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Email sent 18/11/08

The Australian

It's time to fix the failed state

Your editorial on 18/11/08 speculated about what might be required to fix state government in NSW. In this respect the email reproduced below may be of relevance - as it suggests that the problem is not confined to NSW nor solely a failure of the 'political' system.

In Queensland weaknesses in the political Opposition exactly parallel those in NSW, and have attracted suggestions about how the political system might be reformed. However I would suggest that the most effective way to improve state political systems would be to increase the competence of the support that is provided to them - rather than through changes within those systems - see Boosting Accountability through Enhancing Competence.

John Craig

Email sent 18/11/08

Paul Kelly
The Australian

NSW is not the only dysfunctional state

Your recent article ('NSW is in a state of dysfunction', Australian, 15/11/08) suggested that political change would do little to improve the systemic malaise that affects the NSW state government, and that 'the generation of bright and reformist premiers - Nick Greiner, Jeff Kennett and Wayne Goss - has faded'.

Might I respectfully suggest that dysfunctional governance is not confined to NSW and that fixing the problem requires a deeper understanding of the requirements for effective government than the generation of 'bright and reformist premiers' relied upon.

In fact the said 'bright and reformist premiers' were responsible for more than a little of the damage that has been done. All were, in fact, unexpectedly thrown out of power (to the surprise of trendy analysts) arguably because the 'reforms' they put in place were unable to produce practical outcomes.

One attempt to suggest the origins of problems in state governance is available in a document dealing with the crisis that emerged in SE Queensland's water supplies (Paying the Price of Ineffectual Public Administration). This suggests problems including:

  • the inadequacy of realistic public policy competencies in Australia's civil institutions - a problem that seems to be a product of Australia's colonial origins and its dependencies on natural resource wealth and protector nations; [This gives rise to the 'lucky country' syndrome - ie 'success' can be demonstrated though elite and general community understanding of policy issues can be very poor]
  • the inability of states to take real responsibility for their nominal functions because of federal fiscal imbalances. Those extreme imbalances have, increasingly since the 1970s, placed states in a position like that of manufacturers under a general tariff protection regime. The need to focus on lobbying for funding has seriously distorted their effectiveness by shifting power internally away from those who are competent to 'get on with the practical jobs';
  • the failure of poorly conceived and incompetently managed 'reform' by the Goss administration which: (a) largely eliminated the professional competencies required for effective government in favour of cronies and 'yes men'; and (b) left an enduring legacy of unworkable machinery of government (eg involving naive attempts at centralised strategic planning, and applying business-like methods to the non-business-like functions of government).

Your article discussed the challenges facing government in NSW simply as a 'political' problem. It is much more than that. More general attempts to deal with what has gone wrong with government in Australia are in Decay of Australian Public Administration, Australia's Governance Crisis and many other documents on my web-site.

I would be interested in your views about these suggestions.

John Craig