Inside Story

Anna Bligh, the story so far

Books | Sara Dowse reviews the autobiography of the former Queensland premier

Sara Dowse 20 April 2015 2189 words

Heading for defeat: Anna Bligh boarding her campaign bus on the Gold Coast during the March 2012 election campaign. Jack Tran/AAP Image

Through the Wall: Reflections on Leadership, Love and Survival
By Anna Bligh | HarperCollins | $39.99

As the title of this lively memoir suggests, former Queensland premier Anna Bligh is a dab hand with the metaphor. Her central image – of breaking through walls – runs through the book, but there are others as well: winding paths, flights through lightning, eggs hatching, fortresses breached, and more. A lifelong reader, Bligh is a clear and persuasive writer. In addition to the metaphors she has an instinctive ability to select the right anecdote to illustrate a point. Her story made compelling reading while enabling me to grasp complex material that in less skilled hands could easily have been turgid. The first point to make, then, is that Bligh is a consummate communicator.

Other things struck me as I read. In the very first chapter, for instance, Bligh notes the immense size of the state she was born in and governed for almost five years. Queensland, she reminded me, is big enough to comfortably accommodate Texas twice over. Not a patch on Western Australia but that only serves to strengthen the impact of the imagery. Australia is a bloody big country, and its two resource-dependent colossi are parts the rest of us can ill afford to ignore, particularly now that global demand for their coal and iron ore is plummeting.

I was also keenly aware that, without crucial reforms during the Whitlam era, we might never have heard of this Anna Bligh who has broken through walls and crashed into fortresses. Brought up in Burleigh Heads, an unprepossessing seaside suburb of mangroves and fibro cottages soon to be transmogrified into a hub of Queensland’s glitzy Gold Coast, in a family of modest means with more than its fair share of troubles, she was an unlikely prospect for university education. But two of the Whitlam government’s initiatives changed all that. The first was the supporting mother’s benefit of 1973, which enabled Bligh’s determined young mother to end an unhappy marriage and set up house on her own, with all four children in tow. The second was the government’s abolition of tertiary education fees, making it possible for Bligh to undertake a Queensland University arts degree five years later.

And as I kept reading it came forcibly home to me what a salutary impact Whitlam’s government, for all its troubles, had on the nation. It was nice, too, to recall how many of our current leaders benefited from that free education, even those eager to impose prohibitive costs and indebtedness on university aspirants today. Nor could I help but be overwhelmed by the changes that have occurred for women, many of which were facilitated by Whitlam’s program, even if they were already gaining momentum before he was elected. For what was seen in the seventies as some aberrant form of outrageous female ratbaggery took off like wildfire in this blatantly sexist country, lighting the way for women who came after, women like Anna Bligh. As with Queensland’s size, this should be bleeding obvious, but in a sense it isn’t. It took a generation after women’s liberation, feminism’s “second wave,” hit Australia for a woman to become prime minister, and nearly that long for it to be normal for women to be cabinet ministers, party leaders, governors and state premiers.

And yet when we marched the streets demanding equal pay, childcare, safe abortion and the like, the possibility of women holding such positions seemed a distant goal – too improbable to dream of, in fact. For it’s important to remember that to begin with the women’s movement was uncomfortable with the notion of power, until we reluctantly concluded that not a great deal could be achieved without it. The question then became who was going to wield it and why. We took this question very seriously, but still our imagination failed us – the power we tentatively acceded to was small cheese compared with the leadership to be enjoyed by the coming generation. The walls that were breached (or broken, as Bligh would have it) were in the higher ranks of the public service; we scarcely imagined heading a government, and the corporate world, for most us, was beyond contemplation.

Then, in September 1975, two months before Whitlam was dismissed, women from across the political spectrum gathered in Canberra for the government-sponsored women and politics conference, a key – though much-excoriated and now virtually forgotten – event that did much to foster women’s participation in the party system. And then, after its resounding defeat in December 1975, Labor began devising programs for affirmative action, both within its ranks and for governing, if it were ever returned to power.

Women in leadership is the overarching theme of Bligh’s memoir. As she states in her preface, “I’ve tried to capture some of what it’s like to be a leader, especially as a woman; to lead through times of peril and times of change; the lived experience of shaping history; and facing the unthinkable and unknowable.” To her great credit, and unlike many current male politicians, her blooding began in grassroots protests and organisations, with a spell in the women’s rights office of the student union at Queensland University, and later at a women’s refuge.

Her Labor affiliation came later, and with it she brought first-hand experience of women’s issues and, after a stint in Sydney, broad-based community work. On her return to Queensland she worked in the women’s policy unit under Wayne Goss, and then in the enterprise bargaining unit in the state’s industrial relations department. The move towards representing Labor in Queensland’s unicameral parliament came when her friend and mentor, Anne Warner, resigned her South Brisbane seat and encouraged Bligh to run for preselection.

