Anna Bligh has tapped into the frontier state’s exceptionalist mindset.
AT the height of the catastrophic floods that last month engulfed much of Queensland, including Brisbane, Labor Premier Anna Bligh begged the state’s citizens to “remember who we are”.
In rhetoric reminiscent of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Peter Beattie and other long-serving premiers, Labor and conservative alike, Bligh’s answer to the conundrum of how to be optimistic and survive this natural disaster was crystal clear. We are, she said, lips aquiver, “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.”
Similar patriotic, even jingoist, sentiments are expressed each year during the State of Origin rugby league series between Queensland and NSW, when the cry “Queenslander!” resounds from Suncorp Stadium, or Lang Park, as locals still prefer to call it. That stadium, too, suffered inundation recently but it also stands as a symbol of the Queensland spirit embodied by the Maroons, its rugby league team. Many television commentators and reporters have done their stand-ups beside the statue of league great Wally Lewis, dubbed the Emperor of Lang Park. The statue survived the flood: a good omen, according to the pundits, that all will soon be well.
Bligh’s main metaphor, expressed at her sombre but stirring press conferences, evokes partisan State of Origin passions: a powerful yet simple division of them and us. Or, more subliminally, them — the aliens from, in particular, the southern states — as against us, dyed-in-the-wool Queenslanders.
Then, following her largely controlled yet emotionally appealing response to such a large-scale catastrophe, the Warwick-born and Queensland-educated Bligh said something of which Bjelke-Petersen and populist Pete would be proud. Evoking the deeply held notion of Queensland as the frontier state, and of Queenslanders as brave and bold frontiersmen and women fighting against the odds, Bligh in a very human touch announced: “This weather may break our hearts, but not our will.”
Bligh’s imagery tapped into deeply held folk memories of other Queensland floods. Thus all the Premier needed to do, once or twice, was to articulate the fact that the January floods were rivalled only by the Australia Day weekend deluge in Brisbane in 1974, which itself evoked vestigial memories of the two great, and even more deeply destructive, floods of February 1893 that, among other damage, washed away Brisbane’s Victoria Bridge.
In the Bible, the Talmud and the Koran, central to the story of the flood is the notion that it was only the God-fearing Noah who could negotiate the great deluge and thus save, for the world, humanity and all the animals. Similarly, the telegenic Queensland premier’s key statements about last month’s deluge implied some sort of unconscious notion of Bligh (whose forebears include William Bligh of mutiny on the Bounty and Rum Rebellion fame) and Queenslanders as the chosen people who can struggle against the odds and come out alive and somehow land on top. On a metaphorical Mt Ararat, as it were.
There seems no doubt that, in some important respects, Queensland is different from other states, with the possible exception of Western Australia. Queensland is by far the most decentralised mainland state. Its economy is built on agriculture and, like WA, on mining. To this is connected the fact that manufacturing in Queensland is much less important than in all southern states and that the professional class is much less important than in Melbourne, Sydney or Adelaide. Many Queenslanders are so remote from Brisbane, situated in the far southeast of the state, that they can’t relate to it as their capital at all. Also, until relatively recently, Queenslanders were less well educated than their southern counterparts.
What is it about the inhabitants of the sunshine state that, for a week in December 1899, they led the way in reforming politics by electing the world’s first Labor government, headed by Anderson Dawson from the dual electorate of Charters Towers? And that they elected, and re-elected, Australia’s only communist member of parliament, Fred Paterson, who was the state member for Bowen from 1944 until his seat was redistributed out of existence in 1950, and who, on St Patrick’s Day 1948, was bashed senseless by a plainclothes Queensland policeman, most likely on the direct orders of the autocratic, long-serving Labor premier E.G. (“Ned”) Hanlon. Plus the fact that in 1922, Labor premier and later federal treasurer, E.G. (“Red Ted”) Theodore managed to persuade a “suicide club” of 12 male members he appointed to the upper house to vote for the abolition of their Legislative Council and thus make Queensland the only mainland state with a unicameral parliament.
But those who want to argue that in 2011 Queenslanders are substantially different have to grapple with some unpalatable facts. Perhaps most important is the huge internal migration to Queensland. This means that up to one-third of citizens on the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane have moved from Victoria and NSW. And they bring with them their own sets of ideas and attitudes, only some of which may blend into those of born-and-bred Queenslanders.
