For the old Annastacia, a funny thing happened on the way out of politics

Annastacia Palaszczuk used to be one of the country’s most likable and disarming political leaders. Then she stopped listening, writes Madonna King

Dec 11, 2023, updated Dec 11, 2023
Annastacia Palaszczuk pictured in 2015. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Annastacia Palaszczuk pictured in 2015. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

When former Electrical Trade Union stalwart Peter Simpson first heard new State ALP leader Annastacia Palaszczuk speak, he cringed.

Later, he told me he “wasn’t a fan’’. “I got some calls from my guys going, ‘She was hopeless. She spoke like a robot’.’’

Simpson, who died in 2020, watched the newbie leader grow during the 2015 election campaign. And it changed his mind.

“In the last debate, she was fantastic! She’s no Peter Beattie, Anna Bligh or Campbell Newman. She actually answers questions. I hope to Christ she doesn’t change,’’ he told me.

But she did, slowly at first, and at breakneck speed in the past few years, and that is why the ALP believes it needs to look elsewhere to have a hope in Hades of winning another term next October.

Palaszczuk’s personality, back then, was disarming. Honest, yes. But more than that. She laughed at herself, didn’t take any of it too seriously, and identified strongly with those she wanted to represent.

At her core, that’s who she’d always been. Eight years ago, as she was moving into the State’s top office, I went back to her school friends to find out if this accidental premier – a term she hates, but describes aptly her early elevation – had changed over the years.

The answer was a resounding no. “Stacia’’ or “Dag’’ or “Chook’’ – all nicknames she earned at school – was the same person they all remembered. “With Stacia, it’s all about working together, never about any individual,’’ one of her friends said.

And that proved to be the case, as the new premier vowed to listen and learn from those who had put their trust in her, and given the ALP their vote.

It was a refreshing no-frills style of politics. She didn’t seek the limelight like her predecessor. Or pick fights for fun. She was the first woman to take a party in opposition into government, and she saw her job as a consensus leader in a government team.

And that was despite an astonishing election victory: it was only the third time since 1932 that a sitting government had failed to win a second term of office and only the second time since Federation that the sitting premier, Campbell Newman, had lost his own seat.

Even her party didn’t see that coming. Indeed, a fuzzy plan existed prior to the 2015 election to replace her with now-Treasurer Cameron Dick if she won fewer than 30 seats; the idea slapped down when she won 37.

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While those achievements will – and should – write her into the history books, it was the fact that she seemed like the rest of us that appealed to so many first-time and turned Labor voters.

A couple of early incidents brought that home. In the days before the 2015 poll, she was barefoot and playing cricket when she fumbled a catch. She laughed. And laughed. “I used to play cricket all the time as a kid,’’ she later said. “I just decided to go out and have a go.’’ A normal response, to something that could have become a television gotcha moment.

And then, remember when she couldn’t nominate the GST rate during a 97.3FM breakfast radio quiz? Her reaction? She laughed again. “I hadn’t had a coffee and only three hours sleep the night before and they told me we were going to do pop culture! For goodness sake!’’ More laughter. And voters liked that she didn’t take herself too seriously. We all make mistakes.

None of that was put on. Her teachers at school say she was never an “I am’’ person, and had an ability to laugh and make others laugh – in one incident she borrowed a teacher’s clothing to then poke fun of them in a stand-up comedy routine for charity.

Her 1986 year book entry also hints at that: “Chook’s ambitions in life are: to finish one biol prac, to ski in a semi-upright position, to enter the Guinness Book of Records as the person to have eaten the most cream donuts, to pass her ballet exam before entering an aged people’s home and to top it off, a PM-ship to get the country into an even bigger mess!!!’’

She’s certainly not left Queensland in a mess, and her fall from grace is attributable to her eschewing those attributes that saw her elected in the first place.

Annastacia Palaszczuk stopped listening. She stopped valuing consensus. She took advice from a small group of minders who insulated her from those she served. She became less than she was.

She stopped laughing at herself, and forgot she was leading a team, who could be voted in and out, by the spectators.

It’s a story that happens in politics on a loop; and invariably it ends the same way.

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