The Liberal who stood up to Joh


Terry White lost the battle against Joh Bjelke-Petersen but won the war. He and his family now tell their story

AFTER the triumph of Joh Bjelke-Petersen's National Party in the 1983 Queensland election and Terry White's resignation as Liberal Party leader, it was no surprise to anybody that White was consigned to the backbench.
Although individual MPs from all sides acknowledged that White was an honourable person, an excellent minister and a diligent electorate representative, none wanted to be seen spending time with the leader who had stood up to Bjelke-Petersen, only to see his party lose seats by going it alone.
His wife, Rhonda, and children tell how they were happy it was all over -- they did not enjoy seeing the stress their husband and father had suffered and individually they also paid a price.
For the older sons, William and Ben, their father's political career led some in the community to think it was time the uppity Whites were taught a lesson, and the boys were often involved in schoolyard fights.
William even challenged to a fight a Labor-leaning teacher who spoke disparagingly about his father to the class.
On another occasion, Ben, now a successful property developer, was arrested by police at a party, charged with a public nuisance offence and put in the watch-house.
On the way there, and on his arrival, he was manhandled by the arresting officer, who, as he was administering the flogging, apparently took pleasure in referring to Ben ``as one of Terry White's kids''.
``I spent some hours in the watch-house and a friend called Mum to come and bail me out,'' Ben says. ``I was swearing and carrying on because of the way I had been treated by the coppers -- my teeth were broken from the punches -- and the desk sergeant said to tell Mum she had to have cash to get me out as they did not take cheques.
``Mum arrived and I was abusing the sergeant and each time I swore he added another $20 on to the amount of the fine that had to be paid. Finally Mum said to me, `Benjamin, say the f . . k word one more time and you'll have to stay here -- I can't afford one more f . . k.' That quietened me.''
White's daughter Stephanie, who now lives with her husband in the US, recalls how tough it was to attend school during this tumultuous time.
``[It] was a wild year,'' she says of 1983. ``Everything was fine until the time Dad allegedly crossed the floor of parliament. All hell broke loose when he supposedly tore up the Coalition agreement document. I remember seeing it on the television news and thinking, `That can't be good.' ''
THE next election in 1986 was won by the Nationals in their own right, but in January 1987 things began to go awry. Premier Bjelke-Petersen, apparently deluded into thinking that he was the messiah sent to save Australia from socialism, announced out of the blue that he wanted to be prime minister -- and the ``Joh for PM'' campaign began.
It was a hilarious period, with Bjelke-Petersen stepping out of the frog-pond of Queensland into the ocean of Australia and finding quickly that ability, believability and well-considered policy were ingredients demanded in that arena, and he could not get away with the auto-babble and bluff that had been his trademarks in Queensland. As well, the federal electoral boundaries had been drawn up on a democratic and fair basis, so he could not depend on boundary manipulation to give him any advantage.
Former ACTU president Bob Hawke was Labor prime minister and John Howard the leader of the opposition. Hawke and Labor were not travelling well in 1987 and it was widely expected that the Liberals would defeat them at the poll. Hawke must have been astonished when he sat back each day and saw headlines quoting Bjelke-Petersen saying he would lead Australia, not Howard.
The Queensland premier was attracting a coterie of ultra right-wing backers who added to the problems of the conservative side with their utterances on flat taxes, family values and general abhorrence of whatever Labor proposed.
The demands of the federal platform also meant Bjelke-Petersen took his eye off the ball in Queensland and the disquiet mounting in his own state parliamentary team.
Bjelke-Petersen was in the US visiting Disneyland when Hawke surprisingly called the election for July 11, 1987, and the Queenslander was caught well short of policy and support. Hawke won easily, with Howard completely nobbled by Bjelke-Petersen's campaign, to the extent that the Coalition came across to the voting public as a deeply divided force.
Howard's oft-repeated statement that in politics ``disunity is death'' proved to be true, to his own cost and that of the conservative alliance. It was the 1987 election defeat that built into Howard an intense dislike of Bjelke-Petersen and the Queensland Nationals -- a dislike he was to harbour until the end of his quite spectacular political career.
