Annastacia Palaszczuk, Australia’s longest-serving female premier, was underestimated until the very end | Amy Remeikis (2024)

Annastacia Palaszczuk spent her entire political career being underestimated. So it makes sense she would want to take people by surprise one last time.

Her coming retirement was no secret. But the execution – a random weekend morning, with no heads-up, no preplanned media interviews, no off-the-record whispers from inside cabinet, was one final thumbing of the nose to those who never took her seriously. Again, no accident. The Queensland press gallery journalists are rarely rostered on weekends. Her caucus only learned through a text message shortly before she made her announcement.

Palaszczuk leaves office as Australia’s longest-serving female premier. When she was elected as the opposition leader following a wipeout 2012 election, she was one of just seven Labor MPs left in the Queensland parliament and the only one with cabinet experience. She was a former political staffer, elected to the seat her father, Henry, had vacated. An unremarkable minister without a lot of caucus sway was not meant to be a long-term choice for leader of the Labor party.

Except, she won. Labor returned to government in a hung parliament and Palaszczuk was premier. Her shock victory was labelled an accident, making Palaszczuk the “accidental premier”. The headline was used repeatedly as her critics tried to make sense of how an unremarkable former transport minister had not only held Queensland Labor together in what was one of its darkest hours, but led them back to government in just one term.

Those who saw Palaszczuk – who had to teach the media and public how to spell her name (“it’s Pala-Sydney zoo, Canberra zoo, UK,” she would rattle off) – as an accidental leader failed to see her greatest appeal: how she dealt with people.

In the town halls which marked her first term as leader, Palaszczuk would face hostile crowds and turn them into supporters, offering them her ear and access to her ministers and senior officials, who’d she have sitting at tables waiting to receive direct feedback. She’d wander away from community events to go and sit with the people on the fringes. She’d play cricket (badly) barefoot and in public; she’d greet strangers like old friends.

At the 2017 state poll, Palaszczuk became the first woman to be re-elected twice as a leader in Australia. She was already the first woman elected from opposition (Anna Bligh had succeeded Peter Beattie who stepped down midterm). She led Australia’s first woman-majority cabinet.

But being from Queensland – Australia’s third-largest state but a national afterthought in many ways – those firsts were never truly recognised. When Gladys Berejiklian was elected, she was erroneously declared by some to have achieved those firsts. That frustrated Palaszczuk enormously. The two leaders never truly got along, and it burned when Berejiklian was lauded for achievements Palaszczuk didn’t feel she had been recognised for.

Annastacia Palaszczuk, Australia’s longest-serving female premier, was underestimated until the very end | Amy Remeikis (2)

As her time in office rolled on, so too did the controversies. Palaszczuk and her office never truly learned how best to deal with legitimate questions raised by questionable decisions. The wagons would circle and the shutters would come down. By the end the issues were mounting and her relationship with the media was hostile – and Palaszczuk leaves with Labor facing another wipeout at the coming election in October 2024.

The pandemic took its toll; those who know Palaszczuk best say she never truly recovered from the two years of lockdowns and unknowns. The Palaszczuk government was in trouble before then, weighed down by questions on the state’s economic health, mining, crime and its ability to respond to a crisis. Yet her last re-election, in 2020, was bolstered by her personal popularity during the pandemic, something she again was underestimated for at the time.

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk retires from politicsRead more

Palaszczuk seems to have lost her spark for public life. Her final term was mired by allegations of chasing red carpets and lost focus. By the time of the Labor national conference, the rumours she was done became open fodder – it was just a question of when. At one point, it was a certainty for May, when she would have eclipsed Peter Beattie, an old political nemesis, as Labor’s longest-serving modern leader.

Annastacia Palaszczuk, Australia’s longest-serving female premier, was underestimated until the very end | Amy Remeikis (3)

Seeing Palaszczuk attend the last national cabinet meeting in Canberra, it was clear the past nine years and particularly the last bruising parliamentary year had left its mark.

Her legacy, her wins and her losses are already written. Who takes over is a decision out of her hands. The last thing she had left in her control was when to call it.

The “accidental premier” had one last card to play, and she did. Like her or not, Palaszczuk called her own shots. And it was never by accident.

Annastacia Palaszczuk, Australia’s longest-serving female premier, was underestimated until the very end | Amy Remeikis (2024)

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