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Ruby of the Month: Anna Bligh

02 April 2014

Larke Riemer , Anna Bligh And Ros Kelly

The decision after leaving politics to return to the not-for-profit (NFP) sector is for former Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh (pictured above centre with Larke Riemer, at left, and The Hon. Ros Kelly, at right), “like coming full circle”. The career and life reinvention process after 17 years in politics has been exhilarating and, at times, “scary”.

Anna has also come through her own personal battle with cancer in the past year or so.

“I am getting used to my new post-chemo hair and while it is still a surprise to me in the morning in the mirror I am really happy to have it growing back and be well and healthy again,” she explains of her new-look short hair, which she says appears to defy gravity.

Anna, who studied social science and English literature at the University of Queensland and (before going into politics) went on to work in social welfare organisations that were focused on children, young families and mothers, was appointed YWCA NSW’s CEO late in 2013.

“You must have a clear vision no matter whether you’re a political, business or community leader. Crafting a vision is one of the essential responsibilities of a leader,” says Anna.

We are in her YWCA NSW offices on the southern edge of Sydney’s Hyde Park and her vision for the organisation is to “dream bigger”. She has already begun putting in motion a new strategic plan built around that bigger dream.

As much as the vision, she also believes you need a clear idea about how you’re going to get there: “You must be willing and able to take a risk and if the risk you take fails, because sometimes they will, you must be able to get back on the horse having not lost sight of the vision.”

On a macro level in her former roles in Queensland state politics - as a Labour Minister, Deputy Premier, Treasurer and finally Premier of the state - Anna says she was driven by the vision of a modernised Queensland transformed from the Queensland in which she grew up.

“It was 1978/79, the time of Joh Bjelke-Petersen,” she explains, “there was poor government, police brutality and corruption, the banning of demonstrations and Queensland was the butt of every joke socially, culturally, economically, politically in the country.

“I can say that the Queensland of today is vastly different from the Queensland I knew as a young adult. It’s transformed on every count and I feel very proud of the part I played in that.”

One of Anna’s achievements as a minister working in the Queensland Labour government was to have a hand in changing the cultural landscape.

As Arts Minister, it was her role to make the decisions to “build the new modern art gallery, to secure exclusive exhibitions, to get great artists to Queensland”.

The success of those decisions changed the way Queensland thought about itself and the way the other states thought about Queensland.

“When I left government,” says Anna Bligh of her 2012 resignation from politics, “the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art was the most visited cultural institution in the country.

“That was unimaginable when I was a teenager. The fact that people now come to Queensland for the Arts speaks volumes about the way we transformed Queensland - the state - as well the internal and external perceptions of the state.”

New to the YWCA job and still settling in, Anna has just finished visiting the organisation’s regional operations. She sees the organisation as being the leader in early intervention services for children, young women, women and families.

“I think we can aspire to be a thought leader in that sector and we can aspire to grow what we do because what we do in leadership and mentoring and early intervention has such deep impact we should, in my view, be offering it in more communities,” says Anna, citing the YWCA’s in-school mentoring programs and the Big Brother, Big Sister program run under its auspices.

“My mandate,” says Anna, “is to sing the YWCA’s praises.”

Certainly, if her profile helps lift the profile of the YWCA so more people hear about it and jump on board to support the work it does in either a financial or volunteer capacity, she’ll be moving the vision in the right direction.

“I am also now in the business of running hotels,” says Anna, explaining the organisation has two 3 star hotels in Sydney, which are run on a purely commercial basis and from which the profits are used to fund the organisation’s social welfare programs.

“We have just changed the coffee supplier on our coffee cart so we’re in negotiating the contract with them to get the best deal. I think the best CEOs not only craft the big visions and make the strategic decisions they also have a very close eye on what is happening at the coal face. I’m good at delegating but I like to pay attention to detail,” she says.

The commercial nature of the YWCA’s model is what Anna most admires and sees it being, if not unique, rare in the sector.