An article by Howard published in The Australian on October 30, 1989, laid the blame for defeat at the polls at the feet of the Queensland Nationals, and Bjelke-Petersen in particular. He also warned of the dangers the Coalition faced at the forthcoming Queensland election.
White agreed with Howard's sentiments and wrote a congratulatory note to him, and on November 8, Howard replied, saying:: ``I am pleased that I wrote the article as I felt something of that kind had to be said at the beginning of the Queensland election campaign. Given that at the time I was not a member of the opposition shadow ministry, I had far more freedom to say what I did. However, I am bound to say to you that given the strength of feeling I have regarding the Queensland National Party, the obligations of the front bench would not have silenced me.
``The Queensland Nationals have done an appalling disservice and caused great damage to the conservative cause throughout Australia. They comprise some of the arch-hypocrites of the right-hand side of politics and do not, as I said in the article, deserve to wield influence in any future government in Queensland. I hope your campaign is going well and look forward to seeing you later this week at one of the functions.''
It was not the federal election that was the most significant event in Queensland politics in 1987 but, rather, a royal commission ordered into published allegations of police corruption. Clever young Courier-Mail reporter Phil Dickie wrote a series of articles exposing once again the proliferation of illegal brothels in Brisbane and the existence of at least two illegal gambling houses. The stories alleged that the businesses were able to operate because they were protected by corrupt police.
On May 11, 1987, an ABC Four Corners television report, compiled by outstanding reporter Chris Masters and titled The Moonlight State, followed Dickie's efforts, and because of the public outcry, the Queensland government was thrown into a panic. The following day, acting premier Bill Gunn, a farmer from Brisbane's ``salad bowl'' -- the rich Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane -- announced an inquiry.
The allegations had been made for years but had been rebuffed by the police and the government -- quite ridiculously, because anybody who wandered Fortitude Valley at night could see what was going on. As well, the brothels advertised openly in newspapers for staff and clients.
The reason it was allowed to go on was because a significant section of the hierarchy of the Queensland Police Service was utterly corrupt, beginning with police commissioner Terry Lewis -- a man controversially appointed to the position personally by Bjelke-Petersen, when he was obviously not the most senior or most suitable candidate.
To have made the appointment, knowing the extent of corruption that existed in Queensland, Bjelke-Petersen would have had to have been part of it, or completely stupid.
It suited him to allow police to do whatever they wanted and in return he had their complete loyalty when called on to enforce his ``law and order'' -- such as the violent control of street marches by protest groups, including students and trade unions. As well, he had his ``political police'', the so-called Special Branch, to do his bidding.
Gunn was given the ``cabinet bag'' containing the submission to appoint a commissioner to head the inquiry on the Friday afternoon so he could peruse it over the weekend before the next Monday meeting.
Thus, it is accepted fact that Gunn, who was an honest man in all aspects of his life, was wholly responsible for the appointment of the commissioner -- but that was not so.
The then director of public prosecutions, Des Sturgess QC, a criminal barrister with enormous experience, was shown a copy of the submission proposing the establishment of the commission of inquiry, and naming District Court judge Eric Pratt as the head of it. Pratt had been head of the Police Complaints Tribunal and had suffered severe criticism over the years for his tribunal's apparent inability to find much wrong with the police.
Sturgess told me that although Pratt was a competent barrister and judge, he thought cabinet should select somebody else because Pratt's appointment might be seen to be inappropriate.
Late that afternoon, Sturgess went to then primary industries minister Neville Harper, a former justice minister and attorney-general who had appointed him several years earlier to the DPP position, and told Harper of his concerns.
Sturgess says Harper asked him who he considered would be suitable, and Sturgess suggested one of Australia's pre-eminent barristers, Tony Fitzgerald QC. That was communicated to Gunn and attorney-general Paul Clauson -- a lawyer and one of the good guys.
On the following Monday at a cabinet meeting in Roma, which was not attended by Bjelke-Petersen, the inquiry was announced with Fitzgerald appointed to head it.
The justice and police departments did not intend to lose control. Privilege, confidentiality and sensitivity were raised and warnings were issued about the dire (but still-awaited) consequences to the public interest of providing unvetted police department and other government material to the commission.
