Realistic Public Administration is the Key
From Kings Counsel (King and Co Newsletter),
Issue 22, Autumn 2004     

CPDS Home Contact  

There has been public disquiet and debate about the management of urban growth and infrastructure development in southeast Queensland. These concerns have focused on: the region's rapid population growth; urban sprawl; the loss of green-space; the adequacy and funding of infrastructure; and the arrangements for integrating land use and infrastructure planning.

In response the Queensland Government announced in the lead-up to the 2004 state elections that an Office of Urban Development and Infrastructure Coordination would be established, reporting to the Treasurer (Ludlow M., 'Labor placates developers', Australian Financial Review, 28/1/04). The Office was apparently to undertake such functions as:

However the most important requirement for effective growth management and infrastructure development outcomes - in southeast Queensland and elsewhere - is not being addressed.

Ineffectual Public Administration

Queensland is now burdened with a 'constipated' system of public administration which impedes everything government tries to do.  This is revealed by practical indicators [9] such as:

In particular 'constipated' administration necessarily limits the effectiveness of state government functions in southeast Queensland, which accounts for over 50% of Queensland's population and economic activity.

What went wrong

This predicament is a product of Queensland's history. 

The state's economy was long dependent on natural resources, complemented by small businesses and branch offices.  This has not led the Queensland community to support independent institutions able to provide competent high-level advice about economic or public policy. Instead they relied on external investors to take most important economic initiatives, and on the reasonably capable Public Service to support government [12].

The problem now is that in the early 1990s the Public Service was de-skilled by poorly-conceived and  incompetently-managed 'reform' of Queensland's machinery of government [14]. This 'reform' involved an attempt to implement both the findings of the Fitzgerald Inquiry into problems in police and political systems, and new public management theories that envisaged making government more business-like. For reasons outlined below the latter was based on a poor understanding of the nature of government. This laid the basis for Queensland's current administrative 'constipation'.

In the course of 'reform' there was blank refusal to listen to the Public Service who had steadily shifted in the direction of the proposed reform agenda for several years. Instead the Westminster tradition of an independent professional Public Service was demolished by across the board restructuring and re-staffing under a government controlled by the ALP's AWU faction which (according to evidence to the 2000 Shepherdson inquiry) had a rorting tradition in filling important political positions. Legislation was passed to prevent appeals against senior appointments - thus making professional competence optional rather than essential. Key senior staff were lost, together with their knowledge, skills and corporate memory. Professional initiative was repressed in the name of 'accountability'.  Understanding of public policy issues was set back several years. 'Wheels' had to be reinvented (and many turned out 'square'). Ineffective policy procedures were instituted on the basis of the theories of inexperienced political insiders in key positions. Under-informed policy / strategy groups sprouted like weeds. The 'wheels fell off' the practical delivery of critical functions such as education, health and infrastructure. Eventually the electorate (particularly the Public Service), protested at the administrative failures they were exposed to - a reaction which baffled those in political and media circles who had believed their own rhetoric about 'reform' [10].

Thus the widespread community and Public Service support that had existed for progressive change was fritted away in a  process that was described by independent observers in terms such as: lacking a proper philosophy; putting in a political fix; installing less capable senior officials; and creating the most complex system of government in the Western world [15].

Subsequent governments have exacerbated the problem. They have continued the process of politicisation - and by the late 1990s politicisation apparently had bi-partisan political support (see Franklin M., 'Only four survive Beattie's reshuffle', Courier Mail, 17/4/99).

Why politicisation matters

A critical role of the senior Public Service is to complement the focus that elected representatives have on the popularity of policy, by providing advice and implementation support to ensure that government policy is likely to be effective in practice.

Serious problems must arise where the Public Service is subjected to political manipulation and is thus unable to fulfill this role. Moreover:

De-skilling the Public Service (and undermining its professionalism) increases the rate of errors that government makes. The effects of this in Queensland have gone much deeper than the administrative dysfunctions that eventually become obvious to the community. For example:

While a loss of essential knowledge and experience has been an unwanted consequence of seeking to make government more accountable and business-like, it is noteworthy that similar problems have affected private firms where they have pursued overly simplistic top-level perceptions (such as financial market criteria) of what is required for business success [9].

The proposed Office can not work

The problem is now that little can be achieved by superimposing an Office for Urban Management and Infrastructure Coordination on an under-skilled public sector which has lacked effective professional accountability at senior levels for more than a decade [1] and which suffers from both 'politically idealistic' administrative machinery (as above) and increasingly severe budgetary constraints [3].

The proposed Office must also encounter difficulties because:

Making realistic progress

There seem to be five priority requirements for making more realistic progress in land use planning and infrastructure development in southeast Queensland.

First, 'give a laxative' to Queensland's system of public administration. This could be achieved by creating a serious process for professional accountability for senior public servants and reviewing the realism of key administrative processes. The latter would include those related to: cabinet; strategic planning and budgeting; infrastructure planning; and the corporatisation / commercialization of service and infrastructure delivery.

Second, pay particular attention in this process to the enabling machinery related to land use planning and infrastructure development (eg to the provisions of the Integrated Planning Act).

Third, evolve a shared understanding of south-east Queensland's future architecture - so that there is widespread awareness amongst public and private entities involved in planning aspects of the region of what they are working to create.

Fourth, review the position of Queensland's public finances, and options for infrastructure financing. It may well be that a far more serious approach to economic strategy [5] is essential to create a tax base which is strong enough to support the high levels of infrastructure investment now required.

Finally the most difficult goal which needs to be addressed in the medium term is the imbalance in federal-state financial capabilities - under which states have most spending requirements while the Commonwealth gains most tax revenues. This has long made it extremely difficult for states to take their infrastructure and service responsibilities seriously, or to be held accountable for their performances. It is increasingly leading to continuing conflict and politically-convenient buck-passing in areas such as health, education and transport. Until this situation is resolved, progress will necessarily remain stalemated [4].


Detailed accounts of the issues outlined here, with supporting references, are in the following documents on the CPDS website  -

[1] Accountability of Queensland's senior public servants (February 2004);

[2] Growth Management in SE Queensland (November 2003);

[3] Queensland's Budgets (June 2003);

[4]  'Federal-state financial imbalances' in Australia's Governance Crisis (May 2003);

[5] Queensland's Economic Strategy (October 2002);

[6] Defects in Infrastructure Planning and Delivery in Queensland (May 2002);

[7] Public-Private Partnerships for Infrastructure (February 2002);

[8] Review of Grants Commission Arrangements (December 2001);

[9] The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service (July 2001);

[10] The Origin and Spread of the Queensland Effect (July 2001);

[11] Queensland's Challenge (February 2001);

[12] Queensland's Weak Parliament (March 1999);

[13] Evaluation of Managing for Outcomes (September 1997);

[14] Towards Good Government in Queensland (August 1995);

[15] Attachment A to [14]

[16] SEQ2001: A Plan for an Underdeveloped Economy (March 1994)