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From ‘accidental premier’ to trailblazing leader, Annastacia Palaszczuk’s power sprang from her warm personal politics

Annastacia Palaszczuk has often joked about her first term as Labor leader, in 2012, when her entire opposition caucus could fit comfortably inside a Toyota Tarago.

In recent months the story has become a sort of defence mechanism, a clap-back to growing pressure on her premiership, amid sustained poor polling results and rising concern from MPs about the direction of her government.

On Sunday, as Palaszczuk announced her retirement from politics, she told the story once more.

Related: Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk retires from politics

“When I led this party from an opposition of seven members, I said that the first election would be like climbing Mount Everest. I went on to climb that mountain twice more.

“I don’t need to do it again.”

Palaszczuk leaves as perhaps the most successful Labor politician in a generation, an “accidental” premier who led the party after its worst ever defeat in 2012 – when Campbell Newman defeated Anna Bligh – to an upset victory less than three years later.

She won three elections as Labor leader, taking the party from a minority government to a comfortable majority and in the process built unlikely coalitions of city, suburban and regional voters.

If the 2012 rump of seven MPs provides the astounding context for Palaszczuk’s political story, the 2020 campaign was its crescendo. The premier closed the state’s borders and, like Daniel Andrews in Victoria, reaped electoral success amid the threat of Covid-19 while pockets of opposition became more visceral.

Palaszczuk was born into a political family. Her father, Henry, was the member for Inala in Brisbane’s south, and a minister in Peter Beattie’s Labor government. Palaszczuk succeeded her father in Inala in 2006.

Related: Who will replace Annastacia Palaszczuk? Three contenders as Queensland Labor picks next premier

Henry Palaszczuk has remained one of Annastacia’s closest advisers. When his daughter became a minister, Palaszczuk Sr reportedly told her “if you’re sitting in your office in Brisbane, you’re not doing your job”.

“You’ve got to be out there. You’ve got to be out in the regions, you’ve got to be out talking to people.”

Palaszczuk steadfastly followed that advice. Her warm brand of personal politics – sometimes criticised by her own MPs for lacking clear purpose or ideology – worked in Queensland, amid schisms between working class regional voters and the progressive left in Brisbane and surrounds.

Labor designed presidential-style campaigns around Palaszczuk, whose appeal seemed to bridge those growing divides in a politically complex state. Colleagues likened her to the “mayor of Queensland”.

“People are drawn to her, they come up to her wherever she goes,” an MP said in 2020, after a decisive third election win.

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Palaszczuk weathered gendered political attacks and championed women in senior roles within government.

“I’m proud to have led a government of women, that champions women and gave women the right to choose,” she said.

Legalising abortion was one of Labor’s notable social reforms, as well as allowing voluntary assisted dying, both of which had clear support across the state. On wedge issues, like the Adani coalmine, the Palaszczuk government pursued a “both sides of the street” approach, using different messages in different parts of the state.

Palaszczuk’s premiership was buttressed, almost entirely, by her personal popularity. Her faction, the Australian Workers Union-aligned Labor right, is clearly outnumbered by the left. Until 2020, Palaszczuk worked in an effective partnership with former deputy premier Jackie Trad, then figurehead of the left, who did much of the work behind the scenes while the premier worked as the government’s public face.

In recent years, Palaszczuk’s popularity began to turn. Her opponents, including some media outlets, sought to negate her down-to-earth political image by pushing stories about the idea she was “more interested in treading the red carpet than knuckling down to the grind of governing”.

The seed for Palaszczuk’s retirement was sewn earlier this year, in the week her government suspended the Human Rights Act to detain children in watch houses, immediately before she left for a two-week holiday in Italy, where she was accosted by a news organisation.

She returned from leave weakened – lacking clear support from her MPs – but insisting she was re-energised, and appeared to be working towards contesting another election, due in October 2024.

On Sunday, she said she first “turned my mind” to the idea of resigning while on holiday, and that her mind was made up at the most recent national cabinet meeting. Old faces – including Andrews, and former Western Australian premier Mark McGowan – had each decided to go out on top in recent years.

“I had a break and I felt refreshed and renewed and I honestly thought that I had renewed energy, and I gave it everything but I’ve got to the end of the year,” she said.

“I just feel now is the right time.

“I’ve run this marathon and I’ve had discussions with Mark McGowan. It’s time for me to go and do something else.”

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said Palaszczuk had contacted him on Sunday before announcing her resignation.

“She retires as a Labor hero, a three-time election winner, Australia’s longest-serving female premier and – above all else – a champion for Queenslanders,” Albanese said.

“From the moment she made history with her extraordinary 2015 election victory, [Palaszczuk] has served Queensland with fierce pride in her state and a powerful determination to deliver for people.

“Annastacia’s leadership brought Queensland Labor back from the political brink and on so many occasions since then her government has put Queensland in a position of national leadership.”