Real Life

A look back at Lady Florence Bjelke-Petersen's remarkable life

Before her passing, the former senator spoke to Craig Bennett about family, marriage and politics.

As Australia wakes to the sad news Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen, 97, has passed away after suffering from a short illness, Woman's Day takes you back to one of her most memorable interviews to mark her 90th birthday…
Relaxing at her estate in Kingaroy, Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen has just received the most wonderful gift – a 14th grandchild. Her son John and his wife Karyn have welcomed their fifth child, a daughter named Grace.
"I'm overjoyed," reveals a jubilant Lady Flo, widow of Queensland's longest-serving Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, on the eve of her 90th birthday.
"If Joh were here, he'd be tickled pink. He was a remarkable father, a very proud grandfather and a deeply loving husband."
Sadly, in recent months the usually spry Lady Flo has been stricken with a collapsed disc and chronic back pain which has left her relying on a walking frame.
"This back thing hasn't been a joy, but I know there's others much worse off, so I never complain. I'm grateful to have made it to 90 and to have enjoyed such a varied life, all the while surrounded by a wonderful and loving family," she says.
For 53 years, Lady Flo was married to one of Australia's most colourful and, at times, controversial personalities – former peanut farmer turned Queensland Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
"We had an incredibly strong bond. When we were apart, no matter where Joh was or how busy, not a day went by when he didn't phone," she recounts.
Far from living in her husband's shadow, Lady Flo was a respected senator in her own right from 1981 to 1993.
During her Canberra years, she was well liked by politicians of all parties – even by those who had no time for her husband. And, as she's quick to point out, she didn't blindly toe the party line. She'd sometimes sensationally cross the floor and vote against her own party if she disagreed with their views.
Lady Flo proudly cradles her 14th grandchild.
"Oh yes, I used to take a stand. I'd hear people carp that I just agreed with everything Joh said, but that wasn't always the case ... far from it sometimes."
It was in 1950, while working as a secretary to the QLD Commissioner of Main Roads that Florence Gilmour first met Johannes Bjelke-Petersen – an eager Country Party politician.
Lady Flo laughs when asked if it was love at first sight.
"To be honest, I didn't see the light in his eyes when we first met. He used to comment on what a good stenographer I was, and I thought he might offer me a job. To my surprise, he was working up enough spunk to ask me out. And yes, I thought he was a looker," she laughs, "a handsome devil, but a very shy man in the beginning. I liked that".
The charming former fist lady, pictured with Queensland's opposition leader Lawrence Springborg and former Queensland Premier Sir Joh in 2003, says she thought her husband was a "handsome devil".
Lady Flo says their first date was a visit to Parliament House, which was Joh's suggestion, as she'd never seen inside.
"It was fascinating. We had dinner in the Parliament House dining room, and that's when I realised what a thoroughly decent man Joh was."
They were married in 1952 and went on to have four children: Meg, John, Helen and Ruth.
During Sir Joh's almost 20-year reign as Queensland Premier, Lady Flo became famous not only for being a Premier's wife and senator, but also for her scones.
Lady Flo says her cult as Australia's unofficial pumpkin scone queen came about because Sir Joh was frequently giving interviews from the family estate, Bethany, and he'd ask her to make something nice to go with a cup of tea for the visiting media.
"Joh was always very kind to the media. Often they weren't so kind to him, nevertheless he always offered them refreshments, and so I began making Mother's pumpkins scones," she says.
"Well, they were so delicious, that I was forever being asked if I could whip up another batch."
The Queen and Prince Charles were both fans of Lady Flo's famous scones.
Lady Flo reveals the secret to her pumpkin scones is always to use cold, cooked pumpkin. But these days she leaves the scone making to her daughter-in-law Karyn, who lives next door on the 400-hectare Bjelke-Petersen estate.
Twice a week, bus loads of visitors arrive at Bethany for a tour, tea and, of course, Lady Flo's famous pumpkin scones.
"I love meeting people, always have... that's something Joh and I had in common. He was a people person, which is why he was a tremendous politician. He made it his business to talk to everyone. So much so our number was always in the phone book and he delighted in taking calls. He was on the phone at home so much, I thought it was glued to his ear."
Flo and Joh's eldest daughter Meg recalls her dad being a "softy."
Our then-Prime Minister John Howard comforts Florence at her husband's funeral in 2005.
"Oh, it was definitely mum who ruled the roost, but she did so with such passion. They were a great team. And when he retired, he was so hands on as a father and grandfather – meeting the grandkids at the bus and taking them for picnics," she says.
Daughter Helen picks up the story, saying that despite public perception, Lady Flo was certainly no lackey to Sir Joh.
"She is a wonderfully independent person, and such an independent thinker. Mum's nearly 90 and she drives herself everywhere; she plays the organ regularly at nursing homes; she's even been known to fill in for the local priest when he's fallen ill."
Looking back over her life, Lady Flo says one of the many highlights was her husband being knighted by the Queen in 1984.
"During one of our visits, the Queen even commented on my scones. I think Prince Charles must have mentioned them. I was stunned they'd been discussed in royal circles," she laughs.
Understandably, one of her saddest moments was losing Joh in 2005 to a list of ailments.
"He'd been very ill for quite some time. But Joh was amazing, he never feared death because we both have strong religious belief."
Sir Joh is buried at Bethany, just near the family home they shared for many years. Flo says she often still feels his presence and, as she peruses the news of the day, she invariably wonders what he would be thinking about current affairs and politics.
"One of Joh's favourite sayings was 'Don't you worry about that'," she says. "Well, I'm afraid these days with the mayhem that's going on, sadly we do have to worry."
"I love meeting people, always have... that's something Joh and I had in common. He was a people person."

Lady Flo’s pumpkin scone recipe