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Deadly deluge: counting the cost for people and politicians

Unprecedented floods claim cities, towns and lives – and deliver more headaches for a shaky PM. Australians find inspiration from a leader unafraid to balance strength with tears. The economic cost is brutal. And summer sport provides little pleasant relief from tragedy.

Anna Bligh

­Top news: Australia has a new political heroine, and it’s not the woman the nation seemed ready to embrace when she seized the keys to the prime minister’s residence last June. Amid the devastation of the worst natural disaster since white settlement, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has struggled in her efforts to rally a stunned nation. Instead, a more junior leader of her own party has won the country’s affection and respect as Aussies contemplated a flood catastrophe that crippled its third largest city and claimed at least 20 lives.

Anna Bligh is premier of the northern state of Queensland, where the floods first made their presence felt at Christmas. Then, in the first two weeks of 2011, the state and its capital city of Brisbane were swamped by inundations of water that, without resort to rhetoric, have been widely described as biblical in scale and effect. The human toll has been terrible, the economic toll immense. Analysts, meanwhile, have been skirting delicately but with increasing pointedness around the fresh political equations now to be calculated.

Australia confronts a long, long recovery from this disaster. And it will test a shaky Gillard, leader of the federal Labor Party, who has never quite asserted her hold on an office she seized in an intra-party brawl last June. Right now, she surely wishes she was getting the rave reviews lavished on her state party colleague, Bligh.

Two months ago Bligh was regarded as dead meat, with polls suggesting a state election due in 2012 would see her swept from office by Queensland voters with a vote as low as 28 per cent. Her center-left Labor government has been hammered by disquiet over privatization of public assets and a general malaise as Labor nears 13 years in state office.

But her performance during the unprecedented flood emergency appears to have wiped the slate clean. It’s a long time since Australians have faced a crisis as long-lasting and unpredictable as these floods. And it’s a long time since they have been so widely inspired and informed, moved and motivated by a political leader. Bligh’s key performance among a roster of many fine moments: the day she allowed herself to shed a tear over the destruction the nation was watching unfold in a round-the-clock TV marathon.

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman — from Gillard’s point of view, the wrong woman. The comparisons with Bligh have been less than flattering.

The prime minister has not made any obvious mistakes — in fact, she has been front and center in Queensland: visiting evacuation centers, comforting victims, dispatching soldiers to help in the relief effort, doling out federal money and rallying the business community to the immense recovery effort.

In doing so, however, much reaction has focused on the shortcomings of her public performance, most of it a rehash of the criticisms that have dogged her since she took office. Too rehearsed. Insincere. Generally, a failure to connect. It’s largely a critique of cosmetics, but as Katrina-era George W. Bush might advise the PM, public perception at a time of national disaster matters a heck of a lot.

Surprisingly, given the flood menace is far from over and is spreading to other states, there is already speculation about what it all means for Gillard’s long-term survival as prime minister. After a dead-heat result with her conservative foes at August elections, she leads a minority government whose parliamentary authority depends on the support of independent lawmakers. And Gillard’s own hold on the Labor leadership can be terminated as swiftly as she herself seized it in June — by a majority of party lawmakers deciding it’s time for a change.

Ironically, and perhaps painfully for Gillard, there has been another media star during the inundation: Kevin Rudd, her foreign minister and the man she deposed as PM seven months ago. Rudd’s constituency is in Brisbane, and he was front and center when the city was submerged. Here was hands-on leadership if ever voters had seen it. Rudd threw himself into the rescue effort with such enthusiasm he ended up in hospital with an infection from the polluted floodwaters.

It’s Third World stuff for a rich First World country. And it’s a very different picture from the image of Australia due to be presented to American viewers this week in a series of specials filmed by talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey in December. On that much-hyped visit, Winfrey shared a stage with Gillard in front of thousands of joyful fans in Melbourne.

Those early days of the Australian summer must seem a long way away for the PM now. As they do for Australians generally who, despite this time of year being notorious for natural disasters that claim many lives, prefer to imagine the lazy days of summer as a time for celebration and relaxation.

The famous fireworks that lit up cities such as Sydney and Brisbane on New Year’s Eve had barely cooled when the flood threat turned deadly. Now, Australians are being asked to forget about bright lights and parties for a while, with a social media campaign urging a much subdued recognition of Australia Day on January 26. That’s the date commemorating white settlement of a country a celebrated poet once recognized for its beauty, but also for the natural error that visits so often.

Money: What will it cost? Australian journalists copped a hammering on Twitter and elsewhere when they grilled Julia Gillard about the budgetary impact of the floods at a time when people were dying. But the answer to that question will have a massive impact on Australia’s economic future. The latest estimates put the bill at $30 billion, with analysts having to factor in Queensland’s disproportionate stake in the national economy. It is home to 4.5 million of the country’s 22.5 million people, but within state borders are massive crop and mining interests crucial to the federal accounts. The stockmarket showed some signs of nerves but was generally resilient. Meanwhile, a key economic debate flared again, with Greens party leader Bob Brown suggesting mining companies should foot the bill for the recovery via the controversial mining tax. Why? Brown says coal mining is a key contributor to climate change, which he blames for the killer storms.

Elsewhere: There’s always sport, a staple summer distraction Down Under. But when the annual cricket season brings with it shattering defeat at the hands of old rivals England, there’s not much to smile about even on the back pages of the newspapers. The touring rivals thumped the Aussies in the bi-annual Ashes Test series, prompting a bout of national hand-wringing and calls for the head of national cricket captain and one-time hero Ricky Ponting. No one enjoyed it more than the English press, which rarely has much to celebrate in sporting contests with the colonial cousins. Hopes for summer sporting glory have now moved to the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tennis event of the year, underway in Melbourne. World number six Samantha Stosur is the only realistic hope to lift the spirits of a nation that hasn’t had much to smile about recently.