He was born at Mundubbera, Queensland, and grew up at Inala where he was educated at Inala State High School and the University of Queensland (LLB). He worked as a solicitor and then with the Aboriginal Legal Service before setting up his own practice, but did not become a member of the Australian Labor Party until the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in November 1975.
Goss entered state politics as an Australian Labor Party (ALP) MLA in 1983 for the electoral district of Salisbury and, from 1986 onwards, for Logan.
Along with others, Goss was a key figure in the 1970s-1980s Civil liberties fight against the Bjelke-Petersen Government, pursuing legal and political strategies against Bjelke-Petersen. He was elected Leader of the Opposition in March 1988.
Goss led Labor into the 1989 state election against the National Party government of Russell Cooper. The Queensland Nationals were still reeling from revelations of the rampant corruption of longtime premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and polls showed Labor had its best chance of winning power in years. Labor had been in opposition since 1957, and last made a serious bid for government in 1972. Cooper had toppled Bjelke-Petersen's immediate successor, Mike Ahern, in a September party-room coup, two months before the writ was dropped.
Goss seized on National ads arguing that his plans to decriminalise homosexuality would result in gays flooding into Queensland. He replied with ads painting Cooper as a wild-eyed reactionary and a carbon copy of Bjelke-Petersen.
Goss and Labor won a strong majority government at the 1989 election, scoring a 24-seat swing, the worst defeat of a sitting government up until that time in Queensland. This was fueled by a massive Labor wave that swept through Brisbane; Labor won all but five of the capital's 36 seats.
His election win, which ended 32 years of Coalition/National Party rule, was seen as "the end of the Bjelke-Petersen era" and the beginning of a new era, with The Courier-Mail declaring "Goss the Boss". Once installed in office, he presided over the implementation of many of the reforms of the landmark Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption.
The Goss Government introduced several electoral and public sector reforms, the most notable being the elimination of the "Bjelkemander" malapportionment that had helped keep the Queensland Nationals in power. In addition to reforming the state’s electoral laws and boundaries, the Goss Government "introduced merit-based appointments to the Queensland public service, created new National Parks and oversaw a new regime of economic and budgetary management" It also introduced social reforms such as decriminalising homosexuality, appointing Queensland's first female minister in cabinet and first female Governor, abolishing the Queensland Police Special Branch and Imperial honours, and made provision "to buy thousands of extra university places and hire thousands of new teachers". Goss' Chief of Staff as Premier was former diplomat Kevin Rudd, later leader of the federal Labor Party and Prime Minister of Australia, and Goss' 1989 campaign director was Wayne Swan, subsequently Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.
Goss won a second term at the 1992 state election, maintaining the same 19-seat majority he won in 1989 over the National Party and the Liberal Party (the two non-Labor parties went out of coalition in 1983, but resumed the coalition after the 1992 election).
Before the 1995 election the Goss Government announced a plan to clear sensitive bushland for an alternative to one of south-east Queensland's major roadways. This prompted the Greens Party to do something it had never done before: it recommended that its supporters not give their second preference, on voting ballots, to Labor. Partly as a result of this, as well as the increasing unpopularity of Goss's management style (widely thought to be authoritarian) and growing anger at the federal Labor government, Labor was severely punished at the polls. Notably, it lost several seats in Brisbane's Bayside area, known as 'the koala seats' because of the passion stirred up by a belief that the new road would destroy the habitat of koalas. While Labor lost the popular vote to the Rob Borbidge-led Coalition, Labor managed to win 31 out of 40 seats in Brisbane while most of the Coalition's majority was wasted on large majorities in National heartland. This seemingly allowing Labor to salvage a knife-edge majority of one seat.
