Not too late for Premier to backflip away from this political kryptonite

Annastacia Palaszczuk’s border wars problem was unnecessary and avoidable a week ago and can still be rescued, writes Dennis Atkins

May 26, 2020, updated May 26, 2020
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (front) and Deputy Premier Steven Miles. (Photo: AAP Image/Darren England)

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (front) and Deputy Premier Steven Miles. (Photo: AAP Image/Darren England)

We might look back at Monday, May 18, as the day the Queensland Government wrote its own suicide note.

If we do reflect on this after the October 31 election it will also be quite clear that this misstep was entirely avoidable.

Only three days after stage one of Queensland’s “Roadmap to easing restrictions: A step-down approach to COVID-19” was enacted, Annastacia Palaszczuk made news during a national ABC TV breakfast appearance by dropping a rider not in that document.

After expressing concern about community transmission in southern states, Palaszczuk sent waves of shock and surprise through political and business circles by throwing out the possibility of keeping our borders with the rest of Australia closed until September – about two months longer than the July 10 target date set out in that roadmap.

“I would say that things would look more positive towards September — having said that, I do not want to rule anything out, I will give you that advice at the end of May, as quickly as possible,” she said.

The most generous way to look at this was that Palaszczuk was being ultra-cautious, perhaps echoing what she’d heard from her powerful Chief Health Officer, Dr Jeannette Young.

It’s worth noting the roadmap specifically omitted having the borders opened in time for the July school holidays – saying instead people should consider driving holidays within their regions, as part of the “Queenslanders backing Queensland” tourism plan.

Tourism operators – who are now arguing for the state borders to be opened before the holidays – were fine with the holiday at home and borders probably opened by July 10 approach prior to Palaszczuk dropping the September surprise.

In the week that’s followed this very consequential use of September as a possible target date, Palaszczuk has by turns given herself some wriggle room and dug deeper into the hole she had opened up.

The caveat that opening up the borders would be based on evolving health advice and reviewed at the end of this month – this coming Sunday, following Friday’s national cabinet meeting – was explained and gave some opportunity for a reasonably elegant climb down.

However, that “health advice” qualifier was given steel when Young said she wanted to see two incubation periods – or up to four weeks – of zero cases in New South Wales and Victoria for the border to reopen, because of the presence of community transmission in those states.

The almost universal view among medical scientists settles on this aspiration being unlikely for many months, possibly into next year.

The Palaszczuk/Young diagnosis has been weakened with the Deputy Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer – and esteemed epidemiologist – Paul Kelly saying there was never any medical reason to close borders.

Palaszczuk’s border wars problem was unnecessary and avoidable a week ago and can still be rescued. If the Premier didn’t mention September but rather kept the future open with the general caveats about health advice and regular reviews, she would have avoided the week of pain she has endured.

Trying to spin the misstep as standing up for Queensland and just wanting to keep people in this state safe is fine as far as it goes. It does not, however, go very far.

Palaszczuk, with Young’s guidance and advice, has managed the pandemic in Queensland both calmly and confidently. We have, as they say, flattened the curve. As a result, Palaszczuk’s weak approval ratings have been taken off life support and now sit in the mid-60s.

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This was the conversation and connection with voters the Premier needed.

Now, Palaszczuk is giving a political opportunity to an oxygen-deprived Pauline Hanson, who’s been sidelined because of the crisis.

Talk of a High Court challenge is doubtless only talk but it’s provided the One Nation leader with a way into a conversation from which she was excluded.

In an election that’s as tight and as many-sided as this year’s state election was always going to be, this is an even break Hanson desperately needs but certainly doesn’t deserve.

Perhaps Palaszczuk should get some advice from South Australian Premier Steven Marshall who has also been operating in the shadow of a powerful and hard-lined health official, the state’s chief public health officer, Professor Nicola Spurrier.

Spurrier had opposed letting people consume alcohol at reopened hospitality venues – saying people might get too relaxed – and she was against bringing forward the next stage of easing restrictions because she didn’t realise there was a long holiday weekend just preceding it.

Marshall managed to assert his authority and these unnecessarily harsh restrictions were loosened – opening up cafes and restaurants to imbibing, letting people back into pubs and cutting by a week the waiting time for the next round of relaxed restrictions. He’s been cheered in the streets for his flexibility.

The unprecedented nature of this pandemic is leading to many mistakes and wrong assumptions and forecasts – none bigger than the modelling that led to the $60 billion underspend for the Commonwealth’s JobKeeper scheme, mainly because the dire health projections were not realised.

Palaszczuk can use the unique circumstances allowed by the crisis to invoke those caveats, perform a swift backflip and swallow the word September.

As John Howard used to say, there’s nothing wrong with a backflip as long as you land on your feet and in the right spot.

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