Anna, Queen of Queensland


Anna Maria Bligh grew up on the Gold Coast. As many who follow Queensland politics have observed, one of the defining events of her youth was the break up of her parents’ marriage under the strain of her father’s alcoholism. This experience is likely to have influenced her firm and early commitment to the principles of feminism and women’s rights, for which she has continued to campaign throughout her political career.

While studying social sciences at the University of Queensland, Bligh became involved in student politics, eventually becoming the Women’s Vice-President of the UQ Student Union, the organisation that has been a nursery for so many of Queensland’s ALP politicians. Here she experienced the brutality of the Bjelke-Peterson regime and learned some hard lessons in running the numbers when she took on the ALP Right faction on campus led, ironically, by the man who has now become her Deputy, Paul Lucas.

This education in politics has proved to be of long-term significance for the ALP in Queensland. Other members of her student union ticket included current Cabinet minister Rod Welford and the woman who was to become her mentor, Anne Warner. Warner, who was a Goss Cabinet minister, held the safe inner-city seat of South Brisbane (which includes the bohemian but rapidly gentrifying suburb of West End). When she retired in 1995, she handed the baton to Bligh.

Bligh’s talent quickly became apparent especially in a Beattie government well supplied with union heavies and factional power-brokers dominated by the AWU’s Godfather-like Bill Ludwig. With a commanding grasp of detail and a calm, well-prepared manner in front of the media, by 2001 she had risen to prominence as Queensland’s first female Education Minister.

Anna Bligh

In 2005, with the retirement of Beattie’s numbers man and chief political fixer, Terry Mackenroth, Bligh became the heir apparent to the throne. Beattie appointed her to a series of senior economic portfolios culminating in Treasury, and he began to appear with Bligh at his side at all press conferences.

Bligh’s record as a Cabinet minister under Beattie was sound, if unspectacular. A diligent minister with a taste for detailed briefs, she was rarely surprised by a scandal — a real accomplishment in Beattie’s accident-prone Government. As Education Minister, she introduced the important catch-up reform of a prep year to Queensland schools (typical of the Sunshine State, the reform occurred decades after southern neighbours). She also dealt well with the issue of asbestos in Queensland school buildings.

As Minister for State Development and then Treasurer, Bligh again displayed a steady hand on the tiller without distracting attention (if that were possible) from her Premier. Even The Courier-Mail, a feared organ in a one-newspaper State, could find little to quibble with, eventually sulking that Beattie had ‘shielded’ her from the media’s attention. In truth, Bligh provided a solid, even dull contrast to a flamboyant Premier who often found himself deeply embroiled in controversy.

The new administration is therefore likely to see far fewer pyrotechnics in comparison to Beattie’s ever-apologetic and constantly moving media feast. Bligh has the advantage of inheriting the soundest fundamentals of any State government, with little debt, unemployment at 3.5 per cent and an $82 billion infrastructure roll-out still working its way through the local economy.

But the State also faces some huge challenges as it struggles to cope with the rapid population growth in Queensland’s south-east corner and northern cities. Hospitals, roads and water infrastructure are all stretched to the limit and there is little room for error in the ambitious timetable for the new water grid.

As Premier, Bligh is likely to face her first test if and when Queensland’s new water infrastructure comes online late in 2008. If the south-east doesn’t get significant rain before then, Brisbane’s dams will be practically empty and the capital will face crippling water restrictions — level seven is not an impossibility.

Another real risk is another ‘Dr Death’-style hospital scandal. Queensland Health is far from reformed and the State still relies on a foreign-trained workforce of doctors and specialists to deliver health care. In a State as large and decentralised as Queensland, essential services like health are particularly expensive and difficult to deliver, and the traditional system of Base Hospitals (the root cause of the Dr Death scandal) remains under-resourced and poorly held to account.

One thing Bligh won’t need to seriously worry about is the much-trumpeted electoral effects of the local government amalgamations.

Southern conservatives who hope that these long overdue reforms will trigger a Jeff Kennett-style backlash should take a look at a population map of Queensland. The State’s largest cities, Brisbane and the Gold Coast, are not affected by the mergers and the disaffection is concentrated in safe National Party electorates. With most of the local councils slated for merger in serious financial distress, the amalgamations are sensible policy and are likely to be of little electoral significance.

In social issues, Bligh is likely to head a slightly more liberal Administration than Beattie. More support is likely for areas like innovation, education and training, social services and the arts. Bligh was a popular and highly engaged minister in her social service portfolios like youth, arts and education and training, and there is every reason to believe her core beliefs are considerably to the left of Beattie’s.

Perhaps the real interest in the new Administration lies with the shape of Bligh’s Cabinet. The big winner by far is the youthful Andrew Fraser, whose dogged handling as Local Government Minister of the hospital pass of local council amalgamations thrown to him by Beattie has been rewarded with the plum post of Treasurer. It’s a huge victory for the ALP Unity faction within caucus, at the expense of the Right’s man Paul Lucas, who dearly wanted the job.

Although he did secure Deputy, Lucas has instead been handed a politically difficult super-portfolio encompassing planning and infrastructure, which includes plenty of ticking time-bombs due to the State’s breakneck growth. Fraser, on the other hand, is only 30, and looks to be a star of the future.

With Beattie gone, a lot of the anti-ALP sentiment in Queensland’s regions is likely to melt away and the smooth transition to the new Premier sits in stark contrast with the current disarray in Federal Liberal’s ranks. While the Liberals have polled very well in Queensland in Federal elections during John Howard’s reign, a generation of in-fighting led by factional warriors like Santo Santoro has left the State branch almost unelectable.

All this means Bligh and Labor should easily account for the State Coalition’s unimpressive leaders Jeff Seeney and Bruce Flegg at the next election.

That is, as long as it rains.

Submit this article to the Independent News Aggregation Site -

What is kwoff?

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.