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Gillard, Bligh and leadership in a crisis


Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has won grudging respect from TV reporters and newspaper columnists for how she led Queensland's response to the floods.

She has been visible and accessible, making sense out of chaos in regular media conferences. She brilliantly mastered her detailed briefings and could explain, reliably, what was happening at grass roots level and in the currents to come. She was even, once or twice, appropriately emotional.

Better than Christine Nixon during the Victorian firestorm, said some. Better than Julia Gillard, said others, unfairly in my view, and here's why. Put simply: it wasn't Gillard's gig. It wasn't her role to 'lead' a uniquely Queensland fight-back.

(Continues below)

I am bloody tired of journalists comparing one woman against another, as if there were a competition to find the 'real' woman leader, a winner and losers. That isn't how women tend to use power: it can be shared, and used for the common good. We saw them doing it, and didn't get it.

It is not easy for Commonwealth and State leaders to share power. We needed a written constitution to make federation even possible. Even now, Australia is a relatively short-lived nest of feisty, autonomous nation-states, among whom the balance of power is not only elastic but a little sticky.

Queenslanders have a view of themselves that is at once annoyingly parochial and powerfully positive when necessary. At crisis, people clamour for authoritative parenting. When we feel the fragility of order, we want and need leaders. And leaders come. But we have to feel they are one of us.

Real leaders don't plan to be there when levees split or planes hit a tower. They act because they are there, and can exercise judgment.

They're not usually the men and women who make excellent policies and plans in more placid times, though we need them too: Brisbane, for example, was not flooded by sewage as well as the river because a project team put sewage controls well above 1974 flood levels, finishing this a month before Brisbane swam.

Nor are such leaders usually those who found office through the ordinary cut, thrusts and betrayals of daily political struggle. The greatest leader in time of war is not usually the one who assiduously sought power through the manipulation and approval of their peers, but the one who is animated by the demands of the hour; who has the means of influencing the outcome, and is decisive.

Wartime great Winston Churchill had been a tipsy, narcissistic political failure until Hitler warred on England. Only then did sly intelligence and opportunism allow him to become the wartime hero to a resilient and adaptive people.

Queensland's flood pain was Queensland's alone, until the rest of the country heard its voice. Bligh was a visual symbol: utilitarian shirt-sleeves, casual hair drifting across an animated face, spontaneous, and clearly across every detail of what was happening. This was reminiscent of Gillard on her feet in Parliament when she was deputy PM, roasting the opposition over a slow fire, or standing up for women's rights at work.

Bligh showed leadership, exuding authority, not charisma. She behaved like a monarch; an ennobling, arbitrary, tender and organically human institution.

When Elizabeth I was confronted by an apparently unstoppable Spanish Armada, she rode down to the cliffs of Dover and into a plot for her murder, and told her soldiers, and all of her people, that though she had the weak and feeble body of a woman, she had the heart and stomach of a king.

In modern times we give spontaneous affection, not loyalty, to a monarch, because she is there, the bearer of our dignity, the embodiment of the people as we wish to be and even, perhaps, a kind of mascot.

At such times, a monarch has no political vision because she does not have any interest in manufacturing or selling illusion, which is an ordinary politician's business, but instead has a sense of urgency and purpose. In a time of crisis, a queen is order, empowerment, cooperation and an enforced equality.

I would think of Bligh's press conferences in terms of the film The King's Speech: and as a career highlight in which neither Botox nor sound bites played a part. It was all human weakness and pluck.

The King's Speech is less fact than a fable about a relatively ordinary man who did not want the throne yet felt both duty-bound and completely unfit for it: a man who learned, through the exchange of love, encouragement and endurance, the confidence to do and say the right thing at the right time.

We thank God now both that his Nazi-sympathising brother, Edward VIII, was not king at the time of war, and that 'Bertie' King George VI had no real power at all, for doing was not his forte. George VI was 'authority' and earned it by pursuing a worthwhile purpose, exercising judgment, and making sound decisions when the outcome was most uncertain.

This kind of authority requires more than looking good on television or manufacturing well-scripted sound bites, which are part of a different kind of political life. A good leader of the former kind is for the moment, but not necessarily for the whole journey. Britain needed a Churchill in war, but politicians with a different kind of guts for the reconstruction

So, let us praise Bligh, but not at the cost of Gillard, who was in a different role, which does not particularly suit her. Remember and observe how Gillard had to stand back, and that she is still struggling to be both prime ministerial and an unscripted, natural leader.

