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Fit to shine, not to just clean up

By Norman Abjorensen - posted Friday, 21 September 2007

The ascension of Anna Bligh to the premier's job in Queensland carries a couple of powerful messages.

The first - and this is of particular relevance given the leadership turmoil that has so shaken the Howard Government over the past week - is that the succession in Queensland has been handled with all the consummate skill of a textbook case study on smooth leadership transition. Not since Victoria's Henry Bolte was succeeded by Dick Hamer in 1972 has there been such a seamless, well planned and executed handover of the baton.

Bolte was one of the most astute political operators of the modern era, a man who could sniff the wind with uncanny precision and second-guess the electorate like no one else. His greatness was not only in his 17 years of unchallenged power in Victoria but in the manner of his departure: entirely of his own choosing and timing. A political warhorse of the old school, Bolte knew that his style and his appeal were nearing the end of their shelf life and that a changing electorate was responding to different issues which would require a type of leader with attributes other than his knockabout, boots-and-all approach. The gnarled sheep farmer could easily have groomed a clone but instead opted for a man almost his opposite: the urbane, opera-loving city lawyer, Hamer.


It worked. Hamer went on to consolidate his position with three election wins in his own right.

There is much of the Bolte skill in the switch from Peter Beattie to Anna Bligh. Long groomed as his successor and given the opportunity to shine in demanding portfolios, she has been allowed by Beattie to grow into the job and establish a public profile. He, like Bolte, also saw that his appeal was starting to wear thin: another way of doing things was required, a radically different look was needed to re-energise the government.

The second political message from the Bligh ascension is not so much the fact that she is Queensland's first female premier, but that she has been dealt a full deck of cards, quite unlike her two predecessors as female premiers: Western Australia's Carmen Lawrence and Victoria's Joan Kirner.

These two very able politicians were elevated to leadership positions as their respective governments were in terminal decline: the sins of their predecessors would inevitably be visited on them, and they were.

Kirner led her government to defeat in 1992, and Lawrence followed in early 1993.

The first woman elected to a leadership position in a major political party was Rosemary Foot in NSW. She became deputy leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party in 1983 but it was a time of despondency in the ranks and her tenure was brief.


The same party also threw a hospital pass the way of its next rising female star, Kerry Chikarovski. It was 1998, the Liberals were performing dismally in the polls against an energetic Bob Carr, and an election was looming. Its invisible leader, Peter Collins, was shoved aside by an anxious party, but the change made little if any difference: Labor romped in. Even worse for Chikarovski was that from then on she was a political corpse swinging in the breeze as her (male) colleagues manoeuvred to cut her down, which they did.

Of course, in the territories it is a different story. Liberal Kate Carnell (ACT) and Labor's Clare Martin (NT) are unique not only in that they won government from Opposition, but that each was also re-elected.

Clearly, Bligh is not in the same predicament as were Lawrence and Kirner in being asked to clean up the kitchen before being kicked out.

The Labor Party in Queensland, despite some hiccups, is generally in sound shape, local government amalgamations and health issues notwithstanding. But the biggest difference is the quality of the Opposition, which is not only mediocre in the extreme but on the verge of leadership challenges in both the Nationals and Liberal camps.

With Julia Gillard looking likely to be the next deputy prime minister, and two women sitting on the High Court, attitudes towards women in power appear to be changing, and they are increasingly being seen as leaders in their own right, regardless of gender.

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First published in The Australian on September 18, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Norman Abjorensen, a Visiting Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the ANU, is author of Leadership and the Liberal Revival: Bolte, Askin and the Post-war Ascendancy, published next month by Australian Scholarly Publishing.

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