Michael Ahern (Australian politician)
Michael John Ahern (born 2 January 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 were totally different from Bjelke-Petersen, but he could not escape the division and strife caused by his predecessor's downfall.
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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 Frank Nicklin. From 1964 to 1967 Jack Ahern was President of the Country Party.
The younger Ahern went to a Toowoomba boarding school and 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 Queensland Legislative Assembly in 1968, being the youngest member of the Country Party in Parliament by nearly twenty years.
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 1970's.
Ahern was chosed 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 succesful in seeing established a Subordinate Legislation Committtee and a Priveleges 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 succesfully 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 and was significantly younger than most of his Cabinet colleagues, and was the only member of cabinet with tertiary qualifications.
By the late 1980's Bjelke-Petersen's standing as Premier had begun to be compromised by the failure of the disastrous "Joh for Canberra" campaign in 1986 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 Bjelke-Petersen announced he would step down in 1988 after hosting Expo '88.
Shortly afterwards, Bjelke-Petersen 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, Bjelke-Petersen 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 Bjelke-Petersen to sack Ahern and two other ministers.
Bjelke-Petersen 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. Bjelke-Petersen boycotted this meeting, which elected Ahern as leader of the National Party. Bjelke-Petersen sullenly refused to resign as Premier for a week, before finally stepping down on 1 December.
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 announced plans to reform the public service and the parliament but resisted calls to abolish the gerrymandered electoral system 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 Southbank 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 although Ahern was not implicated in any form of corruption, hardline Bjelke-Petersen supporters blamed him for his alleged weakness and vacilitation in allowing the crisis to engulf the National Party. On 25 September 1989 Russell Cooper, a National Party traditionalist, succesfully challenged Ahern for the leadership. Ahern resigned from Parliament and proceeded to a succesful business career. The Nationals lost the election just two months later, ending 32 years of continuous National Party government.
- Reynolds, Paul L. Michael John Ahern: The Conservative Reformer. In Murphy D, Joyce R, Cribb M, and Wear, R (Ed.), The Premiers of Queensland pp. 337–356. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press. ISBN 0–7022–3173–8.
Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen
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