Crises bring out the best, and sometimes the worst, in our elected leaders (Menzies, for example, in war-time was a drip). Gillard hasn't really had one (other than the last election).

One swallow does not a summer make. As Churchill famously said: 'Wait, and see.'

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates. 

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Julia Gillard, Anna Bligh, Christine Nixon, Brisbane floods



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Existing comments

Moira's article makes some very valid points and her reference to Anna Bligh's role in terms of The King's Speech is appropriate.

However, I think that it is also fair to say that Julia Gillard's television image was seriously damaged by the way in which she portrayed herself at the last election. That in turn was significantly influenced by the way she first assumed the position of Prime Minister and, sadly, the way politics is now played out in Australia. I believe she has some serious work to do to restore her credibility as somebody who is really her own person. I think that is at least part of the reason why comparisons are being made between the 2 women's respective performances.

brendan a. mccarthy | 18 January 2011  

Get over it, Brendan. Is Julia the only politician you can name who has 'credibility' issues in regard to their ascent to power?

It takes greater innner strength to stand back and allow someone else to have centre stage than to assume the limelight oneself, grasping at every opportunity to score political points. The integrity of Gillard's leadership was demonstrated precisely in allowing Bligh to be the woman of the hour.

Pirrial Clift | 18 January 2011  

Always reasoned and reflective
Thank you Moira
Felt both women came up to the mark is this crisis as did Campbell Newman
Each had an understanding of the need to communicate and did just that soo well.
For one who rarely worries about dress I have a constant irritation with Gillard's clothes
Could someone advise her about simplicity of design and colour with a few funky accessories
Her suits are often a huge distraction from her message
Bligh gets it right clotheswise and one can just listen and hear.
While this may appear odd it is rarely a distraction with our male colleagues......their dress is simple .

GAJ | 18 January 2011  

I heartily agree with Moira Rayner's comments regarding the comparisons between Anna Bligh and Julia Gillard. I have emailed the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald stating my objections to the cartoon by Alan Moir (whom I greatly admire) in the paper 14 Jan 2011 showing a very large Anna Bligh and a very diminished Julia. My comments have been reflected by letters in said paper. Various articles in the paper Weekend Ed. 15-16 Jan 2011 make references such as "the woman with red hair with little to do at the Press conference" (Damien Murphy) and "she seems locked in a Canberra-speak that is almost impenetrable etc" (David Humphries.)

Julia Gillard has organised funding, defence force help as well as providing moral support.Quite properly she has stepped back and enabled Anna Bligh to do a great job. There is the continual snipes from the journos re the budget balance, remarks about her "coiffed hair" and wooden attitude. She is in a "no-win"situation

Dierdre Newton | 18 January 2011  

Thank you Moira for putting into print what I've been thinking. Comparisons are odious and have more to say about those who indulge in them. Both leaders have have played their part. But where's the story if you can't make judgements! Sadly we live in a society that is quick to judge and it never matters whether the full facts are known or not. Everyone is an expert these days -just listen to talk-back radio if you don't believe me.

Tony Duncan | 18 January 2011  

Ms Rayner's article was necessary, I suppose, because the media raised the Blight v Gillard leadership (and beauty?) contest. It seems to me the phoney competition highlighted how badly served Australia is by its political commentators, with a few exceptions, in the mass media. Issues, including one dealing with a natural disaster, are reduced to the level of a sporting competition, even to the level of a boxing match. How much easier it is for the commentators if it is one captain/leader/representative against another than if it were one team/political party/atate against another.

Thank you Eureka Street for publishing the opinions of commentators such as Ms Raynor who expose the vacuity of much that passes for political commentary in the mass media in Australia.

Uncle Pat | 18 January 2011  

Moira has done a good job again. Bligh is fantastic - the leadership is real and the emotion genuine. The general public can recognise the shallowness of the media commentators Just an aside - Moira, I thought that Sand Gropers were more parochial than Banana Benders

nick | 18 January 2011  

Hooray for Rayner in her fair comments of Julia Gillard Don't compare the two leaders each shows great compassion and are just different personalties

maureen Stewart | 18 January 2011  

Bravo Moira Rayner. Susan Prior - please read Ms Rayner's article carefully and with thought. The media was disgraceful in its comparing Ms Gillard with Premier Bligh for unwarranted politicalisation.

