On Tuesday I commented that Anna Bligh had done a great job in her press conference in response to the Toowoomba floods when she stood strong as a leader should. Since then she has continued to impress everyone with how she has continued to provide leadership through the horror. Her press conferences have been must watches for sources of information, advice and inspiration.
Those who have been watching her media appearances over the past days would have been noticing the red eyes and obvious signs of time gone without sleep and a determination to not give in to the emotion of the events. This morning while delivering some stirring words to her fellow Queenslanders her voice cracked and the pent up emotion slightly crept through. It was her use of the phrase “as we weep…” that I think did it – the mere mention of that emotional response brought out that which she had been denying.
But by God it was brilliant to see.
Inspiration doesn't need Shakespeare; mostly it needs honesty, emotion and plain words. Bligh gave it to us in spades.
There have been some suggestions that this will save Bligh from losing the next election. I think that is perhaps suggesting a bit too much. John Brumby was excellent and applauded for how he handled the 2009 bushfires. In 2010 he was gone. Jim Cairns was cheered for his role after Cyclone Tracy, but that didn’t stop him being dumped as Deputy PM within 12 months. Winston Churchill led Britain through the darkness of the blitz and WWII, and yet he lost he 1945 general election.
People will praise a leader, and will remember fondly the way he or she performed during a time of crisis, but elections are about the economy, jobs, health etc etc as always. The big difference with this disaster is the rebuilding will still be going on by the time of the next QLD election, and so voters may wish to stick with the one who was there when it was darkest. But as I say, that didn’t save Winston in 1945.
And of course such things are somewhat trivial really. Nothing Bligh is doing is being done for political gain – and that is part of what makes her work this week so great. Regardless of what happens at the next election Bligh will have a place in Australian history, and all those who remember the floods will remember her role.
The most common thing has been to compare her performance with that of Julia Gillard. I must admit the one press conference where they both appeared served to highlight how good Bligh was. But quite a good deal of the commentary is actually more as an opportunity for those who don’t like Gillard to bash her – you know – she’s too wooden, her wardrobe is poorly chosen etc etc.
The fact is expecting her to outshine or even equal Bligh in such a circumstance is like at a wedding the mother of the bride being expected to overshadow the bride. Bligh is giving us must need information – where is safe, who has died, what can people do, what can’t they do, what height will the river get to, when will it get there. The thing are vital to know – and also it is literally happening in her home town, so it must hurt her like all hell.
Gillard as PM is giving us bigger picture stuff – ie less essential, more dull. Other than details on the Army and Centrelink the federal government has nowhere near the on the ground role that the state government does.
During the Victorian bushfires Rudd was very strong, but for those who remember, his best work was done when out among the victims – talking with survivors, giving them hugs etc – I can’t recall him giving a press conference inside standing next to Brumby. And so today when Julia was finally shown with survivors and she then gave a press conference out in the open she found the right tone of compassion and strength – she showed her real self, rather than the stilted self she often gives in press conferences when relating tracts of information.
This is always going to be Bligh’s show (much like September 11 was Rudy Giuliani’s and not George Bush’s), and if Gillard’s advisors have any sense they’ll leave centre stage to Bligh and keep Julia out with the people.
As for what Abbott’s advisors should do…
The Leader of an Opposition in a crisis is a bit like a distant uncle at a wedding: he has no role to play of any worth, and for the most part all he has to do is avoid getting drunk and making a fool of himself. The Leader of the Opposition doesn't have charge of any organisation, he doesn't get the facts from the police before anyone else, he doesn’t in short have much to do, so the best he can do is keep out of the way and lend a hand if needed on the ground. The one thing he should never do in a crisis is seek to get any political mileage out of it.
But of course Abbott has never uttered a word in his public life that didn’t not have political intent. When Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono addressed Parliament last, Abbott decided to use the bipartisan moment to say in his introductory remarks:
We have worked to end people smuggling before. It worked when we worked together before. People smuggling has started again and we can stop it again, provided it is done cooperatively and with a clear understanding of our mutual interests and with the right policies in place here in Australia.
Yep, real statesmen like. He is the drunk uncle at the wedding who gets up and mentions that ex-boyfriend who everyone liked more than they do the groom.
Following on from his remarks last week that the cost of the Queensland floods was reason for cancelling the NBN, today he came back from holiday and stated that now was not a time for politics but that he was going to hold the Government to account. When asked about Bligh his praise was deafening in it’s faintness:
"I guess it's been Anna Bligh's finest hour but there are a lot of hours ahead"
He guesses? Really, how gracious of him.
On Sky News he remarked that the floods demonstrated why Governments needed to be “fiscally prudent”, and his biggest praise was for the National Party QLD Government of the 1970s for building the Wivenhoe Dam, much like he can only ever praise the economy by remarking that it is all the work of the Howard Government was (as though the 5% unemployment rate announced today had nothing to do with the policies of the Rudd-Gillard Govts) – it also fits in with his announcement of last week that the Liberal Party will investigate building more dams, so it was hardly an apolitical statement.
When the Sky journalist then remarked about how tragic the events were given that some streets were flooded and yet some nearby were untouched, Abbott quoted the Bible and said:
"The rain falls on the just and the unjust"
While the passage obviously refers to the fact that bad things happen to good people, in the context of the events it was a decidedly odd thing to say given it suggests there are some who deserved the rain.
Luckily for him most news programs that I have seen haven’t shown that line, and have instead focused on his “I think this is a time to rally around the people of Queensland in their hour of need”. Pity he didn’t leave it at that.
On a side issue, the Twitter account of Queensland Police @QPSmedia will be the absolute Gold standard for public disaster information in any future events – it provides valuable news, and more importantly it busts myth after myth that have been circulated. Great, great work by whoever was in charge.
Over in America we also saw amazing leadership. In response to the shooting in Arizona, on the weekend, President Obama delivered a speech at the Tuscon Memorial Service. The speech goes for 30 minutes. If you have time, I urge you to watch it and see the great oratory of a leader at work:
On Twitter there has been a good little discussion on the precise meaning of the passage quoted by Abbott. It comes from Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Here’s the full context of the passage Matthew 5:43-45 (NIV):
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
There has been the view that it means we shouldn't take things personally, or that perhaps we are or mere mortals and are vulnerable. My reading that “bad things happen to good people” is perhaps slightly narrow – I more mean God is not punishing the wicked or the good – the rain falls because the rain falls – we shouldn’t be asking what we did wrong, because that’s not how it works.
I don’t really want to get into an exegesis on the passage. I do still think Abbott’s use was somewhat odd even with this reading – it almost is him saying Biblically “shit happens”, which doesn’t exactly give one much solace.
Perhaps I am being too harsh on him – after all it was an off the cuff remark. Certainly I took more issue with his desires to use the floods to get talk on to the budget and surplus/deficit and the NBN. It will be interesting to see the attack used when Question Time starts next month.