The Courier-Mail - QWeekend

YOU BLOKES DON’T WANT ANY TROUBLE, AND I DON’T WANT ANY TROUBLE, SO WHY DON’T YOU JUST APPROVE THAT LITTLE LOAN

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How do we thank him? How do we even categorise him, define him or attempt to illustrate the crowded life of this extraordin­ary individual – this dignified old man who was the quintessen­tial Queensland­er, even before the cane toads arrived. Sir Leo Arthur Hielscher, AC, aged 94, public servant extraordin­aire, the last of the great mandarins, inaugural chairman of the Queensland Treasury Corporatio­n board and 50-year veteran of the global financial and banking world did nothing less than this: He created the modern state of Queensland.

He contoured the outlines of our economy using nothing more than charm, guile and that magnificen­t mind that, even today – as he sits in his office inside his plush Yeronga retirement unit – still winks and whirrs away behind his glasses, like some super computer that didn’t come with an “off’’ button.

Sure, it’s a big call, crediting one man with the superhuman achievemen­t of creating a state.

But, make no mistake, few Queensland political and business leaders will contradict you if you propose that it was Sir Leo who, more than any other living individual, reconfigur­ed Queensland from a third world backwater with dirt and gravel streets and the “thunderbox’’ in the backyard to a Triple A credit-rated economy, in which the superstars of the global financial world fell over themselves to invest.

Just as an entree into Sir Leo’s world, here’s an anecdote that illustrate­s so magnificen­tly that combinatio­n of tight-fisted bean counter, super salesman and swashbuckl­ing corporate buccaneer that allowed him to do it.

One day, back in 1964, Sir Leo had a problem.

He was sitting at his desk inside the Queensland Treasury, not yet aged 40 and only having just finalised almost a decade as “Senior Clerk in the General Sub-Section of the Education Department’’.

That job title alone illustrate­s, far more evocativel­y than any longwinded explanatio­n, just what a stagnating, moribund world the Queensland public service of the 1960s was – a world where seniority meant promotion and innovation and lateral thinking (“looking outside the square?’’) risked demotion, if not the sack.

Tom Hiley – the man who served as Liberal Treasurer from 1957 to 1965 and who mentored Sir Leo – had sent word just before Christmas 1963 that he was, officially, a young gun, by giving him a secondment to the Chief Office of the Treasury Department.

And then, just a few months into this job at the centre of the Queensland financial universe, there’s this little problem: Mount Isa Mines is one of our few big revenue earners, with enormous potential, yet the state-owned rail line out of town to the coastal ports that will generate our export dollars is falling apart.

Sir Leo and his team get a costing to fix the rail, then dispatch a routine request to the Loans Council in Canberra for a loan approval. It’s knocked back.

So Sir Leo, this son of a Eumundi blacksmith, thinking laterally, casually decides to put his entire career on the roll of a dice.

He calls the World Bank in Washington and puts his loan proposal to them. The World Bank is just 20 years old, created out of the 1944

Sir Leo Hielscher, 94 (left); the Gateway Bridges were renamed the Sir Leo Hielscher Bridges in his honour (top); and securing funding for the rail track from Mount Isa Mines(above) to the coast was a pivotal moment in Sir Leo’s career. Pictures: Mark Cranitch, Dan Paled/ AAP Image, Megan Vrayley

Bretton Woods Conference, along with the Internatio­nal Monetary Fund, and its key purpose is to provide loans to low-income countries who wouldn’t get money elsewhere.

The World Bank looks at the proposal and says to a stunned Sir Leo and his Treasury team, “Well ... yeah, OK, sure – we can do this!’’.

And the ruling government in Canberra, under Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, goes insane. Australian played a key role in the creation of the World Bank.

It can’t suffer internatio­nal embarrassm­ent as some backwater going hat in hand to an internatio­nal financial institutio­n designed to help the poor.

Sir Leo can’t vouch for conversati­ons down there in Canberra. He can’t even remember what he and his team were saying back here in Queensland as the drama played out.

But, rest assured, Sir Leo somehow communicat­ed the following to the Loans Council in Canberra: “Look, you blokes don’t want any trouble, and I don’t want any trouble, so why don’t you just approve that little loan in the manner that I proposed in the first place?’’

And they did. In just three weeks. And Mount Isa Mines roared back on into life, the loan money was rapidly paid back under Sir Leo’s stewardshi­p and we all became just a little bit richer.

“Sometimes you do have to think outside the square,’’ says Sir Leo, with a roguish smile.

History is a strange thing, and more so after

the invention of the camera. History can come to us now as a faded colour Polaroid photograph when we look back to the 1970s.

