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Suddenly, Premier finds herself fighting a deadly foe - and it's not coronavirus

Politics

Annastacia Palaszczuk is showing how a premier can be in control, and not in control, at the same time. How long can this last, asks Sean Parnell

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In the red room of Parliament House today, giving a routine update on COVID-19, flanked by her top advisers and officials, Premier Annastacia Palasczcuk was asked about criticism of her government from a Labor-affiliated union. It was by no means the first question but it was an obvious one.

The CFMEU, one of the more aggressive unions, willing to attack anyone to advance the cause of its members, has long criticised the Palaszczuk government, particularly over its landmark Cross River Rail project where it feels workers have been short-changed. On Wednesday, the CFMEU took it up a notch – quitting Labor’s Left faction, slamming the government and its key figures, and threatening to campaign against Labor at the October 31 election.

Asked today about the CFMEU’s move, Palaszczuk said: “That’s a matter for them.” Asked again, she again said it was a matter for the CFMEU. Pressed further, Palaszczuk, through clenched teeth, said she was not concerned.

“No, I’ve got other things to deal with, frankly,” was all the Premier could bring herself to say.

In one respect, the Premier’s response was the correct one – ignore the bully, focus on what matters, in this instance the pandemic and economic crisis. But in another respect, it may demonstrate how this government has long spread itself too thin, trying to be all things to all people and potentially satisfying none.

In 2020, as power has been centralised, making Palaszczuk appear almost presidential, cracks and critics have started to emerge – even among Labor supporters. This is especially true in areas where support was previously only conditional, or temporary. And, if it continues, it could make Palaszczuk appear isolated within her own party – not a good look when the re-election campaign is built around her leadership.

Until recently, Palaszczuk could rightly accuse the Liberal National Party of disunity, given the problems Opposition leader Deb Frecklington had with interference from party HQ. But Palaszczuk’s recent intervention in local preselections, endorsing Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew in Burleigh and helping to see off the Whitsunday candidate, has prompted claims of disunity in the Labor Party. This is not a problem that party HQ has created for Palaszczuk, but more likely one of her own making – at a time when she is wielding considerable power.

Labor’s former MP in Burleigh, Christine Smith, resigned from the party – not before accusing Labor of losing its way – and grassroots members in the Whitsunday branch have followed suit. The CFMEU echoed the sentiment that Labor is not what it used to be. Surprisingly, Palaszczuk has not taken the opportunity to say what she believes Labor stands for, or what her leadership is about, apart from broadly keeping Queenslanders safe and in jobs. The Premier is getting on with her job, and wants the best people in the best jobs, but left the big picture cloudy.

The pandemic and economic crisis have put everyone under extraordinary pressure, and that includes political parties. With parliament restricted, there have been limited chances for backbenchers to shine. With no budget, there have been no benefits to sell. With all the action in Brisbane, the regions have been getting angsty. With no party conference, there has been no opportunity for unions and delegates to settle their differences and build a platform for the election. It has been a long year, and it may require Palaszczuk to show a new style of leadership to survive.

Trying to satisfy everyone, and reach a false consensus, is hard enough in a normal parliamentary term, let alone this one. The old strategy of internal appeasement has done its dash.

For example, the CFMEU has a mining division, and the Palaszczuk Government has long tied itself in knots trying to settle its position on mining, particularly the Adani mine. It has sought to protect the environment and safeguard Green preferences, while also supporting major job-creating projects, and somehow tax the sector more to prop up the budget.

This approach has only allowed the LNP to increasingly benefit from mining sector support and funding – and reciprocate by promising no royalty hikes – and for the Greens to maintain a simple pro-environment position. In South Brisbane, the seat of former deputy premier Jackie Trad, who was singled out by the CFMEU for criticism, LNP preferences could now allow the Greens to win the seat.

It’s no wonder the Palaszczuk government has supported the right of Queenslanders to protest but also sought to crack down on protests (but not too much). It wants to be liked, by everyone, rather than loved by some and hated by others.

But, sometimes, a leader shows their strength when they take on their enemy. Being defensive or dismissive can be a sign of weakness or suggest there is something to hide. Palaszczuk is no doubt working harder than ever, and carrying an enormous load, but she needs to take people with her.

Focussing on the pandemic and economic crisis is everything, yet it’s not enough. It’s the many side arguments that will show what Palaszczuk is really fighting for, and what she wants of Queensland and the Labor Party beyond 2020.

That’s a matter for her.

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