CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary
Introduction +



'Is our System of Government in Queensland Working?'
Outline and Commentary

On 30 April 2007 an ABC radio broadcast hosted by Steve Austin opened the question of the effectiveness of Queensland's system of government for public debate. An outline of that broadcast is reproduced below.

CPDS comments have been added, and these generally suggest that:

  • attention to this matter is highly desirable and long overdue;
  • the community generally lacks awareness and understanding of what is required for its system of government to be effective;
  • a professional Public Service was an essential part of that system (eg by acting as a repository of understanding about the complexities involved in governance) and its loss is a serious threat;
  • effective governance is an increasingly difficult challenge for reasons (such as growing complexity) that go beyond those raised in the recent broadcast.
Outline of ABC Broadcast on 'Is our System of Government in Queensland Working?'

An outline of ABC broadcast on
Parliamentary Accountability and Ministerial Responsibility 
Is our System of Government in Queensland Working?

Hosted by Steve Austin
612 ABC Brisbane and ABC Local Radio Queensland
7 PM on Monday 30/4/07

Introduction: An Australian Study of Parliament Group event recently concluded that Queensland  limits its potential through bad government. What do you think?

Public responses:

  • government is not working well. It should be run as a business by business people. At present action relies on political will which is often not available. Government should be less political [See comment];
  • disagree with previous view. Contract law recognises that everyone is self-motivated. Talking about 'responsible government' is a furphy. The constitution didn't provide for a bill of rights - because responsible government made it unnecessary (ie ministers were responsible / answerable to parliament - the people). But the development of political parties meant that government executive was no longer responsible - because the parties imposed discipline which they couldn't resist. There was responsible government  under the Westminster system, but it doesn't exist now;
  • premier is doing a good job. There are many things that need attention eg waiting lists in health system and problems with water;
  • government is working well - for itself. It is like 'Yes Minister'. Bureaucrats don't let others know what is going on, and politicians don't know about power of bureaucrats [See comment];
  • nothing will change while voting is compulsory. This is practised in only three countries, and has sinister implications;
  • the media is a problem. There is little investigative journalism. Bureaucrats are doing things, and ministers don't know what is happening. The public has no say (eg in relation to recycled water). There is no democracy;
  • government is not working. When parties are in power too long, the public service is politicised. There is a lack of investigative journalism. No one can succeed in the face of resistance by politicians and bureaucrats;
  • compulsory voting makes politicians work harder. Politically our system is working well;
  • government is not working. There is poor planning of roads, health, water. If this happened in a company, the directors would be thrown out. But the voters voted government 'directors' back in. Hard decisions are not being made because of 3 year electoral cycle [see comment]
  • government only works for itself. State governments should be scrapped;
  • a recent family emergency showed that ambulance and health system works well.

About Panel: Professional opinion will be provided by: Mark Lauchs (QUT); Alex Scott (Secretary of QPSU) and Kevin Martin (Chief of Staff to Leader of the Opposition). All gave addresses to the recent Australian Study of Parliament Group event.

Background: Various groups have been motivated by a desire to improve government in Queensland (eg Citizens for Democracy in the 1980s). There is a more recent history of problems in Queensland government. Professor Trevor Grigg argued that everyone knew water was going to be a problem - yet nothing was done. There was the question of the Heiner inquiry - where cabinet got rid of embarrassing documents. The Sommerville review of the electricity industry revealed problems. There was a commission of inquiry into health system which was eventually aborted. However it was revealed that the government had misled the public to protect itself. There is one thing Queensland does well - and this is to support rugby league.

Question to Panel: What is good about government in Queensland?

  • Mark Lauchs: publishing information about accountability mechanisms ('Accountability framework'). However none of those mechanisms actually lead to real accountability;
  • Alex Scott: permanent public service provides good advice - but ministers don't listen (eg on water). Politicians try to ignore that advice
  • Kevin Martin: government has a very effective media machine, and people believe media stories. They don't complain about problems - because of this media image. For example, a lot spent on explaining what is going to be done about water - but government is getting behind in taking action. A 'bread and circuses' approach works politically in Queensland - because it takes people's mind away from problems

Question to Panel: Where are there problems?

