A few weeks ago, during a discussion about movies, one of Annastacia Palaszczuk's friends said to her: "You know what you should watch, Annastacia? You should watch Contagion.

In her office on the 40th floor of the so-called "Tower of Power", Brisbane's lipstick-shaped monolith where bureaucracy does its business, Palaszczuk shakes her head.

"I said 'Why would I want to watch that? I'm living it - we all are'."

Premier Annastacia Palaszczcuk. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Premier Annastacia Palaszczcuk. Picture: Mark Cranitch

And while it is true that the world is indeed living through the plot of the 2011 Steven Soderbergh thriller about a global pandemic, it is equally true that some of us have bigger roles to play than others.

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For Palaszczuk, 51, and her fellow State premiers - Gladys Berejiklian, Dan Andrews, Mark McGowan et al - the real-life COVID-19 contagion has meant making myriad complex decisions, sometimes on the fly, which affect their constituent's lives and livelihoods.

It has also meant fronting up to press conferences day after day to deliver the good and bad news about those decisions, and the weight of all that can be found in Berejiklian's furrowed brow or Andrews increasingly harried countenance at those daily, media briefings.

For Palaszczuk, sitting in her office and pouring tea from a Premieral pot, it can also be found in her candid admission that at one stage last year she considered "walking away".

The Premier and Dr Jeannette Young, Queensland's chief health officer, who have publicly delivered the State's COVID-19 decisions as a sort of pandemic double act, have both received death threats during the health crisis.

"There were a couple of particularly bad times when I did ask myself 'Is it worth it?'" Palaszczuk says.

"There was one point last year where I thought 'Is doing your job worth getting killed over?'"

Which could sound a touch dramatic had the threats not been considered so serious that both Palaszczuk and Young were given around-the-clock police protection, and Palaszczuk's own movements were strictly limited for a time.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young during a press conference on COVID in January 2021. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Josh Woning
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young during a press conference on COVID in January 2021. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Josh Woning

"There was one day during that period when my whole family - my Mum and Dad, and my sisters, all came to my house just to sit with me," Palaszczuk remembers. "They all just turned up on my doorstep," she smiles.

"During that time, people were dropping in with coffees and food ('there's lots of lasagnes in my freezer') there were people from my party like Grace Grace, and Milton Dick and Steven Miles checking in.

"I had a lot of support from the cabinet and caucus, so I never felt alone because my friends and family wouldn't let me.

"But I did," the Premier notes, "feel vulnerable."

That vulnerability, that feeling of not being safe, Palaszczuk says, took away one of the greatest pleasures of her job.

"The thing is, one of the real joys for me as Premier is meeting people, but instead of feeling comfortable, I was looking over my shoulder.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk with her parents Henry and Lorelle in October 2020 at her election night victory event. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Dan Peled
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk with her parents Henry and Lorelle in October 2020 at her election night victory event. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Dan Peled

"I'd be watching someone walk towards me smiling, and just having this question mark hanging over me, or (I'd be) going down to the shops and thinking, 'Wait, should you be going down to the shops?'

"So yes, I did let it get to me for a short time there, and the cyber-bullying as well."

The Premier says she has also been trolled throughout the pandemic, the messages both "vile and violent".

"The only positive thing I can say about that whole experience is that I can now say to anyone who is experiencing cyber-bullying that I now totally understand it.

"I understand where it can take you, I understand how people can say 'just ignore it' but you find yourself unable to.

"It is the most soul-destroying, the most appalling thing, and it is heartbreaking to think that if it can affect someone like me, who has all this support and all this protection, then how is a child or a teenager who is getting it meant to cope?

"I want to say to them I understand what it can do to a person, but you know what I do now?

"I don't read any of it. Nothing, not one word."

Premier Annastacia Palaszczcuk. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Premier Annastacia Palaszczcuk. Picture: Mark Cranitch

The Premier straightens in her chair and shifts her gaze to out her office window with its views (on a clear day) all the way down to the Gold Coast's vertiginous skyscrapers.

"So if there is a troll out there who wants to send something to me, go right ahead, do your worst, because I can tell you right here, right now, I am not going to read it."

Palaszczuk returns her gaze to the table, and raises the pot.

"So," she smiles, "more tea?"

 

When Palaszczuk goes swimming in the salty waters off the Gold or Sunshine coasts, people like to paddle over for a bit of a chat.

"I'll be in the waves at Main Beach or up the Coast somewhere, and people will just sort of swim up and say, 'Oh, hello Annastacia, I didn't expect to see you here … how are you anyway?'''

Palaszczuk laughs.

"I'm there in my swim shorts and my zip-up rashie …" she grins.

Death threats and trolling aside, Palaszczuk's thoughts of "walking" were always destined to be more of a wobble than an actual exit plan.

