• Newly-released Queensland cabinet papers provide new insights into the major events of 1987. (NITV)Source: NITV
From injecting hundreds of thousands of dollars to oppose the Mabo case, to advancing plans for a Cape York space station, newly-released cabinet papers give a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes during Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland government in 1987.
Ella Archibald-Binge

9 Jan 2018 - 2:54 PM  UPDATED 9 Jan 2018 - 2:55 PM

Made public after 30 years, the 1987 cabinet minutes pull back the curtain on a turbulent year for Queensland politics. 

The year began with then Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen announcing his intention to run for prime minister and ended with his resignation from office after a 19-year political career. It was the year that saw the establishment of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, a landmark probe into police corruption prompted by a series of damning news reports from The Courier Mail's Phil Dickie and the ABC's Four Corners.

Meanwhile, Indigenous activism was gaining momentum. Eddie Mabo was pursuing his unprecedented land rights case, while prolonged protests prompted a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.  

Now, the 1987 cabinet papers offer new insights into these key issues, particularly where state funding decisions were concerned. 

State backs inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody, but refuses to chip in

In August 1987, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke made history by establishing a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The costs for the inquiry were to be shared proportionately by all the participating federal, state and territory governments. 

A month later, cabinet minutes show the Queensland government agreed to co-operate with the inquiry but declined to help fund it. 

"As you are aware, the cost of running such a Commission can be quite horrendous and I would hesitate to recommend that we agree to share the costs unless Queensland has some input controlling the level and extent of those costs," reads a submission from Bjelke-Petersen. 

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: timeline of events and aftermath
Twenty-five years after the findings of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody were handed down, there are still calls for most of the recommendations to be implemented. Learn more about the origins and timeline of the Royal Commission here.

State spends almost $400,000 to fight Mabo land rights case

While the state government refused to fund the royal commission, they did spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in their legal fight against Eddie "Koiki" Mabo's land rights case. Mabo, along with four others, brought his case to the High Court in 1982, claiming native title over his homeland of Murray Island (Mer).  

In March 1987, the cabinet approved $160,000 to cover "additional expenses" in the case. This was on top of the $200,000 previously allocated to the State's defence. 

"I have previously emphasised the critical nature of this constitutional action, the loss of which would threaten the sovereignty of the State over the lands, sea-bed and reef areas of Queensland as well as raise the question of compensation payable in recompense of any damages proved by the Plaintiffs," reads the submission from then State Aboriginal and Islander Affairs Minister, Bob Katter (now federal MP for Kennedy). 

In 1992, the High Court ruled in favour of Eddie Mabo, overturning the notion of terra nullius and paving the way for native title law. 

Justice in the family: Eddie Mabo's granddaughter takes up the fight
Twenty-five years after Eddie "Koiki" Mabo's historic land rights victory, his granddaughter, law graduate Hannah Duncan, is forging her own path to help her community.

Cabinet backs down on decision to pay award wages to Indigenous workers

July saw the state government revise its earlier plans to pay award wages to Indigenous workers employed by the Department of Community Services (which then included the Indigenous affairs portfolio). 

Cabinet decided that award wages would not be introduced as promised, "due to the funding constraints flowing from the federal government’s reduced allocation to Queensland and the states under tax sharing arrangements".

Program to tackle Indigenous Australia's 'special health problem'

In May, the cabinet made a submission to the federal government stating it would need around $7 million to fund "The Aboriginal Health Programme" (a Commonwealth initiative run by the state). 

"Following the 1967 Referendum when responsibility for Aboriginal welfare passed to the Commonwealth it was discovered that Aboriginal people had a special health problem," reads an accompanying report. 

Included in the $7 million estimate was almost $1 million to address rheumatic fever prevention and AIDS testing and prevention. In 1987, the country was grappling with the HIV-AIDS epidemic. In contrast to federal safe sex initiatives, the Queensland Government prohibited condom vending machines at universities, even raiding student unions to remove the machines. Then health minister Mike Ahern later claimed Bjelke-Petersen tried to stop Indigenous Australians from being screened for HIV because he believed the virus was a punishment from God. 

Pushing ahead with Cape York space station

In February, the cabinet approved $300,000 for "further investigation" of the Cape York International Spaceport.

Deemed the world’s first commercial space facility, the $500 million space station was set to launch up to 20 American satellites a year using Soviet rockets. With bipartisan support from the federal government, the project attracted 58 registrations of interest from Australian and international companies in December 1987.

The space station was nearing construction in the early 1990s, but plans were ultimately abandoned in 1992 after fierce opposition from Traditional Owners, who regained legal ownership of the land last year. 

Read a more detailed summary of the 1987 Queensland cabinet minutes here.