The private family heartbreak that Premier has quietly carried through pandemic

An emotional Annastacia Palaszczuk today insisted she knew the pain of losing loved ones in a pandemic. That is the closest she has come to publicly talking about the death of her nanna in June.

Sep 11, 2020, updated Sep 11, 2020
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk poses with her family including father Henry (L) and grandmother Beryle Erskine (R) at an election night function at Lions Richlands Club after her 2015 election win.  (AAP Image/John Pryke)

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk poses with her family including father Henry (L) and grandmother Beryle Erskine (R) at an election night function at Lions Richlands Club after her 2015 election win. (AAP Image/John Pryke)

The Premier has long refused to talk about her nanna’s death, remaining stoic at the helm of her government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and recession. Her silent steadfastness was as much a determination to keep her family out of the harsh political spotlight as an acknowledgement that, for her, it was still too raw to talk about.

This week, Palaszczuk has come under intense public and political scrutiny, including some stinging criticism, over apparent inconsistencies in Queensland’s border restrictions. A Canberra woman was granted permission to visit her dying father but unable to join other mourners at his Brisbane funeral, instead granted a last-minute exemption from quarantine to have a private viewing.

After a week of parliament, and fronting a parliamentary committee hearing this morning, Palaszczuk gave a COVID-19 update to journalists. She lost her composure when asked about Federal Finance Minister Mathias Cormann joining the chorus of critics, having said he couldn’t understand how “somebody could be so cold-hearted, harsh and nasty”.

“Well, I say to Mathias, I mean, these are difficult decisions, and they’re heart-breaking,” Palaszczuk said.

“I’m human just like everyone else. These issues hurt me deeply, they hurt me deeply because during this pandemic I’ve lost loved ones as well so I know exactly what people are going through.”

That was the closest Palaszczuk had come to talking about her Nanna’s death in almost three months. There has been no media reporting: a short funeral notice was the only public report that Beryl Erskine, who turned 95 in February, died on June 21.

Among the family members listed on the notice were Palaszczuk and her father Henry, a former Queensland government minister. Their official titles were not mentioned, only their more treasured roles as Erskine’s son-in-law and granddaughter. Erskine was pre-deceased by husband Harry and left 13 great-grandchildren.

Soon after, in one of her regular press conferences, Palaszczuk referred briefly to having been at a hospital with her family. But she did not mention the tragedy and at the time her office sought to keep the details private. Yet it was unusual for Palaszczuk to not be talking about her nanna.

Just three days before Erskine passed away, Palaszczuk – whose pandemic decisions have included aged care and funeral restrictions – told parliament she had personal experience with “how difficult and how heartbreaking these times have been”.

“My nanna has had very limited contact with her immediate family and extended family during most of this year during the COVID pandemic,” Palaszczuk said.

“Like many other Queensland families, my sister has had the duty of putting together a family roster to put in place the times at which our family can go and visit her. This has been very hard and stressful on my grandmother and I know it has been very stressful on a lot of other elderly people who are in aged-care homes.”

It appears Erskine’s health deteriorated rapidly in the two days before her death.

Palaszczuk was close to her nanna, even describing Erskine as her best friend, and their relationship has been a constant during Palaszczuk’s political career. In her maiden speech in 2006, Palaszczuk thanked Erskine for “always being there for me no matter what”.

When Palaszczuk led Labor to victory at the 2015 election she was quick to share the moment with her nanna. Erskine, who voted in front of news photographers, told reporters her granddaughter’s best political attribute was her brain.

In 2017, amid speculation Palaszczuk was going to Government House to call an election, the Premier held off questions from reporters by saying she had plans to see her nanna – only to subsequently pay a visit to the Governor too.

Palaszczuk quipped to parliament on June 18 that, with aged care restrictions being eased, her family would not be the only ones paying a visit to Erskine.

“Up until COVID I had never seen my 95-year-old grandmother—Nanna—with a single grey hair until this pandemic,” Palaszczuk said.

“I know she is looking forward to the hairdresser appointment.”

Tragically, her nanna died three days later. Erskine’s funeral was streamed live to mourners unable to attend in person and she was given a private burial in Boonah. Restrictions on aged care homes have since been tightened due to COVID-19 clusters in south-east Queensland.

Palaszczuk’s paternal grandmother, Ludwika, died in 1973 aged 55, while her paternal grandfather, Hipolit, died in 2003 aged 81. Palaszczuk spoke of Hipolit’s “beautiful but horrific death” from cancer when talking about the euthanasia debate, which will not be concluded until after the election.

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