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If you thought this political year had a bit of spice, wait for 2024

As an action packed Queensland political year draws to a close, Dennis Atkins relects on how it all unfolded.

Dec 22, 2023, updated Dec 22, 2023
Reza Adib (left) and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (right)  on the red carpet during the Australian premiere of  the film ELVIS at Event Cinemas on the Gold Coast. (AAP Image/Darren England)

Reza Adib (left) and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (right) on the red carpet during the Australian premiere of the film ELVIS at Event Cinemas on the Gold Coast. (AAP Image/Darren England)

For Steven Miles Monday, January 1 is the first of 300 days during which he has to do the seemingly impossible, turning a sour anti-Labor sentiment around and achieving a re-election more remarkable than the rabbit-out-of-the-hat win his predecessor Annastacia Palaszczuk managed in 2020.

In recent Queensland political history, Palaszczuk’s progress stands as the most extraordinary tale. As a veteran Labor strategist observed after she resigned, “What would have been the odds on offer in 2015 that Annastacia would beat Campbell Newman, win two more elections and retire on her own terms after eight years?”

By any measure, Palaszczuk is the story of the year and the politician of the year. She might have had mixed feelings about going but she departs as Australia’s most successful female politician – a record unlikely to be challenged anytime soon.

Palaszczuk’s demise dominated 2023. The collapse in personal support for the now former premier dragged the government’s future further and further into the red zone.

Once Labor’s best asset and the hope of the side, Palaszczuk turned inexorably negative, with her approval rating flipping from the plus side of the electoral dial to the dark, negative end. The last of the warning signs was when LNP leader David Crisafulli scored as preferred premier.

Policy failings and short-comings – topped by perceptions of youth crime, an at-all-costs obsession with the 2032 Olympics and a health system that left patients dissatisfied – amplified this personal decline.

Except for the most ardent keyboard champions on social media, a clear majority of Queenslanders could see what was happening. Labor supporters looked on in frustration.

A lesson that should have been learned from 2022 escaped Labor over the past year. A series of cultural and organisational failures in public administration prompted Palaszczuk to call on the bureaucratic expertise of Professor Peter Coaldrake.

A veteran of public sector reform over three decades, Coaldrake offered clear-eyed and hard-headed suggestions for sparking cultural change. As management consultant Peter Drucker said famously, culture eats strategy for breakfast and Coaldrake provided all the food groups and extra protein.

The review offered Labor a tool for improving the public sector and a crutch on which to lean in times of trouble. It wasn’t rocket science for Miles to invite Coaldrake in for a meeting on day one.

This was the mix of politics and policy that has been lacking in other parts of the government.

Youth crime was allowed to get out of control because the government was caught flat-footed after a case in Cairns arguing detention of youths was illegal went against the government – leaving state Labor open to the same crisis the Albanese Government faced in November following the High Court rejecting an asylum seeker ruling.

The chaos that ensued – ministers cobbling together legislation like a shopping list written in the car on the way to the supermarket, keeping MPs (including Labor’s own) in the dark and junking human rights obligations – gave the ALP its worst week of the year.

That was until the week after when the premier secretly jetted off to Italy for a holiday with her limelight seeking boyfriend, cosmetic surgeon Reza Adib.

Palaszczuk returned with her political hide singed rather than burnt. She lived to fight on. However her colleagues were marking off her political lives and few could count many of them.

Some inside Labor say it was not the Italy trip that did the most damage to Palaszczuk but rather an extended “trade mission” to China. The five day trip included Dr Adib in the entourage (albeit a self-funded presence) and was slightly longer than that of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese who was making an historic journey to the Middle Kingdom.

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It was seen as an indulgence without much purpose or outcome. The premier’s office disputes this but at this point in her fading career, perception was trumping reality at every turn.

When it came time to go, she did it at a time of her choosing. Many very close to Palaszczuk – in the political, staff and personal circles – had little notice (some had just half an hour). Any succession plan or heir apparent had had to to be scrambled through a Sunday that presaged the pre-Christmas heatwave.

As you’d expect in this often-times madcap world of Queensland Labor, a lot didn’t go to plan. Steven Miles expected he’d be able to stitch together a deal with his friend and Left Caucus colleague, Health Minister Shannon Fentiman, but within hours she was having none of it.

A contest was on and what should have always been a pipedream – a Left/Left leadership – didn’t make first base.

However, it was soon clear Fentiman wasn’t going to drift into the background. She had some Right support and, with a close lead in the Left Caucus over Miles, could have upset the applecart.

The old deals and that trusty maxim – “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” – of Queensland Labor came into play and Miles won with a minority of Left support and enough backing from the Australian Workers Union and the Old Guard.

Gary Bullock from the old Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union – now the United Workers Union – and the AWU’s Stacey Schinnert had, in a sense, put the band together.

This is interesting for the longer term in the ALP (how things shake out if the party does lose the next poll will be fascinating).

Meanwhile, the powers that drove the party through its most successful period – the Wayne Goss years, into Peter Beattie’s time at the top – are in the ascendancy. This alone adds spice to a year with a jambalaya of flavour already.

 

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