14 January 2011

Beautiful one day

The Queensland floods have produced a wonderful period in reporting that looks like drawing to a close: the story too big and too real for hype. There is no other issue for "the 24 hour news cycle" to latch onto: the pretense that modern media is under real pressure to flit between topics, no matter how real or important, has been proven false. There is plenty of news in this story, from the balance of hard-nosed and warm-hearted leadership shown by Anna Bligh as Premier to the ordinary people who are cleaning up, helping out and just getting on with it, all while their hearts are breaking.

The surprisingly mature media response to Bligh's tears could be signs of a new understanding of what it means to be led by women - as recently as the early '90s this event would have been met by sniggering and commentators would have bagged Bligh for weakness where resolve is required. Praise for Anna Bligh's leadership during the crisis can genuinely be regarded as universal if Piers Akerman and Grog's Gamut agree.

There is, however, plenty of leadership required yet. Those who are now missing will be found, and it will almost always be horrible for the relatives and friends, even if the missing turn out to merely be misplaced and out of contact. Given that Wivenhoe Dam was vital but not sufficient in mitigating the disaster, there will be a need for longterm infrastructure among the answers - and this need will dissipate without longterm leadership.

The long-term structural damage wrought by flooding upon dwellings (including high-rise flats, rare in 1974 Brisbane) is well documented. So is the impact on the attitudes of people who live through such an event: longterm unemployment, addictions and divorce rates will skyrocket, which will require state government policy responses. Tax receipts and assumptions underpinning Queensland's inflated property valuations will be downgraded, and educational performances of schoolchildren will plummet even at 'good schools'. The anguish that results from both a high demand for goods and services and a diminished capacity to pay for them can and does crush people. The ability to ignore the all-pervading stink will be essential for Queenslanders to go forward, but if you can ignore something so powerful and all-pervasive what other stark and obvious truths will be brushed aside?

It seems cruel to point out that just because the ground has had more than enough, it doesn't mean there will be any let-up in the rains to come in coming weeks.

Let's see if we still talk glowingly about Anna Bligh's leadership six or twelve months from now. A magnificent response to a crisis didn't help John Brumby, who snapped back into never-apologise-never-explain mode once the embers of 2009 went cold. George W Bush merely looked puzzled in the face of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and after 2001 Rudi Giuliani was a bad drag act. Malcolm Fraser's stony response to the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires was the end of him. Back to annus mirabilis 1974, Jim Cairns was the hero of Darwin but within a year he was an economic clown, rooting a staffer. Crises don't test politicians - it's the aftermath that gets them.

The idea that transactional politicians have some latent alchemic ability to rise to a major challenge is rubbish. What happens is that the reality of politicians is revealed so starkly, and the assumptions underpinning political commentary are so violated that it ceases. Politicians exist to identify community priorities for the services of trained professionals, which form the best reason for the existence of government.

In a disaster, you have to let the professionals do their jobs and must make quick and decisive choices on how best they do them. This is what Bligh is doing: she is not claiming credit for helicopter pilots and tugboat operators, paramedics and police, and those who build and maintain refuges. She is putting those resources to best use given the information available to her. In normal times, you can go on about an important and complex topic like, say, education with drivel about marxist teachers or whatever, but when a hundred schools must be rebuilt there must be a debate on how we equip children for the century ahead (a century which will apparently include increased likelihood of catastrophic weather events). There will be a time for reviews, and there will be plenty of emotion involved that might crowd out assiduously prepared data.

You'd hope for politicians who simply view their jobs as resource providers to dedicated professionals (and for journalists who regard them in that way), rather than as deities whose every utterances cause public services to rise and fall. The impact of a leader has to be assessed on their impact upon the led, and what has happened so far can be put down to people themselves (both the great generosity and the petty acts of mendacity we've seen in recent days). While Bligh has been superb in corralling emergency management professionals, the degree to which the goodwill and skill of the wider Queensland community has been put to optimal use is an open question for now.

Let us invoke the ultimate example of the transactional politician tested and proven in a crisis: Churchill was entitled to be regarded as the man to deal with the debacle at Narvik. Five years and numerous timeless speeches and media events later, nobody was going on about Narvik.

Whatever is done will be too little, too late for many. These are the ungrateful bastards who must be led, and leading them successfully is the trick here.

A Royal Commission on these floods will be required, and not just focusing on Brisbane. This is the preoccupation of the journosphere today. Let's hope it hears from everyone and reports fairly, and fairly soon. The very process of such an inquiry, however well managed, can have the effect of professionalising issues and removing them from the public debate matters which very properly involve everyone, and which can dissipate a real but unfocused collective determination for action. The process of dissipation breeds a cynicism which no government - or any other government - is able to rebuild once focus is subsequently discovered. In reporting on issues arising from this disaster, journalists lose the skill of seeking information from many different sources and simply wait to be fed press releases as usual.

Both Gillard and Abbott have been fine in meeting ordinary Queenslanders affected by the floods, but this is a minimum requirement for their jobs rather than valid news "content":

  • Abbott's quotation about rain falling on the just and the unjust did not have the ring of its Biblical context - a plea for tolerance for strangers and love for one's enemies - but was a slightly more elegant way of expressing the sentiment behind the helpless phrase "shit happens".

  • Gillard is trying to be reassuring when she looks wooden, showing that emotion doesn't get to her when it comes to the big decisions - just like Malcolm Fraser in 1983.

  • As with the people of Queensland, this experience won't kill Gillard but it won't necessarily make her stronger either.

It's possible for everything to be done by the book while the leadership evaporates, or curdles; but for Queensland let us hope for more and better.

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