Labor’s Queensland problems won’t be solved by Palaszczuk’s departure

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It is revealing of the way things happen inside the Queensland Labor Party that, when the faceless men decided to blast Annastacia Palaszczuk out of the premiership, the public undermining was led by two of Labor’s good ol’ boys: Bob Gibbs and Robert Schwarten.

The intervention of these old political bruisers – ministers from the Goss and Beattie days – evoked memories of the Queensland Labor Party of old, when the trade union bosses Jack Egerton and Hughie Williams used to run things from the back bar of the Breakfast Creek Hotel. Some things may have changed since those days – it is many years since Labor had its headquarters at Breakfast Creek – but much of the old culture lingers. These blokes – none of the most powerful union bosses or faction leaders are women – don’t call themselves “the old guard” for nothing.

Annastacia Palaszczuk’s resignation further complicates Queensland politics for Labor PM Anthony Albanese.Credit: Aresna Villanueva

When they decided that Palaszczuk had to go, it was only a matter of time. Immediately, the spinning operation was under way. The bouquets were already arriving before the political corpse was cold. Palaszczuk was a respected figure, a Labor hero. As the old saying goes, the mafia always sends flowers. Another former Beattie-era minister, John Mickel, even claimed with a straight face that Palaszczuk had left “of her own volition”. There isn’t a single person in Brisbane who believes that. If you’re dumb enough to swallow it, then I have a harbour bridge to sell you.

This is not to say, brutal though Palaszczuk’s execution was, that it wasn’t the right call for Labor. Wayne Swan, Labor’s national president and one of the chief behind-the-scenes string-pullers, has been saying for weeks around Labor circles (including to people indiscreet enough to repeat this to me) that the state government was facing a Campbell Newman-magnitude wipe-out at the election next October. That is an exaggeration. But, certainly, Labor is currently on track to lose.

Queensland LNP leader David Crisafulli.Credit: Jamila Toderas

Palaszczuk’s approval ratings have fallen off a cliff over the past year (the most recent poll had her net favourability at minus 17) and the LNP has, since April, led Labor in the two-party preferred vote. This is due to four things. First, the government’s response to a number of issues – in particular, a youth crime wave – was rightly judged by the public to have been inadequate. Other issues, so familiar in state politics, including ambulance ramping and housing, are also in the mix.

The LNP, led by David Crisafulli – fresh-faced, tenacious and whip-smart – has prosecuted those issues effectively. This is the second reason the political tide has turned: the opposition, after years of infighting, has at last got its act together. Crisafulli’s authority among his parliamentary colleagues is unquestioned. The LNP organisation is no longer fighting with the parliamentary wing. The new state president, the respected former parliamentary leader Lawrence Springborg, has united the entire LNP operation and has finally put to rest residual differences arising from the merger of the Liberal and National parties 15 years ago.

Thirdly, state Labor suffers from the fact that the Albanese government is on the nose in Queensland. The referendum – rejected by Queenslanders by a far wider margin than the national result – was not just a huge distraction; it signalled, in particular outside Brisbane, that federal Labor’s priorities are those of the inner-city elites. I know that sounds like an awfully hackneyed criticism, but if you went to regional Queensland you’d see how real it is. Then there is Albanese himself, all of whose cultural signifiers – from the Rabbitohs to the Marrickville music scene – make him look to Queensland eyes extremely Sydney-centric. Having the treasurer as a Queenslander has not helped when he appeared powerless – or unwilling – to prevent the cuts to federally funded Queensland infrastructure projects, which are much more savage than anywhere else.

It is a golden rule of Australian politics to never underestimate Queensland parochialism. Perhaps Albanese takes the strategic view that, with so few seats north of the Tweed, Labor has nothing to lose. Bad mistake. It has a state government to lose. And the way things are going, with Peter Dutton as the local boy made good, I cannot see Labor winning back a single Queensland federal seat. I can see its number dipping below the current five (out of 30).

Lastly, the public’s loss of affection for Palaszczuk is simply what happens to all political leaders in the end. They just got sick of her. For years, her personality was one of Labor’s greatest assets: humble, warm, unpretentious. She was the girl next door who made good and for a long time people loved her. In the last year or so, however, she damaged her brand by appearing to like the job – and the glamour – too much.

I remember, as federal arts minister, Palaszczuk and I attending the opening of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair in 2015. She had just won her stunning victory over Newman. As she delivered her speech, every few minutes she paused – and I bet the pauses were written in her script – looked up at the audience and, with no context or relevance to her text, simply said, “I can’t tell you how humble I am to be your premier.” After the exceptionally high-handed “my way or the highway” approach of Newman, she struck an emotional chord with a public delighted to find a premier who was relatable and, simply, likeable. In her emotional press conference on Sunday afternoon, she said the same thing. No doubt, she meant it.

They’re a ruthless lot, the Labor bruvvers, declaring her a hero as they tore her apart. David Crisafulli, in a gracious statement, praised her great service to the state. His tribute was, at least, sincere.

George Brandis is a former Liberal senator for Queensland.

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