From ‘tuckshop mum’ to ‘favourite aunt’ and now our most successful politician

There have been many elements contributing to the making of Annastacia Palaszczuk, but the one-time “accidental Premier” has deserved her new-found lofty status, writes Dennis Atkins

Nov 10, 2020, updated Nov 10, 2020
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has returned to work with a long list of things to do. (Photo: AAP Image/Darren England)

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has returned to work with a long list of things to do. (Photo: AAP Image/Darren England)

When planning political campaigns, former US president Barack Obama was fond of observing that “you don’t get to pick the moment, the moment picks you”.

This acknowledgment that events and circumstances shape political battles and fortunes had a loud ring in the recent Queensland election where the winner, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, was put into the centre of the least expected occurrence anyone has seen in a century, the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Palaszczuk’s handling of the insidious and lethal health emergency and its economic consequences might have been the key to navigating what was previously an almost impossible path to success but her victory was much more than the happenstance of incumbency.

Palaszczuk was picked by a moment that she was not just ready for but excelled in managing, despite the inevitable mistakes and slips along the way.

This election victory elevates Palaszczuk as the most successful politician in Australia in 2020. It’s a truly remarkable apex for someone who was dismissed as having achieved high office accidentally five years ago.

Palaszczuk is beginning a four-year term during which she will achieve 10 years as Labor leader and, later, surpass Wayne Goss and Peter Beattie as the longest-serving ALP Premier since the party split in the mid-1950s.

She might not have stamped her presence as a transformational leader but she has been consequential. Palaszczuk took the keys to the premier’s office after pulling off what was assumed to be out of reach – toppling Campbell Newman after just one term despite his eight to one supremacy in parliament.

Now she’s seen off three other LNP leaders and has the stature and authority of a three-time winner.

Most importantly, this third victory is Palaszczuk’s to claim as her own. As one long-time Labor campaign strategist observed, this time the Premier was a key factor in the result rather than one piece on a more complex chessboard.

“This time Stacia drove the victory, being the prime reason for people voting Labor and also central to the direction and content of the campaign,” said the strategist.

“Her handling of the virus was the bedrock of our success but she also deserves credit for driving the jobs agenda that worked so well in regional Queensland, especially in resource and manufacturing communities.”

Few people who watch Palaszczuk realise or appreciate that she holds degrees in economics and law and studied at the University of London, where she was a Chevening scholar.

It’s an unlikely background for someone who was dubbed a “tuckshop mum” early in her career for the easy-going relatability that underscored a connection with voters that still endures.

“During her time in office, she has grown into a persona of the favourite Aunty,” said a former political colleague now out of parliament. “She has an authenticity that politicians crave but it is so casually present you don’t notice it.”

Another Labor figure who has worked closely with Palaszczuk over the years said the Premier picked up another sobriquet in this recent campaign, that of the “nice niece”, a character recognised by many older Queenslanders who voted Labor for the first time or after a long dalliance with conservative parties.

It makes the phrase “what you see is what you get” important when assessing Palaszczuk.

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A ministerial colleague said one of Palaszczuk’s strengths was her innate understanding of Queenslanders. “She’s not a snob,” said this politician. “She takes people as they come and listens if she finds a connection.”

Others point to Palaszczuk’s “resilience” and “toughness” when asked about her.

“She is determined and can be ruthless when she thinks it’s necessary,” said one senior Labor figure. “I often joke that she’s a lot like (former Nationals premier) Joh (Bjelke-Petersen) but her warm, human side masks those traits.”

A leader of one of Queensland’s peak interest groups said Palaszczuk had a couple of “true norths” which she “probably owes to (father) Henry and her upbringing in Inala”.

Two common observations come through in discussions with a host of people who have dealt with Palaszczuk – once she trusts you, it’s an almost unbreakable bond and she is an attentive listener to advice.

“She has a pretty basic commonsense approach to problems, whether they are political or policy,” said one sectoral insider who has dealt with Palaszczuk throughout her time in office.

“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve underestimated her,” he said. “But I think she quite enjoys being underestimated.”

One unknown at the moment is what Palaszczuk will make of this most significant of her three election wins.

Most people who know Palaszczuk well and work with her hope she will shake off some of her infamous caution and build a broad policy agenda for the post-pandemic economy.

However, the current consensus is that this coming term will be “business as usual”. If so, it would be a missed – and wasted – opportunity. Perhaps an emboldened, re-elected Palaszczuk will start picking some moments rather than waiting for them to select her.

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