Leadership in tough times

He doesn’t learn, does he?  Yesterday, while police were still searching Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley for numerous people listed as ‘unaccounted for’, warning of a higher death toll, and the Brisbane CBD was being evacuated as the river started to engulf some of the lower parts of West End, Auchenflower and Milton, Tony Abbott made the following statement:

The cost of responding to the flood disaster really emphasises the need to think again on the national broadband network.

Thanks, Tony.  I’m sure the people of south-east Queensland appreciate the loss of lives and livelihoods in their neighbourhoods being compared to a totally unrelated public spending program.  You crass, insensitive oaf.

Meanwhile, the Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, has been drawing admiration from all quarters for her leadership.  Bligh is the leader of a government that has been slipping badly over the past year or so.  Perhaps not so badly as that of her NSW counterpart, Kristina Keneally, but she’s in political trouble, personally unpopular in the electorate, and the polls point to an almost certain change of government at the next Queensland election.  So when the water started rising Bligh had already been a leader under considerable pressure for some time.  She has, however, become the calm, informed and deeply worried face of this disaster, fronting at least two press conferences a day and providing as much information as she herself has been given.

John Brumby, Victorian Premier during the 2009 fire disaster, and Jon Stanhope, ACT Chief Minister during the 2003 fires, were both reasonably popular leaders but both drew criticism, warranted or not, for their responses at various times of those crises.  Unpopular or not, Bligh has shown leadership and strength of character by providing a consummately professional but very human focal point when people most need a leader.  If her government goes down at the next election, Bligh will most certainly be remembered for the leadership and commitment she has shown over the past couple of weeks, with the worst still to come.  Proving, perhaps, that when it comes to the crunch, personal or political popularity count for nothing when what is needed is someone to lead during a true crisis.

The Prime Minister, by comparison, has appeared distant and detached.  This is her style, we know, but a friend commented that at her press conference yesterday she appeared unperturbed by events, simply outlining the federal government’s official response and saying that this is no time for her to be visiting the flood-affected areas.  She’s right on that point, the last thing they need is officials arriving with their requisite entourages and requiring additional resources.  But compared to Bligh, her manner was stand-offish and cool – perhaps it was lack of proximity to the turgid river, or perhaps she was considering what to do about the idiotic journalist who asked about how the flood crisis would affect the budget surplus.

Journalistic stupidity is nothing new  and journalists consistently rank low on those lists of ‘most trusted/respected occupations’ (and I say all this with some hesitation, coming from a long line of scribes, some of whom are highly respected representatives of their craft), but seriously, where do some of these press gallery journos get their degrees?  There is a disaster happening.  An area of Queensland about the size of several European countries is underwater.  People have died and it’s possible that more will do so.  Other people have lost everything they own.  But apparently the thing Australians really want the Prime Minister asked is how it will affect the budget bottom line – maybe the journos concerned were taking their line from the Opposition Leader.

The budget line of questioning sparked an immediate debate on Twitter about the appropriateness of linking budgetary questions to the flood, with the vast majority of comments in the debate I was following scathing in their disapproval.  Only Crikey’s Bernard Keane was not bothered and has posted the full transcript of the interview on the Crikey website.

My tip for journalists covering leaders’ press conferences during disasters:  keep to the topic.  You are not there to score points or try the ‘gotcha’ questions.  There’s time enough after the disaster for those.  During disasters your job is to get the information your readers or listeners want to know, and you would be surprised how few of them give a flying fig for the national budget when their homes are going under.

Meanwhile, flood information and updates here.  Please donate to the flood appeal either here or at the Red Cross or Salvation Army.  The RSPCA in Brisbane is going under as I write this and they also need help.  If you’re in Brisbane reading this and sitting high and dry, can you offer to mind someone’s pet?

The hotlines for flood information are:

Disaster recovery hotline:  1800 173 349

State Emergency Service:  132 500

Flood Emergency Information

Disaster Recovery Hotline: 1800 173 349
State Emergency Service: 132 500
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About Coffee with Ruby

Ruby is a writer, lecturer and thinker who blogs mostly on politics, environment and social philosophy. She has been at the coalface of the political process, but is now strictly an observer. Join Ruby for coffee and musings over whatever is going on at the time ...
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