Helen Martin | 18 January 2011  

It goes without saying that at this appalling time of crisis Australia is remarkably fortunate in the quality of leadership and compassion displayed by the Prime Minister and the Premiers of NSW and Queensland. It is disappointing but predictable that journalists, to make a headline and a story,have chosen to make odious comparisons between the ways each leader reacts to these tragic and devastating circumstances. It is a fact of life that each of us, when faced with such a desperate situation, will react in her/his own way and it is not for others, least of all clever journalists, to pass judgement on how it is done. Such behaviour is neither fair nor helpful.

David | 18 January 2011  

A great article Moira! Straight to the point. Both have different roles and personalities. In my view both showed leadership relevant to their role and personality. Thanks for providing articulate and just comments to share with mis -informed "Julia" detractors.

Yvonne Harte | 18 January 2011  

Disappointed that you chose to run only pro Moira viewpoints. In a word...lopsided!

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 18 January 2011  

Re Brian Hall's comment that "you chose to run only pro Moira viewpoints. In a word...lopsided". 'Eureka Street' regularly publishes comments that both support and disagree with articles from its various contributors. Is there any evidence suggesting that editorial policy has dictated Moira Rayner's article be treated any differently? Perhaps there are no dissenters!

Patricia Russell | 18 January 2011  

Julia is Gillard is not our leader. She is yet to be elected by a clean majority vote by the people of this country. She speaks with no believable empathy for any group within any electorate.She coldly denies committed gay couples the right to legal recognition of their commitment, and has no empathy for the married. The way in which she conducted her power grab - from coup to bizarre election strategy - was imbued with patronising disdain towards the Australian people. Anna Bligh's humanity resonates, naturally, with all of us. So does that of another graceful Queensland leader, Quentin Bryce, who, despite her elitist background, holds and has acted upon firm-held values. We can identify with Bligh and Bryce, because they, on some demonstrable level, identify with us. Who does Julia Gillard stand for?

Jane Waller | 18 January 2011  

I am not aware of any commentator criticising Julia Gillard for appearing with Anna Bligh, but her appearances have further revealed her inadequacies as a leader. Women like any political leaders should be open to criticism including the one who ran the highly cynical Phoney Tony campaign. Surely it was Anna Bligh who shared power with Julia. The relief operation was the Premier's responsibility and Julia Gillard was able to maximise her media exposure by accepting Anna Bligh's offer. Another bad decision by the PM's media minders that has further exposed her weaknesses.

Peter | 19 January 2011  

Thanks Moira Rayner, you put it better than me.

Mary Long | 20 January 2011  

Absolutely brilliantly put, Moira, my thoughts exactly!! I think you have articulated brillantly what the essence of leadership is.

I would also like to say that I get pretty irritated about the appalling double standards in the media in relation to women in positions of authority and power!

David Redfearn | 21 January 2011  

Good on you Moira. Quite apart from the boringly predictable woman against woman media hype, generally, it seems to me that many in the community have no idea about the rights and responsibilities of State versus Federal governments. It's a pity the media seems incapable or unwilling to take up its task to educate and inform, rather than obfuscate for the sake of a 'good story'!

Carmel Bull | 21 January 2011  

You've gotta laugh.

First of all, when Christine Nixon is "crucified", it's because she's a woman. Then when conservatives (inter alia) praise Anna Bligh and compare the QLD Premier favourably to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, it's sexism because ... we shouldn't be comparing one woman with another!!

Of course the narrative is pure spin. Conservatives (again, inter alia) have without hesitation pointed out that both Anna Bligh AND another highly relevant states "person", the Lord Mayor of Brisbane Campbell Newman, equally deserve praise for their in-crisis performances.

But that doesn't count in this game. You see, Campbell Newman is a MAN.

Oh, and does he happen to be CONSERVATIVE, too?

HH | 22 January 2011  

Moira Rayner, this is a brilliant article! And beautifully written. I did university history and pol science in the 1980s, and my passion for war history continues. Your references to QE1, Churchill and KGV1 are spot on. I thought the courage, strength and humility of KGV1, ( my favorite because he was also a loving husband and father ) which came to the fore as one when confronted with unprecedented danger, were incredible leadership traits. An amazing man. QE11, despite reigning in a very different age, modeled herself on him. She is a gutsy, sensible, humble person. A true leader.

Bligh and Gillard, as a team are expressing these characteristics very well. I just wish Tony Abbott would either shut up, or make some positive input. He does not have leadership skills.

Lynne Redknap | 23 January 2011  

For one who rarely worries about dress
considering what follows, ie
I have a constant irritation with Gillard's clothes
was this meant as a joke?

could someone advise?

senderzen | 15 February 2011  

brilliant article thank you.

irena mangone | 17 February 2011  

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