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Premier’s ‘come to Hawaii’ moment – and why she’s one selfie from following ScoMo

Annastacia Palaszczuk might be facing her Scott Morrison in Hawaii moment as 24 hours of chaos in Parliament rolled into a full blown government crisis, says Dennis Atkins.

Aug 28, 2023, updated Aug 28, 2023
In happier times: Former PM Scott Morrison pictured holidaying in Hawaii while Australia battled massive bushfires. (Image: supplied)

In happier times: Former PM Scott Morrison pictured holidaying in Hawaii while Australia battled massive bushfires. (Image: supplied)

Something in Queensland politics snapped on Wednesday last week, the sharp crack of a broken twig as authority drained from those who we thought were running our state.

This might not be uncommon in government but rare enough to make observers sit up and pay attention.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s hold on power is now tenuous. Her future is not assured and you can bet people are urgently discussing if there is a way out that involves dignity.

What began as a slightly worse than run-of-the-mill case of political and policy ineptitude – nothing too unusual for this sometimes clumsy government – has now morphed into a personal crisis for the premier.

Palaszczuk, who is somewhere in Italy, could be facing her Hawaiian holiday moment – the one that came close to destroying Scott Morrison’s leadership in the summer of 2019/20.

A photo of Morrison sitting forlornly on the holiday island beach while most of the east coast of Australia was engulfed by wildfires was an instant symbol of uncaring disengagement. His brain-fail statement to Radio 2GB that “I don’t hold a hose mate” all but sealed his fate.

Without the intervention of a global pandemic six to eight weeks later he would have been a dead politician walking.

Palaszczuk in Italy – wherever she is with her partner Dr Reza Adib, who’s attending a medical conference – could be one tabloid photo away from finding out just how Morrison felt on that Hawaiian beach.

The now-famous image of then-PM Scott Morrison on a Hawaii Beach while Australia burned. (Image: Yahoo).

It started with something that in itself wasn’t entirely extraordinary. A well planned, visually arresting protest march by victims of crime descended on state parliament with emotionally charged signs, professionally prepared.

There were slogans shouted which had been composed to drive home the most damaging messages. Most powerful was doubtless this arrow combining the deprivations of Covid restrictions with the apparent hands free attitude to young criminals: “You locked us down, why won’t you lock them up?”

The government’s reaction was pulled from the politics 101 playbook: “Do something!”

What looked like a hurriedly cobbled together set of legislative amendments to a youth crime bill – running to 57 pages – was introduced at dinner time and announced in a media statement from Youth Justice Minister Di Farmer at 7.39pm.

Farmer said there was nothing to see in the amendments – they were “business as usual” and demonstrated that “some of the toughest laws in the country were working”.

It’s hard to recall official insouciance on this level. Given its context it shouldn’t have surprised.

Palaszczuk and her government were smashed on the nightly television news in an all-channels take down seldom seen these days – a punch to the political gut aimed at one of the weakest cards in Labor’s hand: law and order.

Of course, it hadn’t been a “nothing to see here” moment.

Members of the state Caucus – usually either calmly obedient or incuriously docile – were stirred enough to be worried. There was widespread concern, made worse by the heavily negative media coverage.

It all worsened on Thursday by which time those concerned about civil liberties, the rights of young people (the harshest aspect of these laws could legitimise the holding of 10 year old alleged offenders in adult watchouses) and the niceties of legislative procedure coalesced in outrage.

Even the victims groups thought the government was overreacting in its response.

The only steadfast supporter was Queensland Police Union President Ian Leavers. The Katter Party’s head Robbie Katter – who wants to bus young offenders to the outback to teach them a thing or two – agreed with what the laws would achieve but decried the chaotic way it was done.

If you’re counting on a fiercely anti-human rights character like Leavers for your only support you’re in a dark, unhappy place.

For Palaszczuk and her government, the mess of it all was clear to see. However, by Friday last week the gravity seems to have escaped the premier.

After attending the funeral of former National Party premier Mike Ahern, Palaszczuk had a chat with her deputy Steven Miles about the next two weeks and what he should do while she was away. Palaszczuk then packed her bag and joined Adib for that two week Italian holiday.

Medical conferences are seldom held in the grungy suburbs of Naples so you can imagine the Amalfi Coast, Lake Como or Sicily’s Taormina.

Her office issued a terse statement on Saturday afternoon headed “Premier’s Leave” saying Palaszczuk would be away until September 11 and Miles would be acting in her position until then.

What happens next is one of those unknown unknowns former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld made famous.
Her fate is, on one level, in her own hands. Will Palaszczuk stand and fight? Will she consider an early transfer of power on her terms, maybe before the 12-months-to-polling-day date at the end of October?

There were genuine smoke signals – written in these columns recently – that Palaszczuk was already thinking about whether she might step away from the premiership after she reached Peter Beattie’s nine years and 80 days in the top job. It might now be time to think whether she brings that thinking forward to avoid being pushed by her colleagues.

One senior Labor strategist paints the choices as stark: “Either she walks on her terms with some dignity, she is punted by the party or she digs in and is punted by the public next year.”

Palaszczuk is no longer the asset she was for Labor – quite the opposite. She is now a serious liability and a drag on the government’s vote. “Everybody hates her and the failings of the government are personalised through her,” said one government insider, adding she’s blamed for the state of the health system, housing and crime and public order.

The middle road – an orderly transfer of power to someone else (presumably her deputy Steven Miles) – might have its twists and difficult turns but it presents itself as Labor’s best path ahead in a situation that echoes a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.

A young police officer looks at multiple dead bodies strewn across the desert and asks the sheriff if it’s a mess. The reply says it all: “If it ain’t, it’ll do until a mess comes along”.

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