MILES UNCENSORED: How ‘Giggles’ became Premier-in-waiting
The phone rings as Steven Miles wanders about Mr Toys Toyworld with his six-year-old daughter Bridie, searching for a weirdly popular doll that wees and poos. It's Mother's Day and the Health Minister at the forefront of Queensland's COVID-19 response has snagged a few hours with his family. The call changes that.
It's the Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, asking him to be her deputy. His Left faction colleague, Jackie Trad, has resigned over (now cleared) corruption allegations and, as he paces through aisles of Lego and Play-Doh, he is ascending to the second-highest elected role in the Queensland Government.
It's a meteoric rise for the man who arrived on the public scene just over five years ago, an untested politician often painted as affable but uninspiring. He's shy, he says, and "some things that come naturally to my colleagues are more of an effort for me".
His tentativeness was obvious when he was thrust straight into the role of Environment Minister after Palaszczuk - who started the 2015 election campaign with eight parliamentary colleagues - led Labor to a victory Miles admits he didn't expect. It was exciting but daunting and his nervous laugh quickly had him dubbed "Giggles".
But the giggles have subsided. As Health Minister in a pandemic, Miles, 42, has been clear and measured, facing the cameras almost daily with a growing self-assuredness.
It was most evident last month when he took aim at the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, for crying "crocodile tears" in what he believes was an orchestrated campaign against Palaszczuk and the Chief Health Officer, Dr Jeannette Young, over border controls and their effect on families.
"The objective was to damage us via Jeannette, to try to make Jeannette political and I know she is so far above that and didn't deserve it," says Miles of the furore over exemptions to attend a funeral.
"I saw the reporting of Morrison nearly crying and thought, 'How cynical'; never once had he spoken up about aged care as far as I know, never been to a funeral … and here he is choking up about a case that I knew was far more complicated."
He says no one told him to unleash, it was just how he felt. "I don't think I'd make a good attack dog but I think it was important I said what I said."
He's said some more recently, firing up over the withdrawal of Defence personnel from Queensland border checkpoints, claiming Defence was being "used as a bargaining chip in what is an ongoing political attack from the Federal Government on the State Government".
Miles is adamant Morrison's office is zeroing in on Queensland in the lead up to the election, saying the appearance of multiple federal ministers in coveted media slots on Queensland matters did not happen by chance. And he's just as adamant the state Opposition Leader, Deb Frecklington, is a "bystander" in the strategy and will be in the campaign.
"She's more of an afterthought," says Miles. "She's the one who will become the Premier if they have their way but it's not a campaign to make her Premier, it's a campaign to get the LNP into office and us out. Because Annastacia doesn't do what Scott Morrison tells her to do."
Of Palaszczuk, he says: "She's good at leading Queensland because she's very, very good at reading what Queenslanders think and want."
If voters decide they want Frecklington on October 31, however, and Palaszczuk decides - or is encouraged - not to stay on as Opposition Leader, Miles is well-positioned to take the role.
He claims he hasn't thought about that "too much".
"(Deputy Premier) is a higher post than I ever aspired to; I only ever aspired to represent my local community and maybe one day be a minister," says the politician who moved from Brisbane's inner-west Mt Coot-tha electorate to outer-northern Murrumba in 2017 after a redistribution.
"I'm completely focused on trying to win the election and stay in this role if I can."
He doesn't rule out leading Labor, though, and his track record shows that when opportunities come, Miles takes them.
It was late on January 29 this year in the Queensland Health boardroom that Miles grasped the enormity of the unfolding pandemic. Young and Health's director-general, Dr John Wakefield, put a piece of paper in front of him to sign. He asked for extra legal advice. Satisfied, he signed the declaration of a public health emergency, the first time the sweeping powers had been used statewide and the first state to take the step.
"That was the moment for me," says Miles. "At that stage we thought we were on the start of something really big."
The signs were ominous. Footage of bulldozers preparing ground for makeshift hospitals in Wuhan, China, had filled our screens and Queensland had just recorded its first case - from a member of a tour group from Wuhan.
"It was pretty clear the whole tour group would have it and they'd been out in the public and we really thought we'd see a lot more cases on the Gold Coast," says Miles. It didn't eventuate. But with modelling soon forecasting up to 1100 cases a day, the fear remained. He has, he says, "been nervous all year".
