CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

21 May 2007

Mr Craig Johnstone,
Courier Mail

Superficial Accountability

In a recent article you presented a variety of views about government 'accountability' in Queensland, which I should like to suggest are somewhat superficial. More than procedural formalities (eg FOI) and political processes (eg Parliament) are required for real accountability.

My interpretation of your article: Queensland's premier says that standards of transparency set by the Fitzgerald inquiry still regulate public administration. He argues that its report is now somewhat dated, but that the principles it outlined are still relevant. Premier regards accountability as the key issue. Though political situation of dominant government and weak Opposition remains, the institutions for accountability that now exist were not previously available. ALP reformed itself to gain power - but present Opposition has not done so. Bjelke Peterson government abused power in ways that would be impossible today. The CMC regularly investigates allegations of police or ministerial misbehaviour. A minister was charged with receiving secret commissions - a factor that would never have been discovered pre-Fitzgerald. FOI is seen by government's critics as an area of failure. However premier argues that FOI was never meant to amount to more than it now does. Premier argues that accountability has been improved by: three minute answers to questions on notice etc. he is uncomfortable about questions on relationship between close relationship of current police Minister and police union. Premier does not suggest that Bjelke Peterson (who presided over a government riddled with graft and corruption) was corrupt - but that he and his ministers would not have gotten away with their behaviour under current rules. (Johnstone C. 'Legacy of transparency', Courier Mail, 18/5/07).

Implementation of the Fitzgerald reform agenda has not created a high standard of government in Queensland. For example, institutional changes don't seem to have significantly reduced abuses of power (see Reform of Queensland Institutions - or a Rising Tide of Public Hypocrisy?), while ongoing public sector dysfunctions and crises demonstrate a profound lack of operational competence (see Evidence of a Problem).

Real accountability requires that the various components of our system of government that are meant to counter-balance the Executive have the competence to do so.

Firstly accountability can't be realistic if oppositions are weak. While weak oppositions may have a nominal ability to ask question in Parliament, they are not likely to know what questions to ask (see The Upper House Solution: A Commentary). It has been argued that the government manipulates FOI and Parliamentary procedures ('Is our System of Government in Queensland Working?': Outline and Commentary), and this certainly seems to be a real problem and to reduce accountability.

However far more significant is the historical inability of Queensland's civil institutions (eg associations, institutes, universities) to provide realistic policy leadership to the community and up-to-date and practical inputs for debate by its elected representatives.

That leadership gap seems to be a 'lucky country' syndrome (ie a product of an economy that has been driven by natural resource wealth, and a community that has often been able to just copies policy initiatives from others). The present writer's long experience in strategic public policy R&D suggests that this leadership gap leads to a 10-15 year lag in responding to some opportunities and threats, and to the low quality autocratic governments that have often characterised Queensland.

Secondly accountability can't be realistic simply on the basis of political processes - because (for example) Parliament can not ensure that practical aspects of policy are adequately addressed. A Public Service that is professionally motivated and competent is also required.

Unfortunately, while supposedly implementing a reform agenda to increase political 'accountability', the Goss Government legislated to eliminate serious professional accountability in the Public Service (ie the assessment of suitability for a Public Service position by those with high levels of knowledge and experience). Unquestioning agreement with that government's well-meaning, but often simple-minded, policy agenda was the criteria for filling 'senior' Public Service positions - and the competence and independence of the Public Service evaporated, as did reality checks on half-baked populist policies and government's practical competence.

While the persons who presided over the creation of a Public Service riddled with cronies and 'yes men' may not have been corrupt, they certainly would not have gotten away with the resulting abuses of power under the earlier Westminster ideal.


John Craig