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Can a 'Quick Fix' Make Government Work?   (Email sent 17/1/10)

Darrell Giles
Sunday Mail

Re: 'Sinking Bligh must jettison dead weight', Sunday Mail, 10/1/10

Your article implied that a ministerial reshuffle is what is most needed to make Queensland's Government effective. Good luck with that!.

My interpretation of your article: Queensland's premier needs to continue trying to sell the idea of getting rid of $15bn in public assets. But a major cabinet reshuffle should be top priority. Government's frontbench have stumbled and bumbled from one mess to the next. Beattie was a one man band for 10 years as premier. Bligh is now starting to copy that approach after the departure of her chief of staff (Mike Kaiser). This upsets ministers - but about half of them should be sacked. Premier should install her own team - and perhaps announce that the improved financial climate means that asset sales are no longer needed.

Queensland stumbled and bumbled from one mess to the next under premier Beattie's one-man-band style (see Evidence of a Problem, 2005; and 'Neglect catches up with Beattie'. 2007), just as it did when the Bligh Government tried to prevent failures rather than just apologising for, and promising to fix, them. And the Goss and Borbidge Governments that preceded them achieved little (eg see Toward Good Government in Queensland, 1995). Moreover in 2009 many observers saw a need for reforms that go well beyond rearranging the ministry (eg see references in Reform of Queensland Institutions - or a Rising Tide of Public Hypocrisy?, from 2004).

Queensland's Government is constrained (amongst other things) by: unworkable machinery; inadequate policy contributions from weak civil institutions; a crippled Public Service; and a grossly unbalanced federal fiscal system. Most of the 'dead weight' involves ineffectual institutions. More detailed comments on these constraints (which make efficient progress almost impossible no matter who holds what ministry) follows this email,

Preliminary suggestions about how such constraints might have been reduced were put forward in Queensland's Next Successful Premier (2007).

A key requirement for success is that renewal is not seen to need just a 'quick fix' (such as sacking bumbling ministers), but rather to need a long term strategic learning process whereby many institutions adapt to better meet emerging challenges (such as those outlined following this email). A similar suggestion was made to the incoming 'reformist' Goss administration on the basis of experience of earlier more successful reforms (see Outline of Changing the Queensland Public Sector, 1990). History now shows that the Goss Government's preference for a 'quick fix' (ie taking an axe to the Public Service) merely made a bad situation worse.

John Craig


Queensland's Institutional 'Dead Weight'

A key constraint on effective government in Queensland (as Reform of Queensland Institutions noted) is that the 'reformed' machinery that was the main legacy of the inexperienced Goss Government was complex and unworkable. An attempt seemed to be made, through across-the-board restructuring and restaffing, to simultaneously:

Ongoing crises were inevitable for any government that naively then tried to achieve ambitious practical outcomes (see also Queensland's Worst Government, 2005).

However complex machinery has not been all that has crippled government in Queensland. For example:

  • Queensland's civil institutions are weak (see Queensland's Weak Parliament, 1999 and More Competent External Support to Parliament, 2006) thus:
    • the community tends to have limited understanding of the real nature and functions of government - so that its representatives can inadvertently do a great deal of damage. In particular, the changes to Queensland's machinery of government in accordance with Fitzgerald Inquiry recommendations could not be effective using the methods adopted by the Goss Government (see Reform of Queensland's Institutions: A Bigger Picture View, 2009);
    • there is little realistic material as the basis for governments' agendas. Likewise Oppositions tend to be weak and unable to constrain abuses of executive power, because they lack solid material with which to challenge Governments' policies or behaviour;
    • populism prevails, ie trendy sounding policy options that may be quite insubstantial / impractical even though they sound good in early press releases;
  • the Public Service has been reduced (as a result of its presumably-accidental 'rape' under the Goss Government) to what former a former Crime and Misconduct Commissioner described as political 'lap dogs', who are not able to provide impartial advice because of the threat doing so poses to their careers (see Transforming Public Servants into 'Puppets', 2009 and The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service, from 2001);
  • governments can't be held responsible or democratically accountable to the electorate for their nominal functions because of unbalanced fiscal capacity within the federal system. Centralization of control results (both between levels of government and internally within states), and this (a) divorces decisions from those with much of the knowledge and practical experience needed to make them; and (b) forces states to concentrate on lobbying for funding rather than getting on with the job (see Federal Fiscal Imbalances, 2003);
  • there appear to be 'modern' challenges to the effectiveness of Australia's style of government generally which have received essentially no attention (see Australia's Governance Crisis, 2003). The latter refers, for example, to:
    • limitations afflicting the democratic process as a result of: ever increasing complexity; globalization; post-modernism; and populism;
    • weakening of administrative support to elected governments, as an unforseen consequence of reforms designed to promote economic efficiency;
    • ignorance about strategy and methods in East Asia, to which Australia's is increasingly exposed;
    • populist pressure for politicisation of Heads of State - which would create serious conflicts with elected Westminster-style governments;
    • erosion of the moral foundations within the community needed for legal and government systems that presume individual liberty.

Strategic Directions

Some speculations about important emerging challenges that might provide a sense of direction for enhancing all the institutions that contribute to Queensland's system of government were suggested in Queensland's Challenge: A 2006 Report Card - though this needs to be updated to take account of (for example):