Q&A with Premier Anna Bligh
Thanks for your time this morning Premier. Obviously the last couple of months have been a really busy time for you. How are you feeling at the moment?
It’s been an extraordinary start to 2011 and it’s been a hectic exhausting schedule, but frankly I think I’m still running on adrenalin which you need to get through these events. I was supposed to be on leave for three-and-a-half weeks in January and I had one day of that, so I feel like I should feel more tired than I do. But I think when a big challenge in life is thrown at you, you find some reserve you didn’t know you had and that happened to me in the last couple of weeks.
I guess people, even though they probably don’t realise it, think politicians are these extraordinary machines. But obviously the last couple of months have had an affect on you personally.
I’ve found the last couple of months – well, it’s really the last five weeks, with the floods and cyclone events – very emotional. I haven’t let that emotion get in the way of the big decisions I have to make but when I’m sitting in headquarters making big decisions I can do that quite clinically because that’s what people need me to be able to do. But when I go out and visit people in their towns and their ruined houses it’s impossible not to be touched and to be moved by it. I have to sometimes really struggle with myself not to be overwhelmed by it because when you see street after street of ruined homes and families feeling terrible – on the one hand you can’t help but feel with them but you have also got to make sure that doesn’t get you down. Sometimes I win that battle, sometimes I don’t.
It must be really hard. How do you feel when you see Rockhampton being inundated, when you hear the story about a 13-year-old boy who has ultimately lost his life because he has asked for his younger brother to be saved first?
The really emotional time was during the events in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley and I’ve spoken to a number of people there who have lost more than one member of their family. And that to me is just unimaginable, to try and think about what it would be like to lose, as some people have, a mother, a father, a husband and still have to find something in themselves to look after their children. These are extraordinary feats of humanity really, so you can’t help to feel very emotional about those kinds of experiences. But most of the time also I feel very inspired. At the same time that people are coping with this – they haven’t just lost family members, they have lost their houses, and they have got nowhere to live. And yet they’re doing it, so it’s hard not to feel a sense of inspiration about what human beings are capable of.
I imagine you haven’t slept much – not to mention had sleepless nights – since this all started. How do you deal with it all when you are just so exhausted?
There have certainly been some sleepless nights and I have felt a level of exhaustion but I’ve been very disciplined about making sure I do get some sleep and to catch up when I can. This weekend I’ve had two full nights of eight hours. I really needed it and I feel much better for it because I don’t know what’s next and what I need, and Queensland needs, is for me to be in a position where I can make good, sensible decisions well rested.
The other thing is that in times of crisis individuals need that family support, but you probably haven’t seen your family much in the last five weeks. How much have you actually seen of your family during that time?
During the first week of flooding around Emerald and Rockhampton, my family were still in Sydney on leave and I said to them they should stay because I was travelling all around regional Queensland. I said you probably won’t see too much of me. But then when they saw what was happening in Toowoomba they just packed up and came home and I was very, very pleased. By then I really needed to have them at home and they have been incredible. I haven’t seen much of them but they have been chipping in and making sure I’ve got clean clothes and no matter how late I get home at night there is always something cooked if I need it – and they are really the basic things. It is not only important that I eat and sleep and have clean clothes, but it’s important when you are doing something like this to know you have got people who love you and care about you. I find that an important source of my strength – to come home to people who are going to look after me because I don’t know if I could do this otherwise.
The next phase after the clean-up of Yasi, is the rebuilding phase. No doubt there will be a race for resources and people are going to start asking questions – why Brisbane flooded, why a wall of water came through Toowoomba. Are you ready for that?
After a crisis there are always questions and I think that’s a good thing. I think you should never go through events like this and not ask ourselves how we could have done it better. And some of the answers may be embarrassing or difficult, but it would be a terrible abrogation of my responsibility if we didn’t ask ourselves hard and difficult questions and the commissions’ enquiry will do that and it will also ask more generally how good is our response. What we do well, what we should do more of, what we do not do so well, how can we improve that? That will actually mean we are going to be more resilient, stronger the next time and that’s a good thing. In terms of the rebuilding, that’s a big challenge. We have three-quarters of the state now all involved in a massive reconstruction process and materials and labour – there will be demand for that. I have to say that has been one of the industries in Queensland that has been in a real slump, so there certainly are a lot of companies and a lot of people with skills in the construction industry ready to be busier. That will be a good thing for the economy in the longer term.
Throughout the last five weeks you have put on a very, an extraordinary, brave front. However, there was one point where you broke down. It obviously became too much for you. What was going through your mind at that point?
I think I felt like just about every other Queenslander. It just seemed at one point so overwhelming, that everything could be happening at once. It just seemed everywhere I looked Queenslanders, people I knew, friends, people who I didn’t know but who shared my community – were just grieving. We were in this terrible situation of grief, devastation and loss. I felt like everyone felt like that for a moment, but we dusted ourselves off and off we went. I said at the time that it is important to recognise that they are really emotional events. We had a situation in the Lockyer Valley where people at that point still had missing children, who were swept away in just shocking circumstances. We had thousands of people in Brisbane with this river of mud through their homes. Suddenly thousands of people homeless. It just seemed like everywhere we looked all we could see was grief and misery and I felt overwhelmed by it for a moment, but like everyone else you pick yourself up and off you go.