Go back beyond that and it changes to a black-and-white newsreel often corrupted by those little black-and-white spots where dust got into the negative.

Talk to Sir Leo and he’ll take you beyond the newsreel.

Sir Leo will take you way, way back ... back to where you look around and find yourself inside a d’Arcy Doyle painting.

Back to where a motor car was a novelty; back to where men in coat and tie rode bicycles purely for transport, with little clips on their trouser legs to avoid getting caught in the chain; back to the canvas-shrouded sleepout on the veranda of the little four-room Queensland­er at Eumundi where Sir Leo slept as a child; back to a world lit by kerosene lantern.

He’ll even take you back to where consciousn­ess fused with his brain – back to where he came “online’’.

His first thought was as a little boy, perhaps aged two or three, standing alone on the veranda of the Eumundi home in which he was born in 1926. It was almost a decade since those imported cane toads were released in North Queensland to eat the sugar cane beetle, and he was quite conscious of his own being while

contemplat­ing two mountain peaks nearby: Mount Cooroy and Mount Eerwah.

Sir Leo remembers World War 11 and the Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, getting out of a car in Edward Street, and walking purposeful­ly into an office.

He remembers when every third or fourth building in Elizabeth Street was an air raid shelter, and those “dirty great pipes coming out of the Brisbane River’’, which were there to suck water out of the river to douse the flames of an enemy attack.

He remembers his war service with the air force, watching Japanese war criminals trucked into an internment camp in Papua New Guinea, and he remembers wondering if there were enough Australian soldiers – and arms and ammunition – to subdue them if they tried to make a break for it.

And he remembers that heart flip he felt when he was 15 at a dance at the hall next to the Church of England church at Holland Park, St Matthews, when the call went up “Ladies’ choice’’, and this girl he liked, Mary Ellen Pelgrave, walked – quite deliberate­ly and with some purpose in her stride it seemed – across the vast wooden expanse of that dance floor, directly toward him.

And he remembers there were about three or four dances before the medley – the last dance that permitted you (quite legitimate­ly, as convention then dictated) to ask if you could walk your partner home.

He remembers how he “Gypsy Tapped” and “Pride of Erined’’ his way through the last part of the evening – honing those salesman skills he would later use on Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen when he wanted to push a project over the line – talking fast and keeping the young lady interested enough, or perhaps distracted enough, to reach the medley.

And he remembers he did more than walk Mary Ellen Pelgrave home.

He kissed her at her front gate, and he also remembers, 40 years after that, after he got to his feet after Queen Elizabeth II had tapped his shoulder with a sword and made him a Knight of the Realm at Buckingham Palace, that he looked back at Mary Ellen and thought that maybe, just maybe, he had earned the love of that beautiful woman.

And Sir Leo also remembers when Queensland ticked. He remembers when the Treasury coffers were spilling over and every man, woman and their dog wanted to do business in the Sunshine State, and he was “the man to see’’.

He was in the thick of it, wheeling and dealing, pressing the envelope, bending but never breaking the rules, kickstarti­ng the tourism industry by learning how to cheat at cards in a Las Vegas casino and parlaying our mineral wealth into billions of dollars of infrastruc­ture.

Sir Leo deftly corralled those uber-rich multinatio­nals to not only pay for that rail and port infrastruc­ture that still exists today, but carved rich dollops of cream off the top of their exorbitant profits every financial year via royalties, and poured that cream all over this state.

Sir Leo was there, right up to that high water mark of 1988, when Brisbane hosted the World Expo – an event in which he played pivotal roles, not only helping securing Expo but paying for it, and then watching the most transforma­tive event in modern Queensland history unfold.

Sir Leo Hielscher with his late wife, Mary Ellen, at their Yeronga retirement home in 2017.

pany was going to make money out of Queensland, then so were Queensland­ers.’’

As Boeing moved rapidly from the 707 to the 747 and the aviation industry helped propel a massive tourism boom in the developed world, it was Sir Leo who saw we needed to lift our game, deciding it was the casino industry which would provide the sort of hotels which would force everyone to lift their game.

As Joanne Holliman writes in her excellent biography on Sir Leo, Queensland Made, it was Leo who understood he should get a handle on the dark side of the casino industry, traipsing through Vegas, Atlantic City and New Jersey, and getting taught by card sharps how to cheat the system so he’d know a con when he saw one being played out on Queensland­ers.

It was Sir Leo who sealed the deal for “clean” casinos, getting assurances from American regulators that if the operators did anything illegal here in Australia, their licences would also be suspended in the US.