Of course, if individuals or organisations under investigation are allowed to censor what the investigators see, an inquiry is almost certain to fail. Even where there is no impropriety, human nature makes it inevitable that vague tests of confidentiality and sensitivity will be broadly construed by those whose conduct is in question.
Supported by the advice of Ian David Francis Callinan QC, later a High Court judge, senior counsel for the government at the inquiry, Gunn honoured his commitments firmly and with vigour.
At his insistence the commission was given total access to police department and other government material. Later the then premier, Mike Ahern, added his authority to support the commission's requisitions, and even cabinet minutes and associated documentation were made available.
During the six or seven weeks between the appointment of the commission and the beginning of substantive public hearings on July 27, 1987, vital steps were taken that had a critical influence on the rest of the inquiry: the commission asked for and was eventually given access to all police and government documents.
No exception was made; the state government agreed to fund the Queensland Police Union and Police Officers Union on condition that they supported the inquiry in a search for truth; and the commission was given staff, premises and equipment.
After the commission's substantive public sittings commenced, it became clear that police corruption was widespread, and part of a bigger problem. There was a need for the inquiry to examine wider issues. The commission's scope and responsibilities began to balloon.
The terms of reference were twice expanded, extra resources were granted and increased powers given by a number of amendments to the Commissions of Inquiry Act, and the government waived cabinet secrecy to allow ministers and former ministers to give evidence.
The inquiry lasted two years, with 238 public sitting days from which emerged 21,504 pages of transcript and 2304 exhibits.
As a result of evidence given to the inquiry, four former Nationals ministers were jailed: Lane, Austin, Leisha Harvey and Geoff Muntz. Bjelke-Petersen was charged with perjury but his trial resulted in a hung jury.
It was revealed post-trial that the jury foreman was Luke Shaw, a former president of the Queensland Young Nationals, who had made public comments demonstrating his support of Bjelke-Petersen.
The revelations concerning Shaw and interviews given to the media by other jury members led the Queensland parliament to pass legislation banning any media contact with jurors after any trial, and also banning jurors from making public comment.
As a consequence of the Fitzgerald inquiry, dozens of police were jailed, scores more sacked or forced to resign, and former police commissioner Terry Lewis was sentenced to 12 years for his part as the orchestrator of the major graft and corruption. He was subsequently stripped of his knighthood.
But it was not only the guilty who suffered through the inquiry. White, as a former minister, was, along with all other former ministers, required to give endless statements of his recollections about cabinet decisions so the inquiry could establish whether corruption was involved.
For example, the ex-ministers were asked about cabinet decisions granting contracts to major developers and the commission then checked if there were kickbacks to any political person or party connected with the cabinet decision. That was the issue over which Bjelke-Petersen was charged.
The criminal charges laid after the Fitzgerald inquiry, including those against Bjelke-Petersen, were handled by Doug Drummond, later appointed to the Federal Court bench. He also made constant demands on former ministers to produce material to establish whether they or any of their colleagues would be prosecuted.
As well, the Australian Taxation Office took great interest in the evidence, and it also required explanations and documents from people named at the Fitzgerald inquiry, including White.
White's accounts were obviously in order, as he obtained a written clearance from the ATO.
By the time Fitzgerald delivered his final report in July 1989, the National Party was in disarray and disgrace. The new-look Labor Party, with a bevy of lawyers on its front bench and headed by former civil liberties lawyer Wayne Goss, won the December 1989 election, breaking the conservative stranglehold on the state that had lasted since August 1957.
The Coalition, but particularly the National Party, had been helped to achieve that by a shameful malapportionment of electoral boundaries, commonly referred to as a gerrymander.
But Goss, a clever and aggressive politician, was able to capitalise on the Fitzgerald fracas and overcome the electoral boundary disadvantage to take the Treasury benches for Labor. He campaigned on the strong promise to introduce the reforms recommended by Fitzgerald and to ``make Queensland a better place''. Goss had forged the platform for his electoral win through his years attacking the conservative government on its record of accountability and the inarguable accusation that it was corrupt.
