Book Review: “Through the Wall” by Anna Bligh (#AWW2016)



The photograph of Anna Bligh in the back cover of her memoir Through the Wall (2015) looks like that of any neighbourhood girl you may see from day to day. And, like any neighbourhood girl, from Jenny Curran in Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump (1986) to Sarah Maloney in Bryce Courtenay’s Four Fires (2001), Bligh has experienced much heartache and triumph in her life.

What distinguishes Bligh’s life story is her acute awareness of being a woman in a male-dominated environment, in this case the Queensland Parliament and that state’s Labour Party. More importantly, as documented in her memoir, Bligh fiercely disciplines and evaluates herself with the idea of a female role model to future generations of women who aspire for leadership in any profession, including politics. It is not the power itself, but how to utilise one’s power “to make a difference, to get things done, to shape our world, to make things fairer and better for everyone” (p.8), that she wants to illustrate.

Through the Wall is a surprisingly honest political biography, full of sincerity and gratitude, always giving credit where it is due. The writing is straightforward and beautiful, showcasing Bligh’s deep appreciation of literature and arts. A fine balance is maintained between the public and private aspects of her life, but the book’s focus is always on people, real human beings whose lives are affected by politics on a daily basis. It demands that readers judge Bligh as a politician, rather than as a woman.

A couple of paragraphs particularly stand out as Bligh looks back at her 17 years in the rough and tumble of the Queensland Parliament, including four-and-a-half years as Australia’s first popularly elected female premier. The lengthy quote below demonstrates how correctly Bligh as a leader understands her mob:

In Australian cultural discourse it is common to hear questions about what makes Queenslanders different. Why do we seem to breed and attract the larger-than-life characters, the florid and flamboyant, the wild crocodile hunters and the loudmouth politicians in big hats? I have come to believe that it is our status as a frontier that marks us in this way. European settlement occurred later here than in other major states, and it met with much harsher conditions. Blinding heat, raging floods, cyclones and searing droughts, combined with sharks, snakes, poisonous spiders and crocodiles, kept all but the most tenacious settlers at bay. Only the tough, the undaunted and the brash would survive and make it. It’s a history that breeds a pioneering spirit and a fierce parochial pride that you can feel at a State of Origins football game.

In Queensland, this history has settled deep into our psyche. We may not know or understand all the pioneering history, but we all hold firm to the view that we’re a little bit tougher than the rest of the country… We don’t all wrestle crocodiles, wear big hats, shoot our mouths off or throw money at wild ideas, but in these big colourful characters we admire something bold and crazy-brave. They speak to a sense we have of ourselves as people who thrive on beating the odds, who stare down their critics. You can see a similar social and political culture in American states like Texas, for similar reasons. It may give rise to some overblown public identities, but it’s also a mindset that encourages risk-taking and entrepreneurial zeal. (p.253-254)

As a politician, Bligh’s insight into the subtle but crucial interaction between the government, the media and the public is also noteworthy, as proved by the following confession:

I told the team [at Emergency HQ] that we were about to be tested like never before, that we now had a catastrophic disaster on multiple fronts, that lives would depend on our ability to rise to the demands of this next challenge. I told them the eyes of the nation were now on us. I told then I knew they had what it took. That I knew they would not fail this test.

As I left the meeting to convey the dire news to a hungry media, I felt a steely resolve not to be defeated by any of it. I felt the need to convey that resolve to my frontline, to my colleagues, to the media and, most of all, to the public. I wanted everyone to know that in the face of these overwhelming events, the leadership was strong. Thinking of a way to convey this strength, I quickly scribbled “hearts, will” on the bottom of my handwritten briefing notes.

It would be the first time during these events that I risked speaking to Queenslanders in lofty terms, and I wasn’t sure I could strike the right note. In the three minutes it took to walk across to the media room, I decided not to overthink it, to just go with my gut. I was convinced that the urgency and peril of the situation demanded words that would raise our spirits. This conviction outweighed my fear of the risk inherent in speaking to the community in an elevated language and tone. This was not the common language of Australian politics. Our citizens like it best when their political leaders don’t get too far above their station, when they act and sound as much like everyone else as possible rather than using dramatic rhetorical flourishes. I didn’t have much time to think about it and no time to confer with my staff, but I knew I was taking a personal and political risk. If I misjudged this, I would look foolish, and no one wants a fool leading an emergency. (p.242=243)

This is likely to be the sort of stuff that anybody interested in political auto/biographies would like to see – how politicians think and make their decisions on the spot at tough times, their fear and self-doubt, they capacity to interpret the difficulties at hand and to transform their challenges into solutions that truly enhance the interests of the public. It also reinforces this reviewer’s earlier observation that Bligh desires and further deserves to be judged as a politician, rather than as a female politician. To borrow Bligh’s own words, it is the hole in the wall that she wants us to see, not the blood, bruises and scratches that the act of going through the wall has left on her.



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