Sir Leo is no retired CEO – he is as busy as he ever was, using 75 years of experience to relentless­ly pursue a project he went public with in 2019 when he put his weight behind the LNP Opposition’s revised Bradfield Scheme to turn northern rivers inland, send them over the Great Dividing Range, and create a massive new farming precinct in that north-western black soil country. He doesn’t like the name, “Bradfield Scheme’’ largely because he knows something about branding. The Bradfield scheme is an idea with a 100-year history that never came to fruition. Sir Leo’s project is, “The Great Dividing Range Scheme” and Sir Leo has figured out a way it can be done for $17 billion.

His plan is a Great Dividing Range statutory authority raising money through Commonweal­th and state loan guarantees builds the project, then pays back the loans by selling water licences at 10 cents per 1000 litres.

It is classic Sir Leo. “Revenue neutral’’, as they say in his world. The Queensland taxpayer would not shell out one cent, and the state would get a massive new agricultur­al region, sending off fruit, veg and beef to China every 24 hours on jet airliners. Can it be done? Probably not. The scheme would almost certainly fall at the first hurdle, which is the federal Environmen­t Act.

Yet, Sir Leo was never a dreamer. He has spent all his life turning “unlikely’’ to “possibly’’, and then “reality’’, and even at the age of 94 he remains bull-headed when he sinks his teeth into a new money-making scheme.

Additional­ly, he clearly has no intention of heading to the exit any time soon, and there is every sign he will still be hitting phones and firing off missives for several years yet.

To better illustrate his outlook, just consider

(Clockwise, from top) the World Expo ‘88 Aquacade; Peter Shergold; Sir Leo and Lady Hielscher with the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2004; and Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. this: Sir Leo doesn’t merely still have a driver’s licence – he drives a Jag.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has a great affection for him as a “very generous and affable person,’’ but is well aware he rarely takes a backward step.

“He proved himself time and time again to be a very tough negotiator, always putting Queensland’s interests at the forefront,” she says. “It’s not every day a bridge is named after you, and it is fitting the Gateway Bridges were renamed the Sir Leo Hielscher Bridges, in recognitio­n of his great service as a great public servant.”

Opposition leader David Crisafulli regards him as a truly great Queensland­er and often chats with the man who Crisafulli believes did more than any other to give us the prosperity we enjoy today.

Peter Shergold – chancellor of the Western Sydney University since 2011, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet between February 2003 and February 2008, and one of Australia’s most respected and admired federal public servants – says there is no doubt about the enormous contributi­on of Sir Leo to the developmen­t of Queensland.

But, from a wider perspectiv­e, Shergold won’t dismiss the ability, or at least the desire, of contempora­ry public servants to emulate the example set by Sir Leo. That example reflects the ancient Westminste­r system, in which the public servant delivers advice beyond the realm of mere politics, “without fear or favour”.

“I think the public service has become harder with the 24/7 social media that is part of life today,’’ Shergold says. “But even in contempora­ry structures of government, you can see the quality of service that Sir Leo encapsulat­es.

“I still believe a good secretary or director general would aspire to those levels,’’

Sir Leo knows for a certainty that the job he once did is far more politicise­d than it was in the mid-20th century, when he first won his spurs.

He remembers on one occasion when a new government of one political brand replaced another political brand after an election, not one senior public servant lost their job.

Sir Leo is no sentimenta­list and is clearly careful of the trap of becoming too selfcongra­tulatory at this stage of his life.

He worked hard but he has reaped extraordin­ary rewards, not least being the plush threebedro­om apartment at Yeronga where he has lived alone for the past three years, after his wife died. He’s as far removed from the “Monte Carlo biscuit with a cuppa’’ world of ordinary Queensland retirement living as the indoor pool and private bowling green suggests. And he spends time with his children Ross and Kerri, and three grandchild­ren, Claire, Emily and Lyndon. (His other son Barry Allan is deceased.)

Sir Leo has no time for Modern Monetary Theory or any other fashionabl­e economic trend that suggests anything other than what he believes is the reality: that you run a government like a household budget, never spending more than you can afford, and avoiding too much debt.

He insists – and you believe him when he tells you – that the motivating force throughout his life in Treasury, as well as head of the financial arm of government at the QTC, was simply cutting the best deal for Queensland.

“I always saw things that way,’’ Sir Leo says. “Always, uppermost in my mind, was what was best for the Queensland taxpayer, and that is simply the truth.” ■

HE PROVED HIMSELF TIME AND TIME AGAIN TO BE A VERY TOUGH NEGOTIATOR

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