  • Mark Lauchs: It is good to have an FOI commissioner and appeal processes. Administrative decisions should not go to magistrates. But Queensland does not have full provisions for appeal against administrative process. One can not appeal about whether there was a good decision - merely about its legality or the process followed;
  • Alex Scott - increase in the size of ministerial staff and politicisation has created problems. Traditional Westminster-style system has shifted to US system [see comment]. Ministers' staff do research and no one listens to public service. There is a lack of transparency in ministerial offices. No one can tell where problems arises. Ministerial offices are outside the FOI system;
  • Mark Lauchs: - accountability requires that the public have access to information;
  • Kevin Martin: - abuse of FOI processes is of serious concern. Government abuses cabinet confidentiality - eg about how much paid to companies to relocate. Though such incentives can be of value, details are not released for years. The rules of debate in parliament allow ministers to give irrelevant answers. Ministers can answer questions in any way they like - and this frequently involves little but abusing Opposition.
  • Alex Scott -  politicised public service causes problems. Though there is a permanent public services, Directors General and senior executives are only appointed for life of government. Senior public servants now tell ministers what they want to hear - not what they need to hear. The SES is exempt from appeals process - though appointments are theoretically merit based. There is an appeal process for junior public servants. People lose their jobs if they give unwanted advice;
  • Kevin Martin:  there is now mutual dependency between senior public service and and ministers to protect one another. A DG of Health Department was removed for providing truth to a parliamentary committee;
  • when government is not told what it needs to hear, this gives ministers deniability;
  • it is now hard to know what professional (or other) advice is given to government - and thus to assess whether they have made appropriate decisions;
  • Mark Lauchs: Whistleblowers Act has never been reviewed. The Act requires annual reviews. But all that is provided is a two line statement saying that everything going well. Doing review is premier's responsibility. The Office of the Public Service has guidelines for whistleblowers - but it doesn't check if anyone is following them - probably because doing so would be too hard;
  • Kevin Martin: Opposition tries improve the position, but dynamics of parliament make this hard. Question time is the best opportunity to raise issues. Opposition is only allowed 10 questions per day - and the hard questions about how government work questions aren't 'sexy' enough to get media attention. Questions on notice are another option - but they are often answered in ways that don't provide truth. There is a failure of the intellectual standards of public debate in Queensland. The state has few journalists who look at things in depth. There is a need for much deeper examination of issues.

Question to Panel: What are solutions?

  • Alex Scot: the community gets the politicians it deserves. If the community is concerned it needs to vote. Both sides of parliament are as bad as each other. A large majority makes governments unaccountable;
  • Mark Lauchs: History suggests that scandal is only way to get change in Queensland - though moves to allow whistleblowers to speak to the Opposition should help;
  • Kevin Martin: the Opposition hasn't received any more input from changes to whistleblower arrangements. The combined effect of those changes and changes to standing orders can prevent things proceeding. The speaker of parliament can prevent things being considered.
CPDS Comments
CPDS Comments on 'Is Our System of Government in Queensland Working?'

The above broadcast identified the mixture of appalling ignorance and brilliant insight into Queensland's system of government that exists within the community. Also raised were useful professional insights into defects in the operation of:

  • formal accountability procedures;
  • Parliament; and
  • the Public Service.

Such analysis is long overdue.

In May 2007, the Premier defended Queensland's government system by suggesting that: accountability standards set by Fitzgerald inquiry still apply; weakness of the Opposition is due to its failure to reform itself; abuses of power under earlier governments would now be impossible; government actions are independently investigated; FOI was never meant to amount to more than it now does; and various other measure to improve accountability have been instituted [1].

However, in the present author's opinion, those claims are misleading (see Superficial Accountability).

Some History

The present author has sought to raise questions about the effectiveness of various aspects of Queensland's system of government for decades.

For example, representations since 1992 (which included at least 25 communications with all Members of the Legislative Assembly) are outlined in Chronological Summary. This, and referenced documents, refer to issues such as:

  • the dangers of Public Service politicization;
  • the need for serious development of economic systems (rather than mere cost cutting) in improving productivity if gains are to be sustainable;
  • the impossibility of centralized strategic planning of public functions.

A 'stunned mullet' response has been the norm.

Those representations are the outcome of 25 years involvement in publicly-funded strategic policy R&D in Queensland central government agencies with a 'systems' focus (and subsequent private efforts). In simple terms a 'systems' emphasis implies concern with the (often complex) relationships between things and with enhancing the way problems are solved. This led (for example) to:

Community Awareness

Queensland inherited a sophisticated (Westminster) system of government when it was established in 1859 by a colonial power.

However, because that system was externally imposed, there has never been much grass-roots understanding in  the community of how it worked, why it took the form that it did or what perils it had been established to guard against.

For example:

  • it has been suggested that government should be operated as a business. However this misses the point that government exists to perform functions that simply can't be undertaken that way (eg because they are related in complex ways with other considerations). This point is difficult, but an attempt to explore it is presented in Governing is not just Running a Large Business;
  • there is a popular desire to switch to a republican system with an elected head of state. This reflects no understanding of the incompatibility of such an arrangement with responsible government by an executive drawn from parliament - and the consequent across-the-board changes to government systems that would be needed (see Politicisation of the Crown).