“The non government sector [NGO] is a growth area and it is continuing to play a much greater role as more government services are moved into it. The models for how the sector will operate and fund programs need to continue to evolve as well,” says Anna.

The YWCA runs programs funded by government as well as those it funds through its own commercial ventures and by other forms of fundraising. Anna believes it is a “very interesting model” to contemplate.

“The hotels provide us with some independence. They give us a buffer and the ability to run programs outside of those that government is looking to outsource to NGOs. It is important that there are other independent thought leaders in the mix,” says Anna.

That financial independence also allows the YWCA to be flexible and nimble. The organisation can move quickly to respond to issues as they emerge, as well as running programs it believes are important but outside the scope of government. She cites, leadership for young girls as well as the in-school cyber bullying and sexting programs, which are run to help technology become an enabler for children and not a disabler, as examples.

“I think it comes as a surprise to people to hear that the YWCA is the largest women’s organisation on Earth with 22 million members and is active in 130 countries. Here in Australia, similar to the original, which began in the UK in the 1800s, it was begun by a small group of women appalled at the way women were being treated,” says Anna.

In Australia it was begun to provide safe accommodation for the hundreds of young women being shipped to the colonies in the 1880s as part of the mother country’s attempt to populate the country.

Dumped on the wharves these women had few connections, even less chance of finding a place to sleep and work and no one who cared let alone would fight for them. A handful of colonial women with a 50-pound donation from one of their husbands began a property acquisition program to save the recent arrivals from “moral peril” and get them the accommodation they needed.

“There’s a great quote from the film Moneyball. I think it’s a metaphor for pioneers in any field. ‘The first one through the wall always gets bloody’,” says Anna, who also hopes that people look at the hole in the wall and want to jump through it and not at the condition of the first one through.

Having been the first women premier in Queensland, she’s done her share of jumping through walls and wants women on all sides of politics to feel more inclined to think about the possibilities.

“I encourage any young women who express an interest in politics to try it, otherwise nothing will change. They also, and this goes for male or female, have to start young. To get known, to get the confidence, to get endorsed and form the networks, you have to be willing to do the hard yards,” says Anna, who joined the Labour party after she finished university in the 1980s and was elected in 1995.

“The reality is politics is difficult for anyone, because by its nature it invites controversy. Politics is about debating big ideas, about disagreeing, and taking on the conflict that occurs in our communities.

“You can’t be in politics without being prepared to be exposed to intense public scrutiny and the more senior you are the more intense that scrutiny is.

“Scrutiny is critical to democracy but I think there is a limit to how long people can live their lives in the full public glare,” explains Anna, who believes a career in politics may not be about ‘if’ but ‘how long’.

“For me the opportunity to have my hands on the levers of power and actually do things that I thought mattered and mattered to my community - to write legislation, to make new laws, to fund areas of service delivery that had never been considered, to create opportunities that had never been there before - that was exhilarating and deeply satisfying work.

“But,” she countenances, “you cannot have your hands on the levers of power and not be ready to be criticized whichever lever you pull. For men and women, it comes with the territory. If you are a public figure, you are public property. What you do is going to be a part of the public debate. For me, that is the price for having your hands on the levers and the white-knuckle ride making the big decisions can be.

“It is a very important price,” Anna finishes, “because you wouldn’t want someone with their hands on the levers who wasn’t the subject of constant public scrutiny.”

Rachel Ward AO is the YWCA’s patron. She was the inspiration behind the Mother of All Balls, which was first held in 2004. Since then the event has grown and evolved into one of the primary fundraisers for the organisation. The Mother of All Balls returns this year on May 24 and will be hosted by Rachel Ward at the Sydney Town Hall. This year it will be called “La Madre de tutte il Balli”, which provides a big clue about the theme.

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  • Qinnie Wang

    Qinnie Wang 7 years ago

    Anna Bligh is a true inspiration and I wish her all the best in her new role.