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Group of Chinese tourists that turned our accidental premier into a ‘war-time leader’

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Winston Churchill said “never let a good crisis go to waste”. This year, the pandemic saved the Palaszczuk Government.

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It is no secret that the Palaszczuk Government limped into 2020. The budget was barely in surplus, and setting aside $1.3 billion for child abuse damages would soon change that – even before the economy was blindsided by a virus.

Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk was popular – not unlike an amateur sportsperson in a professional contest – but the same could not be said for her government. The then-deputy premier, Jackie Trad, was a lightning rod for criticism, the rest of Cabinet was a mixed bag, and the power structure was hard to define.

There were unresolved Crime and Corruption Commission probes into Trad and Palaszczuk’s chief of staff, David Barbagallo. The Opposition, then led by Deb Frecklington, was not hugely competent but had a lot of material to work with.

To its credit, the second-term government had grand plans, such as the Cross River Rail project still under construction today, and the 2032 Olympic bid still under discussion. But for every project there was a policy made on the run, and another run up to the Premier’s office. Despite Labor having a workable majority in parliament, and being less divisive than the former Newman administration, the Palaszczuk government seemed to be sabotaging itself.

And, then, some tourists from Wuhan arrived on the Gold Coast with a novel coronavirus. A Chinese football team would later be quarantined, international students left stranded on a never-ending summer break, and the overseas visitors who brought money into the Sunshine State were suddenly a threat and barred.

On January 29, a public health emergency was declared in Queensland, to respond to COVID-19. The state was an early mover in that regard but what also set it apart was the disaster management structure that underpinned the declaration. If COVID-19 was a crisis that Labor would not let go to waste, this structure would give the Palaszczuk government the authority to push through.

Atop that structure, Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young has played a critical role, supported by police and other agencies. That Queensland has kept COVID-19 cases comparatively low, and deaths at six, is a credit to Young’s professionalism and the willingness of the leaders to take her advice.

Outside of pandemic control, and the war room, the Palaszczuk government was unbothered by two by-elections, despite parting shots from former minister Jo-Ann Miller, and Labor’s inability to win back Brisbane City Hall. Palaszczuk repeatedly took the fight to the federal Coalition government of Scott Morrison, all but waving the Queensland flag for the country to see.

In May, Trad was forced onto the backbench, and a reshuffle brought Steven Miles and Cameron Dick to the fore. Miles became deputy premier, befitting his role as health minister, while Dick became treasurer.

However, with the pandemic still the main game, the state budget was postponed, parliament was curtailed, and the euthanasia debate was pushed back to post-election.

Palaszczuk agreed to calls for a public service pay freeze, which should have given the LNP something to capitalise on. Alas, the opposition was beset by infighting and plagued by memories of the Campbell Newman cuts.

COVID-19 was seemingly under control in Queensland but there were still outbreaks in Logan and Ipswich, the virus brought back from hard-hit Victoria.

Of all the big decisions of the pandemic, none was more polarising that restricting access to Queensland. The border would become synonymous with Queensland’s hard-line approach. Initially, some LNP members wanted more borders, such as one to better protect the north from the south, but for the most part the Frecklington opposition demanded the restrictions be lifted. The pandemic was dragging Queensland into recession, which the LNP said was exacerbated by the lack of tourists, but Palaszczuk and others argued that health had to be put first, and with better health would come a stronger economic recovery.

Queenslanders normally follow the lead agencies during floods, bushfires and cyclones, but during the pandemic they followed Palaszczuk – literally, on social media, where her profile grew significantly. This gave Labor a powerful platform for re-election, even if three ministers, including the inimitable Kate Jones, decided to sit it out.

By the time the election campaign came around, Frecklington and the LNP opposition were almost irrelevant. Morrison, and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, had sparred more with Palaszczuk than Frecklington, whose performance on the hustings brought her name recognition but little more. Normally, the question for voters is whether a government should lose, but this time the question was whether the LNP should win, and Labor ran a scare campaign over supposed public service cuts and belt tightening that put the answer beyond doubt.

Palaszczuk instantly became a Labor luminary. Frecklington vowed to lead the LNP back but the next day resigned the leadership, eventually replaced by Gold Coast MP David Crisafulli.

After the election, Dick finally handed down the budget, forecasting a deficit for the next four years and plunging the state deeper into debt (which would have once been controversial). The heralded economic turnaround has so far been patchy, but COVID-19 outbreaks in Victoria, and more recently NSW, have allowed Labor to put a positive spin on Queensland’s predicament. COVID-19 is still the main game.

Before Christmas, Miles was acting premier, and Dick was waiting his turn to step into the role, after a Cabinet reshuffle and shakeup of the bureaucracy put more focus on the future. But Palaszczuk returned early from holidays to help respond to the NSW outbreak – again exchanging words with Berejiklian – while Miles and Dick bided their time and Crisafulli struggled to make himself heard.

Palaszczuk ended the year with more authority than ever before, and, for the first time, positive outcomes to show for Labor’s efforts. Rarely has a Queensland political leader, or government for that matter, been in such a powerful position.

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