Political pugilism: How one punch in the face could be a knockout blow for Premier

Dennis Atkins thinks a loss for Labor in next month’s Ipswich West by-election could be a knock out punch. He reports, ringside.

Feb 13, 2024, updated Feb 13, 2024
Queensland Premier Steven Miles is seen giving a speech to the Queensland Media Club at the Brisbane Convention . (AAP Image/Darren England)

Queensland Premier Steven Miles is seen giving a speech to the Queensland Media Club at the Brisbane Convention . (AAP Image/Darren England)


Mike Tyson is not the best source of political advice or philosophy. Anyone under 35 will quickly tell you his past criminal behaviour has earned him the infamy of being cancelled.

That’s understandable but in this post-Trump world the lines of so-called acceptable behaviour are blurred to say the least. The last US Republican president and likely next nominee, Donald Trump has been proven as a sexual assailant and is liable to a multi-million dollar payout for defaming his victim.

In Australia you can fall down after too much booze and too many meds, lay on your back spewing foul language and get a leave pass because you’re a silly old former deputy prime minister who does that stuff.

All that to one side, one Tyson quote is worth recalling.

This standout maxim fits neatly the horns of the dilemma on which the Miles Government is hoist right now: the diabolical problem of youth gang crime.

Tyson famously said “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face” – itself a reworking of an old saying from a former veteran champion boxer Joe “the Brown Bomber” Louis who simply said “everybody’s got a plan until they get hit” – which became the basis for identifying the point at which strategy ends and combat begins.

Steven Miles and his senior ministers might have thought they had a plan for fighting youth crime but the stabbing murder of Vyleen White, the 70-year-old grandmother bailed up in a shopping centre car park and allegedly assaulted after the victim handed over the keys to her car was the equivalent of a punch in the face.

If they thought any government strategy was viable and sustainable – it was not and is not.

A few weeks ago this column argued for a rational debate on crime. That gets hard when there’s a senseless assault such as the one in Redbank or an alleged gangland kidnapping, robbery and torture as happened in nearby Doolandella and Forest Lake just days later.

Those dealing with crime in and around Brisbane over the last few years – whether they are law enforcement, lawyers or people living in the suburbs – know two things.
Youth crime is now endemic and its evolution from random attacks, opportunistic house-break-ins and just stealing stuff to something more orgnaised and systematic is obvious.

Police say the big shift has been from just kids being criminals – often mimicking what they see on social media – to organised crime gangs.

The gangs, often bound together on an ethnic basis with the most prominent being East Asian or African, recruit young kids to run the street-level crime.
These younger kids might not share the ethnicity but they do share the hunger for criminal adventure. They want to steal luxury cars or break into high-end homes in suburbs where high wealth individuals live.

Some of it is targeted – in some suburbs where there are plenty of expensive road bikes, especially electric ones, the kids swoop on the likely prize of any theft. A $4000 electric bike will sell very quickly on the black market as will one worth $1250.

The latest iteration of “dealing with youth gang crime” appears less than spectacular and will hardly meet community expectations: there’s no doubt flooding the crime zone with ankle bracelets and having mass random stop and search powers for police who suspect people are carrying weapons, especially knives, will have some visible impact.

For too many Queensland households, they’ve seen this movie many times before. Former Premier Annastacia Pazlaszczuk was adept at rolling out the five, seven or ten point plan to deal with the crisis of the day.  The problem was not the plans – many had laudable aims and might have worked if there was serious follow through.  There seldom was.

Ten months out from an election that was always going to be close – polling, for what it’s worth, is within the margin of error but reflects momentum towards the LNP – leaving Miles to reshape the government’s image through a refresh he leads.

The single defining challenge ahead is the Ipswich by-election, being held on March 16 (the same day as local government contests and another by-election in the neighbouring, safer Inala seat previously held by Palaszczuk).

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Labor is almost certain to hold Inala – it has a margin of just over 28 per cent and the primary vote for the seat has only fallen below 50 percent in the modern era, slipping to a survivable 46 percent in 2012 when the Campbell Newman wave swept the Bligh Labor Government out of office.

At that election Ipswich West was not on the “Labor Hold” list, with the party’s primary vote suffering an almost 24 percent collapse. Labor took it back with a 13 point swing three years later.

It’s a volatile part of south east Queensland – a volatility usually suppressed by an allegiance to Labor. A look at history shows it’s not blind loyalty by any means.

The Joh Bjelke-Petersen 1974 landslide – which saw Labor reduced to the infamous “cricket team” – was the first of three times the ALP failed to win the seat. As well as the Newman wave, the 1998 One Nation election was the other non-Labor pick up, that time with the interesting Jack Paff taking the seat for the Hanson party on National Party preferences.

While it is classified as “very safe Labor”, Ipswich West can turn on an emotional twist with something like youth crime gangs providing just the kind of spark capable of starting a wildfire. This makes Ipswich West a potential loss for Labor at just the wrong time for the broader political scene. It’s not at all certain the premier and his close ministers and advisers realise the stakes of this moment.

Main candidates are: Labor’s Wendy Bourne, the LNP’s Darren Zanow & One Nation’s Mark Bone. The former member is Jim Madden who quit to stand for the local council.

To lose a by-election, in a safe Labor seat, just eight and a half months out from the general election would be dreadful for confidence and morale in the Parliamentary Party and among branch members.

In a tough electoral environment, these conditions are the last circumstances you should hand your opponent.

While the observation of Mike Tyson serves as a reminder of the vulnerability of any strategy in planning for battle, there’s another pugilist who offered advice on what to do to win.
Multi-championship winner, the Louisville Slugger, Muhammad Ali, said “you’ve got to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”.

The butterfly part of the equation might be easy. Right now the community wants a big bee with a mighty powerful sting.


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