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The numbers don't lie, and they tell a story of success for Palaszczuk

Summer Reading

She began the year as “dead woman walking” and ended to as the nation’s most successful female politician. 2020 has been kind to Queensland’s record-breaking Premier, writes Dennis Atkins

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Radio National has an often-revealing segment on its Sunday Extra morning show where a person of note nominates a key year in their life.

If Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was invited to take part in “The Year That Made Me” she might well nominate the one we’ve just endured – 2020, the year we wished we hadn’t had. Palaszczuk has been, as this column noted in the weeks after the October 31 state election, the standout politician of the year.

She stands as the most successful female politician in Australian history, having won three elections. No other state or territory female leader has managed this feat and Julia Gillard, our sole not-a-man prime minister, scraped home in a minority government and was not given an opportunity for re-election.

In March, 2022, Palaszczuk will look back on her own decade as Labor leader and towards a big milestone. By the middle of 2024 – the next election year – she will eclipse Peter Beattie’s nine years as premier and become the state’s longest-serving ALP politician in that office since William Forgan Smith, who led the party for more than 13 years through the Great Depression and into World War II, 10 of them as premier.

These are the numbers and serve as worthy virtual trophies for a politician who was called the accidental Opposition leader in March, 2012.

While these facts and figures are testament to Palaszczuk as a leader who obviously should not be underestimated – and who so often is – they tell just one smaller but still significant part of why she dominated Queensland politics in 2020.

Palaszczuk began the year with the unwelcome epithet of “dead woman walking”. After more than six months of swirling controversy surrounding her former deputy and treasurer Jackie Trad, a lacklustre performance on almost every administrative and political metric and a fading enthusiasm for the Premier from Queenslanders, there was no commentator willing to give Palaszczuk more than a very long-shot chance of winning the scheduled October election.

This was despite the LNP having an equally unwanted leader in Deb Frecklington, with her own poor judgment and lack of appeal and beset by internal party rumblings as well as a failure to provide an alternative vision for the state.

Then came 2020’s black swan event, the global coronavirus pandemic, which changed everything in every way. Palaszczuk had two significant things in her favour from the outset. She was assisted by a chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young, who is equal to if not better than any other in the nation and she had an intuitive grasp of how Queenslanders felt in the face of this pervasive threat.

The Premier moved quickly to invoke emergency powers to deal with the health emergency, was in the forefront of national moves to restrict interstate and international travel and worked quickly to shut down activity – physical and commercial – as the crisis grew.

This firm but understanding hand early on built a reservoir of support among Queenslanders which never sunk below about two thirds and peaked at close to 90 percent.

While many in her own party – and most commentators including this columnist – were doubtful about her resolute determination to keep the borders with the rest of the country shut longer than had seemed necessary, she didn’t flinch and was proven right.

This renewed leadership strength and the overdue but still welcome departure of Trad caused panic in LNP ranks. Polling was leaked and an asymmetrical attack on Frecklington’s leadership was launched and failed. It gave the LNP disunity without resolution, something that the Opposition carried all the way to an election loss on October 31.

The election campaign looked riskier for Labor than it ever was. Private polling which showed a two percentage point swing to the ALP at the start of the official battle was right and Labor held that advantage and added to it with some late gusto when the votes were counted.

For the LNP it was the disaster many in the party feared and expected. They went backwards in terms of vote share and seats held for the second election in a row – something that had not been seen in Queensland politics since the last global pandemic a century ago.

Palaszczuk can take great personal satisfaction from the election win because it was a victory that owed the greatest debt to herself, specifically her performance through the year and her bond with voters.

If Palaszczuk ever does feature on The Year That Made Me she’ll be asked to nominate a song that typifies why she picked her moment in time. Presuming she picked 2020, perhaps she might select Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman or Elton John’s I’m Still Standing.

Then again, she’s probably got a personal favourite that will surprise us all. In a year when stepping up counted for so much, Annastacia Palaszczuk played a blinder.

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