Is Prime Minister Annastacia Palaszczuk’s popularity waning in post-pandemic COVID Queensland?

Queensland has changed a lot in two short years.

On October 31, 2020, when Annastacia Palaszczuk won her historic third term as Prime Minister on the mantra of “keeping Queenslanders safe”, there were only four active COVID cases in the state.

At the time, the virus in total had claimed six lives in Queensland.

Borders were still closed in Victoria and Greater Sydney.

Two years later, there are no travel restrictions, vaccines are freely available, COVID has spread and the death toll in Queensland stands at 2,274.

But we don’t talk much about COVID anymore.

As the pandemic exited the daily news cycle, other headlines filled the void: failures and pressures in our hospital system, crisis in housing affordability, rising cost of living, scathing examination of integrity of government and intimidation in the public sector, and allegations of sexism in policing.

Ms Palaszczuk with former chief health officer now governor Jeannette Young in July last year.(AAP Image: Darren England)

It is a very different discourse from that which dominated at the time of that landslide electoral victory two years ago.

Annastacia Palaszczuk’s win was seen as a reward for her handling of COVID, a tough health approach that caused pain for businesses and tourism but also kept the virus contained before a vaccine was available .

In her victory speech, Australia’s first female political leader to win three elections, thanked the “many people” who first voted for Labor – the so-called “Palaszczuk Pensioners”.

Seats like Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast fell to Labor for the first time.

The electorate was traditionally a top Tory seat, once held by not one, but two Liberal leaders – Joan Sheldon and then Mark McArdle before he retired in 2020.

Caloundra antenna.
Labor won the Caloundra seat on the Sunshine Coast in 2020 for the first time in their history.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

What do voters think today?

Caloundra pensioner Meredith Inkster says she voted for the ALP in 2020 because she was “afraid” of changing governments during a pandemic.

Two years later, she is not sure if she will vote again for Labor and Annastacia Palaszczuk.

“They feel a bit invincible and I don’t think they are,” Ms Inkster said.

“Maybe a bit of arrogance came into play and I think maybe she’s been in power for a little too long.”

Portrait of Meredith Inkster.
Meredith Inkster, a retired teacher and Caloundra resident, plans to change her vote in the next election in 2024.(ABC News: Jessica Van Vonderen)

Ms. Inkster wants to see policies on Aboriginal advancement, the environment and housing affordability.

This issue is also a priority for 82-year-old Brenda Dean.

“There are a lot of families who are doing it really, really hard and even people of my generation find themselves in a situation where if they are left on their own they cannot afford to rent a property,” said she declared.

Having moved to Caloundra earlier this year, Ms Dean is a keen observer of politics and the Premier.

“I think she still does a good job,” Ms. Dean said.

“I think she will probably be successful until the next election, but I wonder if she would be wise to consider handing over to someone else while she is at the top.”

Head of Brenda Dean.
More Australians are moving to Queensland than any other state, including ex-Victorian Brenda Dean, 82. (ABC News: Jessica Van Vonderen)

Ms Dean is one of tens of thousands of migrants from Victoria and New South Wales who have made the move north over the past two years.

Demographic data shows that more Australians settle in Queensland than in any other state.

Craig Williams is an ex-Melburnian – he now runs a cafe and brewery in Moffat Beach, Caloundra.

He said while he preferred to keep his “politics separate from his craft beer”, he desperately wanted more government action in the face of the severe labor shortage that is straining his business.

Headshot of Mr Williams in his bar.
Moffat Beach Brewing Co managing director Craig Williams said the tourism industry is “going down the toilet” unless the government does more to address staffing shortages.(ABC News: Jessica Van Vonderen)

“This post-COVID period…has probably been one of the toughest years we’ve had,” Mr Williams said.

“It’s all very well to have beaches, beautiful places and resorts, but if you can’t find people to cook, clean the rooms… [the tourism] the industry is going to fall down the toilet pretty quickly.”

The shine fades

Political commentator Dr Paul Williams thinks part of the shine came from the government and its greatest asset – the Prime Minister.

“There is a feeling among a lot of swing voters, I think anecdotally, that the Prime Minister is no longer one of us, that she has become something of an elite and that is toxic” said Associate Professor Williams.

Political commentator Associate Professor Paul Williams
Political commentator Paul Williams says the prime minister risks being seen as “out of touch”.(ABC News: Jessica Van Vonderen)

This perception, rightly or wrongly, was partly fueled by criticism of the glitzy red carpet appearances at the Gold Coast premiere of Elvis and the Logies.

But the director of Griffith University’s Center for Policy Innovation, Professor Susan Harris Rimmer, calls the criticism “ridiculous”.

“We need to overcome this and be more mature in our response to women leaders doing their job,” Professor Harris Rimmer said.

“It’s clearly part of her mandate to promote the tourism industry, the film industry, you know, it’s not just sports and high visibility. She’s been very appropriate.”

Premier Palaszczuk meets with Hollywood actor Tom Hanks.
Ms Palaszczuk met Hollywood actor Tom Hanks earlier this year at the premiere of Elvis, which was filmed on the Gold Coast.(Facebook: Annastacia Palaszczuk)

And after? A call to be “bold”

This election cycle is Queensland’s first fixed-term term, which means the next state election will be on Saturday, October 26, 2024.

Already Australia’s longest-serving female leader, the prime minister in June declared her intention to face voter judgment again.

“I intend to take this team to the next election, absolutely,” she said.

“I love this job, I love the people in this state.”

The prime minister wearing a high-vis orange vest stands on a steel ladder in front of two men also wearing high-vis helmets and hard hats.
Ms Palaszczuk at Kaban Wind Farm in Far North Queensland earlier this month, the first of a series of wind farms planned for the region.(ABC Far North: Kristy Sexton-McGrath)

By mid-2024, she will overtake Peter Beattie as Queensland’s longest-serving Labor premier since World War II.

Before that, we’ll no doubt hear more about the government’s renewable energy plan, with business plans to be drawn up for massive hydroelectric storage facilities.

And the government is sure to take every step of the journey towards the Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Also on Palaszczuk’s to-do list is the criminalization of coercive control, the implementation of integrity reforms with the Prime Minister promising to “make Queensland the most transparent government in the country”, as well as the way to a treaty with First Nations peoples.

Professor Harris Rimmer argues it’s time for the Prime Minister to think about what she wants to be remembered for.

“The Prime Minister has built a lot of trust through COVID…but it’s time to be bolder and cement the legacy,” said Professor Harris Rimmer.

“Now is the time to start doing the hardest things.

“I would, in particular, like to see a greater focus on disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation for a highly disaster-prone state.”

Paul Williams says the prime minister should think about her successor.

“All the best leaders prepare a successor,” he said.

“If Annastacia Palaszczuk doesn’t prepare a successor and she comes face to face with the electorate, Labor really has nowhere to go,” he said.

ABC News asked the premier for an interview, but she was unavailable.

Headshot of Griffith University professor Susan Harris Rimmer, smiling.
Professor Harris Rimmer has condemned the Prime Minister’s criticism for her red carpet appearances.(Provided: Susan Harris Rimmer)

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