Australia Looks to Anna Bligh Who Cries for Queensland in Cyclonic Floods
When Anna Bligh was 14, she was the only girl at Star of The Sea Convent school whose parents didn’t live together, after her mother left her alcoholic husband.
“It was a very difficult and courageous thing for a Catholic woman to do,” the Queensland, Australia, premier said of her mother, Frances, who was ostracized by the Roman Catholic Church. “I have taken on a lot of inspiration from her.”
The inspiration has helped forge a resilience that Bligh, 50, is tapping to help lead Australia’s northeastern state through recovery from a cyclone and floods that killed at least 36 people, destroyed crops and closed mines in a disaster area the size of Egypt. Bligh’s success will help determine whether her Australian Labor Party will be able to win a record sixth term in elections that must be held before June 2012.
“She was knee deep in mud, she cried at press conferences, she has touched every Queenslander through grief and loss,” Jodi Tainton, a sales manager for New York-based drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., said as she moved rocks while cleaning up her apartment block in Brisbane, the state capital. “I’ve never voted Labor before, but because of what she has done, I will next year.”
Bligh’s performance has revived her popularity, which sank when she sold off A$15 billion ($15.1 billion) in state assets, including coal-train operator QR National Ltd., after Moody’s Investors Service lowered the state’s credit rating to Aa1 from Aaa in May 2009. The downgrade came two months after she became Australia’s first popularly elected female state premier, when she led the Labor Party to victory after replacing party leader Peter Beattie, who retired in 2007 after nine years in power.
Support for her government dropped to 28 percent in November 2010, trailing the opposition Liberal National Party by 20 points, according to a Galaxy Research poll. While no major opinion polls have been conducted since the floods last month, former state Premier Rob Borbidge says the next election is now an even contest.
“Anna Bligh is an extremely competent politician and should not be underestimated,” said Borbidge, whose National Party is currently in opposition. “Labor had little chance of winning before but are now in with a real shot.”
Akash Reddy, an analyst at Citigroup Inc. in Sydney, said investors see Bligh as a good economic manager and demand is strong for Queensland Treasury Corp. bonds. The bonds still may underperform relative to debt sold by neighboring New South Wales as a result of the floods and the increased deficits required to fund the rebuilding, Reddy said.
QTC’s 6.25 percent bonds due in April 2016 are yielding 6.03 percent, or 9.6 basis points more than similar-maturity debt sold by New South Wales state, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That gap has widened from 6.5 basis points, or 0.065 percentage point, on Jan. 4, the prices show.
Bligh -- who earns A$273,803 a year overseeing health, education, transportation and law enforcement -- has limited power to raise revenue, so she was forced to delay a planned city railway and sell a coal terminal to help pay for repairs after the state’s worst floods on record. The government predicts the devastation will cut growth to 1.25 percent in the year ending June 30 from a previous forecast of 3 percent, leaving Bligh with limited funds to adopt new programs ahead of next year’s election.
Rebuilding Queensland, which accounts for 19 percent of Australia’s economy and spans 22 percent of its landmass, may cost as much as A$20 billion, with an estimated 28,000 dwellings and as many as 90,000 kilometers of roads needing repair. Insurance claims also must be processed, aid distributed and airports rebuilt.
Flood damage was compounded by Tropical Cyclone Yasi, which hit Feb. 3 and was stronger than Hurricane Katrina. It wiped out sugar and banana plantations and killed one person.
Bligh’s mastery of detail as the crisis unfolded won plaudits. She held press conferences every two hours until about 10 p.m. in the first few days of the floods, often dressed in jeans, a shirt and hat as she explained what she had seen herself and what authorities told her during briefings. Her hair was sometimes wet as she told people which emergency centers to go to and which roads were impassable.
Her style contrasted with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who would appear at press conferences in a dark suit and was accused by opposition leader Tony Abbott of being “wooden” and displaying no emotion. More recently, Gillard fought back tears in national parliament and clung to a muddy Australian flag on Feb. 8 as she told of a boy who drowned after insisting rescuers first take his younger brother, prompting Abbott to say she has a “decent heart.”
