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The man who would be commissioner: Bjelke-Petersen’s crooked pick

Hotel Cunnamulla – where Terry Lewis’ rise began. AAP/James Shrimpton

The man who would be commissioner: Bjelke-Petersen’s crooked pick

For his new book Three Crooked Kings, author and journalist Matthew Condon had unprecedented access to the jailed Queensland Police Commissioner Terry Lewis who speaks for the first time about the events that led to the fated Fitzgerald Inquiry and his relationship with the corrupt “Rat Pack”, including police officers Glen Hallahan and Tony Murphy. In this exclusive extract, Condon details how Joh Bjelke-Petersen handpicked Lewis for the job.

During 1976 the premier travelled incessantly throughout Queensland, and he began putting a specific question to the array of constables, sergeants and inspectors he met straight off the plane: if you’re unhappy with the current police commissioner, who would you replace him with? Give me five names.

“It was an unofficial poll in a sense,” says Callaghan. “The name that kept coming up out of the rank and file was Terry Lewis.

"We didn’t know him from a bar of soap. We were aware that he had been awarded the George Medal. But it was consistent across the ranks. Their answer [to Joh’s question] was Terry Lewis. No one came within a cooee of Lewis.”

Callaghan confirms that Joh began making some inquiries about Lewis. He discovered that Whitrod had exiled Lewis to Charleville.

“Lewis wasn’t aware of this,” says Callaghan, “but [he] was under scrutiny. The next time Joh went to Charleville he made a point of meeting Lewis.”

That historic moment occurred in Cunnamulla, in Inspector Lewis’s police district, on Sunday 16 May. In town for the 36th Country Cabinet Meeting, Bjelke-Petersen and his entourage arrived at the airfield in dribs and drabs throughout the day. The premier, along with his private secretary, Stan Wilcox, and ministers like Tom Newbery, flew in on the government aircraft at 5.30pm.

And as was custom, there at the airfield waiting to greet the plane was a dutiful Inspector Lewis.

“He was there to meet me when the plane arrived,” Bjelke-Petersen said. “It was the first time I had set eyes on him, and I found him a very pleasant and obliging man, who seemed anxious to do anything he could to help me and generally make my visit enjoyable.”

Callaghan also recalls the day the premier and the inspector first met: “I remember walking from the aircraft and there he was. He would have spoken to Joh about police matters affecting his district.”

Had Callaghan been travelling with the premier during that earlier visit to Charleville on 3 March? If so, why would he say they didn’t know Lewis “from a bar of soap”? And why would Bjelke-Petersen assert that he first “set eyes on” Lewis on 16 May, when Lewis’s police diary clearly reveals a fly-in, fly-out meeting between the two more than two months before this?

The premier and the bulk of his Cabinet stayed at the New Cunnamulla Hotel in Jane Street – a classic two-storey brick and wood Queensland pub with long verandahs.

On Monday 17 May, Cabinet convened in the Paroo Shire Council chambers for their meeting. During that day, one item of business was the approval of a number of senior police promotions. All went through, with Police Minister Max Hodges present at the meeting.

A Cabinet dinner was held at their hotel, followed at 8.30 pm by an informal “open” function, ostensibly for members of the public to meet their government representatives.

Inspector Terry Lewis was also invited.

“I certainly will never forget meeting [Bjelke-Petersen] at Cunnamulla …” says Lewis, who had drinks that night with various ministers, including Norm Lee and Tom Newbery.

At some point early in the evening, Lewis says either Stan Wilcox or Allen Callaghan showed him the approved list of promotions and asked for his opinion. Callaghan denies he produced the list to Lewis: “Stan might have but why would he do that if it was the first time he had met Lewis?”

Nevertheless, Inspector Lewis thought some of the promotions were “ridiculous” – awarding young officers portfolios they simply didn’t have the experience to handle, gifting others ranks two or three beyond the expected progression. Lewis, outcast in Charleville, was incensed.

University of Queensland Press

As with that ill-fated luncheon at Paul Wilson’s house by the Brisbane River six years earlier, Lewis decided to give Hodges the benefit of his uncensored opinion.

“The promotions and transfers came up,” recalls Lewis. “I told Hodges what I thought. I said some of them were terrible. So we ended up exchanging words and I can still hear Norm Lee saying, ‘Give it to him, go on, don’t back down, give it to him!’”

Lewis believed he had nothing to lose.

The next morning, the ministers began making their way back to Brisbane. It was up to Lewis and other local officers to ferry ministers and their staff from the hotel and out to the airfield.

Lewis unluckily scored Police Minister Hodges, who was due to fly out at 8 am aboard a King Air charter.

“Hodges sat in the front seat of my car and never spoke to me,” says Lewis. “We only had two cars so I took them out then went back and took others.”

