Palaszczuk was raised in the Brisbane suburb of Durack, the daughter of veteran state Labor MP Henry Palaszczuk, who was born in Germany to Polish parents. Her Australian mother, Lorelle, is descended from German settlers. She attended St Mary's College, Ipswich from 1982-1986. She has degrees in Arts and Laws from the University of Queensland, a Masters of Arts from the University of London (where she was a Chevening Scholar), and a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice from Australian National University.
Palaszczuk worked as a policy adviser to a number of Labor ministers, including Minister for Communities, Disabilities and Seniors, Warren Pitt and former Minister for the Environment, Dean Wells. She later decided to have a career in the legal profession and was studying for admission as a solicitor when her father announced his intention to retire at the 2006 election.
In the wake of her father's retirement, Palaszczuk contested and won Labor preselection for his seat of Inala in south-west Brisbane, the safest Labor seat in Queensland, and was elected with a margin of more than 30 points.
On 9 October 2008, Palaszczuk was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Main Roads and Local Government in the wake of Ronan Lee's defection to the Greens. Just over five months later, she was appointed Minister for Disability Services and Multicultural Affairs in the Bligh ministry following the 2009 election. In February 2011, she was promoted to Minister for Transport and Multicultural Affairs.
At the 2012 election, the Bligh government was overwhelmingly defeated by Campbell Newman-led Liberal National Party, losing 44 seats. Palaszczuk suffered a 14-point swing in Inala, but retained her seat with a 46.2 per cent primary vote and a 56.9 per cent two-party vote.
The day after the election, Bligh resigned as premier and party leader and retired from politics. Palaszczuk, as one of only three surviving members of Bligh's cabinet, announced that she would be a candidate to succeed Bligh. Curtis Pitt initially said he would stand, but withdrew. This left Palaszczuk to take the leadership unopposed at a meeting of the Labor Caucus on 28 March in Ipswich. Bligh did not attend the meeting. Tim Mulherin was elected Deputy Leader, also unopposed.
Palaszczuk faced the task of rebuilding a party which had just suffered the worst defeat of a sitting government in Queensland history, and amongst the worst that a governing party has ever suffered at the state level in Australia. She also faced the difficulty of leading an opposition caucus of only seven members, two short of official status (though Newman subsequently promised that Labor would have the full rights and resources entitled to the official opposition). After taking the leadership, Palaszczuk said, "We need to make ourselves relevant to voters. We need to get back to our basics. Workers' rights, protecting the environment, investment in education—these are core Labor principles and somewhere along the way we simply lost our way." She also said, "I'm under no illusion of the task ahead, of the rebuild that we need to do and the fact that we need to restore people's faith in the Queensland Labor Party".
Following her election, Palaszczuk apologised for "breaching the trust of Queenslanders", a reference to the Bligh government's decision to sell off state assets after promising not to do so at the 2009 election. This decision had been "poorly communicated to the community", she said, "There were other issues, but that is the single point where we lost faith with the community. For that I apologise." Palaszczuk defended the decision itself, saying it was made to save jobs across the state, but conceded that the Government should have been more open more quickly regarding the policy.
On 29 March 2012, Palaszczuk announced that she would support the state parliamentary term being extended to four years, as is the case in the other Australian states. Newman indicated he supported the move as well.
During her time as opposition leader, Palaszczuk closed the two-party gap between Labor and the LNP, and on several occasions outpolled Newman as preferred premier. Despite this, most commentators gave Labor little chance of winning the 2015 state election. Labor needed a 36-seat swing to make Palaszczuk Queensland's second female premier and Australia's first female premier elected from opposition—a task thought nearly impossible given that the party only went into the election with nine seats (having won two seats from the LNP in by-elections).
However, in a result that surprised even the most optimistic Labor observers, Labor won a 12-point swing, and projections on election night saw the party very close to winning a majority government. Depending on the source, Labor was either two or three seats short of outright victory. Labor also ousted Newman in his own seat, something that had only happened to a sitting Premier once before in Queensland's history. The final result saw 44 Labor seats and 42 LNP seats. The balance of power rested with the lone independent in the chamber, Peter Wellington, and the two MPs from Katter's Australian Party. On 5 February, Wellington announced his support for a Labor government under Palaszczuk, giving Labor 45 of 89 seats, a parliamentary majority of one. Palaszczuk herself reverted Inala to its previous status as a comfortably safe Labor seat, scoring an 18-point swing to increase her majority to 25 percent, the second-safest in the state.
On 9 February 2015, with projections showing Labor assured of at least a minority government, Palaszczuk said she intended to meet with Governor Paul de Jersey on 11 February and advise him that she could form a government. Hours after the results were declared, de Jersey formally invited Palaszczuk to form a government. She was sworn in on 14 February 2015. It is only the seventh change of government in Queensland since 1915.
Initially, Palaszczuk had herself, deputy leader Jackie Trad, and Curtis Pitt sworn in as an interim three-person government. The full ministry was sworn in on 16 February 2015, with Palaszczuk taking on the Arts portfolio alongside her Premiership.
Shortly after taking government, Labor MP Billy Gordon was forced to resign from the party by Palaszczuk due to an undeclared criminal history. She requested he quit parliament however he refused and is sitting as an independent.
Successful amendments to the electoral act through legislation and referenda in early 2016 included: adding an additional four parliamentary seats from 89 to 93, changing from optional preferential voting to full-preferential voting, and moving from unfixed three-year terms to fixed four-year terms.
Palaszczuk was married to journalist George Megalogenis from 1996 to 1998, and to Simon Every, who was then Senator Joe Ludwig's chief of staff, from 2004 to 2009.