There are few insults that could be hurled at the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, that would sting more than a comparison to her predecessor.
Campbell Newman’s ephemeral stint in power – marked by asset sales and the sackings of thousands of public servants – still provides the rump of Labor’s state electoral strategy.
But this week Palaszczuk backed down and took Newman’s advice. In a morning television interview, she announced modest public sector wage increases would be placed on hold. Coronavirus or not, 2020 is an election year in Queensland and the seemingly unscripted comments have angered several unions and placed Palaszczuk on an unfamiliar footing.
Many of those in limbo are frontline workers – including health, education and other staff working on the coronavirus response.
Those unions say the first they heard the government was considering such a move was when told about Palaszczuk’s comments. Worse for the premier, some even raised the spectre of Newman.
“In something more akin to the Newman years, it seems the Labor state government has thrown hardworking frontline essential workers to the wolves at the very time we need them the most,” said Peter Ong, the state secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU).
“Workers risking their lives to keep fellow Queenslanders safe deserve far better from a premier who seems to have gone weak at the knees when attacked by a rabid rightwing media pack, cheered on by a former premier who sacked more than 12,000 public service workers,” Ong said.
Public sector energy workers, represented by the ETU, had negotiated a 3% pay increase. About 225,000 public servants, many represented by the Together union are in the process of voting on deals that would give them a 2.5% increase, and some a $1,250 sign-on bonus.
Together has not released a statement but information for members on its website questions whether Palaszczuk or the state cabinet has the authority to summarily suspend wage negotiation processes.
“[The premier] made this comment in response to a question regarding a Courier-Mail article that ran yesterday. This article was completely incorrect and motivated by anti-public sector politics,” the information for members says.
“Industrial processes cannot be unilaterally (without any discussion) shifted by your employer or a press conference.
“There was no consultation prior to this comment. If there is poor consultation about this or about the many important crisis measures Covid-19 has brought to public sector workers then things will not go as well as they should.”
Together said its was calling for an accord that would cover the public sector response to the pandemic, and said there had been recent issues with service closures, protective equipment and safety.
For more than a week, Newman had been calling on social media for the public sector to “share the nation’s pain”. Last Thursday, Queensland Labor’s official account responded on Twitter, once again attacking his record on the public service.
As premier, Newman marshalled Australia’s largest parliamentary majority and could not win a second term in 2015. Since that time, Newman’s chaotic and unpopular tenure has given Labor its most effective campaign lines. Until Thursday, the idea he might divine Labor policy was unthinkable.
At a press conference on Thursday, Palaszczuk seemed to acknowledged the enormity of her shift.
“These are extraordinary times,” she said.