There have been some political leaders retire in recent times, most recently David Bartlett the ex-Tasmanian premier. They have done that because they feel it has become too much of a personal toll on their lives. How much fuel do you have left in the tank and what keeps the fire burning for you?
At the end of the first week of the floods, and it seems so long ago, my plane got struck by lightning and my staff all joked that it fully charged me. I feel very strong and fully charged and with almost a new sense of purpose, a renewed sense of purpose about the reconstruction effort. I have asked a lot of my family, and I’ve asked a lot of my self and there will come a time when I’ll need to enter a different phase of my life. But right now I’ve got one of the most important jobs I’ve ever had and I’m not for one minute feeling anything other than up for it and totally ready.
You said it’s an important job, the multi-billion repair job ahead. Have you had any thoughts about whether you will wait until March next year to go to the polls or whether you will seek a mandate from the people earlier? Do you want to go to the people sooner than March next year and say this is how I am going to rebuild Queensland and I am the right person for the job?
The election is due in 2012 and I think Queensland wants me to get on with the job of rebuilding this year. Elections are for next year, I don’t think people want to be confronting the prospect of an election when they are trying to rebuild their lives. On one hand this year there is a really straightforward job that has to be done to rebuild what we’ve lost. But there is also the exciting possibility of rebuilding some of it, a lot of it, bigger, better, stronger. I’m excited about that and I think a number of the communities I spoke to are also, in the middle of all the grief, (excited about) the opportunity to rebuild their community better and that’s what I want to do.
Queenslanders will obviously learn a lot from these events. So far, what have you learnt about yourself?
I think we have all learnt we are capable of things we thought we might not have been. But in terms of what I have learnt about myself – I would never have contemplated being tested like we have in the last five weeks. So it is I suppose reassuring to know that when you are really tested, you can do the things you really need to do. But I felt like I’ve really learnt something about what we sometimes forget, from time to time, about life. I feel that it’s been an extraordinary and I’m trying to find the words here. It’s been such a terrible disaster and what’s come out of it is rather than a sense we are broken, ruined and crippled that we are capable of conquering everything that comes in our path and we are capable of that if we act together. This sense of humanity which I’ve seen out on the streets of our tiniest towns and our biggest cities – and while it’s heart-warming when I see people driving 200 kilometres to help a friend in regional Queensland – I think Queensland has always had that reputation and so it’s great to see it but you’re not shocked or surprised by it. When you see it in the volume we saw it on the streets of our capital city – it really took people’s breath away. Complete strangers just turning up and helping them. And out of that we all learnt something about what’s really important. It’s terrible to see your possessions washed away, but if your family is safe, if your friends are safe and people who you don’t even know come to help you then you live in a good place and you can have a happy life.
One thing you said about Queenslanders is that we are tough. That they breed them tough north of the border, that we’re the ones they knock down and get up again. Is that something that rings true for you?
Absolutely. When I say we are the ones they breed tough north of the border, we live in a beautiful state but it has some very harsh conditions and the people who first settled this state did it in a very difficult environment and it has always had to be a real frontier that’s very different. What’s different about Queensland – I think one of the reasons that we are entrepreneurial and have a go is because we have come from that frontier position – we settled this state in extreme conditions. Every thing we have just been through in the last five weeks, other Queenslanders have been through but they did it without forecasting. Without knowing the cyclone was coming. Without having two or three days to prepare. If you go back a hundred years, the last category 5 cyclone hit Mackay and then eight weeks later another one hit Innisfail and nobody knew it was coming. It killed heaps of people and devastated those towns but those people dusted themselves off and Mackay got bigger and better, so there is this great tradition of overcoming the elements here.
The scariest thing at the moment for a lot of Queenslanders is that the wet season isn’t over and there is predictions of more cyclones. Are you ready for that if that’s something that transpires?
We are ready. I certainly hope it’s something that doesn’t happen. But we have to be ready for it because there is the chance of another major weather event, even if it is only monsoonal rain and flooding. We can’t be complacent about that at all and I do think people are worried about it. I think that one of the things, one of the legacies of the last five weeks is that right now we all have been saying it’s been emotional and in the crisis it has been emotional. Right now people are very fragile but if it came again, there would be a lot of heartache, particularly if it came to a community that has just cleaned-up. It would be very hard, so I certainly hope that’s not what we’ve got around the corner.
What are your plans for the next couple of months? Will you get to take that annual leave?
I’d like to think that somewhere down the track there’s an opportunity for me to get away for a couple of days because I think it is important that I do that, but right now it’s about getting the reconstruction authority up and running and next week the parliament will have the legislation for the authority. And I certainly hope it enjoys bipartisan support and we can get it moving and then working with the mayors and councillors of Queensland so we can get on with the job. My horizon is on the one hand what we need to do next week but also where I want to be by the end of this year. And by the end of this year I want to be standing in places like Tully and Theodore and Ipswich and say this is the progress that has been made. We will still have someway to go with some of the bigger things but I want the community to feel that real progress has been made and that they can see and feel like their recovery is well under way.