Who is Annastacia Palaszczuk, Queensland’s likely next premier?

Queensland Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk celebrates with her family, including father and former state MP Henry (left), and grandmother Beryle Erskine (right) at Labor’s election night party in Brisbane. AAP/John Pryke

Two weeks ago, I made a bet that I didn’t dare to think I would collect on: I put A$30 at 7-to-1 odds for a Labor victory in Queensland. I don’t yet know if I’ll get those winnings, but it’s looking increasingly likely.

Campbell Newman’s Liberal National Party were the strong favourites to win the snap January 31 state election, which was called less than three years after the unprecedented 2012 defeat of the Bligh Labor government.

After 14 years in state parliament, I was one of 44 Labor MPs to be voted out of politics in what became known as “the Bligh bloodbath”. So when I placed my bet, it was partly because as a Labor member it didn’t hurt to hope, and because the odds seemed worth taking. Yet despite all the predictions, I did also have an inkling that the result might be closer than most of the predictions.

So what will the people of Queensland get if Palaszczuk becomes the next premier?

Tougher than her portrayal

I was a Cabinet colleague of Annastacia’s in the Bligh government. We were from different stables and on opposite sides of some policy debates Annastacia being in the right of the party, while I’m from the left. Despite our differences at times, her strengths and abilities were clear to see.

If Annastacia feels you have done the wrong thing, she’ll get on the phone and give you a well-argued blast. I’ve been on the receiving end of that. She’s far from weak.

The LNP tried hard to portray Newman as the strong man, in contrast with Annastacia as the “weak leader”, who would have a “weak and incompetent government”.

Nice try, but that ploy appears to have backfired, especially given that even conservative polling found voters described Newman as “arrogant” and “sneaky”.

You only have to look at what Palaszczuk has pulled off in less than three years to see she is a stronger leader than many gave her credit for.

Only seven Labor MPs survived the 2012 election, among them Annastacia. She became opposition leader, and last year gained another two seats in by-elections.

When she first took over, many pundits predicted the ALP would implode. Many expected bitter in-fighting, internal war, which is what we’d seen with the unions savaging Bligh over asset sales.

Many – including me – felt doubt and some empathy for the mammoth task ahead of Palaszczuk and her small team of colleagues.

Annastacia would never have survived as opposition leader if she had not listened to and done the hard negotiations with the rank-and-file members and affiliated unions of the Labor party. They are not any easy bunch to accommodate and win the favour of.

Palaszczuk’s background

Palaszczuk was elected to represent the south-west Brisbane seat of Inala in September 2006, succeeding her father Henry as the local MP.

She has an Arts/Law degree from the University of Queensland, a Masters of Arts from the London School of Economics, and a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice from Australian National University.

A former Labor policy adviser, she was training to become a solicitor until her father Henry decided to leave politics after 22 years, and she ran for Inala instead. (You can read longer personal profiles from The Brisbane Times and The Courier-Mail.)

As transport minister, she embraced big issues such as expanding public transport services, while fighting within the government (not always successfully) to keep public transport costs down. She also fought hard through the Council of Australian Government process (COAG) to shift the Sydney/Melbourne centric focus of federal transport planning to get funding for Queensland projects.

As minister for disability services and multicultural affairs she also led major reforms to services for ageing carers and young people, who had been withering away in residential aged care facilities.

It is not easy to cop flak and navigate your way through the many and varied visions that people with disability, carers and advocates have on service models and reforms.

Listening and acting

Annastacia listened and acted – a template I would expect her to apply again as Queensland premier.

In her unofficial victory speech on Saturday night, Palaszczuk said: “I want a consensus government where we listen and unite.”

That would be a big shift from the governing style of Newman, who was widely seen as not being a good listener, and who – despite being capable and articulate – led a government that was unnecessarily combative.

Good communication and collaborative leadership may sound easy, but it’s hard. Any decision will please some and fuel disappointment or anger in others.

Assuming Palaszczuk becomes our next premier, I don’t expect the honeymoon period to last long. Polarising debates on issues including coal seam gas, the Great Barrier Reef, and the best ways to generate new infrastructure and jobs will all quickly generate heat.

One of the main criticisms of this Labor campaign was that there weren’t enough policy announcements or details – and sometimes that was true.

So the pressure will be on the new premier to be decisive and not procrastinate: to consult and quickly finalise plans, yet not rely on too many reviews, talkfests or taskforces.

Annastacia will also have to balance competing interests and egos within a re-energised ALP party.

Beware of candidate’s disease

In opposition, you have nowhere near the same levels of responsibility for implementing decisions and budgets. But in government, you’re it: you’re accountable, you’re responsible, you’re the ones facing the music each day. You need to listen to research and evidence, to advice, but also never stop listening to the public.

Annastacia is experienced and knows this. She also knows I’m sure that she will need to maintain the humility she’s shown up until now.

This election was a referendum on Newman, the LNP and their asset privatisation plans. It was not a ringing endorsement of Palaszczuk or Labor.

On election day, handing out Labor how to vote cards at polling booths on the Sunshine Coast and south of Brisbane at Logan, there was one message, more than any, that persuaded swinging voters to take the ALP how to vote cards: “put the LNP last, they don’t deserve another chance”.

And while plenty of people were happy to talk about Campbell Newman and getting rid of him, few were talking about Annastacia Palaszczuk.

In politics, there’s an affliction we joke about called “candidate’s disease”, where even smart people can be sucked into the notion that if they’ve had a big political win, it’s all down to them. Leaders can be afflicted with the disease at times too.

The trade union movement and ALP members worked hard to achieve this historic electoral shift, as Annastacia recognised that publicly on election night. That collective achievement needs to be remembered by every member of the new parliamentary team.

It is extraordinary that Labor is back on the brink of government, and Annastacia deserves great credit for that. But the real test is to come. Queensland looks set to give her and her team a chance. Now they have to earn it.


Read more of The Conversation’s Queensland election 2015 coverage.