Rhonda White recalls those years with great clarity: ``I think that in 1983 Terry knew he had to do it had to make a principled stand . . . I sense that a lot of . . . young Liberal members just wanted someone to rally around. They weren't strategic thinkers and I believe now when I consider it in the cold light of day that Terry's usually strong strategic thinking got tied up with his conscience, and with what he promised those young MPs he would do.''
She also recalls the aftermath. ``We were struggling during the late 1980s -- with the pharmacies and business in general. We nearly went broke over the Fitzgerald inquiry. The year it was on -- 1988 -- just to protect yourself you had to employ lawyers and accountants, because they asked for all your papers. That took all Terry's parliamentary salary to cover that expense, and we were struggling, I can tell you. In all organisations there are those people who rort the system, and the others who earn their salary.
``It's pretty tough to have to spend the equivalent of a year's salary protecting your innocence. We had the pharmacies and we had cash flow, so we could live well, but we never actually had anything extra we could give our kids. I had gone back to work in the pharmacies because I had to -- it was a financial imperative because we had two pharmacies going bad.
``So that is what I went back to when Terry was fighting every day to show he was not party to any corrupt decisions of government.'' White's long-time personal assistant and secretary Pam Gifford, now retired, describes the time White lost his seat of Redcliffe in the 1989 elections. ``Goss won the election for Labor and they won Redcliffe from Terry. He bet Rhonda and me that morning he would lose but I didn't think it could possibly happen.
``It's funny, but after the blow-up with his leadership in 1983, there was enormous support for him in Redcliffe. At the next election, 1986, he won every booth. But after the Fitzgerald inquiry publicity in 1987 and 88, the electorate obviously thought it time for a change to Labor.''
Pam still holds a grudge against the Nationals over what happened to White, and she says she was firmly against the merger of the two conservative parties that occurred in Queensland in 2008.
``The Liberal party should learn the lessons of 1983 and what happened after that,'' she says.
``I could never forgive [Don] Lane and Brian Austin for what they did [in defecting to the Nationals] . . . They were just cheap opportunists.''
White's friend, car dealer Darrell Butcher, recalls the 1989 election defeat with clarity too. ``I said to him, `Mate, you've had a good innings in politics and it's probably time you devoted your time to something else anyway, back into business -- I think you might find this defeat a blessing in disguise.' He said, `I hope so, DB, but I doubt it.' In my view his exit from state politics was the best thing that ever happened to him. I know he enjoyed his time in politics -- he was very good at it, but it did hamstring his business activities.
``Once he got out of politics and took a look at pharmacy, Rhonda was running the business and doing a great job.
``But when Terry focused he developed the pharmacy business into . . . what it is today. If he had stayed in politics, there is no way he would be where he is today in the business world.''
>> Edited extract from A Prescription for Change: The Terry White Story, by Tony Koch (UQP, $34.95). Koch is The Australian's chief reporter in Queensland. He has won five Walkley awards for journalism.

Prescription for an end to the old way of politics
PHARMACIST turned politician Terry White rose to be state leader of the Queensland Liberals, but in 1983 clashed with then premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen over White's support for a public accounts committee to curb excess and corruption in the National Party-led coalition government.
White famously tore up a press release issued by Bjelke-Petersen rejecting him as deputy premier, and said his action symbolised the tearing up of the coalition agreement between the Liberals and the Nationals.
But at the 1983 state election, many conservative voters swung to the Nationals as the bigger party -- probably concerned at instability -- and the Liberals lost more than half their seats. The Nationals as a result fell just one seat short of governing in their own right, and Liberal MPs Don Lane and Brian Austin changed parties and gave Bjelke-Petersen the slimmest of majorities.
In A Prescription for Change: The Terry White Story, Tony Koch charts the story of White, his wife, Rhonda, and their five children.
White bought his first pharmacy in 1958 before heading overseas. While working on John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign he developed a taste for politics.
White entered parliament in 1979, becoming a Queensland minister in 1980. He failed spectacularly to hold the electoral line against Bjelke-Petersen in 1983, but later that decade saw the premier fall from power and grace as corruption scandals became public, and Lane and Austin went to jail.
The Whites meanwhile built Terry White Chemists, starting with a small pharmacy at Woody Point, on the outskirts of Brisbane.
Today, there are 150 shops across the country reporting an annual turnover of more than $900 million.