CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

27 January 2006

Mr Malcolm Cole
Courier Mail

'Queenslanders need to sniff bureaucrat corpses'

I should like to submit that your recent suggestion that problems in Queensland's troubled health department could be fixed by a public service purge are probably based on a false idea about the cause of those problems.

My interpretation of your article: Former Prime Minister Keating once suggested that there was a need to 'kill one, and hang the body out in the street' - and this could apply to upper echelons of Queensland Health which still refuses to acknowledge its responsibility to account to people through government of the day. Health minister produced proof that senior bureaucrats misled him over Caboolture emergency department. While writing memos to each other about problems, senior public servants told minister that all was well. The accountability system is simple. Public servants report to government, which reports to people through Parliament. Public servants are not elected, nor are they available for public scrutiny. Problems arose when Transport Minister was blamed for things he did not know about. After this premier put public servants on notice to lift their game - but they haven't. Those who mislead ministers should be sent packing. While government does not want to upset public servants because of their impact as voting bloc, the situation can't be ignored. Failure to act on clear evidence of cover-up will show that there has been no culture change in Queensland Health. To believe that things will be better, public needs to sniff some corpses (Cole M 'Queenslanders need to sniff bureaucrat corpses', Courier Mail, 21-22/1/06).

The purge your article proposed is unlikely to be effective. For the system of public accountability to be as simple as you suggested: public servants must have the knowledge, experience and ability to take responsible initiatives; and government machinery must enable them to do so.

Unfortunately, though I have no direct knowledge of the situation in Queensland Health, it is abundantly clear that there is a need for real reforms not more bureaucratic 'executions', because:

Why would generating fear through more purges be any more effective in improving performance than it has been in the past?

A better starting point would probably be a serious effort to understand the nature of government - as a fundamental failure to take governing seriously (eg as reflected in efforts to apply 'business-like' methods to non-business-like functions) has undermined the effectiveness of all Australian jurisdictions (see Why did the wheels fall off? in The Decay of Australian Public Administration).


John Craig