Anna Bligh: The floods moment I thought I failed

It was the supreme test of leadership - to swallow your own fears at the height of a crisis and issue a rallying cry to spur people on to overcome the challenge - and Anna Bligh felt she had failed her test.

History tells another story.

History shows that on January 12, 2011, the then Queensland premier came through magnificently, delivering what is now acknowledged as one of the more famous speeches by a 21st Century Australian politician.

Anna Bligh now says she can appreciate her contribution to preparing Queensland psychologically as the 2011 floods hit. Main: Brisbane during the floods. Inset right: Ms Bligh helping out at a flooded apartment complex in West End in 2011.
Anna Bligh now says she can appreciate her contribution to preparing Queensland psychologically as the 2011 floods hit. Main: Brisbane during the floods. Inset right: Ms Bligh helping out at a flooded apartment complex in West End in 2011.

The catastrophe of the Lockyer Valley flood of two days before, which centred on the tiny town of Grantham and which claimed a dozen lives alone, was just sinking in in the already shell shocked state of Queensland.

As much of the Ipswich suburb of Goodna went under water and a brown tide swept inexorably down the Brisbane River towards the state capital, Ms Bligh appeared almost Churchillian as she both stared down the danger, and ramped up the courage of Queenslanders.

 

"As we weep for what we have lost, and as we grieve for family and friends and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are,'' she said at that now famous press conference.

"We are Queenslanders.

"We're the people that they breed tough north of the border.

"We're the one that they knock down, and we get up again.

"I said earlier this week that this weather may break our hearts and it is doing that but it will not break our will and in the coming weeks and months we are going to prove that beyond doubt.''

Then Queensland premier Anna Bligh addresses media as Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart looks on. Ms Bligh said after the speech she felt she had failed. Picture: AAP/Glenn Hunt
Then Queensland premier Anna Bligh addresses media as Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart looks on. Ms Bligh said after the speech she felt she had failed. Picture: AAP/Glenn Hunt

 

Yet there was no sense of triumph as Ms Bligh walked away from the cameras and returned to her George Street office.

"I had this sense that I had a task to do, and I had failed,'' Ms Bligh said from Sydney where she is now chief executive officer of the Australian Banking Association.

 

Giving the speech, then Queensland premier Anna Bligh became emotional. Picture: AAP/Glenn Hunt
Giving the speech, then Queensland premier Anna Bligh became emotional. Picture: AAP/Glenn Hunt

The reason? She had briefly lost her composure, her voice breaking with the strain of the moment and her own knowledge (following an early morning chopper journey with general Mick Slater who was to head the reconstruction authority) of the sheer enormity of the damage.

Yet when she returned to the office the phones were suddenly ringing and the emails flooding in as ordinary Queenslanders tried to convey their appreciation for her stirring words.


Today Ms Bligh can reflect on the emotional backdrop to that speech and take a quiet satisfaction in the fact that she did play an admiral role in preparing the state psychologically for what was to come.

"The vista you get from a chopper is a whole lot different to the view you get from a television screen,'' she said of the early morning chopper flight.

"I just suddenly had this overwhelming sense of the enormity of what was happening.

"I was seeing things beyond the scope of the imagination.''

Then premier Anna Bligh stops to chat with Rose Wells at the Jericho Bush Nursing Centre during the floods. Picture: David Kapernick
Then premier Anna Bligh stops to chat with Rose Wells at the Jericho Bush Nursing Centre during the floods. Picture: David Kapernick

She had been up late the night before, sitting up in bed and scribbling a few notes on a piece of paper to prepare her for a speech she knew she would have to make the following day.

But after the chopper had landed the following morning the enormity of the task hit her.

"It was my sense that there were sort of higher emotions I had to reach for,'' she said.

"But it was I who got emotional.''

The premier's emotions were to be sorely tested in the months ahead as the challenge of putting the state on track top recovery presented itself.

Ms Bligh readily credits the then Opposition leader Lawrence Springborg with his ready co-operation in the creation of the Queensland Reconstruction Authority.

"We both agreed the powers (of the QRA) were extraordinary, that they in some cases over rode the rights of ordinary citizens," she said.


Yet the QRA was one of the great success stories to arise from the flood, and still exists today.

It's success in overseeing the rebuild of the state was such that the World Bank looked to Queensland as a blueprint for how to deal with natural disasters which are expected to increase in the decades ahead, at least partially as a result of global warming.

Much of the infrastructure built after the 2010/11 was far better than that which preceded it, and one of the many examples across the state is the northern approach to Rockhampton which funnels traffic over what for the past century was a giant flood plane.

"A lot of those roads were built 90 years ago and there have been dramatic improvements.''

In the broader sense, Ms Bligh sees the months and years following the foods as a positive experience, if only because it demonstrated how well Queenslanders can rebound after a catastrophe.

"It does not seem like ten years,'' she says, reflecting back on that time.

"I know this anniversary will bring back a lot of painful memories.

"But I hope that for Queenslanders and Queensland families time has helped to heal the wounds.''

BLIGH'S ADDRESS

Well, Queensland is reeling this morning from the worst natural disaster in our history and possibly in the history of our nation. As we look across Queensland and see three- quarters of our state having experienced the devastation of raging floodwaters, we now face a reconstruction task of post-war proportions. That is how we are seeing it and that is the sort of steely determination that it will require to overcome what we have seen in the last three weeks.

There are whole towns that are now unrecognisable. Unfortunately I can confirm that just this morning we have a further death to add to the toll in the valley. We have a thirteenth victim who has been found in a field near Grantham … We also have some more than 70 people now notified as missing.

But we also know that this morning, thousands of people in the southeast … have woken to the unbearable agony of their homes have been devastated and for some people it's been both their workplace and their homes, washed away … So there is a lot of grief and there is a lot of pain, not only here in the southeast but in other parts of Queensland today.


Can I say to Queenslanders everywhere: Wherever you are … if you are in central Queensland, if you're in southwest Queensland, if you're in western Queensland, if you're in the Burnett region, the Darling Downs, Toowoomba, the Lockyer Valley, Ipswich or Brisbane, all of those places have been affected by floods and I say to every one of those people in those areas and to Queenslanders in other parts of the state: as we weep for what we have lost, and as we grieve for family and friends, and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are. We are 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. I said earlier this week that this weather may break our hearts, and it is doing that, but it will not break our will and in the coming weeks and in the coming months we are going to prove that beyond any doubt. Together, we can pull through this and that's what I'm determined to do and with your help, we can achieve that.

 

Originally published as Anna Bligh: The moment I thought I failed



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