Premier Annastacia Palaszczukat at the Hay Point Coal Terminal on Wednesday, May 22. Photo - Caitlin Charles
Premier Annastacia Palaszczukat at the Hay Point Coal Terminal on Wednesday, May 22. Photo - Caitlin Charles

A tale of what could have been

THE re-election of the Morrison Government and Labor's annihilation in Queensland has brought on a budgetary, and leadership, dilemma of epic proportions, writes Steven Wardill

The election of Bill Shorten and a federal Labor government shaped as the ultimate "get out of jail free" card for their Queensland comrades.

Billions of dollars for key infrastructure projects like Cross River Rail would flow along with new funding deals in health, education and indigenous housing.

This money would have eased a budgetary burden brought on by the Palaszczuk Government living beyond its means for the past few years.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Picture: Kym Smith
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Picture: Kym Smith

And there were so many opportunities for rich political optics to come.

While playing the blame game against the Coalition in Canberra would be removed from the Palaszczuk Government's arsenal, Shorten's elevation presented countless opportunities to sell the message that together, the Labor administrations were getting things done for Queensland.

It could have been so different.

But it was not to be.

Instead, the re-election of the Morrison Government and Labor's annihilation in Queensland has brought on a budgetary dilemma of epic proportions.

More pressing, however, is the fact that it has exposed a crisis of confidence within the Labor caucus and throughout the wider party faithful in the leadership of Annastacia Palaszczuk and Jackie Trad which had been gathering momentum for some time.

Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad at the Greek Paniyiri Festival in Brisbane, Sunday, May 19, 2019. Picture: Glenn Hunt.
Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad at the Greek Paniyiri Festival in Brisbane, Sunday, May 19, 2019. Picture: Glenn Hunt.

Palaszczuk and Trad must have felt like they'd wandered into a parallel universe on Saturday.

They went from being all smiles while handing out how-to-vote cards to watching Shorten's diabolical Queensland numbers come through at what had been presumptuously dubbed Labor's "election night parties".

In the morning, Palaszczuk had posted pictures of herself on Twitter with her great mate Milton Dick, the Member for Oxley, at the Grand Avenue State School in Forest Lake.

"Got to have a democracy sausage on polling day! Plenty of support for @MiltonDickMP and @AustralianLabor at Grand Avenue State School, Forest Lake," she tweeted.

Trad joked on Twitter about how they're serving haloumi buns at West End on election day.

 

However, like so many politicians and pundits, the pair had misread the mood in Queensland.

At Grand Avenue, Dick suffered a swing against him while the LNP and Greens increased their support and Clive Palmer's United Australia Party and Fraser Anning's outfit snared a share of the vote.

At both the West End booths where Terri Butler was recontesting the seat of Griffith, the Labor vote declined and the party was outpolled by the Greens.

While Dick and Butler were among the few lucky ones, their experience was demonstrative of the wider trend that occurred across Queensland.

Labor has been left with just six seats out of 30 in Queensland after losing Herbert in Townsville and Longman north of Brisbane.

In regional centres and outer-urban areas - electorates that Labor used to be able to count on - blue-collar voters abandoned them for the LNP and the likes of Palmer, Pauline Hanson and Anning.

Annastacia Palaszczuk Verified twitter account election day tweet.
Annastacia Palaszczuk Verified twitter account election day tweet.

An "anybody but Bill" mentality seemed to be pervasive.

In city areas it was the Greens that did the damage.

And while this vote was mostly recycled back to Labor by way of preferences there's a growing fear that eventually they'll fall.

This is an existential crisis for Labor in Queensland.

The party is losing its traditional base in one area and being outplayed by the Greens and their purist positions for the other.

 

Adani's controversial coal mine in the Galilee Basin has become the totem unwittingly pegged in the ground at this fork in the road for Australia's oldest political party.

The long-awaited mine is a proxy for every regional worker who can't get a job and every city-dweller concerned about a lack of action on climate change.

All roads for the role that the mine played in the federal election lead back to the Palaszczuk Government.

"Palaszczuk cost Bill Shorten the prime ministership," was how one senior Queensland Labor figure saw it.

However, between Shorten's trouble-prone campaign and suite of divisive tax policies, it would be unfair to pin the result entirely on Palaszczuk and her merry band of ministers. However, Adani is like the Rubik's cube of political dilemmas for Labor because the party is being damned for not progressing the mine and pilloried for failing to scuttle it.

On this issue, Palaszczuk's regional MPs were ahead of the curve.

They'd picked up the burgeoning sentiment that Adani was about to play big time in the election.

Several members, including Mackay's Julieanne Gilbert and Rockhampton's Barry O'Rourke, raised the issue in caucus and later met with Palaszczuk to air their concerns.

