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18 October 2004
Mr Ian Boardman
Queensland Public Advocate
Fear of Rocking the Boat
I am writing to try to 'add value' to your excellent recent address to a UnitingCare Centre for Social Justice Conference which was outlined as 'Fear of Rocking the Boat' in The Courier Mail of 9/10/04.
My interpretation: Queensland needs far more than strong and independent watchdogs. A community culture that encourages dissent and constructive criticism is also needed - but is not present. The most striking feature of Queensland's socio-political culture on first impression four years ago was its unusually punitive nature. Everywhere people were afraid to speak out for fear of punishment. In organizations as mainstream and venerable as Queensland Health, the Endeavour Foundation and in the whole community services sector, people did not want to be identified because experience showed they would then be punished by those in power. People / organizations in Queensland have difficulties communicating their concerns to those with power to make things right. People are often ignored or treated as trouble-makers if they seek to use service provider's complaints system to bring obvious wrong to authorities attention; or express concern about government consultation processes; or advocate for others who have been neglected / abused. The punitive culture extends to how we respond to abuse / neglect. Everyone wants abuse stopped, but then we seek to find someone to blame - and often individuals are forced to accept blame for poorly functioning systems. Democracy must be open to dissent - which is both conflictual and civilized. This punitive culture affects not only service providers, but the relationship between government and community. Community based organizations have been threatened and bullied by government and ministerial representatives when speaking about their area of expertise. Democracy is always vulnerable to being crushed by those who find it too limiting for their ambitions
The phenomenon which you have observed in the health / community services sector is by no means limited to that sector. For example, business-people also tend to be afraid to speak out or be identified for fear of punishment - according to business association leaders. Moreover, according to the Public Sector Union, public servants have been subjected to increased bullying because of the loss of the protections that had been afforded by the Westminster tradition of a competent independent bureaucracy (Johnstone C., 'Driven to Distraction', Courier Mail, 15/6/02).
In some comments following this email, I have presented a case which suggests that the problem you describe is partly a consequence of Queensland's historical political traditions, its resource-dependency and its provincial under-development (which encouraged an autocratic political style and an officialdom which thus had problems dealing with dissent / constructive criticism). However this has now been compounded by a reduced professional independence and competence affecting the Public Service - and other challenges to the effectiveness of our system of government.
I would be interested in your reactions to my speculations.
TOWARDS A COMMUNITY CULTURE THAT ENCOURAGES CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM
Why Would Officials React Badly to Constructive Criticism?
In an autocratic environment, officials do what they do because they were told to. They may not fully know why. And they may not know how to change what they are doing very much (eg because they don't know the full consequences of any such changes), or they may lack the freedom to propose such changes. Thus it is easier, for those who (despite appearance to the contrary) are effectively powerless, to 'shoot messengers' who point out problems or try to make make constructive suggestions.
Queensland's Autocratic Political Tradition
Observers have suggested that Queensland has long suffered a poor reputation for low political and parliamentary standards (see Note 22). It has also had a very long tradition of autocratic politics.
In particular traditional 'state corporatism' has had a significant role in Queensland's history. This quite unusual and illiberal style of political economy originated in Europe at the time of the industrial revolution, and involved treating the 'private' sector as an extension of the state under the control of sectoral corporations - rather than allowing a (free) market economy to operate. It is a style that has been used periodically by fascist governments.
'State corporatism' has been reflected in Queensland through:
Queensland's tendency to economic autocracy has been reinforced apparently partly by the state's strongly resource dependent economy and the relatively limited importance of the productive ability of the community itself.
This phenomenon (which is a corollary of what some have labelled the 'curse' of natural resources) provided benefits to business and political 'leaders' who were prepared to follow investors' orders. Overall Queensland's economic institutions have been highly dependent (ie with something like the world's highest level of reliance on foreign investment; and a majority of larger firms being branch offices).
This situation has discouraged the creation of independent local institutional capabilities to identify alternative economic / public policy options - and thus led to a dominance by the Government Executive over Parliament (because MLAs simply lacked any source of serious ideas about better governance (see Queensland's Weak Parliament).
Queensland traditionally maintained a set of public institutions that were competent in mechanically 'doing their jobs' - but those 'jobs' did not involve having any independent ability to work out what their 'jobs' ought to be (or thus to handle dissent / constructive criticism). Even in the late 1990s, an Interdepartmental Committee concluded that Queensland agencies generally lacked access to strategically important information (ie that which might help in defining what their 'jobs' ought to be) because they were not organised to obtain or manage such information (see Initiating the Preparing the Future Project, (Premier's Department, unpublished), March 1998).
Wrecking Professional Independence and Competence
The autocratic exercise of power in government has been greatly amplified by 'reforms' to Queensland's public sector over the past 15 years (despite the creation of 'n' independent watchdogs), because those changes had the unwanted and politically-unrecognisable side-effect of eroding the modest level of independence and professional competence that had existed in Queensland's Public Service (see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service).
Undermining Public Service professionalism has not only resulted in the widespread policy and practical failures outlined in the latter document but in the growth of bullying within the Public Service (see Breakdown of the Westminster Tradition and the Growth of Public Service Bullying).
An example: The phenomenon can be illustrated by a situation the author observed.
In a 'managerialist' environment (ie where the theory prevailed that management was a generalist function not requiring specialised knowledge) a technically-naive management was politically installed, and (naturally) resisted attempts by experienced staff to discuss technical aspects of the organisation's functions. Eventually a solution was found to guard against exposure of the management's lack of technical competence - ie replace all staff (other than 'yes men') who had any significant knowledge of the organisation's functions.
The problem is that following such 'reform' organisations are dominated by political cronies and 'yes men' who can do little but react with hostility to external constructive criticism. There is no way for people whose main talent is to follow political orders to 'get technically on top of' proposals to do anything significantly different, as they lack the necessary knowledge and experience to make reliable judgments about such matters. And any deviation from the political line (ie the opinions of often out-of-date interest groups) would be devastating to an official's career where professionalism is neither valued or protected from the political establishment.
Other Governance Problems
Unfortunately 'wrecking' Public Service professionalism is not the only way in which our system of government has been undermined. In particular the ability of the democratic process itself to satisfy community needs and expectations has declined due to the increasing complexity of problems, globalisation etc (see Declining Potency of Democratic Institutions).
Naturally as the issues facing governments become harder, it is even more difficult to respond positively to constructive criticism, eg in the health and community services sector, it is all too obvious that there is (a) an established crisis in the funding of public hospitals; and (b) escalating social breakdown within the community which is simply overwhelming available support services (see Is The Smart State a Just State? A Commentary). At the same time, there are severe constraints on public revenues to address such issues (see Growing Pressure for Increased State Taxation).
In order to build the capability of Queensland's democratic institutions to tolerate dissent / constructive criticism, it seems necessary to attack the causes of the problem by:
Clearly in the present environment the role of statutory office holders is an important defence of the community interest. Some comments on the Role of Statutory Office Holders When the Public Service Fails were put forward in 2000 in relation to the Ombudsman and the Auditor General, and may still be of some interest.
The above suggestions are based on:
The latter situation provides insight into how deeply resistance to dissent / constructive suggestions is entrenched in Queensland. Firstly it was Parliament itself which legislated to prevent any questioning of political authority (in the form of appeals on the basis of professional merit against SES appointments) - see Ombudsman's Reasons. Moreover the Ombudsman's office, having recognised that this legislation potentially allowed irresolvable injustices, did not apparently see any need to draw this problem to the attention of Parliament - once again revealing, at the highest level, the view that it is acceptable to crush any dissent / constructive suggestions that might question the autocratic exercise of political authority.