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In a sea of armchair experts, how does this woman keep pulling the right rein?

Opinion

At a time when everybody seems to be an authority on how to best handle the pandemic, the Queensland Premier’s home-spun radar still takes some beating, writes Dennis Atkins

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Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus hit Australia there’s been an apparent brain explosion among the informed and ill-informed.

While this nation has been at the forefront of handling so many of the early stabs in this twin health and economic crisis and the debate it’s sparked, we’ve also kept skating on the edge of the madness that’s absorbed so many other once-mature democracies.

We’re now getting closer to that edge – towards slipping into full-blown hair on fire territory.

Not only is everyone an epidemiologist, we are experts on modelling most haven’t read and even fewer understand. We know in an 11am heartbeat the impact of 1400 cases and how this will smother intensive care resources.

For a nation where most people couldn’t tell you one thing about what happens in an ICU, we can hold forth over coffee and sometimes have our dreams occupied by the dangers and sorrow to which this part of the health system opens the door.

We can let the names of the variants slip off our tongues and we know what percentage of the total population is immunised when we hit 70 percent of eligible adult Australians. You hear people swap these statistics in walks in suburban streets and parks every day. One time this kind of talk would be confined to nerdy, science coffee breaks.

Everyone thinks they’re the smartest person in the room. They are so sure, they’ll let you know it, either directly or by boastfully showing off.

The “I’m the smartest person in the room” syndrome has had a bumper year – outpacing Bitcoin for hyperinflation when it comes to supposed value. This syndrome was skewered brilliantly by the graceful and perceptive Wall Street Journal columnist, and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, in a recent piece slicing Joe Biden with some rhetorical ninja attack stars.

“A long­time friend of his once told me Mr Biden’s weak­ness is that he al­ways thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room,” wrote Noonan last week. “I asked if the rooms are usu­ally small, and the friend didn’t bris­tle, he laughed.”

Here in Australia there are enough smartest guys in the mythical rooms at the moment to provide voices echoing and ringing through the ages. They sit in their snug rooms with barely enough room for their ego. If it didn’t finish at the serious consequences end of the discussion you’d think it was biting satire.

The last seven days suggest the great cognitive dissonance is becoming more pronounced and increasing in its complexity.

The target for those small room occupants has been Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk who often wasn’t helped by poor staff work and the odd failure to apply the old test of how this would look on the front page of the local paper. Dampening down bad news cycles is political management for dummies.

The sharpest snag for the Premier last week wasn’t whether we should or shouldn’t have an informed and critical discussion on children and the virus. We should have that debate and Palaszczuk should have been cheered for raising it – it is at the centre of what a strong majority of mothers and others are discussing right now.

In the United States there’s a race on to get existing SARS-CoV-2 vaccines approved or adapted for use in the under 12-year-old population. It is the second most discussed virus topic after the economic consequences and the likelihood of a second dip Covid recession.

However, the real news snag for Palalszczuk was the arrival of a luxury-loving load of rugby league glamour pusses, checking in to be with family and excited close contacts.

To say it was a relentlessly unattractive pile on is like punting on Zaaki winning the W.S. Cox Plate at Moonee Valley on October 23 – you’d be on a losing end if you didn’t.

Palaszczuk has many impressive qualities, not least her mind-melding intuition with a majority of Queensland. She might have a metaphorical fleet of minibuses to transport her squad of media fixers and image artisans but the Queensland premier has a whip sharp understanding of her neighbours and their distant relatives and friends.

If you are privileged enough to have a meal with Palaszczuk you’ll swiftly appreciate her brain is appropriately tuned to the right station, has lots of engaged broadband and is curious without presumption or arrogance. Her confidence stems from a do-it-yourself upbringing and a long stretch exceeding expectations.

This past week she was let down by the boss of her tourism, sport and innovation department. John Lee had worked a deal with the rugby league but didn’t alert the premier’s office in a timely or sufficient way. Perhaps he realised the state’s most powerful woman would have cancelled the whole escapade – seen after quite observable signs of the “don’t mention the Bowen Hills bugle” test.

The most important thing for Palaszcuk is her ability to make like a cat thrown into the air. It looks like what it is – a scrambling mess followed by a less than dignified re-entry and managing to be standing proudly just when needed. Of course, the sound track is up and running with Elton John’s I’m Still Standing.

Palaszczuk might infuriate some colleagues and senior Labor folk south of the once mighty Tweed but she remains not just as popular as she was last October but most probably in an enhanced position.

Her government has more than its share of problems – for example health and hospitals need to be entwined, getting public health and primary care to be in harmony while offering and giving priority to hospitals and advanced specialties. It’s an expensive wishlist but a start would be superb. Also, that one stop coordinating and researching capacity – Cabinet Office 2.0 anyone? – is still sorely needed.

For now the old saying applies, the best time to plant an oak tree is 15 years ago while the second best time is now. As Elton J said, “And did you think this fool could never win?/Well look at me, I’m coming back again/I got a taste of love in a simple way/And if you need to know why I’m still standing, you just fade away”.

Right here and now, Palaszczuk has outperformed the little room dwellers who can’t discern the simple truth about the premier. She’s ear-wormed her way into Queensland life and if she manages to shake out the cobwebs of the sclerotic hide-bound bureaucracy, she will be around for a long time to come.

 

 

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