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Queensland's Next Unsuccessful Premier? (email sent 8/3/12)

Michael McKenna
The Australian

Re: Newman can't just wait for ALP's fall, The Australian, 5/3/12

I would like to try to add value to your article. You suggested that the campaign launch by the Queensland Opposition Leader (Campbell Newman) was weak, and seemed to be rushed to deflect attention from questions about campaign donations that may have been linked to a controversial Brisbane City Council development approval.

Extract: “ The "campaign launch", despite its title, usually kicks off the final act in a party's election script, a week or so out from the poll. A normally cringe-worthy show…. it does, however, serve a purpose. The launch is when the political leader makes the last of the announcements, drawing together all the policies into a pitch for power, a narrative for their planned term of government.

The problem was although the speech was long, it was short in detail and devoid of the uplifting, rallying cry of a leader on the cusp of bringing the change that successive polls tell us voters crave in Queensland. ……..

……. Last week, Newman's campaign was under siege over his relationship with developers at City Hall, amid revelations a controversial development was approved after substantial donations were made into the council's re-election fund, while the extent of his family's business dealings continued to fester. The rushed appearance of the launch and the absence of substantial policy yet to be announced lends some suspicion that yesterday's event was about shifting the focus of the campaign conversation away from those questions.

Newman needs to do more to explain how he operated at council and to detail his manifesto for state government.”

As your article implies, it is apparent that the Queensland Opposition lacks any clear idea about how to govern more effectively than the present state administration. Moreover there have been indications that dubious business-government dealings (like those that the ALP suggested that Mr Newman was linked to) have involved some in the State Government itself (as Mr Newman subsequently claimed).

These points are developed in more detail on my web-site. This includes reference to: (a) suggestions about reducing structural obstacles that seem to prevent successful government (and effective oppositions); and (b) the need for all political factions to get serious about tacking abuses of power.

Unless attention is given to both these issues it seems very likely that Queensland's next unsuccessful premier will be the unfortunate winner in the forthcoming state election.

John Craig

Details [Working Draft]

Political 'success' would seem to require more than winning an election on the basis of discontent with an existing government or trendy promises to fulfil the electorate's dreams. If such a win is followed by a rapid loss of community support over the next year or two because a populist policy agenda made little real sense or could not be implemented in practice, this is hardly 'success'.

The Continuing Need for More Effective Government

The Queensland Oppositions’ apparent lack of any clear idea about how to successfully govern Queensland has long been apparent, eg see

  • Response to - An open note to Campbell Newman (March 2011) which suggested that Queensland’s system of government was a mess. Moreover: (a) a similar mess was replicated nationally, and the lack of real national ‘government’ (as compared with attempts to do / control / micro-manage everything) is a factor in state governments’ problems; (b) Queensland apparently faces difficulties (and perhaps misrepresentation) in its capital accounts; and (c) more of the same in Queensland (ie promises to ‘do things‘, without also building a framework for effective ‘government’) would result in ongoing crises;
  • Beyond Populist Rhetoric (March 2011) – which also suggested that the Opposition’s ‘doing things’ agenda that was emerging in early 2011 would lead to failures unless the institutions that are relied upon for information and practical implementation are significantly strengthened;
  • Curing Queensland's Myopia (June 2011) - which suggested, amongst other things:
    • an answer to Mr Newman’s question about ‘how things had got so bad’;
    • that institutional support to the political system must be improved if state governments and oppositions are not to be left struggling with: (a) inadequate information about what to do about complex public functions in a rapidly changing strategic environment; and (b) little prospect of doing anything effectively;
    • that government’s core role is ‘governing’ (ie creating a framework in which others can do things) and that government’s secondary role (ie providing public goods and services) tends to be affected by market failures and complexities – so that attempts in recent years to use market mechanisms and business-like methods have mainly just added further complications to existing difficulties.

Suggestions (similar to those in the documents mentioned above) about ways to make government more successful were also made in relation to:

However little has changed, and the community and its representatives seem oblivious to, and unconcerned about, the structural obstacles that lead governments to almost inevitable failure.

Combating Abuses of Power

It is noted that Mr Newman has countered ALP accusations levelled at himself by claims of dubious dealings with developers by members of the ALP (AAP, ‘Journalists should probe Labor: Newman’, BrisbaneTimes, 5/3/12).

Extract: “ The Liberal National Party leader says journalists are only focusing on developer donations he received as Brisbane lord mayor, when developers had contributed "far more to the Labor party in the last 10 years than they ever have to this side of politics". Mr Newman says donations made to Labor in Urban Land Development Authority areas, where planning control is taken off councils and given to the state government, should be investigated. "They become the planning authority with incredible powers," he told 612 ABC Brisbane this morning. "No openness, no transparency, ministerial sign-off. "Look at the Labor party donations and look at the companies that are operating in those urban development questions. “

While the propriety of such dealings by anyone can’t be assessed on the basis of simple allegations, there are many indicators of abuses of power in the relationship between government and business (eg see Crony Capitalism in Queensland?, 2009). The latter referred to:

  • problems in the process of developing major road projects in SE Queensland;
  • changes that have increased the risk that political decisions might be distorted for private gain (eg public service politicisation and significant private investment in public functions). These have re-created conditions (and symptoms) like like those in Britain in the 19th century prior to the introduction of the Westminster system of a professional, apolitical public service.;
  • Reform of Queensland Institutions - or a Rising Tide of Public Hypocrisy? (2004+), which listed many instances of apparent abuses of power;
  • the process for approving a development ‘footprint’ in SE Queensland, which created moral hazards for those who made the ultimate decisions (see also Difficulties in Preparing a Regional Plan, 2004+).

The Fitzgerald Inquiry in the late 1980s addressed the widespread abuse of police and political powers during the 1980s. However it merely addressed symptoms of more fundamental weaknesses in Queensland’s system of government that are mainly a symptom of the ‘resource curse' (ie the widespread tendency of resource rich regions to suffer incompetent government and limited economic development because rich natural assets give affected communities wealth from which political elites can personally benefit by enabling others to exploit those natural assets).

The post-Fitzgerald attempts at ‘reform’ of Queensland’s machinery of government by idealistic amateurs under the Goss Government made a bad situation much worse and left a legacy of dysfunctional administrative machinery for its successors which increased the risk of abuses of power (see Queensland's Worst Government?, 2005). In practice the goal of 'reform' was to create a political power base, not a competent system of government. ‘Senior’ positions were often gained by ‘yes men’, rather than by those with the competence (or personality) to express professional reservations if things were going wrong.  This may have been due to the desire to ensure unquestioning compliance with political directives. However where the public service is politicised in such a way, the constraints on abuses of political power are dramatically reduced (eg see Davis B., `Public Service Culture May Foster Fraudsters', Australian, 24/7/95).

Note added later: It was reported that Queensland's premier (Anna Bligh) had changed laws to restrict what lobbyists and consultants can do when they cease public duties - to get rid of the stench that arose when politicians left Parliament in search of corporate riches. This restricted the options available to Campbell Newman, so (also inflamed by decisions on growth corridors and buildings) he considered state politics. Newman had gained direct access to Peter Beattie as premier to facilitate favourable decisions, but this was not available under Anna Bligh [1]

Some suggestions about the link between developing more effective institutions to support elected governments and constraining abuses of power are outlined in Journey Towards a More Effective 'Fitzgerald Inquiry' (2009). The latter suggests that developing competent support to the political system in dealing with the practical functions of government would probably be the best way to improve government's performance and accountability.