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Labor risks losing its grip on the mainland with the next Queensland election, as Annastacia Palaszczuk’s successor faces pressing social justice issues and disastrous floods. By Elspeth Muir.

Palaszczuk’s legacy in Queensland

Flooding in Cairns in mid-December.
Flooding in Cairns in mid-December.
Credit: Queensland Fire and Emergency Services

It’s flooding in North Queensland. More than two metres of water has fallen in a week. Crocodiles are swimming through the streets. People are warned not to wear thongs in the clean-up. The Australian Defence Force has been brought in, and the days-old premier, Steven Miles, is on the ground making the regular flood speeches about mateship, bravery, the Queensland spirit and why the weather bureau didn’t predict the rain event.

Queensland politicians can be made or unmade by disasters: as if the cyclones, storms, heatwaves, pandemics and bushfires might be mitigated by the right leader. Brisbane’s Greenslide in the 2022 federal election happened on a day of unseasonal rain, soon after Brisbane’s second “one-in-a-hundred-year flood” in just over a decade.

Political historian Professor Ross Fitzgerald called Campbell Newman’s successful run for premier in 2012 “clever flood politics”. Newman cemented his popularity when, as Brisbane lord mayor, he led the city through the first one-in-a-hundred-year flood.

On the day she announced she was standing down, Annastacia Palaszczuk, Australia’s longest-sitting female premier and the first woman to lead a party to three state election wins, told media that during her nine years in leadership she had steered the state through 63 natural disasters, not including Covid-19.

In the end, the one disaster Palaszczuk could not navigate was the perception she was losing her relatability. An August holiday to Italy left News Corp journalists baying for the “red-carpet” premier’s blood. In December, Brisbane lord mayor Adrian Schrinner quit the Olympic leaders’ forum saying the Palaszczuk government had “completely lost its way”. The next week, the United Workers Union national political director, Gary Bullock, paid her a visit. Shortly after that visit, Palaszczuk resigned, endorsing her deputy, Steven Miles, as the next premier.

Queensland’s 40th premier is the son of a Golden Circle cannery worker and a workplace health and safety inspector. He has three children, a PhD in trade unions, a house in suburbia, an endorsement from Al Gore and a reputation for being an attack dog. He is infamous for seemingly calling Scott Morrison a “cunt” at a Labour Day rally – he claimed it was a slip of the tongue. On Miles’s first day as a member of parliament, when he asked for directions to his office he was told he would need an appointment. His face is disarmingly youthful.

Miles will lead Labor into next year’s state election with a male deputy and male head of the public service. His party is predicted to lose seats to the Greens in Brisbane and the Liberals in regional Queensland. Upon becoming premier, Miles’s first policy announcement was that he would transition Queensland to 75 per cent renewable energy by 2035. Alleviating climate anxiety might be clever flood politics, but if Labor is to lead for another three years, he will need much more: the state he inherits is hot, wet, anxious and angry.

There’s a housing crisis in Queensland brought on by a decade of neglected social and affordable housing builds, high interstate migration, a proliferation of Airbnbs, inflation and natural disasters. According to research by food relief organisation SecondBite, 89 per cent of people are skipping meals because they can’t afford the cost of living.

In Brisbane’s New Farm Park, Musgrave Park and along Riverside Drive, families unable to afford rent are living in tents. At food banks, people are forgoing cans for tents, sleeping bags and, for the soon-to-be evicted, cleaning products.

In Logan, Brisbane’s adjoining city of 350,000 people, Darren McGhee, community lead for housing and homelessness project Logan Zero, tells me it’s 35 degrees, they’re in a heatwave, and that means the people living in their cars have to either spend money on fuel to run the air-conditioning or find another way to sit out internal temperatures that can reach 50 or 60 degrees. McGhee tells me there’s one council shower in Logan and not that many taps for people to get water, which means waterborne diseases, hygiene and dehydration become issues.

When they go out to count the cars people are living in, McGhee tells me they can tell which ones belong to people who have jobs but can’t pay the rent. These cars leave during the day and at night, when they return, they are conspicuous because of their solar panels and fridges.

“If you have a flood or a bushfire, disaster relief guys come in. They book out a whole showground for a year or two and they’ll put humpies on and they’ll bring in caravans and they’ll do whatever it takes to get people homes, with a plan to get permanent housing … I don’t know why our leaders don’t see the housing and homeless crisis the same way they see a disaster crisis.”

In Townsville, it’s raining intermittently, but they’ve been spared the floods that have hit further north. Townsville has three of the most marginal Labor seats in the state: Townsville, Mundingburra and Thuringowa.

Townsville is also the epicentre of Queensland’s supposed youth crime crisis. To win the heart of its citizens and, therefore, the premiership, you must show you can keep the community safe from children – most of whom are First Nations, and most of whom end up in the youth justice system after they have, as Gunggari campaigner and Change the Record national director Maggie Munn told SBS, “seen and been through events in their little lives that nobody should have to go through”.

Annastacia Palaszczuk knew it. Her government overrode Queensland’s Human Rights Act twice this year: the first time to introduce breach of bail laws that resulted in more children being locked up, the second time to amend a law so children as young as 10 could be kept in watch houses indefinitely. Steven Miles knows it: in his inaugural speech as premier he spoke about delivering a Polair helicopter to the Townsville police force. And the state opposition leader, David Crisafulli, knows it. He was in Townsville last week because, he told ABC News, “I haven’t heard a peep from the government despite the worst week of youth crime this city has seen.”

Wendy Lang has been chief executive of Queensland Youth Services for more than a decade. She works with Townsville children at risk of homelessness. She says in the past few weeks, crime has become more violent and it’s making people anxious. But she says it’s not just youths committing crimes and the response to youth crime must be tailored to each individual.

Lang describes a Townsville that, despite being a good place to live, lacks vital services – there are only 12 emergency accommodation beds for children in the city.

“We had a case a few weeks ago where our only option was to buy a young person a sleeping bag. He didn’t want to go into boarding house accommodation because [all that was left] was adult emergency accommodation and he felt it to be unsafe in there … So he actually believed it was safer for him to have a sleeping bag and sleep rough and we just check on this young person regularly.”

Lang says the lack of attention to the needs of North Queenslanders is obvious at a structural level. The one energy option for North Queenslanders is Ergon Energy, and the people who have solar panels are usually from the middle and upper socio-economic classes, when it’s the people on lower incomes who desperately need it. Roads need upgrading, and with every interest rate rise people are struggling.

“North Queensland gets frustrated with the amount of infrastructure that’s built in the south-east corner … We get frustrated that there’s little infrastructure money put into North Queensland when a lot of the finances and resources come out of our resource industry, our mining and our ports … That’s why [Bob Katter] is so popular. He demands money for his area.”

Steven Miles wants to be the premier who unites the “city and the bush”, but in a state bigger than Central Europe, and known for its regionalism, unity seems a stretch.

In the north, the flood clean-up is expected to take months, making the south’s Olympics project seem even more frivolous. In Brisbane, anger and despair is played out regularly in protests on Sundays in Queens Gardens with banners declaring genocide in Gaza. Meanwhile, emboldened by Queensland’s almost wholesale rejection of the Voice to Parliament – the only electorates in Queensland that had a majority “Yes” vote were in Brisbane – Crisafulli has withdrawn backing for the state’s Path to Treaty process, prompting Labor’s support to also falter.

In the speech announcing her resignation, Annastacia Palaszczuk started to cry as she said the words: “I don’t believe anyone who comes after me will know how humbling it is…” When I first listened to it, I heard not “humbling” but “hard”. Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "Northern exposure".

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