Thus populist prescriptions for 'reforming' government systems (eg those based on Yes Minister) are more likely to make things worse than to result in improvement.

Why a Professional Public Service Matters

The core business of government is dealing with functions that are complex - eg creation of a legal framework and providing services where any particular activity links with many other functions.

For example:

  • in developing laws, very sophisticated understanding of the cultural, social, economic, legal and administrative features of a society is essential;
  • in developing a transport system one must not only efficiently construct physical infrastructure, one must also manage relationships between that and other elements in a region's development (eg land use, other types of infrastructure) - and this can't be done by attaching prices and managing those relationships through a market.

Understanding such complexities in both principle and practice requires long study and experience, which is not required or developed within the community generally. Moreover Queensland's civil institutions (eg universities, research bodies, associations) have generally lacked any sophisticated, practical and up-to-date understanding of these complexities.

Thus the early 1990s shift to something like a 'US system' with large ministerial staffs and a politicised 'senior' Public Service resulted in a massive loss of the human and organizational capital that was critical to effective government. This involved loss, not only of the knowledge, skills and experience of staff, but of the knowledge of the 90% of public functions that are not current political priorities but are embodied in organizational structures and processes.

An aside: In the past politically-aligned senior staff in government has been less of a constraint in the US where there has been a fairly sophisticated civil society and it was possible to bring people in from outside government with a reasonable awareness of what was required for effective governance. The increasing incompetence being demonstrated by government in the US suggests that its institutions' ability to deal with complexity (eg in a globalized world of diverse cultures) may also be being exceeded.

The present author's 1970's experience of public sector change had shown that real gains could be made by building on existing competencies - as this avoids damage to the tacit knowledge and experience represented by the Public Service - but suggestions in 1990 based on Queensland's experience were disregarded.

The Challenge of Complexity

Unfortunately one can't simply blame those who held sway under the Goss Government, because they acted 'rationally' in ignorance of the problem of 'complexity'.  They had no suspicion that they couldn't achieve their noble goals unless they protected the human and institutional assets that embodied the knowledge about how those goals related to everything else. Public servants often found that staff in the premier's office would naively say 'its much simpler than that' when complications that were obvious to those with experience were mentioned.

One strength of Western societies has been the individual use of rationality - the assumption that simple / un-complex relationships can be used as the basis for abstract analysis which reaches valid conclusions.

More: In other words conclusions are reached on the assumption (to over-simplify) that A depends on B. However this does not deal well with situations where A depends critically not only on B but also on C, D, E, F etc and on the nature of the ever-changing relationships amongst them.

Where problems are simple (eg as applies in a simplified economic space created by a system of contract, law, standard weights and money as a measure of value) rationality works fairly well.

However when problems are complex, solutions depend on deep knowledge and experience.

Over-simplification of some issues is a consequence of 'rational' analysis and debate - and the limits to rationality are:

  • recognised in management and public administration theory (ie in ideas about reform failure and unintended consequences) as well as in economics (ie in the rejection of central economic planning in favour of market mechanisms); and
  • central to the epistemology of societies with an ancient Chinese cultural heritage.

Over-simplification of the complexity of public functions is also a feature of the political system.

This was not critical so long as there was a professional Public Service which acted as the collective memory of society about social, economic, legal and administrative complexities - and could thus provide an automatic 'reality check' on simplistic political ideas. However in the absence of such a collective memory, the over-simplistic ideas of political populists (who might be mere political confidence tricksters) have arguably become a serious threat to the community (eg see On Populism in 2007).

The challenge of complexity has become even more critical because of the emergent power and regional influence of East Asian societies that adopt radically different (ie those based on intuitive / arational intelligence) approaches to problem solving, and to dealing with complex problems.

Other Challenges

The broadcast outlined above identified real difficulties in Queensland's system of government.

More specific suggestions about some particular issues raised during that broadcast are presented in:

However it needs to be recognised that these are merely part of the problem that exists in now creating an effective system of governance. The present author's attempt to present a 'big picture' view of these challenges is outlined in Australia's Governance Crisis, while Restoring 'Faith in Politics' attempts to outline what might be required for a solution.

Moreover, there seems to be limited time to effect some serious improvement in Queensland's system of government because economic shocks are a real risk.