After the 1995 election, Labor's majority hung on the Townsville seat of Mundingburra, which had been won by Labor's Ken Davies by only 12 votes over the Coalition's Frank Tanti. However, several irregularities were discovered, the most serious being that several servicemen serving in Rwanda didn't have their votes counted. Following a declaration by the Supreme Court of Queensland, sitting as a Court of Disputed Returns, a by-election was ordered for February 1996, which Tanti won. This outcome brought about a hung Parliament; the balance of power was held by Gladstone Independent Liz Cunningham. Cunningham announced that she was going to support the Coalition on the floor of Parliament, leaving Goss with no alternative but to resign as Premier on 19 February 1996.
Goss' defeat proved to be a harbinger of federal Labor's massive defeat in the federal election held a month later. Federal Labor suffered particularly heavy losses in Queensland at the subsequent federal election; it was cut down to only two seats there, its worst result in the state since being reduced to only one seat in 1975. Goss later said that Queensland voters had turned so violently on then-Prime Minister Paul Keating that they had been "sitting on their verandas with baseball bats" waiting for the writs to drop, a phrase that has since entered the Australian political lexicon.
After resigning as Premier and Leader of the Labor Party on 19 February 1996, Goss returned to the back benches of the Opposition under new Opposition Leader Peter Beattie and assumed something of an "elder statesman" role. He had begun the process of seeking preselection as the Labor candidate for the federal seat of Oxley in the 1998 election. However, a diagnosis of a brain tumour (subsequently partially removed without any problems) forced him to scale back his activities. Despite support from both sides of Parliament—evidenced when the House gave him a standing ovation on his return from surgery—Goss retired from politics at the 1998 Queensland state election.
At the time, rumours circulated that the Labor Party's Federal Opposition Leader Kim Beazley had offered Goss a front-bench position if he had won Oxley in the 1998 Federal election; however no proof has been offered of this suggestion.
After his retirement from politics, Goss served in a variety of community and business roles. He did an MBA at the University of Queensland after losing office as Premier; Goss was also awarded honorary doctorates (DUniv) by QUT and Griffith University.
Goss was Chairman of the Queensland Art Gallery for 3 terms from 1999 until 2008, a period which included the development of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), and served a term as a Director of the Brisbane Broncos NRL rugby league team.
Goss received a Centenary Medal in 2001.
In business, Goss served as National Chairman of the Australian section of Deloitte from 2005–2013. Goss was also Chairman of engineering firm Ausenco from 2002 until 2013. From 2003 to 2007, Goss was on the board of Ingeus Limited, the company founded by Thérèse Rein, the wife of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, his former chief-of-staff. Further, Goss was Chairman of FreeTV Australia, the lobby group representing the free-to-air television companies in Australia, from 2008 until 2011.
Wayne Goss was also an Ambassador of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, and a member of a business task force dealing with the aftermath of the 2010-11 Queensland floods.
He lived in Brisbane with his wife, Roisin (nee Hirschfeld). Roisin's father was Konrad Hirschfeld (a Rhodes Scholar in 1927) and her grandfather Eugen Hirschfeld (a member of the first University of Queensland Senate in 1910). Wayne and Roisin Goss had two children, Ryan and Caitlin, both of whom attended the University of Queensland and were awarded Rhodes Scholarships to attend the University of Oxford in 2007 and 2009 respectively.
Goss battled a series of brain tumours for 17 years, undergoing four operations to remove them. He died aged 63 at his home in Brisbane on 10 November 2014, with his wife and children present. Instead of a state funeral, a private funeral was held, and a public memorial service was organized by the family at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. Over a thousand mourners attended the service, some accommodated in overflow rooms.
Condolence motions were moved in the Queensland Parliament and in the Parliament of Australia.
In marking Goss' death, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described Goss as Queensland's "greatest postwar Premier"; former Premier Peter Beattie described Goss as "Labor’s best premier since TJ Ryan in 1915"; former Premier Anna Bligh stated that "Wayne Goss was the father of modern Queensland". Former LNP Premier Campbell Newman described Goss's "amazing contribution to Queensland".
The Gossia genus of rainforest trees in the myrtle family is named after Wayne Goss in honour of his conservation work.