Miles admits he was "very" concerned about having enough ventilators, enough ICU beds. "It was about getting our hospitals ready for … the inevitable onslaught but we ended up stopping the onslaught, which is pretty incredible."
Miles attributes the fact that in nine months, Queensland has recorded just over the number of cases that were expected to occur in one day to Young's forensic understanding of previous pandemics, her plans instituted by health workers, a dose of luck and the willingness of Queenslanders to submit to a lockdown and distancing measures.
"Public health experts didn't think the public would make that level of sacrifice, yet whenever we did something, people were so supportive. If anything, the pressure was to go further," Miles says. "The willingness of the public allowed us to pursue an aggressive suppression strategy. Originally the strategy was to keep it below hospital capacity whereas now, we're effectively suppressing every outbreak."
Driving economic recovery is now vital but he says "health is so central to the economic response". "Unless we manage to keep the health where it is, we won't be able to do the economic work," Miles says.
Part of that work in his Health portfolio is a stimulus program of hospital infrastructure and encouraging private sector investment in COVID-related jobs, such as domestic PPE manufacture. One issue COVID has exposed, says Miles, is the drawbacks of a casualised workforce.
Before politics, Miles's working life was largely with the union movement - he did a PhD on union renewal - and job security and fair pay are big ticket items for him. "For a long time, we were told casualisation was inevitable and necessary, buying everything from China and just-in-time logistics was inevitable and necessary and that governments shouldn't borrow to invest. All of these things, COVID turned upside down."
His upbringing in Petrie, in Brisbane's north, forged his keen sense of the importance of secure jobs, even if low-paying. His father, Bruce, 71, was a fitter at the Golden Circle cannery - "We ate a lot of pineapple, a lot of corn" - and his mother, Christine, 69, was a workplace health and safety officer. Their jobs provided a stability that benefited him and sister, Kate, 40, a Queensland Health employee before he was Health Minister.
A scholarship enabled him to go to the private St Paul's School, where he was "a bit of a nerd" but so aware of his opportunity that he joined everything, from rugby to debating to the year book committee. He was at St Paul's in Bald Hills at the time paedophile Kevin Lynch was school counsellor but was not one of his targets. Friends were. "I'm still in touch with people who were affected."
Another scholarship, the TJ Ryan, named after a former Labor Premier and reintroduced by another one, Wayne Goss, enabled him to become the first in his family to be tertiary educated. "It changed my life," he says. "Arriving at the University of Queensland campus was like a spiritual achievement for me."
He'd joined the Labor Party by then, aligned with the Right faction, the then-dominant power. When he wanted to run in the seat that morphed from Kurwongbah to Pine Rivers in 2009 but "wasn't supported" by his faction for preselection, he joined the Left. It's a move that proved crucial to his advancement come the Palaszczuk win in 2015. It was that election that flipped the factional supremacy from the Right (Palaszczuk's faction) to the Left, after it had secured a record number of candidates for an election few thought Labor would win.
Does he accept he wouldn't be Deputy Premier if he was not second in line to Trad on the now dominant Left? "That certainly helped but … when that position became vacant, I'd been front and centre of the Government's COVID response for months," Miles says. "I'd like to think that mattered, too."
By the end of the day, Miles will be at his 10-year-old son Aidan's rugby league game while wife Kim McDowell, 39, takes Sam, 12, to soccer. The father-of-three tries to get to his kids' sport but admits he's missing much of their childhood. It is, he says, the worst part about being a politician. "Every spare minute, which is not many, they get," he says ruefully.
Right now, though, he's at the Queensland Children's Hospital in hard hat and hi-vis to inspect a $20 million expansion. With him is Trad, in her role as member for South Brisbane. Miles calls her a friend and says he was sad for Trad, a forthright and polarising politician, when she resigned her ministerial roles.
As they survey the new surgical floor that he lobbied Trad to fund in her former role as Treasurer, Miles says he hopes its official opening will be in late October, "just in case we're not around a week later". He punctuates the comment with a giggle. Trad, always the confident one, quickly quashes doubt, saying they'll be back in November.
Different styles. As for Miles's substance, voters - and the Labor factions - will have a chance to gauge that as the election campaign ramps up. In the wash-up, it will be intriguing to watch just how far Miles can go. ■
Originally published as MILES UNCENSORED: How 'Giggles' became Premier-in-waiting