For example:

  • the uninterrupted global economic boom of the past 15 years might could end in ways quite unfavourable to Australia, noting that:
    • that boom appears to be inextricably related to financial imbalances associated with wasteful use of capital, dubious accounting and deflationary demand deficits in East Asia and asset bubbles and huge current account deficits in the US and Australia (see Structural Incompatibility Puts Global Growth at Risk);
    • the Bank of International Settlements seems to believe that those financial imbalances are the world's greatest economic problem and that Australia's dependence on large capital inflows exposes it to particular risks of capital flight, if (say) the 'carry trade' were to be disrupted [1]; and
    • some observers appear to see substantial weakening of the $US as inevitable [1] - an outcome that would make it impossible for the US economy to act as the global 'consumer of last resort' on whose demand global growth has been critically dependent because no other economy is positioned to take that role. Adverse impacts would presumably be greatest in those economies most dependent on exports (ie in Asia) and in Australia because of its dependence on resource exports into that region.
  • the second driver of Queensland's economic prosperity, rapid interstate migration, could be at risk if water supply problems in SE Queensland are not resolved.  'Guess-timates' in 1994 suggested that employment for the labour force drawn from a population of 250,000 was provided in developing housing as well as public and commercial infrastructure needed by the then 40,000 per annum interstate migration. Substantial unemployment and pressure for structural adjustment would emerge in the SE Queensland region, if the infrastructure needed to support continued in-migration can't be provided.
Despair About Queensland Governments

Despair About Queensland's Governments - email sent 12/1/17

Rosanne Barrett
The Australian

Re: Queensland property industry ‘despairs of Palaszczuk government’, The Australian, 12/1/17

Your article drew attention to debates about the effectiveness of Queensland’s current government.

My Interpretation of your article: Business confidence in Queensland has plummeted. Business leaders question government competence over planning / growth management issues. An ANZ / Property Council survey described the government as paralysed and property industry sentiment fell 15% amid a unit glut. Development industry respondents described the government’s ability to plan / manage growth as worse than other states. Commercial confidence is buoyant elsewhere. Chris Mountford (Property Council) criticised scrapping of a government housing program and the introduction of foreign buyer tax – but saw a market-led campaign to attract new business and some major projects as positive. Daniel Gladwell (an ANZ economist) suggested that Queensland’s economy has bottomed. Queensland’s Labor government has initiated 120 reviews, inquiries and taskforces since winning office in 2015 and had only approved one of the 100 business proposals in its trumpeted economic plan. The Deputy premier said that the damage done by the Newman-Nicholls LDP government was being repaired and that Queensland’s jobs’ growth was the fastest of all states. Sentiment in Queensland has followed the fortunes of mining / construction industries falling to less than 100 in the early months of Newman Government and rising to a peak in early 2013.

Similar criticism (ie that the Palaszczuk Government seemed ‘paralyzed’) had been reported by Geoff Chambers in Annastacia Palaszczuk slammed for ‘review, not do’ strategy, The Australian, 9/1/17.

In relation to such criticism, I should like to point to structural weaknesses in Queensland’s political system that arise from weaknesses in the civil institutions that need to provide competent and up-to-date inputs if the state’s politicians are to know what to do (see More Competent External Support to Parlament, 2006). Queensland suffers the ‘curse of natural resources’ (ie poor quality leadership in the development of community capabilities because of business and political dominance by those seeking relatively easy economic gains from exploiting natural assets such as land, minerals, energy and the environment).

Those ‘resource-curse’ weaknesses have been compounded by the politicisation of the public sector under successive governments over the past 25 years – see CPDS Comments on ABC Broadcast on 'is Our System of Government in Queensland Working?' (2007); The Emergence of Ineffectual Government (2009); and Appalling Queensland Governments (2016).

The latter also drew attention to the need for considerable caution in developing plans for future economic growth because of the risks associated with Australia’s dangerously high national debt levels and the current dependence of economic growth on rapidly increasing those debt levels. Many in the current list of major projects (see print version of Passmore D., ‘Futures looking Good’, Sunday Mail, 8/1/17) that the state government apparently now expects to drive Queensland’s growth would probably exacerbate those risks. The fact that the risk of a similar but even more serious debt crisis in China now seems to be reaching a tipping point compounds the problem because of: (a) Queensland’s economic / budgetary exposure to resource exports to China; and (b) the likely adverse effects on the now-economically-significant foreign (mainly Chinese) purchase of Australian apartments.

Finally, it is noted that the current ALP administration is not the first in Queensland to be seen to be: (a) not achieving much; and (b) initiating huge numbers reviews, inquiries and task forces because it did not know what to do (see notes in Curing Queensland’s Myopia, 2011). And the Beattie Government that committed to achieving a lot, even though it had no way to really know what to do, was eventually brought undone by ongoing crises (see Queensland’s Next Successful Premier, 2007).

John Craig