Fire, rain, tears and fears

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
February 10, 2011 /

Click here to view original /

The Mad Monk seemed convinced in yesterday’s press conference. Channel 10’s curmudgeonly Steve Price seemed to have bought it. One BBC blogger dared suggest it might be a “turning point in her beleaguered prime ministership”.

Am I the only one who didn’t buy the PM’s tears?

Cards on the table I used to work for her. I voted for her government. I was vocally chuffed at her getting the job way back when. This isn’t an anti-Gillard rant.

But cards on the table, I certainly didn’t buy yesterday’s tears.

In recent weeks we’ve had a saturation – a veritable deluge – of coverage of the Queensland catastrophes. And many memorable moments have emerged.

At one end of the spectrum we had the cringe-worthily clueless Grant Denyer dopily asking a victim whether he was “angry at Mother Nature”. At the other end was Anna Bligh’s ascension to genuine leadership. Sure, it took a whole lot of rain, a cyclone, a flood and far too many deaths, but she did it: Bligh emerged looking incredibly bloody competent.

Mind you, things weren’t always going to go this way.

Way back in the days of yore – early January, give or take – the media pounced on Bligh for travelling to Sydney at New Year’s. Instead, apparently, of sticking her finger in the dyke, Hans Brinker-style, and saving Brisbane.

I, like many, sat on tenterhooks waiting for this to become Bligh’s Christine Nixon-style demise.

Not to be, not to be.

In a moment of political genius, Bligh rightly suspected that those disasters dared be her undoing and she got her shit together. Proverbially, of course. Gillard cried because she dared follow Bligh’s lead. Albeit with so much less aplomb.

Graham Little was a much-loved professor in my department when I was an undergraduate. Amongst his excellent academic output was a great book called The Public Emotions. Amongst other things, he wrote about leaders and their efforts to tap into the emotional Zeitgeist of their constituency.

Think Tony Blair ‘getting’ the Diana grief in a way that the monarchy couldn’t. Think Bob Hawke. Think every other leader who got the crying, got the breast-beating right. And every other one that stuffed it up.

Our PM has been privy to a leader who did it well. Often she was positioned right next to Bligh at the lectern, getting one-on-one lessons on what the public needs to hear. Lessons on tapping into pride, into loss, into grief and hope and devastation and anger.

One lesson she evidently wagged was that emotion can’t be turned on and off with any plausibility.

Emotion is a tricky business. In all human interaction – be it real life conversations or when watching a broadcast interview – consciously or unconsciously we’re watching and calculating and evaluating sentiment. Does the mother of that missing of child seem believably devastated or is that there blood under her fingernails? Does the teary widower seem actually grief stricken about his wife’s death or grief stricken that he’s now the prime suspect?

While individually we manage our emotions daily – from lip-biting and choking back tears to taking deep breaths and saying “yes, I’m fine, thanks” – we all know emotions are subject to some heavy duty manipulating.

Not for half a second do I believe that our PM was unaffected by disasters. I haven’t a single skerrick of doubt that she was devastated. Equally, I don’t have any doubt at all that she knew we needed proof.

Mum’s family are Italian, Dad’s are Anglo. I’ve had a 30-year internship with how they respectively handle grief. Words are at a premium here, but in sum, Mum often needs to whip out the smelling salts for her relatives at funerals. Dad’s family and it might be a funeral. Then again it might be a birthday party, an auction or a Tupperware party.

And I learnt very quickly that it would be amiss to assume that either side were more gut-wrenched. We each emote differently.

Throughout the media coverage of, to dare quote Denyer, “Mother Nature’s fury”, the PM was constantly compared to Bligh. Contrasted to a woman who could confidently choke up in front of a camera, who could find the right words of solace, who could let herself appear thoroughly devastated in front of the camera.

Gillard came across as cold, helpless, inadequate. And the media savaged her accordingly.

Julia cried in parliament yesterday. She whipped out a flag and personalised the tragedy with anecdotes that tugged at even the most jaded of heartstrings.

Some wondered whether we saw the “real” Julia.

Yeah, I think we did. I think we saw the real Julia who is a politician at heart. Who was moved by the events but moved even more so moved by the knowledge that her electorate demanded emotional proof.

© Lauren Rosewarne