They were told not to worry. Adani wasn't an issue. The Government had a good record on resources and they should just go and sell that message to their electorates.

This was a multi-billion dollar blunder.

Shorten's failure to even hold the few seats Labor had in Queensland, let alone win any extras, has left the Palaszczuk Government scrambling just weeks out from delivering what shapes as a dire State Budget.

Federal MP for Griffith Terri Butler featured on an anti-adani protest poster.
Federal MP for Griffith Terri Butler featured on an anti-adani protest poster.

 

It is understood federal Labor's promises had been worked into the draft figures and this would have allowed Trad, the state's Treasurer, to deliver a surplus.

However, without the funding, a deficit is one option for 2019-20 that Treasury has proposed unless sizeable cuts to spending or tax hikes can be found to turn the situation around.

Shorten's promises included $2.2 billion for Cross River Rail, including an immediate cash injection of $800 million towards the capital costs.

According to some insiders, companies who tendered for one CRR project have been told in recent days that it had been postponed.

Federal Labor also had a plethora of other commitments on the table, like $33 million towards the overcrowded Logan Hospital, $100 million towards the Townsville to Mt Isa railway, $852 million for the Rockhampton ring road and on and on and on.

Then there were the commitments of more generous agreements with the states on health, education and social housing.

Treasury's forecasts - where wafer-thin surpluses were predicted on the heroic basis that spending growth would be kept below inflation for the next three years - were always a house of cards.

Shorten's demise has pulled the deck out from under them, forcing a massive rewrite of the budget and potentially exposing the state to a credit downgrade that could have political implications for Palaszczuk.

Yet the political implications of Labor's downfall last Saturday are much more immediate, much more pressing for the second-term Premier and her Deputy.

"They're f---ing cooked," was how one prominent Labor figure eloquently put it.

Many more party figures came to the same conclusion on Sunday after Palaszczuk responded to the election side-by-side with Trad in the deputy's South Brisbane electorate where the pair denied Adani had been a federal election factor.

"I think at the end of the day Labor had a very complex message," Palaszczuk reckoned.

 

Yet three days later the imagery and the rhetoric had been reversed.

Palaszczuk flew to Mackay's Hay Point coal terminal where she announced she'd tasked co-ordinator general Barry Broe with setting a deadline and negotiating an outcome between the Department of Environment and Adani.

 

"I am frustrated, I think everyone has had a gutful quite frankly, enough is enough," she said.

Talk about chutzpah.

For months the Palaszczuk Government had been chastising anyone and everyone who suggested the 11th hour reviews that had delayed the mine were politically motivated.

Yet after voters voiced their frustration, the Premier said she was "fed up" and motivated to intervene.

What happened between Sunday's South Brisbane effort and Wednesday's decision to set an Adani deadline - which was confirmed yesterday to be June 13 - was an internal reckoning that has opened Pandora's box on Palaszczuk's future.

Party elders like Robert Schwarten and Bob Gibbs publicly lambasted Palaszczuk and Trad. "The Adani issue has become a disgraceful example of incompetence by Government," was how Gibbs called it.

Robert Schwarten. Photo - Jann Houley
Robert Schwarten. Photo - Jann Houley

 

Many believe it's a foregone conclusion that Labor will lose next year's October 31 election, regardless of who leads them.

Behind the scenes, it seemed any and every proposition was being thrown around among Labor MPs this week.

Some are convinced Palaszczuk has got to go, but it may take two or three months to achieve it.

Others believe removing Trad from the deputy role would be an olive branch that the regions require while some in her own Left faction reckon moving her to a safer seat would work to nullify the issues.

The Right faction held a phone hook-up on Monday night where, among other topics, they agreed to support Adani.

The next night Trad was told of the Premier's decision to set an Adani deadline.

After this was publicly announced the Treasurer began ringing Right faction members asking them about what they wanted in the Budget.

Like every leader who has ever faced an internal uprising, Palaszczuk described questions about her future as "rubbish".

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (left) and Deputy Premier and Treasurer Jackie Trad (right). Picture: AAP Image/Darren England
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (left) and Deputy Premier and Treasurer Jackie Trad (right). Picture: AAP Image/Darren England

A change would need cross-factional support, the backing of union bosses and would require navigating Labor's post-Kevin Rudd rules that involve giving rank-and-file members a vote.

However, Palaszczuk's internal critics in caucus, in Cabinet and throughout the party are convinced this situation is so bad that even these obstacles aren't insurmountable.

"You walk down the street and ask anyone what the Palaszczuk Government has achieved and they couldn't f---ing tell you one thing," one of Labor's most influential figures said. "That's why we're f---ed."

Given the Government has been in power for 4½-years, it could have been so different.

steven.wardill@news.com.au
Steven Wardill is The Courier-Mail's state affairs editor