to this towering figure.
She had to put up with the constant and vicious attacks that led to Joh’s overthrow and brief jailing before he was entirely – and rightly – exonerated.
Joh threw a big shadow, many of us had to live in that shadow. For those of us that knew the family closely, Lady Florence was as much responsible for that giant shadow provided the shade under which the Queensland State grew.