Bligh’s direct speech also won praise. She told Australian Broadcasting Corp. Jan. 12 that search and rescue teams entering the Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane were likely to make “gruesome finds,” and any hope families still had for loved ones probably would be ‘tragically crushed.” Seven people still were missing as of Feb. 10.
At the height of the deluge on Jan. 13, she broke down during a televised press conference.
“As we weep for what we have lost and as we grieve for family and friends and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are,” she said. “We are Queenslanders. We’re the people that they breed tough north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down and we get up again.”
Bligh “laid it bare,” said Nick Jones, 33, a human- resources manager for a national mining company in Brisbane.
“Everyone needs to realize the reality of the situation rather than have it sugar-coated,” Jones said, adding that Bligh’s performance will likely prompt him to switch his vote to her from the opposition.
“I feel like I have been tested,” and “had to find something, some courage in myself to face it,” Bligh said in a Jan. 22 interview, slumped on a bench under a frangipani tree after shoveling mud out of a damaged apartment block. “Others will judge whether I was successful or not.”
Born southwest of Brisbane in Warwick, Bligh is a descendant of HMS Bounty Captain William Bligh, whose crew mutinied in 1789 and who later was appointed governor of New South Wales. After splitting with Bligh’s father, her mother trained as a nurse and worked at night while raising Bligh and her three younger siblings.
While Bligh considered becoming a nun like one of her aunts, she said the Catholic Church’s practice of not giving communion to divorced people such as her mother led her to question the faith as a teenager.
“A lot of 14-year-old girls are very passionate about issues and protective of their mum,” she said. “I come from a line of strong women.”
Queensland at the time was run by Premier Joh Bjelke- Petersen, whose government declared a state of emergency in 1971 to prevent anti-apartheid street protests against a visiting South African rugby team. In 1977, he imposed a ban on all street marches.
Bligh, who said former South African President Nelson Mandela is her political hero, describes the first protest she attended, at age 17, as a “terrifying” experience.
“I sat on the steps of City Hall watching people getting beaten with police batons” for protesting the restrictions on demonstrations, she said.
She studied English literature and social science at Queensland University, where she met her mentor, Anne Warner, then secretary of the student union who went on to become a state minister. Bligh says she became politically involved upon graduating in 1980, after the government tightened abortion laws and she joined the Women’s Rights Collective, a pro-choice and equal-opportunity group.
Bligh worked for the next 15 years in a variety of jobs including at women’s refuge in Brisbane and a children’s program in Sydney, where she met her husband, Greg Withers, now a Queensland civil servant with whom she has two children.
Warner approached Bligh to run for parliament in 1995, when her youngest son was 14 months old. Bligh was elected that year and recalls the first two years as the harshest of her political life, with sleepless nights as she looked after a toddler and traveled three to four days a week.
“As often as it has been tough since, at a personal level that was the toughest,” she said.
Bligh held several posts before becoming Queensland’s first female education minister. In 2005, when the deputy premier unexpectedly resigned, she replaced him and also was named minister of finance and of state development and trade.
A year after she succeeded Beattie as premier in September 2007, the global financial crisis hit, reducing state revenue and prompting Standard & Poor’s to cut Queensland’s rating in February 2009 to AA+ from AAA. The following month, Bligh won the parliamentary election, and the Moody’s downgrade came two months later. The asset sale she initiated hurt her popularity, partly because she hadn’t given any indication before the vote that she might take such action.
“People have long memories about that sort of stuff,” said Stephen Walters, chief economist for Australia at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Sydney. “Economically, she seemed to be taking the right moves and was being held in higher regard, but politically her approval ratings were quite dire.”
Warner, who has known Bligh for more than 30 years, says she’s dealt with far worse adversity.
“During her time as premier, she’s had almost everything thrown at her and she’s stuck it out,” Warner said. “She’s not one to sit around and examine her navel. Anna’s always said, ‘Let’s get on with it.’”