On Sunday in Brisbane, a light plane looped the city trailed by the slogan “she is heartless”. Everyone on the ground knew exactly who “she” was.
Annastacia Palaszczuk was once Queensland’s “accidental premier”; as Labor attempts to win a third successive term, it is now framing a presidential-style campaign around her massive social media following and popular pandemic leadership.
But the Liberal-National opposition – via a series of personal attacks led by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and other federal figurers as surrogates – has begun to train its focus firmly on Palaszczuk, too.
An LNP source said the “get Palaszczuk” campaign strategy that has emerged in the past week was the sort usually used to target unpopular political leaders. In this case, it was “a huge unknown, obviously”.
“In any normal campaign, you wouldn’t want to focus too much on leadership when your opponent is well-liked or seen as a strong leader,” the LNP figure said.
“But this is not a normal election. There is one issue and it’s how the government has handled the pandemic.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say we are just aiming to [tear Palaszczuk down], you’ve got to remember she has been very quick to claim credit for [the state’s suppression strategy]. What would you expect us to do, let her take all the credit but none of the blame when things go wrong?
“But yeah, it’s no secret that whether or not Queenslanders still have faith in the premier in seven weeks’ time will probably also determine who wins.”
With an election on the horizon, the coronavirus pandemic has been a politically charged topic in Queensland for most of the year. Labor and the LNP have argued about policy; they’ve each claimed the other has exploited the coronavirus situation for political ends.
In April and June, the opposition leader, Deb Frecklington, called for the state border to reopen. Labor says they counted 64 times. Her quotes and soundbites will be rerun until election day. In line with polling showing widespread support for the border closure, the LNP now supports the policy.
Political commentator Chris Salisbury, from the University of Queensland, said the LNP’s tactics had clearly sharpened in the past week, as they have sought to highlight inconsistencies in border restrictions and cases like the Canberra woman denied permission to attend her father’s funeral, where decisions have caused emotional hardship.
Salisbury says the LNP appears to be allowing high-profile surrogates like Morrison and the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, to launch intense criticisms of Palaszczuk and her government to see what sticks.
“I think it’s become clear in the last week or two that the LNP opposition in Queensland is playing things a bit more tactically. They’re leaving a lot of the running on the strident attacks to federal colleagues.
“It seems they’ve decided to pick on these individual highly emotional cases as a means of just picking holes at what can be seen as inconsistencies in border controls. The heavy-hitting, indiscriminate swinging will be left to federal figures.”
Part of the complexity of a coronavirus election is there is no campaign template; Salisbury says the usual messages about spending, cuts and government debt are unlikely to resonate.
The need for economic stimulus, however, would allow campaigns to make large spending commitments with little scrutiny of the future budget implications.
Salisbury said the pandemic would also pose challenges for minor party candidates and independents across the state.
“We might see a bit of hardening of the votes behind the majors. The dominance of the airwaves of the narrative by the government and to a similar extent the opposition is only going to make things more difficult to minor parties.
“Pretty much the only conversation is the pandemic. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for the minor voices to make much of an impression.”
Have the attacks on Palaszczuk cut through?
On Friday, Palaszczuk briefly showed some signs the pandemic had taken a personal toll. She mentioned she had “lost loved ones as well”, a reference to the death of her nanna, Beryl Erskine, in June.
That morning the federal finance minister, Matthias Cormann, had called Palaszczuk “cold-hearted” and “nasty” for the government’s refusal to allow a Canberra woman to attend her father’s funeral. The same day the Courier-Mail in Brisbane ran an opinion piece that said the premier had a “black heart”.
The pile-on has kept coming. The state’s well-regarded chief health officer, Jeannette Young, has been subject to death threats and is now under police protection.
How deeply these attacks will resonate in the community is unclear. Salisbury says they will have had some impact, but that they also carry significant risk.
“It was quite a concerted campaign, not only from high-profile LNP members. The Courier-Mail ran with these emotive headlines, echoing the very emotive language used about the premier.
“It will have started to bite a little in terms of the sentiment in the electorate. But by the same token there’s risks on both sides.
“There were always risks with the government sticking very hard to its strict border regime and promoting the premier as the face of the government’s successful handling. That carried with it a degree of electoral risk and it can come back and be very damaging for the premier.
“The very emotive way the prime minister went about calling into questions the premier’s approach can carry risk as well, like we have seen with the criticism that Morrison was using the episode to advance his political agenda.”
Palaszczuk’s response on Monday reinforced the single faultline that will define the campaign: an all-or nothing gamble that voters will continue to back the coronavirus response, and by extension the government.
“If it means I have to lose the election, I will risk all that if it means keeping Queenslanders safe,” she said.
“I will stand on my record, I will hold my head up high. And I will stare down those people who are trying to tear Queensland apart.
“I am going to bat for the Queenslanders, all of the families out there. Their health, and the economy of this state, and their jobs, is more important than these relentless political attacks.”