Bligh: a legacy of promise unfulfilled

Anna Bligh appears soon to be but a fading memory in the continuum of the Australian political landscape. Her tenure as Premier of the Sunshine State has left most Queenslanders underwhelmed and there is a clear mood in the electorate that they just want to pass judgment and get on with the next political roadshow. The opinion polls clearly demonstrate that even many Labor voters feel their own administration has run out of steam after nearly two decades in office.

It is salutary to consider why Bligh finds herself so alienated from the electorate given the goodwill she enjoyed at the start of her term. Perhaps it all seemed too easy from the beginning. She inherited the job before the Labor brand had become so tarnished nationally and enjoyed the advantage of a Labor machine that is one of the most cashed-up in the nation with a reputation as arguably the toughest campaigning outfit around.

Bligh was regarded as a pleasant, intelligent and capable leader who would provide a refreshing contrast to the political trickery that characterised her predecessor, Peter Beattie. To all intents and purposes she had what it took to make good. Yet it began to unravel very quickly.

Her moral imperative in seeking the premiership – to leave the state in a better condition than she inherited it – has been a manifest failure. Just a few weeks out from the 2012 election campaign, Bligh appears entirely unable to offer any attempt at a narrative outlining her administration’s successes. Indeed, so busy is she stamping out ever more brushfires and defending a never-ending stream of Ministerial and Parliamentary resignations from within her own team that there appears not enough hours in the day to rise to the challenge. The default position is simply to question the capability of her opponents. This may be pertinent but does nothing to suggest another term in office is appropriate for the incumbent.

The Bligh legacy will be irredeemably tainted by a perceived massive lie (no sale of public assets); utter incompetence (Queensland Health payroll debacle); idiotic strategic positioning (Towards Q2); no friends in politics (predecessor Peter Beattie); nepotism (cushy job for hubby in Premier’s Department); lacklustre team (space precludes a full list of Ministerial incompetence but think of those in gaol, retired, dismissed, and otherwise unable to amount to a string of beans).

Not a pretty picture.

But there was one interlude when a majority of her constituents felt she should be Premier.

That was during the massive Brisbane/Queensland floods of January 2011.

Bligh proved to be a star on television bulletins as she personally masterminded the government’s public response to a disaster. It was a performance that all and sundry rated as genuine, sincere and in perfect pitch with the electorate’s patent need for reassurance.

Which begs the question: if she was that good then, what the hell happened to her for the rest of her reign?

The answer is sadly simple. In that blink-of-an-eyelid period, Bligh did her own thing.

There was no time between running from one disaster management meeting to another interspersed with constant video news commitments to be shackled by advisers, party hacks and spin doctors.

Bligh was Bligh. And Queenslanders loved it.

Of course, disasters have a limited timeframe and the scenario in which Bligh shone was short-lived. The resurgence of public empathy with their leader proved to be a dead cat bounce in the opinion polls once things got back to normal.

Old habits refused to die as the Labor modus operandi ground on: spin anything but a screw-up as a great success; never apologise for an inadequacy or failure; criticise your opponents relentlessly and in the most caustic terms; ignore the need to articulate a vision because you believe you own the mantle of natural party of government; and genuinely believe you always know best and have no possible need to explain why.

Labor’s failure to reinvent itself is the product of both arrogance and tiredness. An election is a popularity contest and failing to offer voters anything new or exciting is suicidal. It is as if it has all become too hard. The Bligh legacy will be forever tainted by a lengthy record of poor administration and lack of connection to the electorate. Almost certainly her fate is cast already and she simply has to suffer the ignominy.

But to be fair, it is worth recalling that brief, shining moment of her transcendence during the floods and understand that – but for the foibles of modern political gamesmanship and the pathetic messaging that sacrifices basic human sensitivities on the altar of party political preferment –  Bligh might just have had what it takes. We will never know. Nor might she.

But what happens from here is worth noting. If Queensland Labor falls off the edge of the electoral cliff how will the machine men, the backroom boys and the hairy-chested apparatchiks portray the loss? You can bet that in true presidential-style, blame will be apportioned to the leader. They will attempt to protect the brand and sacrifice the memory of their former ‘best mate’. The Premier is dead, long live the party.

Bligh may well have blatantly failed her mandate but the blame game by the Labor remnants will be self-serving and shameless underlining the bedrock maxim that politics is not a pleasant pastime.