With Annastacia Palaszczuk gone, can Labor achieve the unachievable in Queensland?

When Palaszczuk departs on Friday, she will have served eight years and 305 days, becoming Queensland’s fifth-longest – and Labor’s third-longest – serving premier.

By Paul Williams

Democracies are, by nature, systems of stability and change.

But, north of the Tweed River, Queensland politics is very much about stability, and only a little about change. Where, for example, New South Wales has seen nine premiers over the past 20 years, Queensland has seen just four.

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Yet a changing of the guard is now occurring after Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk – the daughter of a Labor cabinet minister and the last of the “COVID-19 era” premiers – tearfully announced her resignation as the state’s 39th (and second woman) premier. With the coming of the “silly season”, this is the perfect time for leadership transition: Labor can begin 2024 with a clean page.

When Palaszczuk departs on Friday, she will have served eight years and 305 days, becoming Queensland’s fifth-longest – and Labor’s third-longest – serving premier. She has represented the very safe Labor seat of Inala in Brisbane’s southwest since 2006.

Palaszczuk was elected Labor leader in 2012 to head a Labor rump of just seven MPs after Campbell Newman’s Liberal-National Party routed the Bligh Labor government. With the aid of a trade union campaign against an LNP plan to privatise state assets, Labor fell into minority government just three years later. It was the most remarkable turnaround in political fortunes in modern Australian history.

But Palaszczuk – who became the first woman to lead an opposition into government in an Australian federal or state (but not territory) election, the first woman to attain three successive election victories, and the first to lead a majority-female cabinet in Australia – was no “accidental premier”; she was a popular leader in her own right.

In carving out a new style of leadership – positioned somewhere between the amiable Peter Beattie and the administrative Anna Bligh – Palaszczuk blended a “next door neighbour” folksiness with a Queensland-first populism to forge a new type of “strong” yet accessible leader. That model of leadership was writ large via hard border closures during the early days of COVID-19, which saw Palaszczuk rewarded at the 2020 election with an increased parliamentary majority.

More than a year after that victory, Labor – according to a February YouGov survey – was still polling 39% of the primary vote (compared to 38% for the LNP), leading the LNP after preferences by 52% to 48%.

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Moreover, Palaszczuk still enjoyed a net satisfaction rating of plus-14 points.

Fast forward to late 2023, a Resolve-Strategic Poll pegged Labor’s primary vote at a mere at 33% (compared to 37% for the LNP).

With an October YouGov poll previously finding Labor trailing the LNP after preferences, 48% to 52% – a swing of five points from 2020 – Labor was set to lose 10 seats to the LNP (mostly in the regions) and at least two seats in Brisbane to the Greens.

Resolve-Strategic also found 39% preferring LNP leader David Crisafulli as premier, compared to 34% for Palaszczuk. Crisafulli also enjoyed a net approval rating of plus-nine points, while Palaszczuk had a net approval of minus-17. Rarely have we seen a once-widely admired leader become so widely disparaged.

So what went wrong for Palaszczuk?

Palaszczuk’s most serious challenge emerged in early 2022, when questions of integrity were raised, including allegations of a partisan Crime and Corruption Commission, of ministerial staff bullying public servants, of too-cosy relationships with lobbyists, and alleged interference in the work of the integrity commissioner.

The ordering of three inquiries stabilised Labor’s stocks. But, by late 2022, clever attacks by the LNP opposition (led by a moderate Crisafulli, who was by then building a high media profile) on Palaszczuk as a “part-time”, “checked-out” and “red carpet” premier proved stunningly successful. Coupled with crises in the cost of living, youth crime, housing and hospital ramping, Palaszczuk and Labor appeared directionless by 2023.

In August 2023, while the premier enjoyed an overseas holiday, speculation mounted that her decline in the polls meant a departure was imminent. But, on her return, Palaszczuk stood in the parliament, dug in her heels and reminded Queenslanders she was the boss. The fact Palaszczuk has only now succumbed to pressure suggests Labor’s internal power dynamics have changed during the past three months.

Palaszczuk insists her poor approval ratings have nothing to do with the timing of her departure. Instead, she says, she decided to make way for change after seeing “new faces” at last week’s National Cabinet meeting. But it’s more likely party chieftains, especially those leading trade unions affiliated with the now-dominant Left faction, last week gave the premier a gentle “shoulder tap” and suggested her leadership was no longer tenable. https://www.youtube.com/embed/_y3XzUzl45w?wmode=transparent&start=0

Palaszczuk has already endorsed her deputy (and Left faction leader) Steven Miles as the next premier, despite her factional colleague and treasurer, Cameron Dick, often being touted for succession. Given the Left has controlled the Labor parliamentary party since 2015, Miles will inevitably become premier, although there is emerging caucus support for another Left star, Health Minister Shannon Fentiman.

There will, however, be no ballot. Given Queensland Labor rule changes in 2015 – where ballots for leadership contests are shared equally among caucus, rank and file members and trade union representatives – a drawn-out public brawl with a Labor Party in limbo will be avoided at all costs.

If victorious, the more softly-spoken Miles will bring a change of pace to a Queensland premiership where loud voices are the norm. Miles, 46, is a former small businessman who holds a doctorate in political science. The married father of three, who worked for the public sector Together Union, won the leafy Brisbane seat of Mt Coot-tha in 2015, then switched to the outer-Brisbane seat of Murrumba in 2017. He has previously served as minister for the environment and minister for health.

That Miles is poised to take the premiership today is arguably an accident of history. First, it is unusual for Queensland Labor to be dominated by the Left. Second, Miles was promoted to the deputy position in May 2020 only because former deputy premier and Left leader, Jacqui Trad, resigned from cabinet following an investigation by the state’s corruption watchdog. Trad lost her seat to the Greens on LNP preferences in 2020.

Miles was not initially well-received as deputy premier, with voters anecdotally disliking him, and especially his attempts at the “attack dog” role deputies so often assume.

But, serving as acting premier during numerous Palaszczuk absences, other anecdotal evidence suggests Miles has garnered a degree of respect.

So we can expect a business-as-usual approach from a Miles cabinet. There will be heavy investment in infrastructure, especially in the lead-up to the 2032 Brisbane Olympics, and in the regions; major strides toward clean energy (although coal, with recent royalty hikes, will still loom large); and a deep commitment to social justice, especially First Nations peoples, in the wake of the Voice to Parliament referendum’s defeat.

The final question, whether Miles can turn a certain Labor defeat in the 2024 state election into a Labor victory, is as yet unanswerable. A fourth Labor term, even if in minority government with the Greens, is still possible, but far from probable. The LNP requires a 6.1% after-preference swing to snare the 14 seats it needs for majority government.

Until yesterday, Palaszczuk’s increasingly unpopular leadership was the biggest impediment to a Labor victory on October 26, 2024. That hurdle has now been removed. If inflation, as expected, cools next year, and if Miles can demonstrate some traditionally “strong” leadership and law and order populism – and mitigate hospital ramping and social housing shortages with immediate and tangible results – then Labor has a real chance.

Queensland politics just got interesting again.

Paul Williams, Associate Professor, Griffith University, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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