Canberra — The ``Joh for Prime Minister'' campaign is threatening to destroy the coalition of anti-Labor parties in the Australian federal parliament. ``Joh'' is Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, the premier of the state of Queensland for the last 17 years. Earlier this year, Sir Joh retired as premier and headed for Canberra, where he aimed to become prime minister in the next election, which is due to be held near the end of this year or early next year. At first, his intentions were greeted with amusement by politicians and commentators alike. On the face of it, he had no prospects of success.
After all, he is a member of the National Party, which is very much the junior party in the coalition with the Liberal Party against the ruling Labor Party. Furthermore, this month's state election in Australia's Northern Territory - a poll that Sir Joh described as a litmus test for his campaign - ended inconclusively with the National Party gaining 17 percent of the vote.
But in the past few weeks, the premier has demonstrated that his Populism and his win-at-any-price approach pose a real threat both to the existing leaders of the coalition, and potentially to the Labor government.
At the end of February he persuaded the Queensland branch of the National Party to tell National Party members of the federal parliament to withdraw from the federal coalition.
The direction was backed by a warning that the party would withdraw its endorsement from any parliamentarian who would not fully support the premier, an action that would inevitably result in the defeat of the parliamentarian at the next election.
The 12 Queensland Nationals and 14 Nationals from other states are due to meet shortly to decide whether the party as a whole will obey the premier's instructions. The National Party leader, Ian Sinclair, claims he has the support of the non-Queenslanders to reject the move to break the coalition.
But a decision by the National Party not to break with the Liberals could cause the Queensland Nationals to break with their fellow Nationals as well as with the Liberals.
Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen has been encouraging other state branches of the National Party to adopt a similar position to that of Queensland. As part of his move on Canberra, he inaugurated a branch of the Nationals in the Northern Territory, where previously the main anti-Labor party was called the Country-Liberal Party.
The formation of the party in the territory was met by the early election for the territory parliament that resulted in the new National Party obtaining only 17 percent of the vote.
Before the election, the Queensland premier claimed that his new team would win government in the territory. Afterwards, his supporters pointed out that a 17 percent vote won only a month or two after the party came into existence was a solid achievement. His opponents claimed that the result was a clear defeat for him.
Throughout the rest of Australia, support for the ``Joh for PM'' movement seems to be running higher - as high as 25 or 35 percent some polls say. The support seems to be based on the issues the premier is pushing - a flat rate tax of 25 percent, an attack on trade union power, and lower interest rates.
The Labor and Liberal Parties have now stopped treating the bid for power as a joke.
They are taking seriously a warning by Western Australian Labor premier Brian Burke that Sir Joh ``is a formidable politician whose shallow, unexplained, but easily grasped policies have a great attraction to people, particularly those who are suffering during a time of economic hardship or restraint. I think it is absolutely foolish to underestimate this man.''
Of concern to all parties has been the claim that $25 million (Australian) will be made available for the Queensland premier's campaign. This would be more than double what was spent by all political parties combined in the last federal election. A leading pollster, Rod Cameron, has said a lot of votes can be bought with a AUST$25 million advertising campaign.
``You can buy votes in this country,'' Mr. Cameron said. ``This is a country that has compulsory voting and many people who go out to vote have not the slightest interest in who they are voting for. To these people a massive advertising blitz is very likely to be able to swing their votes.''
Sir Joh's first campaign spending was on ``Joh for PM'' stickers, which were placed in millions of copies of Sunday newspapers across Australia.
The Labor government has indicated it would consider legislation to limit the funds that any party could spend on campaigning, particularly on radio and television. This proposal has received some support from some Liberal Party leaders.
The Labor government has been anxious to encourage the split in the ranks of the opposition parties, in the knowledge that such splits in the past have always been damaging the parties involved.
But many Labor leaders are concerned that Sir Joh will also win considerable support among blue-collar workers who would normally support the Labor Party.