"When I was thinking about walking away, I realised that all sorts of people go out and do their job every day with no idea what that day will bring or how that day will end, our health workers, our emergency workers, our police, all sorts of professions.

"So I just told myself to calm down and get on with it - and then I calmed down and got on
with it."

The death threats have also subsided, she says, and so Palaszczuk is back to bobbing about the Pacific Ocean on rare days off and chatting to people on their boogie boards, or down at the local shops.

"I'm not going to let anyone make me feel that way again," she says firmly.

"The fact is we are living in times when tough decisions have to be made, and I am the one that has to make them. The buck ultimately stops with me, so I have to be prepared for whatever comes with that."

Palaszczuk says she understands some of those decisions; her rigid stance on border closures and her inflexibility around bending the rules for medical treatments, deathbed visits or funeral attendance are not popular.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk wearing a mask during a COVID press conference. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Jono Searle
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk wearing a mask during a COVID press conference. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Jono Searle

"When I see a headline or someone sends me a letter that says, 'Have you no heart, Premier?' it's awful because I do, and I have also had a little of my own experiences with the rules, so I do get it.

"My Uncle Joe, who was my mum's sister's husband passed away about a month ago, he was at the hospital during the time when people were not allowed in, so his family couldn't go and see him. I couldn't stay with my grandmother Beryl when she passed in June last year. Only two people were allowed to be with her, so Mum and her sister went. And I was extremely close to her, I loved her very much.

"I did manage to see her the night before she died, I was allowed to go in by myself, and I told her how much she had meant to me and how much I loved her."

Palaszczuk chuckles, remembering Beryl, her maternal grandmother who died at age 96, and who lived in a small weatherboard cottage in Durack in Brisbane's west for most of her long life.

"I was telling her all of this, how much she had meant to me, and then she said very clearly 'I'm not going anywhere yet, Annastacia …'"

Neither, it appears, much to the chagrin of her political enemies, is Palaszczuk.

"I've got a lot of energy left for the role, and a lot of passion," she says. "We have a lot of work to do during and post pandemic, and I'm here for as long as the people want me to be here."

Palaszczuk is at the helm of a third, historic term, and should she see out its four years, will overtake the record of Labor alumni Peter Beattie, and be well on her way to becoming the party's longest-serving leader.

Not bad for someone who was long encumbered with the unflattering moniker of the "accidental Premier".

It is now part of Labor Party folklore; how Palaszczuk took up the mantle of Opposition leader when no-one else wanted it, the last woman standing leading a party so decimated by Campbell Newman's stomping 2012 win that the joke back then was that the Labor Party travelled together in a Tarago. How she then surprised everybody by winning the 2015 state election, delivering 35 new seats to Labor, then winning again in 2017, and once more in last year's October State election - the pandemic, many believe, heavily tipping the result in Labor's favour.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczcuk. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Premier Annastacia Palaszczcuk. Picture: Mark Cranitch

But whether or not her "keeping Queenslanders safe" mantra throughout the COVID-19 crisis won the day is now something of a moot point. The real takeaway is that people underestimate Palaszczuk at their peril, a tongue twister that has proven to be true again and again.

"Never underestimate a woman," she says, "I tell my nieces all the time, be strong, be confident, and take every single opportunity when it comes to you - I always have."

Nevertheless, Palaszczuk agrees that the 2021 version of herself is a far cry from 2012's.

"I have learnt so much since I was in Opposition, and COVID in particular has been a very steep learning curve.

"It has taught me to trust my instincts and to stand my ground, I think these days, post 50, I am extremely comfortable in my own skin, in my friends, in my family, and in my job."

Comfortable enough, apparently, to send that infamous text to her counterpart in New South Wales. Berejiklian revealed in November last year that, in response to a text she sent Palaszczuk congratulating her on Labor's state election win, and adding "Hope we can work together to get our borders open", Palaszczuk replied a few days later - after a State of Origin win - with just one word: "Queenslander".

Labelled "bratty", "gloating" and "immature", Palaszczuk insists the text was instead intended to be "cheeky".

"I just thought in the midst of this pandemic, we have this sport that brings people together and this intense rivalry, and so I was being a bit cheeky, trying to bring a bit of relief to the intense pressure we were both under." Palaszczuk pauses. "She didn't reply though," she says.

The relationship, and rumoured bitter feud, between Berejiklian and Palaszczuk is a fascinating one, in part because of the similarities in their backstories, as illustrated by the cadence of their surnames.

 

Berejiklian's Armenian parents came to Australia from Syria and Jerusalem in the 1960s; her father, Krikor working as a boilermaker and welder at the Sydney Opera House for a time. Palaszczuk is the granddaughter of Leo, also a boilermaker, who arrived in Australia from Poland after World War Two, after spending seven years in a Nazi work camp.

