Captain Bligh steers the ship in face of adversity
DISASTERS can define a politician's leadership. Rudy Giuliani became a household hero as New York mayor on September 11, 2001. President George Bush's slide began when he took three days to properly respond to hurricane Katrina.
As Queensland is ravaged by floods, it is the Premier, Anna Bligh, who seems to have grown in stature, while the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, struggles to strike the right note.
At press conferences, Bligh seems to know every tiny town in every valley, aware of who will face the next threat and how high the rivers will rise.
Taking charge ... Anna Bligh fronts the media with Julia Gillard yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
She has been prepared to tell the nation to brace for rising death tolls, yet she has struck the right note of grim determination, tinged with emotion.
''It might be breaking our hearts … but it will not break our will,'' she said on Tuesday.
A steady stream of letters congratulating Bligh has been arriving at the Herald.
''Australia has, in Anna Bligh, a real leader,'' wrote one reader, Bruce Pryor, of Bundanoon. ''Watching the horrendous Queensland floods unfold has been a very sobering experience. And there like a rock in the midst of the tragedy, drama and confusion is the Premier.''
Nick Sharp, of Helensburgh, wrote: ''Pity Anna Bligh doesn't live in Canberra.''
A month ago the Bligh government was facing political oblivion. The Galaxy poll taken in November recorded a primary vote of only 28 per cent - just a few points better than Kristina Keneally's government in NSW.
Bligh's satisfaction rating had slumped to 25 per cent - with 70 per cent saying they were dissatisfied - raising more questions about her leadership.
Yesterday, as the floods threatened her state capital, Bligh fronted the media in a plain white shirt, hair looking like she had been working all night.
She had news of the mother, father and son who had been filmed perched on top of a white car slowly sinking in a raging torrent of muddy brown water. ''We are pleased to confirm the mother and the child have been found alive, but we are still searching for the father in this case,'' she said, her emotions held in check, but barely.
Beside her, Gillard stood perfectly coiffed in a dark suit, nodding. The Prime Minister has made the right moves. She has visited the scenes of flooding regularly during the past month, and was there again yesterday.
But she seems bogged down in the details: infrastructure funding, defence deployments and drought relief payments.
For women politicians, it is always a fine balance between showing emotion and being perceived as too emotional . Gillard has perhaps erred towards being too cool.
Don Watson, the author and former political speech writer, said Bligh had done well because people respond to politicians who speak in concrete terms.
''Probably she has impressed people because she is standing firm rather than trying to empathise with every emotion.
''She's a little less modern and a little more Churchillian, and people respond to that,'' he said.
Professor Ross Fitzgerald, a Queensland historian and emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, said that before the floods, Bligh had lost the confidence of voters.
''Ironically these floods, which could be as bad as the 1974 floods, as bad as 1893, could be a godsend to Anna Bligh,'' he said.
''She has done extremely well with a combination of appearing to be in control but of caring deeply.
''If it hasn't entirely turned the ship around around, at least the captain is now highly thought of.
''In contrast Prime Minister Gillard has seemed wooden and not caring. I am not saying that she doesn't care; it's just she doesn't appear to care.''
''What a statesman-like performance by Anna Bligh yesterday.''
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