Is Palaszczuk in danger of keeping everyone safe except herself?

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk keeps insisting her priority is to keep Queenslanders safe. But if that is not the priority for all Queenslanders, Labor risks governing itself out of office, writes Sean Parnell.

Sep 11, 2020, updated Sep 11, 2020
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, with key Cabinet ministers Steven Miles (left) and Cameron Dick after the last Cabinet reshuffle. (Photo: AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, with key Cabinet ministers Steven Miles (left) and Cameron Dick after the last Cabinet reshuffle. (Photo: AAP Image/Dan Peled)

The longer the pandemic drags on, the more Queensland looks like a suspenseful hostage drama.

With all the tension, fleeting moments of humanity, flashes of light amid the darkness, it is hard to know whether the greater threat lies outside or within, whether the good guys are actually bad, or the bad guys are actually good. It is too early to know how this will all end.

This week, another plot turn came when a Canberra woman complained of not being allowed to attend her father’s funeral because of Queensland’s tough border controls.

The same border controls that have been credited with keeping COVID-19 at bay suddenly appeared brutal and uncompromising. The same border controls managed by Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young, long regarded as a hero of the pandemic response, were being blamed on Palaszczuk, as everyone from the woman to Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused her of cruelty.

Suddenly those who have strongly supported the “keeping Queenslanders safe” mantra – amplified by politicians and shock jocks – began questioning the humanity of it all.

That this funeral came after a dire budget update, on the last sitting day of parliament before the October 31 election, on the day two senior and well-regarded ministers announced they would be retiring, has only built the suspense.

If something big is about to happen, it may just happen at the election, dispelling the theory that the incumbents always do well in a crisis. Perhaps governments can only withstand so much pressure in 2020, and Oppositions need only wait their turn.

Palaszczuk’s biggest failure this week was her inability to simply and succinctly explain the policy contrasts, instead playing the strongman role that has served her well in the past but does not work all the time. Palaszczuk would have known the LNP Opposition, under fire for having called for open borders, was refining its political attack to highlight contradictions and apparent hypocrisy in Labor’s approach. Yet the Labor leader struggled to acknowledge the concerns and provide reasoned reassurance.

There was an explanation on Thursday, however bureaucratic and technical, but the Premier left her government open to accusations that a grieving young woman could not attend a funeral but rich people, AFL players and officials, and even Hollywood superstar Tom Hanks enter Queensland at their will. Coincidentally, it was a day with no new cases in Queensland, after the shock of eight new cases the day before.

Young attempted to clarify the rules, late in the piece, but was drowned out by the roar. Even she can’t do it on her own; after gaining a deputy, and more staff to deal with sensitive issues, Young has been granted a weekend off.

Today, in a parliamentary committee hearing, Palaszczuk again insisted her priority was keeping Queenslanders safe.

“Some of these cases are heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking,” the Premier said.

“We also have to recognise that the measures we have in place are working.”

Ironically, after she had left the hearing, Palaszczuk had to send in a letter to the committee to clarify her evidence, having bungled an answer on the number of government and health staff considering border exemptions. These are not the mistakes to be making right now.

Labor has built a presidential-style re-election campaign around Palaszczuk, but that all-or-nothing strategy is fraught with danger. In the past, voters might have warmed to her unencumbered, frank, and somehow above-it-all approach, but circumstances change, and in 2020 people tire easily.

Frecklington, on the other hand, is direct, almost cutting in her comments, and if the dislike for Morrison doesn’t drag her down Queenslanders might be prepared to offer her a pedestal.

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Palaszczuk appears even more isolated than she has in the past. She is wielding more power personally, both within government and the party. With long-time deputy Jackie Trad on the backbench, and now three ministers retiring, including two of its best performers, the government has been forced into change without having a strategy of renewal or even a succession plan.

Anyone who felt Labor wasn’t ready for government in 2015 might be forgiven for thinking it isn’t ready for another term of government now. Palaszczuk has only weeks to turn it around, knowing that even if Labor is re-elected, she will have to perform her second Cabinet reshuffle in six months. The two ministers who announced their retirement on Thursday are big losses.

Natural Resources Minister Anthony Lynham did much better than other doctors who became politicians, and had become an articulate and confident speaker well-engaged in his portfolio. That he chose to return to being doctor, not a minister or even a backbencher, shows where Lynham felt his services could be put to best use.

After Trad left, Kate Jones became an even more valuable member of the Palaszczuk team. The Minister for State Development, Tourism and Innovation has been dealing with the worst-hit industries in the recession, and trying to keep the Cross River Rail project on track. She has been a great defender of the Premier.

Jones is active in her portfolios, seemingly able to deal as effectively with lobby groups as she does with community groups. In parliament, Jones is also the only minister to interject on Opposition interjections so much she is warned by the Speaker (even on Thursday before she announced her retirement).

That level of intensity, that degree of passion for the cause – whether right or wrong – is not easy to come by, and will be hard for others to replicate.

All this leaves Queensland with Palaszczuk, capable Deputy Premier and Health Minister Steven Miles, and still-learning Treasurer Cameron Dick – at least until October 31. The government is still engrossed in the pandemic and recession. In a crisis, people look for the helpers, and these three, in particular, will need to demonstrate they are helping.

Of course, the pandemic has a long way to go (Brisbane will host the AFL grand final the week before the election) and the recession may yet worsen. The longer this drags on, the more human stories Queenslanders will hear, some involving their own friends and family members caught on the wrong side of the border, and the more they will tire of the same political commentary.

It is no longer enough to assume that hearing about more cases of COVID-19 in southern states, and more deaths, will make Queenslanders comfortable with the government approach. Frustrated people often lash out.

If this was a hostage drama, Thursday would have been the moment some particularly confronting development shocked people into a period of quiet contemplation. Voters may have bowed their head at that moment, and now be quietly thinking about what they should do next.

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