Expo '88, the post-Joh era and Malcolm Fraser's sore back: how Brisbane put the world on show

In a country that celebrates sport, it was a cultural phenomenon that brought about the Queensland capital’s coming of age

In a way, Queenslanders have former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s bad back to thank for the cultural extravaganza that was Expo ‘88. A giant commitment for any city to undertake, putting on a world exposition was not like staging a run-of-the-mill agricultural show.

The first world exposition was held in London in 1851, devised as a celebration of industry and human achievement, using the methodology of museums, art galleries and the like. Countries and their various districts were invited to display the evidence of their progressive achievements, with Queensland making an appearance with an exhibit based around wood production.

“Think of a world exposition as the Hummer stretch-limo version of the Royal Exhibitions many of us know so well,” Brisbane author and historian Jackie Ryan tells Guardian Australia. “Take away the cow manure, add the latest and snazziest markers of progress or braggadocio, then times that by a factor of the world.”

Since the 19th century, world expos have exhibited everything “from the telephone to Juicy Fruit; hosted an Elvis movie; and unleashed the grandeur of the Eiffel Tower”. Although their popularity has waned somewhat in the last few decades, these huge events remain popular in parts of Europe and Asia.

Newspaper clipping
A newspaper clipping from the Courier-Mail in 1986: Sir Llew Edwards (left) and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen with an early model of Expo, circa 1985. Photograph: Courier-Mail, 24 February 1986. Supplied: UQP

In the Australia of the 1980s, though, the proposal of a world expo was a contested matter. Fraser didn’t believe Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland had the capacity to host such an event, despite it having successfully staged the Commonwealth Games in 1982. An exposition runs not for a matter of days or even weeks but for six months, far exceeding the Games in duration, budget and attendance. But many Queenslanders, and indeed Australians, didn’t even know what a world exposition was. For a city to host one, the Bureau of International Expositions – the world expo governing body – required an application from that nation’s government. Queensland needed the federal government’s approval and Fraser made it clear he wasn’t interested. But then he took sick leave with a bad back. Acting prime minister Doug Anthony took the opportunity to sanction Brisbane’s bid for the 1988 Expo, and Fraser was reportedly furious.

The Expo only came to Brisbane through “a delicate combination of stubbornness, parochialism, entrepreneurialism, and political chicanery – some of the traits 1980s Queensland [and the Bjelke-Petersen government] was famous for,” Ryan says. She has dedicated herself to becoming an expert in all things Expo: she attended when she was 16, still has her season pass, and was “royally chuffed” to receive former Queensland premier Mike Ahern’s original pavilion pin as a gift at the recent launch of her new book, We’ll Show the World: Expo ’88 – Brisbane’s Almighty Struggle for a Little Bit of Cred (UQP).

A riverside shot of Brisbane Expo
Expo came to Queensland when it was only just beginning to emerge from the Bjelke-Petersen years. Photograph: Brisbane Images, Brisbane City Council/UQP

In 1988, Ryan says, she was a school kid with a case of “sensory overload”. She remembers “snatches of big hair, fluoro lights, pop music and shoulder pads”. Expo had an extensive performance program that featured everything from Japanese Kabuki theatre to popular rock concerts. Julio Iglesias flew in to Brisbane on a 747 for his performance, while a jetlagged Bryan Ferry found himself reduced to improvising hair gel out of a mixture of sugar and water before his photo shoot. They were joined by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Village People, Kylie Minogue, Crowded House, John Denver, Tony Curtis and many more. The Queen and Prince Philip made an appearance, sailing down the Brisbane River on The Royal Britannia and appearing at opening ceremony. When asked for her favourite moment, though, Ryan is vague. Expo was “more of a kaleidoscope than one picture,” she says.

For all the nostalgia Expo inspires, though, Ryan’s book is not simply a love letter to the event. “Brisbane didn’t need another fan letter to Expo,” she says. “For 30 years people have been saying ‘I loved Expo.’ I wanted to figure out why. That meant interrogating the significance of this event to Brisbane – which meant objectively weighing the good and the not remotely good. Expo is big enough for that analysis.”

Brisbane River waterski show 1988
The BP Waterski Spectacular – one of the few Expo entertainments with naming rights. Photograph: The State of Queensland (Department of the Premier and Cabinet) 2018

And there was plenty of “not remotely good”. Expo was not welcomed with open arms by all. In order to make space to stage the event, land resumptions and evictions took place, while for those lucky enough to retain a roof over their heads, rental costs skyrocketed as landlords sought to cash in on the opportunity to accommodate visitors to the city. Businesses suffered as both tourists and Brisbane residents all spent their money within Expo’s precincts. Many people lost their jobs as a consequence. Queensland’s Aboriginal community also protested: for land rights, against deaths in custody, and in response to an incident in which members of the community were refused service at a local hotel. “I think it’s possible to love Expo while being aware of the warrantable controversies around it,” says Ryan.

To add to that, Queensland was only beginning to emerge from the Bjelke-Petersen years, with Ahern recently having taken over as premier after the exposure of the corruption of the Bjelke-Petersen government. It’s significant that in 1988, Queensland simultaneously celebrated Expo and endured the Fitzgerald Inquiry. The effect of these two juxtaposed events on the state’s social and cultural development cannot be overstated. “Expo is commonly credited as the catalyst for Brisbane’s coming of age,” says Ryan. “But I would add that it had a bit of help from the Fitzgerald Inquiry.”

For many Queenslanders, though, Expo remains a bright spark in a dark era. It recorded some 18 million visits (including staff, VIPs and repeat visits) – a total that exceeded the population of Australia at the time. “There had been so little on offer for mainstream Brisbane prior to this six-month bonanza that what lingers for me is the all-pervasive sense of excitement,” says Ryan. “World expositions encompass everything … The event that changed Brisbane wasn’t a sporting event. It was a well-resourced, well-executed arts event. It was a cultural phenomenon. That, to me, is one of the most important lessons.”

We’ll Show the World: Expo ’88 – Brisbane’s Almighty Struggle for a Little Bit of Cred by Jackie Ryan is out now through UQP


Angela Elizabeth

The GuardianTramp

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