The government aircraft had already left at 7.30 am. It was scheduled to arrive at Eagle Farm at 9.30 am, and head straight back out to Cunnamulla to pick up the premier.

Why was Joh Bjelke-Petersen one of the last to leave Cunnamulla that day? Only he and his private secretary, Wilcox, remained for the late flight.

It was Inspector Lewis who drove the premier and Wilcox to the airfield.

“There was quite a considerable wait for the aircraft and during that time he just talked to me and I talked to him,” says Lewis. “It was just a pure fluke that I was the one that took him to the airport. I can’t say why he wasn’t the first person on the plane earlier that morning. Whether he deliberately didn’t get on an earlier aircraft I will never know.”

Up until that meeting, Bjelke-Petersen claimed Lewis was only known to him as “a name”, principally, as the officer whose “fine work” had founded and built up the Juvenile Aid Bureau, and as the recipient of the prestigious George Medal for Bravery.

According to Lewis they talked “for what seemed like a couple of hours at least”.

“We were standing at the fence,” recalls Lewis. “It was hot. I was in my full uniform.”

Lewis says they discussed Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod, Police Minister Max Hodges and Lewis’s own ideas for restructuring the force. Callaghan thinks the discussion at the airfield would have been at most “exploratory”, with the premier getting the measure of the man who seemed so popular with rank and file officers across Queensland.

“The premier did ask … ‘What would you like to do …?’ And I said what I’d really like one day was to be the superintendent in charge of the academy to teach young people to be police officers.”

It was extraordinarily ambitious of Lewis. Here was a private audience with the premier of Queensland. And if word got back about his disloyalty to the police commissioner, what did it matter? Lewis was convinced he would be exiled in the bush for years, if not the rest of his career. He had already informed Hazel to pack her bags and bring youngest son John out to the sticks. The Lewises weren’t going anywhere for a long time.

Just as he had given Hodges a piece of his mind, so, too, was he forthright with Joh.

Understandably, they instantly clicked. Lewis had come from the school of hard knocks, and though self-educated – he would use his downtime in Charleville to complete his degree in public administration – he had a simultaneous suspicion of and an attraction to society’s various stratums. He could mix with political leaders, academics, the wealthy and the railway fettler. It was Lewis’s genius to be able to quickly read a person’s political and social leanings, empathically tune in to that and not only connect with it but use it to his advantage.

Behind everything, though, was Lewis’s fascination with power.

“He didn’t bung on any airs,” he says of Bjelke-Petersen and their first real conversation in Cunnamulla. “We talked quite easily …”

Had Lewis, in Bjelke-Petersen, found another father to impress, just as he had with Frank Bischof?

Within days of that meeting, Lewis sent the premier a dossier. It bore the hallmark of Lewis’s now familiar habit of disseminating not only lists and check sheets that bolstered his own reputation, but snippets of gossip and observation designed to charm the recipient of his meticulous paperwork.

Included in the dossier were his constantly updated police and academic achievements, especially his bravery award and his Churchill Fellowship, a list of officers who had bypassed Lewis on promotion, and some tittle-tattle about Whitrod possibly being affiliated with the Australian Labor Party. This, he knew, would register with the National Party premier.

The dossier was subsequently received by Wilcox and filed.

Driving back to Charleville on that autumn afternoon after the Cabinet visit, with the premier flying back to Brisbane, what went through the mind of Inspector Lewis?

During that two-and-a-half hour journey north along the Mitchell Highway, did he hope for any outcome whatsoever, having had the ear of the premier? Would his frankness contribute to the undermining of his enemy, Whitrod? Would he be considered for a promotion that he believed he deserved? Or would it all come to nought?

Conversely, what was Bjelke-Petersen mulling over, flying above St George and Dalby and on to Brisbane at four hundred kilometres an hour with pilot Beryl Young in the cockpit, and private secretary Stan Wilcox in the aircraft cabin tying up the paperwork for the 36th Country Cabinet Meeting?

The premier knew that morale in the state’s police force was at an all-time low. He believed Whitrod had made a mess of things after six years, and was aware that even Liberal–National Party members were tired of the police commissioner.

Bjelke-Petersen may not have given the tall, gangly Inspector Lewis another thought. But they had now met twice and had developed at the very least a tentative rapport.

With Whitrod’s lie about the “kill sheets” still fresh in Bjelke-Petersen’s mind, and having yarned with Inspector Terry Lewis in the autumn sunshine – the man so highly regarded by rank and file across Queensland – the way to solve the Whitrod problem must have started to form in his mind.

The premier needed a catalyst to set in train the removal of the Queensland police commissioner.

And within months of meeting Lewis, Joh would be gifted not one but two scandals that would see Raymond Wells Whitrod resign and, in fear of his life, flee Queensland forever.


Matthew Condon will appear in conversation with Chris Masters on in Sydney on March 13, and with Paul Barclay in Brisbane on March 15.