Both women are the products of hardworking, immigrant families whose narrative includes fleeing persecution in their native lands, and both women were taught from an early age that hard work and sacrifice brings its own rewards.

And both women have paid a price for it.

There is perhaps no-one better placed to understand what Palaszczuk and Berejiklian face every day of their lives than each other.

For her part, Palaszczuk says reports of their simmering feud are exaggerated, and claims they "actually get on pretty well".

"People don't realise we do like each and respect each other, I certainly respect her," she says. "She's going to fight for her state, and I'm going to fight for mine, and I think we both understand that."

And Palaszczuk says that last year, when Berejiklians's five-year affair with disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire was exposed at a corruption hearing, with the private and fastidious Berejiklian later forced to defend herself publicly ("I trusted someone … and I feel really, really let down"), she felt "very deeply for her".

"I think to have all of that played out in the public eye would have been very difficult, just very, very hard.

"Everyone is human … you are still a human, you are still a woman, and I hope she finds happiness because she is a nice person and she deserves to."

Premier Annastacia Palaszczcuk. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Premier Annastacia Palaszczcuk. Picture: Mark Cranitch

Like Berejiklian, Palaszczuk's own private life has been subject to scrutiny by the media, the public, and political pundits alike.

Unlike Berejiklian, she has been a little more forthcoming about it.

Married twice (first to journalist George Megalogenis, then to Simon Every, once chief of staff to Senator Joe Ludwig, now with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation) Palaszczuk has been open about both her desire and inability to have children, due to endometriosis.

This medical condition can affect a woman's fertility and ability to carry a child to term, with the Premier revealing to Qweekend in 2004 that she and Every had lost a baby to miscarriage at 11 weeks.

It hurt badly then, and it still hurts now, with Palaszczuk saying that she still feels "the tug" of wanting children.

"I understand that many women happily choose not to have children, but that hasn't been the case for me. But while I do still feel that tug, I have accepted it. What has been really nice for me is that for the last two months, my sister Nadia and her kids Annie, who is 12, and Lucy, who is eight, have been living with me while their house is renovated, and I have loved every single minute of it. It was so good, just living among all that lovely chaos."

And while any notion that a woman - or a man - needs a partner in life in order to be happy has long been dispelled, Palaszczuk cheerfully admits, nonetheless, that she would "quite like" one.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk celebrates her state election win with her nieces in October 2020. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Dan Peled
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk celebrates her state election win with her nieces in October 2020. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Dan Peled

"I would like to share my life with someone, yes, but they would have to be someone who is very much their own person, someone who is very comfortable in themselves, and with their own career. Perhaps one day I might meet someone who has a family I could share in or become a part of, I think that would be quite nice."

But how hard is it for someone like Palaszczuk, given her role's long hours (from about 5am to 9pm on a good day) high pressure stakes (pandemic, anyone?) and intense media scrutiny, to meet a possible partner?

Palaszczuk holds her hands up in the air, and looks about her office.

"Well," she laughs, "where are they?''

Berejiklian's experience with Maguire, Palaszczuk says, was a reminder too, that "if you do meet someone, you've got to be prepared for it to go public".

In the meantime, however, there's a new man in the Premier's orbit; one who would very much like to take her job off her.

David Crisafulli - who a couple of weeks agotold Qweekend that while "plenty did", he has never underestimated Palaszczuk - is the latest LNP leader hoping to break Labor's - by 2024 - 12-year spell in power.

Palaszczuk, who has seen three LNP contenders come and go in her time as leader (Campbell Newman, Tim Nicholls and Deb Frecklington) has thus far displayed a rather insouciant attitude towards the latest, recently answering a
reporter's question about Crisafulli with: "They can put up whoever they want, I really
don't care".

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk during Question Time. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Dan Peled
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk during Question Time. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Dan Peled

She does, of course - deeply - but this is politics where the smarter players don't show their hands.

Asked to evaluate those who have come before Crisafulli, Palaszczuk offers this appraisal …

Campbell Newman - "Easily the most adversarial, day in, day out, sitting opposite him was an experience, a very volatile one."

Tim Nicholls - "I think Tim is very smart, but he wasn't himself. He wasn't allowed to be. They tried to reinvent him and they didn't need to. If they had let him be himself, we would have had a bigger fight on our hands."

Deb Frecklington - "I don't think the party ever really fully embraced having a woman in charge. People say we don't speak, but if I saw her on the street, I'd say hello, and I wish her well."

David Crisafulli. Palaszczuk smiles, a hint of the same sort of mischievousness that saw her send that one-word text to Berejiklian.

"We'll see."

Originally published as 'Was my job worth being killed for?' Moment Premier nearly quit


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