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No-bullshit Bligh sets a new standard for politicians
by David Penberthy

04 Feb
Anyone who works in corporate communications or PR will be familiar with the famous Tylenol case in the 1980s, when Johnson and Johnson immediately withdrew all its products and reinvented its packaging after a deranged extortionist killed seven people by lacing the painkiller with cyanide.

In years to come, Anna Bligh’s management of the Queensland flood and cyclone crisis will stand as a comparable case study in how political leaders should best handle a natural disaster.

In the past two weeks, and particularly this week, Bligh has created a new template for political communication. It’s been based around honesty, decisiveness and plain speech. It’s been based around saying what government can do, and what it cannot do.

And it comes at a time in the political cycle when the public is more cynical than ever, fed up with glib sloganeering, message management, one-liners which have been tested on focus groups, politicians who won’t go near a podium unless they’ve got their press secretary standing alongside like one of those nodding puppies you put on the dashboard of your car.

Bligh’s handling of the crisis in policy terms has not been without flaw. In the initial stages of the flood crisis she was wavering as to whether any sort of inquiry was needed, particularly into the key issue of whether the water levels in the Wivenhoe Dam had been properly managed to avoid the subsequent deluge. She relented on the inquiry somewhat belatedly, but has at least now done so, giving it full royal commission powers with the promise that it will also report well before her government seeks re-election.

That issue aside, if politics is in large part about communication, Bligh’s performance has been hard to fault. She has had a few detractors who have regarded her as an opportunist or a media hog. It’s mildly audacious that she managed to get away with christening the flood appeal in her own name – Queensland Flood Appeal would seem to cover it, without the addition of the vain prefix “Premier’s”.

Journalist Miranda Devine wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that as a Premier, Bligh made a pretty good newsreader, and immediately received a predictable torrent of foul abuse from her knee-jerk critics.

If it was Devine’s intention to rubbish Bligh, I’d argue that she inadvertently paid her a compliment. Newsreaders, or rather the producers who work with them, are in the business of taking events which are complex and overwhelming and making them meaningful and comprehensible for a mass audience. This is what Bligh has done, especially this week.

There were two moments that stood out on Wednesday when Bligh was holding press conferences every hour from dawn until midnight, and they came late in the day when things were about to get really bad.

The first was her crisp explanation of how the cyclone had slowed down, and what it would mean for the communities in the firing line (less risk of sea surges, greater risk of damage from the air as it spent longer hovering over cities and towns).

The second was her refreshingly blunt response to media questioning about the fact that six elderly people in Innisfail were stranded, having failed to heed the warnings, and had telephoned emergency services wanting to be rescued.

“These are not conditions in which we can send out emergency workers,” Bligh said. “These are not conditions where you can put up a helicopter to do a winch rescue. All of that is now beyond the realm of possibility.”

Judging from the public feedback, there has obviously been something in Bligh’s demeanour which made a lot of people feel reassured. The information which she and the police and emergency chiefs provided was vital. Cynics might say it was about getting her head on the telly. A more fair-minded person might concede that the never-ending coverage, and the utter seriousness with which Wednesday night’s tempest was treated, had the effect of forcing people into action and saving their lives.

Better that than former Victorian police chief Christine Nixon getting the nosebag on at a swish restaurant as her state was engulfed in flames. Better that than George W Bush somehow forgetting to visit New Orleans when more than 1800 had been killed by Hurricane Katrina.

There was never a moment where Bligh sounded like she was remembering a line, or saying something which was designed to be that night’s 30-second grab. She just stood there in her jeans and blouse and talked for about 10 hours, and got up yesterday to the incredibly happy news that not one life had been lost, and started doing it all over again.

You can’t overestimate the gulf between her performance and that of other politicians. Having invited discussion of her own fraudulence with the daft real-fake Julia distinction during the election campaign, the PM has left a lot of people cold this past few weeks. And right now, Tony Abbott is being pilloried for the shameful and rank conduct of his party, in using a direct email to supporters to solicit funds not for the flood and cyclone victims, but for the Liberal Party so it can run a well-funded campaign against a flood levy. A flood levy which, after this week, more Australians might be inclined to support.

The Queensland election is a way off still, a lot could happen in the next 12 months, and it may emerge that issues such as the aforementioned Wivenhoe Dam ultimately reflect poorly on Bligh’s administration. There’s no guarantee that the goodwill she’s garnered this past two weeks will be converted into support at the ballot box.

If she does get punted it will be a loss to public life in Australia as she appears to be one of the few pollies going around right now who is neither addicted to spin, or driven by cynical political opportunism. Should she choose a new career in corporate communications and crisis management, she can name her price, and I reckon most Australians wouldn’t begrudge her a cent of it.

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