Putting herself forward for this position didn’t come easily, and Bligh makes it graphically clear that with every step along the way towards leadership there were moments of high trepidation. Nor did these cease when, having achieved the goal, she was faced with its curly challenges. She comes across as unusually reflective and self-critical for someone in public life – an undoubted strength that she never let cripple her. Once she was in, she was in, and she gave it her all. Fortunately she had a family that provided the necessary back-up. Her mother Frances Tancred, her husband Greg Withers and her two sons, Joseph and Oliver, afforded the kind of support men in politics take for granted and even today only a few women can rely on. How different this is from the general experience of women of my generation, whose entry into public life, as activists, bureaucrats and, later, politicians, all too often spelled the end of intimate relationships.

After preselection came rapid advancement. When Wayne Goss’s Labor government was defeated and Peter Beattie took over as opposition leader, Bligh was appointed to the shadow cabinet with a watching brief on public works and public administration. With the return of Labor in 1998 following a one-term Liberal Country Party government, Bligh was a cabinet member, responsible for family, youth and disability services. She initiated a commission of inquiry into child abuse in Queensland institutions, arguably the first in the country. In 2001 she was education minister, overseeing a long-overdue overhaul of the state education system; in 2004 the arts were added to her portfolio; by 2005 she was Beattie’s deputy, responsible for finance, treasury, infrastructure and state development, essentially in charge of upgrading the long-neglected infrastructure in the two-Texas state. In 2007, after Beattie’s resignation, she was elected unopposed by the caucus and sworn in as premier just as the world’s developed economies were about to be gutted by the global financial crisis.

It was a difficult time to head a government that was already somewhat on the nose. Australians are more aware today of how the GFC served to shrink government revenues, and even with a raging Chinese demand for its coal Queensland was perilously short of money. Still, Bligh faced the electorate and won, the first Australian woman to be elected a state premier. After that she took what appeared to be the only option available, the standard recourse in our market economies, and that was to privatise many of Queensland’s assets, ever a risky and unpopular measure. Thus she led her government to its catastrophic defeat in the March 2012 election.

Yet the high point of Bligh’s premiership had come not much more than a year earlier, when she had led the state through the worst floods in Queensland’s recorded history. At the start of the deluge the state’s disaster management centre went into action, with Bligh at the helm, giving communities critical, hourly information about the movement of waters in their neighbourhoods. But no one at emergency headquarters could credit the reports that the main street of Toowoomba, centre of the Darling Downs and perched on top of a mountain, was in flood, as was the whole of the Lockyer Valley, with waters rushing towards Brisbane. When Brisbane’s river overflowed a restaurant was ripped from its moorings and transformed into a missile threatening the Storey Bridge until at the last minute it was heroically stopped. Finally the waters receded and people began cleaning up the mud and debris and what was left of their houses, but the rains came again and with them another flooding. Several times Bligh and her deputy risked their lives to be with the stricken people. At that moment premier Anna Bligh was their darling.

But the moment didn’t last. Years of Labor, anger over privatisations; the electorate was unforgiving. The Brits tossing out Churchill after the war comes to mind, even if the parallel is a little overdrawn. After seventeen strenuous years, Bligh resigned her South Brisbane seat; she needed a rest and time with her family. The boys were at university and there were plans to move to Sydney, where Greg grew up. For the first time in perhaps too long, Bligh could relax, travel and enjoy herself. But the reprieve was shortlived. Not long after settling into her new life she was diagnosed with cancer of the parotid gland and underwent a debilitating course of treatment that took a year of her life at the same time as it extended it. She was lucky; the tumour hadn’t spread, and after a full recovery she went to work for the community again, this time as chief executive of the YWCA in New South Wales.

End of story, so far. What did I take from it? Admiration for the narrator, certainly. More: genuine affection, although we have never met. It would be hard not to like Anna Bligh. Warm and unafraid to take the mickey out of herself, she is like Julia Gillard – and, also like Gillard, she is one of a generation of extremely accomplished women who took the baton our generation handed them (there goes another metaphor) and ran with it all the way to the next finishing line. She is gracious enough to acknowledge that she hasn’t run the race alone, that she couldn’t have done it without the support of family, friends, mentors, colleagues, staff, the party and the electorate. Yet the one group she hasn’t given due credit to are those who crashed through walls well before her and were “bruised and bloodied” in ways she could scarcely imagine, yet for whom the rewards have been few.

I’m speaking of pioneers of the second wave, women like Shulamith Firestone, who died young and crazed and alone in a walk-up tenement apartment; of Kate Millett, who suffers bouts of what others have defined as mental illness but she describes as resulting from years of social disapproval; of our own Pat Eatock, who has recently left us. I’m speaking about the poverty, loneliness and suicides that have afflicted so many – too many – of those pioneers. They were radicals, and served the function that radicals always serve, to bring to public attention ideas that seem utterly outlandish when first uttered yet prove to be prophetic, part of the coming zeitgeist, but rarely to share in the victory.

A woman is premier of Queensland again. It looks like we may have a woman in the White House. It may be churlish of me to insist that women like these, Bligh and Gillard and Palaszczuk, and even Hillary Clinton, splendid as they are and the hope of so many of us, have a debt to pay, a debt that, sadly, many have no idea of and few have even begun to acknowledge. A woman tells her story, but that’s my problem with women’s stories, when, as has happened so often down the millennia, they come adrift from the whole of our history. •