Tourists on a boardwalk at Cape Tribulation.

Tourists on a boardwalk at Cape Tribulation.

The Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen spent two years arresting people protesting against his government bulldozing a dirt road through rainforest at Cape Tribulation.

Conservationists believed the wet season would wash untold quantities of earth onto fringing Great Barrier Reef and the Queensland National Party used the "Greenie insurrection" as a law and order issue.

But down south, there was much concern about the far north Queensland rainforests.

So when Bjelke-Petersen mounted his ill-judged "Joh For Canberra" campaign, said by a grateful Labor to be his secret weapon to destroy John Howard's changes in the 1987 federal election, the Prime Minister Bob Hawke drew a bead on the Queenslander and unloaded both barrels.

On June 15, 1987, Hawke confirmed the World Heritage Listing of the wet tropical rainforests from Cooktown to Cardwell at a ceremony held at the Mossman Gorge.

Earlier, in June 1986, Cabinet endorsed in principle a Commonwealth rainforest conservation policy, to be implemented and funded as far as possible in cooperation with relevant states. The Commonwealth would generally nominate sites for World Heritage listing only with the agreement of the relevant state, but Cabinet would examine any cases in which the attitude of a state might cause Australia to breach its World Heritage obligations.

Eleven days before Hawke poked Bjelke-Petersen in the eye among the "green dinosaur" trees of Mossman Gorge, Environment Minister Barry Cohen told Cabinet on June 4 that the Queensland government would oppose any major restriction on logging in north Queensland rainforests and recommended that the Commonwealth proceed with an application for World Heritage listing.

Queensland and Australia had been beguiled by Bjelke-Petersen's unlikely political success but 1987 had proved fatal for the then 76-year-old and on December 1, 1987, he formally resigned as premier and from parliament.

Three days later, Senator Graham Richardson, who had succeeded Cohen in the Environment portfolio, told Cabinet that Queensland was vociferously opposed to World Heritage listing and had mounted an intense media campaign against it. Businesses, local authorities and Aboriginal communities had been pressured to join this opposition.

Richardson said he had visited the area four times and, in his view, local opinion was slowly turning in favour of the Commonwealth's position. However, "safety net" assistance would be needed for some 500 workers displaced from the timber industry in an area that already had a significant surplus of unskilled and low-skilled labour.

Cabinet decided to proceed immediately with a World Heritage nomination and the promulgation of a regulation to stop logging.

The rainforests that were saved are now a prime Queensland tourism attraction.

Chernobyl fallout


Two months after the late April 1986 nuclear accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, Cabinet was belatedly moved to action.

On June 30, Cabinet decided to screen all foods imported from the affected area.

Accordingly, the governments of Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, the USSR and Yugoslavia, were told that all food exports to Australia would be subject to preliminary screening for radioactivity levels on arrival and were liable to be declared prohibited imports.

The countries affected were required to include certificates that export foods had been tested for radiation.

In a joint submission received by the Cabinet office on June 16, the Minister for Health, Neal Blewett, and Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce, John Button, suggested there was some urgency for action.

"First consignments of potentially contaminated foods are likely to arrive in Australia by mid-June 1986," they said.

They warned of possible criticism for not placing a total ban but "the likely levels of radioactivity in these food imports are very low and not likely to constitute a health risk".

They said sampling and testing all food imports of concern would be a high cost exercise and it would be economically more effective to put the onus for testing and certification on the exporting countries.

No smoking

It may seem a world away but once Australians happily puffed away on cigarettes as they flew around the country.

Aircrafts' cabins were divided into smoking and non-smoking sections but incongruously the smoke wafted unimpeded throughout the cabin.

On November 10, 1987, Cabinet agreed to ban smoking on domestic flights for passengers and crews.

The Minister for Transport, Gareth Evans, recalled four decades later that the smoking ban was the main thing he was remembered for in Australian political life.

"We were the first government in the world to do that," Mr Evans said.

Debate about the link between smoking and cancer was a sort of 1980s equivalent of the argument over global warming.

"Support (could be) expected from wide cross section of community and air travellers. Some criticism expected from tobacco companies and growers through Tobacco Institute of Australia," Senator Evans told Cabinet.

In fact, opposition came from within the government too, with the Business Regulation Review Unit arguing that the benefits of the ban for non-smokers would be more than offset by the inconvenience it would cause to smokers.

Senator Evans told Cabinet that in recent years there had been a significant increase in the demand for non-smoking seats in aircraft. The airlines' present general ratio of seat allocations to smoking/non-smoking is, Ansett 25:75, Australian Airlines 30:70 and East-West Airlines 16:84 on F27 aircraft and 14:86 on F28 aircraft.

Cabinet provided fines for smoking on aircraft: $500 for individuals and $2,500 for airline companies.

But Cabinet baulked at banning smoking on international flights.

"At this stage it is proposed not to apply the ban to foreign international airline services operating to Australia," Senator Evans said.

"It would not be appropriate to ban smoking on Qantas flights while its major competitors allow smoking on their aircraft."

AIDS a threat to all

After contaminated blood supplies in Queensland and objections by gays to being stigmatised, the Cabinet on March 18, 1987, agreed to the AIDS Advertising campaign proposed by the Minister for Health Neal Blewett and noted that it was designed forcefully to impress the community into an understanding that the disease was fatal and that it was a danger to the heterosexual population.