Whatever fate awaits Annastacia Palaszczuk over the coming weeks, Queensland’s 39th – and only the second woman – premier will never lose her standing in the Australian Labor pantheon.
Palaszczuk, the state Labor leader since 2012 and premier since 2015, is already Australia’s most successful female political leader. She was the first woman to lead an opposition into government in an Australian state or federal election, the first woman to attain three successive election victories in Australia, and the first head of a majority-female cabinet.
If Palaszczuk can survive the building pressure on her to resign, she could next year become Queensland’s fourth longest-serving – and Labor’s second longest-serving – premier since 1860. But that prospect is becoming increasingly unlikely.
In July, a Freshwater Strategy poll for the Australian Financial Review found just 39% of Queenslanders now approve of Palaszczuk’s leadership, with 47% disapproving – a net negative of eight points.
And an August Resolve Strategic Poll showed 37% of respondents preferring Liberal-National Party Opposition leader David Crisafulli as premier, compared to 36% who preferred Palaszczuk. This was the first time in almost a decade an LNP leader has taken the lead.
What a far cry from the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic. In July 2020, Newspoll found 64% of Queenslanders approving of Palaszczuk’s leadership, with 81% approving of her management of the pandemic and subsequent hard border closures. Just 29% disapproved of her leadership – a net positive of 35 points.
Worse for Labor, Resolve now pegs LNP first-preference support at 38% (up three points since the 2020 election), with Labor at just 32% (down seven). The LNP also has an after-preference lead of 53–47% over Labor.
If this lead is held, it would likely be enough to allow the LNP to win the 14 seats needed for majority government in next October’s election.
A perception of a ‘checked-out’ premier
To outsiders it might appear Palaszczuk – who has dominated Queensland politics like no other since Peter Beattie more than a decade ago – has suffered a rapid fall from grace. But Palaszczuk’s decline has been a slow burn.
A year after securing her third term as premier in the 2020 election, Palaszczuk was wholly untroubled by a virtually unknown opposition leader.
But, by early 2022, Palaszczuk had found herself enmeshed in several integrity crises, including accusations the Crime and Corruption Commission had not been impartial in its investigation of alleged local government corruption, and that senior public servants had allegedly suffered political interference from ministerial staff.
Worse, Palaszczuk appeared slow to respond to the allegations before appointing three separate inquiries. One inquiry, under Professor Peter Coaldrake, published unfavourable findings.
The effect was rapid and seismic: the hitherto Teflon Palaszczuk now looked flawed, and opinion polls soon reflected Labor’s vulnerability. By June 2022, YouGov had revealed a five-point collapse in Labor’s primary vote, with the LNP, now on 38%, leading Labor for the first time.
But as the dust settled on Labor’s integrity issues, the LNP and a conservative news media cleverly switched narratives. Palaszczuk was then framed as a “checked-out”, “red carpet” premier more interested in mixing with celebrities and attending glitzy gala events with her new partner.
That narrative appeared to gain public traction when, in August last year, the media accused Palaszczuk of cancelling a cabinet meeting to spend time on a luxury yacht. The coincidental circumstance of Palaszczuk last week leaving for a holiday in Italy, just as the media storm broke over her leadership troubles, can only deepen perceptions of a “part-time” premier.
As public policy crises have continued to dominate the media over the past year, the accusation that Palaszczuk has taken her eye off the policy ball has only gained further traction. With a soaring cost of living, deepening housing crisis, overcrowded hospitals and budget blowouts in infrastructure projects, it’s little wonder voters have started to turn on her government.
But, more than any other, it’s the issue of youth crime that has most profoundly brought Palaszczuk’s leadership into question. Her government has been roundly criticised for the hastily passed legislation last week that could see children held “indefinitely” in Queensland watch houses – a move that was resisted by Labor’s majority Left faction.
Who might step into her large shoes?
In short, Palaszczuk has been Labor’s best asset in Queensland since 2012; now she appears a liability.
Despite unconvincing reassurances from senior government ministers that Palaszczuk will lead Labor to the October 2024 election, the momentum of leadership change now appears beyond the point of no return. It’s almost certain Queensland will have a new Labor premier, possibly by the end of this month.
There appear to be only three candidates:
Steven Miles, the deputy premier and leader of the Left faction of the party
Shannon Fentiman, the health minister and a member of the Left faction
Cameron Dick, the treasurer and head of Labor Forum, a right Labor faction
Dick has long been touted as a future premier but, given the Left has controlled the Labor caucus since 2015, either a Miles or Fentiman premiership is the more likely outcome.
Because Queensland Labor rules around leadership spills are so complicated – a ballot must be held in caucus, among grassroots members and among the unions – it’s likely Palaszczuk will be urged to resign when she returns from her holiday, with a single candidate emerging as her successor.
Either way, the next Labor leader would have very large shoes to fill. Labor had suffered a rout in the 2012 election, with the LNP capturing 78 seats in the 89-seat parliament – the then-largest majority in Australian history. When Palaszczuk put her hand up to lead the seven remaining Labor MPs, nobody would believe she’d topple the once-popular premier, Campbell Newman, just three years later.
But, by 2015, Queenslanders had been angered by Newman’s proposal to privatise state-owned assets. They also appeared tired of big personalities like Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Peter Beattie and Newman. Even those in regional Queensland warmed to a Labor leader who looked and sounded like a friendly next-door neighbour.
Will a leadership change be too little, too late to reverse the fortunes of a Labor Party looking for a fourth term? Probably. But it’s foolish to completely write off the party that has dominated Queensland politics for 28 of the past 33 years.
Correction: This story has been amended to specify that Palaszczuk was the first woman to lead an opposition into government in an Australian state or federal election, not anywhere in Australia. It had previously happened in the ACT and Northern Territory.