By Lydia Lynch
Labor is banking on problems with the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine to bolster its federal election prospects after it failed to win a seat north of Brisbane at the last poll, party elders and insiders say.
And the ALP is taking a sheet from the playbook used by federal ministers who attacked Queensland border closures, enlisting Deputy Premier Steven Miles — a relatively unknown identity outside the state before the pandemic — to prosecute its case.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously declared “how good is Queensland” when the state helped pave his path to victory in the 2019 election, leaving Labor with no seats outside the south-east corner.
With another federal election on the horizon, former Queensland Speaker and Labor party elder John Mickel said there was no doubt both sides were using the rollout to gain political capital in the must-win state.
“Queensland is really the battleground for the federal election,” said Professor Mickel, who retired from politics in 2012 and is now an adjunct associate professor at the Queensland University of Technology.
“If you win in Queensland, you will win. So this is huge for the Coalition, they have this massive majority in Queensland and they have got to retain it.
“There is a view being pushed along by federal Labor that Morrison is all talk and no delivery.
“[Queensland] can certainly play to that narrative with the vaccine rollout. You know, here is just another example of a guy standing in front of the cameras a couple of months ago saying, ‘we are leading the world and going to have 3 million jabs’, then none of it happens.
“There is, and do not ever dismiss it, a political overlay to this.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszcuk scored a decisive win at last year’s state election, but Labor’s success has not been reflected at the federal level.
Coalition parties have claimed the majority of Queensland seats in 10 of the past 15 federal elections.
Since Paul Keating in 1993, the only Labor leader who secured a majority in the state was Queenslander Kevin Rudd in 2007.
Mr Rudd said Queensland voters put their trust in Ms Palaszczuk and Mr Morrison during the pandemic.
“But Morrison has now abused that trust,” the former prime minister said.
“We have seen that through his efforts to spin his way through the circus of sleaze enveloping his government. Queenslanders think there is something really off about that.
“But top of mind is Morrison’s ‘front of the queue’ vaccination strategy, which is actually ranked around 85th in the world. Instead of fronting up to the people and telling them the truth, he keeps trying to blame others, the states or the Europeans.
“So there’s a lot of opportunity for Albo [Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese] to make gains in Queensland. There is room to build support among sole traders, small business owners and people of religious faith, whom Morrison takes completely for granted.”
Enter Mr Miles, the 43-year-old leader of Queensland Labor’s powerful Left faction with an affinity for props and stunts at press conferences.
The premier-in-waiting was elected to the Queensland Parliament in 2015 and became environment minister in his first term. He shot up the ranks to become Deputy Premier last year after the political implosion of his predecessor, Jackie Trad.
Often with a schoolboy-esque grin, Mr Miles revels in the cut and thrust of politics and has an innate ability to get under the skin of senior Morrison ministers.
His recent hits include filming himself shredding a quarantine bill from the NSW government, calling Agriculture Minister David Littleproud “2021’s April Fool” and accusing Treasurer Josh Frydenberg of “lying” about Queensland’s failed bid for additional Australian Defence Force support at the borders.
Mr Frydenberg hit back, saying Mr Miles was “a stumbling, bumbling lightweight that no one’s ever heard of”.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton, one of Mr Miles’ favourite conservatives to provoke, has described Queensland’s Deputy Premier as “a child dressed up as an adult” who would “be the next premier of Queensland”.
Mr Miles advised him to “eat some chocolate and read a book” on Easter Sunday after Mr Dutton criticised greater Brisbane’s three-day lockdown.
Professor Mickel said Mr Miles’ attacks on the Morrison government had to be coming from the top down.
“If they are not, it is a chaotic government,” he said.
“It is the same strategy Morrison is using by getting a federal minister to go out and beat on her [Palaszczuk].
“Then the leaders can come in and say, ‘well, he should not have gone that far, I would not have said that’.”
Ms Palaszczuk can remain above the fray so she can push proposals at the national cabinet, including establishing a quarantine hub for returning travellers at Toowoomba, west of Brisbane.
The Commonwealth is now scrambling to “recalibrate” the nation’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout program after revised health advice recommended under-50s be administered Pfizer, rather than AstraZeneca, doses.
Ms Palaszczuk says she does not know how the new advice will affect the timing of Queensland’s vaccine rollout.
A senior Queensland Labor insider, who was not authorised to speak on behalf of the party, said the already delayed rollout would help destabilise the Coalition in Queensland.
“When you think about it, the states have done most of the heavy political lifting during the pandemic,” they said.
“Quarantining people and closing borders, that all came down to the states. This is really Morrison’s first major test of the pandemic, and it is not going so well.
“It is a balance though, because you do not want to destroy people’s confidence in the rollout.”
Another senior ALP figure said Mr Morrison’s handling of a series of sexual harassment and assault allegations had put “chinks in his armour”.
“The shine is coming off him and that needs to continue,” they said.
“People are going to be looking at whether they trust him, and I think how he fares over the next few months with the vaccine rollout will be judged against the state premiers, and everyone knows they have done a good job.”
Mr Miles raised the federal government’s hackles when he accused it of using the vaccine rollout to distract Australians from allegations of sexual harassment and assault at Parliament House.
The federal government has blamed states for keeping vials of vaccine stashed away. Queensland has defended its vaccine hoarding, saying it does not trust the consistency of supply from the Commonwealth.
Late last month, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard demanded an apology from the federal government for blaming the states for the slow delivery.
In the past week, Ms Palaszczuk “wanted to remind everyone” three times in one press conference that Queensland Health was only responsible for 30 per cent of the vaccine rollout, with the rest of the responsibility falling to the federal government.
Queensland’s LNP leader, David Crisafulli, said Mr Miles was “trying to morph into this role of being the attack dog” but “it doesn’t work for you, mate, because you don’t have the strength or the intellectual capacity to do it”.
“We are increasingly becoming concerned with the vaccine rollout, the messaging, the prioritisation and the squabbles between Canberra and Brisbane,” Mr Crisafulli said.
“Quite frankly, it’s got to stop.”
But Professor Mickel said the Queensland Premier’s successful re-election campaign was helped along by a series of squabbles with Mr Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian over border closures.
Her “Queensland first” approach proved politically astute.
“You will never lose a vote for standing up for your state,” Professor Mickel said.
“The political overlay in the lead-up to the state election was for federal ministers, on Morrison’s behalf, to beat up on the Premier.”
Mr Rudd said the lesson for both major parties coming into the federal election was that “outsiders often mischaracterise Queensland’s conservative character”.
“I think that’s the lesson of last year’s Queensland state election,” he said.
“Queensland’s so-called conservative streak manifested in strong support for Annastacia Palaszczuk, who decided to put lives first rather than cave in to bullying by the Morrison government and the Murdoch media who demanded she open the borders.”