When I posted on social media that I was interviewing Anna Bligh but didn’t have a copy of her just-released book, someone commented that it’d just be a blank ream of paper anyway.
I was kind of surprised. I mean, I know that any political leader comes with friends and foes, but as far as Anna Bligh is concerned, the credentials are unquestionable.
It begins with Catholic girls’ school and student politics, onto activism during the Joh era and finding her feet in the not-for-profit sector. It then leads to travelling through remote Queensland as a public servant, learning the political ropes in the Labor Party, campaigning, falling in love, having babies, looking to mentors, parenting growing boys, endless travels to the ends of Queensland and back, leading the state, winning and losing elections, cancer and chemo and everything that comes with a life that is simultaneously ordinary, and absolutely not.
I had tears in my eyes many times reading Anna Bligh’s biography Through the Wall. It’s not so much the content of Anna’s story as the matter-of-fact way she tells it. It seems to me, that in Anna’s eyes, she is still just a girl from the Gold Coast who lived a life like many others do. The only difference being that she was prepared to stand apart from the crowd and step proudly into the public eye through politics.
When I spoke to her just days after her book launch she was in Melbourne and had just 15 minutes. She tells me straight up that her goal in writing the book was about encouraging others to take on public office.
“I was very motivated in writing the book to encourage other people to think about putting their hand up for public life and a political career,” Anna said from her hotel room. “Especially young Australians and especially young women.”
She said she is disturbed by some of the questions she’s had since leaving politics from young women who have seen women like herself and Julia Gillard getting a hard time.
“They’ve asked me, why would you put your hand up?”
“This book is about saying of course public life is difficult, of course there will be criticism, that’s the nature of democracy, but the benefits outweigh that.”
When you see photos of Anna and her family, the body language speaks volumes. They all seem to really like each other. She laughs quickly when I ask how she did it all – managing a political career, the challenges of family, and all the public attention that came with politics.
“Like any working mother or parent,” she said. “I’ve certainly had my share of worry on the way and about the choices I was making and how that might impact the lives of young sons.”
“And there were certainly times when I had to be away from them, when I would miss them terribly. But ultimately, I think children know when they are loved. And my boys are loved not only by myself, but by their father, grandmother and other close relatives. I made it my business to let them know even if I’m not in same town, that they were very loved and central to my life.”
Anna says like any family they’ve had their ups and downs. “I feel very blessed to have two young men in my life who are wonderful young people who I respect, admire and love,” she says.
We speak briefly about Anna’s experiences growing up with an alcoholic father. She writes about this in her book and I feel that she finds a way to be respectful of her father and his battle with alcoholism despite the challenges she and her mother faced at the time.
“I wrote about the difficult issues I faced in childhood because there are many Australians who have had or are still battling with issues around alcoholism or drugs,” she said.
“I do think the more people speak openly about these things, the easier it is for the person battling that addiction to put their hands up and ask for help or for those being impacted to know they can overcome those difficulties and still live a full life.”
When she does write about those challenges, it’s obvious her mother was a strong woman. Strong women are a bit of a theme, both through Anna’s book and her work.
“Much of what I’ve been able to achieve is the result of a very, very loving mother who worked double-time to overcome and make sure she was giving us the love of two parents,” she said.
“And I regard myself as very fortunate to be taught by catholic primary schools on the Gold Coast.”
Anna credits the nuns for being strong, independent women who taught the girls under their care to do their best and strive for great things.
“They were great role models.” Anna said.
“Growing up on the Gold Coast in the 1960s, there was not a lot expected of girls. Large numbers of girls just didn’t finish school. For the nuns to be encouraging us to strive to be the best we could be….” She trails off on that thought and I ask her if any strong religious beliefs have endured.
“There’s no doubt that my early upbringing in the Catholic church has deeply impacted my values and beliefs,” she said and mentions that her passion for social justice has its roots there too. “The teachings of Christ I think are a very good set of rules for living a good life.”
“But I am not a religious person in a theological sense. I don’t attend church and don’t practice any religion.”
“I had so much respect for the nuns and I was very certain that I wanted to become a nun. I think that was because here were these strong independent women who really loved teaching and doing something they enjoyed and that was satisfying. Nuns were the only women I saw doing that,” she said.
And she again acknowledges the role her mother played. “She’s still with us and is still a very important person in my life. There’s no doubt it would have been much harder for me to succeed in politics when children were young if it weren’t for her. She was a very hands-on grandma. That was a very important gift she gave our family. My two boys were her only grandchildren in Brisbane. She had a lot of time and her help meant we had a ratio of three adults to two young boys. That was a good ratio,” she laughed.
So what happens after you retire from politics? Well in Anna’s case there was the unexpected diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the associated treatment. She said she finished her treatment in late 2013 and with regards to her work, feels she has come full circle.
“I’m now working as the CEO at YWCA in New South Wales,” she said. The organisation supports more than 20,000 women, children and families throughout the state.
“It actually came about serendipitously,” she said when I asked her whether she had to complete a job application and sit through interviews. “A recruitment agency was helping them find a new CEO. Having just finished the last treatment I wasn’t feeling like I was ready for much. But the more I talked to the recruitment agency and met the Chair of the organisation – it just felt like a great fit at that time.”
“It feels like a full circle journey,” she said. “Leaving uni, working in not-for-profit organisations looking after the needs of women and children, then politics, coming full circle.”
“When you get a chance at political leadership in this country you gain a lot of skills and experience on the job. I felt determined to use that where it can make a difference.”
“It is important to know how to move on from a big political life,” Anna said. “I feel very comfortable with the choices that I have made. And I loved every minute.
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Anna Bligh’s biography Through the Wall has been released through Harper Collins.
About YWCA (NSW)
The organisation is more than 130 years old and operates out of four main communities of NSW including the Northern Rivers. Last year they helped more than 30,000 people across NSW – many of them women and children. Some of the services provided include employment and accredited training, parenting programs and workshops, mentoring for young people, brokering services for homeless people, re-engaging young people in high school, finding safe refuge for young women, supporting for women affected by domestic and family violence and advocating for them when attending court an running financial literacy and safe relationship workshops for high school students. Read more at ywcansw.com.au.