“I think it’s important that when people have had a chance to be a leader on the public stage they know when to leave the stage, and I think that time has come for me. Like any citizen I’m going to have views on things but I don’t want to be drawn on issues that are currently in play in party politics.”
Anna Bligh and I had very different conceptions of how our conversation was going to play out. Sure, she thought she was being interviewed for the Women’s College newsletter, but ultimately I think it came down to a simple case of mismatched intentions. I had prepared questions about her take on the resignation of NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and the reconstruction of Queensland Labor, but was snubbed – it’s not her responsibility anymore, or so she says.
Instead, with a very cautious certitude, she walked me through her life and lengthy CV, paying particular attention to her humble political beginnings, her philanthropies since leaving office, and her health – a subject which unfortunately has tainted her career post-politics.
In early 2013, at 52 years old, Bligh announced that she had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. When we spoke – a few weeks ago – she had almost entirely recuperated, but told me that the cancer had slowed her down and forced her to re-evaluate how she might want to spend her remaining years on what she jokingly termed “this mortal coil”.
With a career as extensive and eventful as Anna Bligh’s, slowing down isn’t entirely unexpected, but she assured me that her working life was a long way from over, speaking in depth about her recent appointment as CEO of the NSW Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).
One of the older charities in the country, the YWCA provides services to disadvantaged and vulnerable women, children, and young people and their families. “This is an organisation that makes genuine differences in people’s lives,” Bligh said. “It has a long history, a great legacy, and I’m very excited to lead it.”
Despite its title, Bligh explained that the YWCA was a secular organisation and her involvement is based on “very human” – meaning irreligious – charitable instincts. In fact, Bligh had long ago done away with religion, reportedly leaving the Catholic Church when her mother was told she could no longer receive Holy Communion after her divorce. She had little to say on her personal faith, but spoke highly of the YWCA, which she seemed to think was going to be the focus of our discussion.
A former social worker and education minister, working with youth has been a cornerstone of Bligh’s career. And, unsurprisingly, she was impassioned by discussions of her own coming-of-age. She fondly remembered the University of Queensland and the moments that inspired her immersion into politics, emphasising her first year, when she was involved in mass protests against National Party legislation attempting to remove the right to march statewide.
It often takes sustained periods of political debauchery in government to unearth one’s own political calling, and, for a young Anna Bligh, years of hardnosed conservatism and institutional corruption under Bjelke-Petersen’s National government did just that. Bligh said she stood proudly against the authoritarian reign of Bjelke-Petersen and later became involved with student politics on campus, where she would spend two years on the Students’ Representative Council. She also served a stint as Women’s Vice-President of the Student Union, though did not join the Labor party until after university, “some time in the early 1980s”.
“[University] gave me an opportunity to understand how human beings can affect change all around them,” she said. “How they can come together in pretty structured organisations like the student union and make the campus a better place for young people, while facilitating the voice of young people in a much broader political debate.”
Years later, Bligh became a key spokeswoman in that very debate, spending 15 years with what she proudly considered a “very progressive, reforming Labor government”. In 2007 she succeeded Peter Beattie as leader of the ALP, becoming Australia’s third female Premier. And in 2009 Bligh would retain her premiership with a close election victory, making her the first female Premier of any Australian state to be elected in her own right.
However, the final years of Bligh’s career were characterised by disaster, both natural and otherwise. She described the catastrophic 2011 floods as one of the biggest “tests” in her career, explaining in depth how “every river system south of the tropic of Capricorn flooded, with 12 of them reaching levels that have never been recorded”. The period was frantic, “demanding constant decision-making” and supposedly leaving little time for self-reflection. Yet, Bligh was deemed something of a shining light amidst the shroud of devastation and loss that covered the state, even giving the struggling Labor party a glimmer of hope in Queensland.
But soon after, Bligh was faced with a different sort of disaster: a historic landslide. In the 2012 Queensland state election the ALP found themselves on the wrong end of a 15 per cent swing. As was widely publicised, the swing was largely a result of the sale of state assets in 2009, a decision harshly criticised by economists and the public alike and coming off the back of Bligh’s contradictory campaign promises. Speaking defensively, Bligh conceded very little on the matter, insisting the issue was ultimately to do with communication and she did what was necessary at the time.
“I think people often forget the perilous financial circumstances that the world teetered on in 2009. It was a time when we did not know when the bottom of the financial crisis would be, and state governments and corporations were seeing their credit ratings cut. These were extreme financial times…but in the end, Queensland and Australia survived, but not without making some pretty tough decisions.”
Tough decisions seemed to be part and parcel of Bligh’s political career, which also included a term as the National President of the ALP. Speaking in that federal leadership capacity in the wake of a procedural disaster at Easter Island, she once called for a complete review of the government’s policy on asylum seekers. Cynically, I asked what she made of the development of asylum policy since then, but this time I was met with a slightly more riled tenor and an immediate rebuff.
And that was the general tone of our awkward conversation. Bligh spoke with all the style and rhetoric of a politician but without the proud ideology. It was a strange experience.
Although Bligh disagrees, I don’t think the buck stops with the title and the paycheck. Changing careers is one thing, but a former Premier too cautious to venture into “party politics” is another. Now, when genuine progressive voices are being increasingly drowned out by a government not unlike the conservative, despotic regime Anna Bligh once proudly fought, it’s as good a time as any to voice dissent.