The short history of Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, who resigned today after her Party’s poll defeat, confounds conventional political wisdom about women, adversity, empathy and pundits.
Gender makes little difference to voters, empathetic leaders can lose, tough times do not pull voters in behind leaders, and pundits are dangerously shallow.
Gender not politically useful
Anna Bligh became, in March 2009, the first popularly elected female Premier. Bligh and her supporters played up gender, and its supposed political advantages.
Yet three years later, her party was turfed out of power. It turns out that gender probably had nothing to do with her getting into power, and nothing to do with her losing power.
The problem here is the shallowness of the political class. In their desperation for an edge when no policy differences exist, they play up gender as meaningful. Ironically, this makes them shallower than the voters, for whom gender in politics did not seem to matter much at all.
The media interpreted everything Bligh did through the lens of gender. In the shallow world where female means nice and male mean callous, the Sydney Morning Herald was able to call her the “caring Premier”.
Empathy is a complicated trait
The conventional wisdom is that voters want someone who understands them. So modern leaders try to show emotion, and connect with voters on an interpersonal level. They use as their role models leaders like Bob Hawke and Bill Clinton.
In November 2011, Bligh’s personal support had fallen to 25 percent, and 70 percent of voters said they were dissatisfied with her performance. Could Bligh’s emotive connection over the Queensland floods save her and her Party?
In January 2012 the moment came: Bligh famously broke down in tears while describing her experiences touring the flood zones.
Over January and February the media portrayal of Bligh focused on her “caring" management of the flood issue.
Yet, the polls did not change, and the election in March resulted in a resounding loss.
So the caring thing is a complicated beast. More complicated than most political observers can work out.
Conventional political wisdom also holds that tough times are good for politicians. Shallow liberal perceptions of society hope that people pull together under adversity, and this benefits leaders. It does happen – John Key’s support was maintained despite a recession, a city-shattering earthquake, and a succession of national-level accidents in which groups of people died. Winston Churchill’s dominance in war-time Great Britain is a 20th century model.
Yet, these are exceptions. Close political science analysis shown that over 80% of the time, incumbent politicians lose power within a year of adverse events. Empathy or apathy – there is no style of democratic leadership that offers protection.
The underlying theme of Bligh’s time as Premier is the shallowness of pundits in the media and many political operators. Pop psychology becomes pop politics.
Professor Ross Fitzgerald, an emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, said following the floods ”[Bligh] has done extremely well with a combination of appearing to be in control but of caring deeply.“
If that was indeed the combination, it didn’t work.
Voters, and politics, are more complicated than that.