CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary  Beyond Populist Rhetoric  Curing Queensland's Myopia   Queensland's Next Unsuccessful Premier?   Can the Commander Do?   Making Queensland's 'Can Do' Government Ethical 

Will Queensland have a Workable Government? - email sent 6/8/12

Daniel Hurst,
Brisbane Times

RE: Has Newman broken public sector promises?, Brisbane Times¸6/8/12

Your article posed relevant questions about whether or not the Newman Government has broken election promises to public sector employees.

However, while this is an important matter for those employees and their union representatives, the question that should most concern the general public is whether or not Queensland’s Government can be effective in future after again politicising and then ‘taking an axe’ to the public service?

My interpretation of your article: Unions claim that Queensland’s premier broke election promises related to the public service. Mr Newman did indicate last year that size of public service could fall through natural attrition. In December 2011 Mr Newman said that total size of public sector was in his sights – and suggested that while headcount might fall those in frontline services would often rise. A gradual change was envisaged to make public sector affordable. This was seen to be needed because Labor had allowed public service to become too large to be affordable. Some months later he said that public service could become bigger – though at only a slow rate. Expenses have gone up faster than revenues, so this needs to be corrected. Just prior to the election a 3% cap on public service employee expenses was announced – which implied a slowing in the growth of employee numbers. The then Treasurer said this could mean public service cuts. In response Mr Nicholls and Mr Newman did rule out forced redundancies, and suggested that restructuring will be through natural attrition. And initially the Newman government started this process, but is now engaged in removing thousands of public service positions. The state has been said to have 20,000 public servants beyond what it can afford. Prior to the election the LNP had: (a) stated that it would better control numbers of non-front-line staff – but few would have though this implied current cuts; and (b) reducing temporary employment – which would have been seen as making such positions permanent. Thousands of temporary contracts have been eliminated. Tougher action is justified on the basis of Commission of Audit’s warning that state spending had grown unsustainably, and that Queensland was borrowing for operational expenses. Before the election Mr Newman had said that: (a) the audit report would not lead to cancelling prior commitments; but (b) if the report showed that Labor had ‘cooked the books’ this would need to be reconsidered. He now says that union pushes for high wage increases would make the situation more difficult. However he expressed a different view last year (ie that ALP should not penalise staff will limited wage rises, because of its inability to manage state’s finances). Promises were made that frontline services would be revitalised, though some are now being cut (eg Skilling Queenslanders for Work program). Job-security and no-outsourcing provisions of existing enterprise bargaining agreements are being challenged – though LNP previous said that it would not do so. The debate continues, but LNP is taking more direct action than it said during election campaign.

In relation to the actions that are being taken, it is suggested that:

  • The potential for Queensland to face financial problems has been apparent for about a decade (see Underlying Pressures for increased State Taxation, 2003+). The fact that neither the then Government nor the Opposition (nor business associations, nor unions, nor universities, nor the media) seemed conscious of this issue says something about the chronic weakness of Queensland’s institutions;
  • The primary source of Queensland’s current financial plight (and the reason that it is now necessary to borrow ‘for recurrent spending’) seems to be a massive escalation in not-particularly-effective infrastructure investment (see Recovering from Queensland's Debt Binge, March 2012);
  • The LNP probably meant what was said before the elections about favouring incremental change to the public sector through natural attrition (noting your observation that the present Government initially set up that process), but has been shocked by the severity of the financial problems that it found itself facing. And it is noted in this respect that the Commission of Audit does not seem to have looked very hard for instances of ‘cooking the books’ that the present writer thought were fairly obvious more than a decade ago (see Auditing the Commission, June 2012);
  • What is now being done to ‘fix’ Queensland’s financial woes is overly simplistic as there are many alternatives to ‘taking an axe to the public service’, and many risks associated with doing so. Reasons for this were suggested in Auditing the Commission (see Inadequate Goals and Inadequate Methods) and in Beyond Populist Rhetoric (March 2011). The latter referred (for example) to:
    • Options to get more serious about economic development, and thus create a stronger tax base and revenue stream;
    • Addressing structural weaknesses in Queensland’s machinery of government, and in methods for developing infrastructure in particular;
    • Focusing on government’s core ‘business’ (ie governing) – which would orient the public sector towards reducing costs and red tape, while addressing financial constraints along with the many other challenges that Queensland faces;
    • Clarifying relationships between the public and private sectors;
  • The knowledge, skills and experience of the public service (especially those in non-frontline roles) is critical to any democratic governments’ ability to govern effectively and avoid crises. This is well demonstrated by the experiences of governments in Queensland since the politicisation of the public service first gained bipartisan political endorsement over 20 years ago (eg see Improving Public Sector Performance in Queensland, and the many other documents referenced at the top of Towards a Professional Public Service). What is now being done to the public service will not only lead to union outrage, personal stresses and community discontent about lost services, it will also render the Newman Government susceptible to serious policy miscalculations like those that plagued its predecessors.

Unfortunately Queenslanders can probably only look forward to ‘more of the same’ poor government - now compounded by severe financial constraints and escalating social stresses.

John Craig