Until the overthrow of Kevin Rudd by the then darling of the Victorian Left, Julia Gillard, some commentators argued that Queensland was the new centre of political gravity in Australia. Indeed, in spring 2008 a whole issue of the ‘Griffith Review’ was dedicated to this rather grandiose claim. It was largely predicated on the fact that the prime minister (Rudd), the federal Treasurer (Wayne Swan) and the Governor-General (Quentin Bryce) all hailed from Queensland. But since Gillard’s coup the political axis has markedly changed, with much of the fulcrum perhaps now situated in Victoria.
Just like the once prevalent myth that Australia was a land of virile and egalitarian bushmen who supported the underdog (when, in fact, women comprise more than 50 per cent of our population, most of us live on the urban eastern seaboard, and the gap between rich and poor has never been more marked), so too the notion that Queenslanders are fundamentally different contains much more myth than reality.
Yet it wasn’t so long ago that Bjelke-Petersen headed overseas on a trip to “sell Queensland” in which he and his very capable Liberal deputy premier, Llew Edwards, made it clear that first and foremost they were Queenslanders rather than Australians. The same applied to the gargantuan “minister for everything”, Russ Hinze, who had once boasted, “Let me draw the boundaries, Joh, and we’ll be in power forever!”
As the deeply flawed but passionately Queensland-centric Bjelke-Petersen so often said, not just to Queenslanders, but to Labor premiers and to Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam in particular: “Don’t you worry about that!”
And even though the Bjelke-Petersen regime has long gone, largely as a result of Tony Fitzgerald’s powerful inquiry into police and governmental corruption, politically at least, in our federated form of government, until the not so distant past senior Queensland politicians thought that there still remained some mileage in running a “Queensland for Queenslanders” and a Queensland v Canberra line. But since Labor has been in government federally, this hasn’t had anywhere near as much cachet for Labor premiers in Queensland as it used to for the New Zealand-born Bjelke-Petersen and his conservative forebears, including Country Party premier “Honest” Frank Nicklin.
As for Bligh, she’d probably be horrified by comparisons with infamous Country-National Party figures of the corrupt and authoritarian past. However, if not in public, she may nevertheless have been a closet admirer of their passion for the Sunshine State and for all things Queensland. Right now, she is rallying Queenslanders the way Bjelke-Petersen did when he regularly fed the chooks, and the way the hugely successful and media savvy Beattie did immediately before he handed Bligh the Queensland premiership on a platter.
And it’s doing Bligh no harm. Almost all commentators and the general public agree that she has been an outstanding leader at a time of monumental crisis. With Julia Gillard’s performances during the floods coming a long second to Bligh, many tweets have called for her to become the next prime minister and almost everyone in the nation has been inspired and moved by her defiance and compassion in the face of adversity. She has fought back tears to declare that Queenslanders may be down but not out and, in the process, radically turned around her personal popularity rating which, immediately before the floods, stood at 28 per cent and was significantly lower than that of Opposition Leader John Paul Langbroek, who has been all but invisible during the flood crisis.
Thus, although Bligh may not have definitely saved the good ship Labor for next year’s state election, her resolutely Queensland-centric approach has certainly ensured that there will be no challenge to her leadership, which was the talk around Brisbane’s George Street immediately before the floods.
Perversely, at least as far as the Premier’s parliamentary career is concerned, this colossal and continuing human and fiscal-economic crisis has proved to be a godsend.
Bligh’s consistently first-rate performance during the great deluge may have been politically astute, although it seems clear that there was, and is, little or no contrivance involved. It has been a positively Churchillian stand, coming straight from her heart and head, unmediated by spin doctors or party political media monitors. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman.
As a 21st-century, Queensland-based Boadicea, Bligh has tapped into the fundamental myth, however wrongly based in fact, that Queenslanders are a breed apart, a far-flung tribe that can reclaim the promised land despite all and any adversity. This is a mythology various peoples have developed over the ages to reassure and inspire themselves. Its stirring stuff and can also be claimed to exhibit the spirit of the Aussie battler, the Anzac ethos, the spirit that supposedly embodies the best of us all.
It’s our modern myth. And right now, in the vast state of Queensland, in what was previously a politically divided state, the citizens far and wide are united in their belief that, with enough grit and determination, they can overcome catastrophic natural disasters and any other adversities.
For now, we can sympathise with Queensland and Queenslanders and lend moral support to their visionary self-belief. In the future, psychologists and philosophers will see the events of January 2011 as a case study of humans in extremis and how they can survive catastrophes. Who knows to what use we may have to put this knowledge in the brave new world of the 21st century?
The Australian Literary Review, Wednesday February 2, 2011