Australia floods pose a political test not all pass

While Prime Minister Gillard has been criticized for her response to the Australia floods, Queensland Premier Bligh has struck the right note of strength and emotion.

Tim Wimborne/Reuters
A boy pushes a broom across a mud-covered street after flood waters receded in the Brisbane River side suburb of Westend on Jan. 14. Australia's third-largest city began cleaning up stinking mud and debris in flood-hit areas on Friday.

The Australia floods that have submerged much of Queensland are raising the political fortune of the state's premier, Anna Bligh.

Before the Brisbane River inundated Brisbane, Australia’s third largest city, and caused up to $6 billion in damage statewide, Ms. Bligh was facing all but certain electoral defeat heading into the upcoming state election. Now, the 50-year-old has become the public face of disaster relief, outshining the country’s other leading female politician, Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Times of national calamity have long served as defining moments in political careers – think of then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani after 9/11 or Ronald Reagan in the wake of the Challenger space shuttle disaster (“They slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.”).

Likewise, many Australians feel that Bligh has struck the right note of steely determination – calmly informing the public to expect the death toll to rise – and human emotion, her voice cracking when she told a live press conference: “It [the floods] may be breaking our hearts at the moment, but it will not break our will.”

Despite Queensland being twice the size of Texas, it seems that no town or community has been small enough to slip her attention. She has confidently commanded a mass of changing information, at one point gently correcting numbers provided on the disaster by a top police official at a joint press conference. She has given the good with the bad in a no-nonsense manner, even when her own mother was being evacuated from her Brisbane home.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Gillard, criticized for appearing stiff and monotone at press conferences, is being pilloried for failing to establish any emotional connection with the nation. Major newspaper commentators and the general public have been critical. One op-ed in The Herald Sun said that it seemed she “doesn’t know what her job is." And as one blog commenter wrote, “Anna Bligh is just an amazing person. She is in touch with reality. Julie Gillard is just fake, wooden and plastic."

For a country that has only recently emerged from a painfully scripted national election, the straight-talking Bligh has emerged as a refreshing voice. The only thing that has risen quicker than the Brisbane River in recent days are the premier’s poll numbers. An online poll by The Sydney Morning Herald has her approval rating running at a whopping 83 percent, compared to 25 percent two months ago.

''Ironically, these floods, which could be as bad as the 1974 floods, as bad as 1982, could be a godsend to Anna Bligh," historian Ross Fitzgerald of Griffith University told the Morning Herald.

Now the test is whether Bligh can maintain her positive ratings as the dirty clean-up work drags into the election, due to be held before March 2012.

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